What will investing in a SSD drive for your notebook actually give you in terms of performance improvement? We decided to do a field test and grabbed an aging MacBook Pro that our graphics designer uses to do work when he’s on the road. We used four scenarios to find out how much a RAM upgrade or a new SSD drive improves the system operating speed. We were really impressed by the results.
Here are the upgrades we recommend depending on type of usage:
Our test system: “late 2008” MacBook Pro
The MacBook Pro (15 inch, late 2008) has been in use since 2008, and is ideal for an authentic real-life test, because we want to see how an upgrade affects a cloned system. Most speed tests we found use a fresh system. Many users, however, shy away from completely reinstalling their system software. So we wanted to see how much these users benefit from the upgrades.
The technical specifications for the test system:
- 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
- NVIDIA GeForce 9400M
- 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM
- 250GB 5400 rpm HDD
- Mac OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard
The 250GB HDD is 78% full. There are about 250,000 folders and 933,000 files on the drive.
The test setup
We compare four scenarios:
- Status quo: the existing system unchanged (HDD and 2GB of RAM).
- RAM upgrade: the system after upgrading the RAM to 8GB (keeping the 250GB HDD).
- HDD to SSD upgrade: the system with its original 2GB memory and a Samsung SSD 840 Pro, 256GB, replacing the original 250GB HDD.
- Full-on tuning: RAM upgrade to 8GB and installing a Samsung SSD 840 Pro, 256GB.
In each scenario we measure performance through
- booting the system
- opening Photoshop CS5 Extended
- opening a 1GB Photoshop image file (3,508 x 4,961 pixels, 300 dpi) containing 174 layers
For a hands-on tutorial on how to replace the original MacBook HDD with a SSD, please refer to our photo tutorial, “Upgrading a MacBook Pro with an SSD“.
The results of our comparative tests
Fast system boot
Please take a look at our photo tutorial “Upgrading a MacBook Pro with an SSD” when starting your system for the first time.
The difference can be immediately noticed when you switch on the MacBook Pro: the RAM-only upgrade results in a 25% faster system boot, the SSD upgrade noticeably reduces boot time by 54%.
Compared to the performance boost of a SSD, the “fully tuned” system (RAM upgrade plus SSD) only squeezes out 2 more seconds during system boot.
Performance boost during operation
As expected, the SSD results in a massive performance boost when working with the system: with the SSD installed, Photoshop CS5 starts 4 times faster than with the original HDD; the 1GB image file opens 3 times faster.
The RAM-only upgrade did not show any improvement in performance when we launched Photoshop. However, when opening the (relatively small) image file, we saw a discernible 37% improvement. Nevertheless, the user still has to wait 10 seconds longer for the file to open than when the HDD is upgraded to SSD (irrespective of whether 2 or 8GB of RAM are installed).
Professional desktop publishing (DTP) users, in particular, will benefit enormously from installing a SSD.
An additional plus from the point of view of our graphics designer: whereas the performance of the original system was just about good enough for Photoshop CS3 (CS5 was pretty sluggish on the original machine), after the upgrades, Photoshop CS5 can be used productively.
When you use your notebook primarily for applications that perform only few read/write operations on the disk drive (e. g. surfing, e-mail, word processing), upgrading the RAM to the maximum will give you a discernible improvement in performance.
As our test results show, installing a SSD and the maximum RAM will considerably speed up even an ageing notebook: the SSD provides a substantial performance boost, and adding RAM will get the most out of the system. So, our graphics designer was quite happy to delay investing in a new MacBook Pro for use on the road. His “late 2008” MacBook Pro sporting 8GB of RAM, 840 Pro SSD and a freshly installed operating system was more than enough for his DTP assignments.
(Update May 12, 2020) For an overview of which Mac models can be upgraded with a 2.5-inch SATA SSD, see “Which SSD for my Mac?”
By the way: as the professional notebooks of other manufacturers are also based on Intel CPUs, our test results can easily be applied to any Intel-based notebook. Upgrading the HDD with a Samsung SSD will be particularly easy as the SSD comes with Windows software optimized for migrating your existing Windows system and data to the new SSD. Also, the software automatically adjusts SSD-specific features such as TRIM, PreFetch and SuperFetch. Please refer to the step-by-step directions for installing an SSD in a Windows notebook in our blog post, “More performance for your notebook: how to securely install an SSD“.
Have a look at our extensive database for memory upgrades for notebooks.