It’s often hard to like technology, but I have no qualms loving my iMac. By today’s standards, it is venerable. It’s a late-2012 27” model, meaning it was the first to do away with an optical drive and adopt the super-thin design that’s still current today.
In fact, Apple classes it as ‘vintage’ in the USA and Turkey, and ‘obsolete’ everywhere else. That essentially means, should it break, Apple won’t even look at it.
But for a 7-year-old desktop computer, my iMac is running quite well. It still possesses a reasonably potent Intel i7 processor and a capable 16GB of RAM but was being held back by one substantial handicap: a spinning hard drive.
These days, computers and operating systems are made to function best with solid-state storage. In fact, Apple’s new APFS file system is so future-focused, that it runs like junk on a spinning hard drive, particularly when used as the main boot drive — as an aside, this is nothing short of criminal when Apple’s desktop computers still come with spinning HDDs as standard…but I digress.
Unfortunately, to replace my 1TB Fusion Drive (a sort of poor man’s hybrid HDD/SSD found in many iMacs) meant a rather involved process involving suction cups, glue, brackets and oh myyy. Not an impossible task, but risky to accomplish on my own, and expensive to get someone else to do it.
But LO!, the internet. In my searches for potential replacement SSDs, I discovered users making use of external SSDs on their Macs to great effect. To my surprise, they were using external SSDs connected via USB 3.0 and were, by all reports, substantially faster than internal HDDs connected via SATA.
So I went out, bought a couple of Samsung T5 SSDs and began the process of turning them into my main MacOS disks. That was a simple process with the indispensable Carbon Copy Cloner: format the new drives as APFS and clone the Macintosh HD to one of the new drives. It took a few hours to copy the files, but once it was done and I booted via the SSD for the first time, I noticed a tremendous difference in speed.
Everything felt, well, snappy again. Adobe Bridge, Photoshop and Lightroom all loaded within seconds, rather than minutes, and were once again a breeze to use. And to keep a bit more free space on each drive (helpful when running SSDs via USB 3.0, I am told), I split my files across two drives. One with macOS and my applications, the other with my erstwhile iTunes library and Lightroom catalog.
The Samsung T5 SSDs aren’t the fastest solid-state data solution around, but they’re very cost effective. As my computer is a late-2012 iMac, it does have Thunderbolt 2 ports, but there are very few reasonably-priced TB2 storage solutions out there. The only substantial advantage to Thunderbolt is that macOS will send TRIM commands via TB, but not USB. If you don’t know what that means, it probably won’t affect you. Just keep a bit more free space than usual on the drives and you’ll be fine — probably.
And what of ye olde spinning hard drive inside the computer? It’s now one of my backup drives, with a Carbon Copy Cloner task scheduled to run every other day to back up the SSDs (in addition to Time Machine and other mixes of onsite and offsite backup — read more about the importance of backup here).
The only issues I encountered were, funnily enough, with Dropbox. In an effort to decrease the amount of crap I had to copy over when cloning my Macintosh HD to the SSD, I turned on a Dropbox feature called ‘Smart Sync’. This allows you to select which files are stored locally, and which ones are stored in the cloud, but the cloud files remain visible in your folder structure. Need to access a cloud-stored file? Simply open it and it will download the file before opening. It’s a perfect solution for those files which you need to keep, but rarely access.
There was just one problem. It doesn’t work.
At least on macOS. I spent hours setting about 300GB of folders to Smart Sync to free up space on my internal HDD. According to Dropbox, it worked, but MacOS could not see newly freed-up space as such, only as 300GB of data which wasn’t actually there. Turns out there’s something wrong with how the data placeholders work in Smart Sync in the Mac environment. Instead of telling macOS they’re zero bytes, the operating system still sees them as their original file size, entirely defeating the point of this ‘feature’. Apparently, this problem has existed for 18 months, but Dropbox is only getting around to fixing it now and doing so on an opt-in basis. For now I’ve set those large folders to use the older, less intuitive ‘Selective Sync’ mode, which means they still exist in the cloud but don’t appear on my computer.
Dropbox aside, it’s nice having a fast computer again. Sure, it’s not as powerful as a brand-new 27” iMac, but it’s also about $3,300 cheaper as well. At some point, I’ll update my iMac, but for now, this is a more than acceptable solution.