Friday, January 11, 2008

The Macbook, the Optibay, and Entropy

My Macbook Pro (MBP) is two years old next month. Following my own advice about buying laptops (noted in Linux+ magazines 3/2007 issue), I went with the best MBP I could afford, so that it would be as future-prrof as technology stuff ever is.

Two years later it is still a pretty good unit. The processor and memory are not that far behind current times, and it is still the fastest computer I own. There is ... or at least was.... just one problem. About six months ago, after burning a raft of CD's and DVD's for Linuxworld, the Superdrive gave up the ghost. Died. Went to meet its maker. It was an Ex-Superdrive. The only reason it was still in the computer was that it had been nailed there....

Sorry... slight rift in the Monty Python space / thyme continuum. I think we just about have it nailed up. Now back to the Cheese Shop sketch, already in progress....

I did not buy the extended warranty or anything. I never do. I figured, after rebuilding iBooks, how hard could the MBP be to work on? I got a chance to find out.

One of the bad things about the MBP was that when mine was built, there was no ultra-thin 8x version. Only 4x. This was updated in a later MBP hardware revision, but my unit had the slower DVD burner. Another was that only 120GB was available. With Linux VM's under Parallels I eat 120 GB for breakfast. Space management was a constant "opportunity"

It is not normally my way to plug products, but this post is going to be one. In this case for MCE's Optibay DVD hard drive replacement. They are at Disclaimer: I have no fiscal relationship with this company whatsoever, other than sending them money. I am only a customer.

This little product is very cool. MCE has created a little plastic sled that holds a 2.5 inch hard drive, and "slides" in exactly where the Optibay DVD is in the MBP. As mine was broken, no loss. Even better, they have an option for an external 8x DVD burner, powered by USB or Firewire, so that I could replace the broken 4x with a working 8x. The total cost of this operation was 100 USD *more* than what just replacing the internal DVD would have been, about 349 USD instead of 249 USD, give or take an elephant.

The new drive is 160GB, and is from Western Digital.

Opening the MBP was far far easier than the iBooks were. 10 screws on the edge, two inside the battery compartment (do *not* mix these up with the others. These have to be *short* or they jam up the case latch), three screws on the memory cover, two torx screws under that, and then the top of the MBP slides out fairly easily to review the amazing interior of the MBP. These things are so much nicer than the iBooks in here too. Three screws (one of which is another, different size torx) , one strip of yellow tape, and a ribbon cable release the broken DVD. Move the ribbon cable to the plastic sled the new HD is sitting on. No screws hold this in. It has foam tape to buffer it at the edges. Foam tape that you do not take the sticky covers off. They are there only as foam shock absorbers.

Putting the top back on is slightly tricky, getting the snap fit around the front of the Optibay to work right, but after that it flies back together. Total replacement time was less than thirty minutes. Now I have a 120GB and a 160 GB HD inside the MBP, plus a working, bootable 8x DVD I can carry around. The external DVD is in a case designed to match the MBP's: Silver aluminum, although not as rounded looking at the edges.

With a second disk, I can dual boot the MBP between 10.4 and 10.5, run two VM's at the same time without a performance hit on I/O, and carry a raft of ISO's and VM's of Linux to mess around with.

I normally never pimp products, but this one is just too cool not to. I can even see the I/O light peeking through the former DVD slot. Apple never lets you see those things for some reason, but I love to have the feedback about disk I/O they provide.

MCE also sends a Philips 00 screwdriver that is better than any I owned, and the Torx wrenches needed.

If I have one gripe at all about this solution it is only that the plastic sled seems a bit cheesy. I would have preferred something that mounted back into the MBP case using the same hard points as the former occupant, the 4x DVD drive, rather than the foam tape shock absorber things. It does not rattle or anything once together so I may be objecting about something of small consequence.

MCE says that the decrease in battery life is minimal with two hard drives, and so far that seems to be true. OS.X keeps the HD's spun down unless it needs them. I would think that two VM's running at the same time would be death to runtime, since both CPU cores, and both disks would tend to stay fairly active.

This mid-life upgrade puts all sorts of usable lifetime/capacity onto the MBP. I should be good to go for another year or so, till I need to replace the battery. Lithium Ion batteries tend to last about three years before they poop out. So far the after-market has not done very much to extend the life of the replacement batteries, offering a 62 watt hour battery to replace the stock 60 watt hour unit. I assume that with all the battery fires in the Dells with the Sony cells that Lithium Ion is pretty much at its peak, and that safety is now more important. The battery bay is only so big, and the stock unit feels pretty densely packed already.

Till then the MBP is back into fully operational mode, ready to burn DVD's and run Linux virtual guests for the next LinuxWorld / IT360 I'll be doing in April in Toronto.

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