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Apple's Phil Schiller shows off the new style Apple Mac back in 2012. It's a classic piece of design
but not so easy to upgrade with more storage or an SSD drive for faster boot times. Fortunately, there's a solution for Apple Mac owners.
Regular readers will know that I am a long-time Mac user. I have been for the past 25 years and I doubt I will change now. However, that’s not to say that I am entirely uncritical of Apple and its rather expensive devices. Unlike earlier Macs, most iMacs made in recent years are not easily upgradable and key internal components like storage and memory can’t be simply upgraded except on one or two iMac Pro models.
So what can a Mac owner do if they still own a perfectly serviceable iMac or Mac Mini, but it was originally fitted with a sluggish internal hard drive that makes it feel as if you are wading through treacle even when doing the basic of tasks, like word processing or compiling spreadsheets? And let’s not even get started on editing videos while waiting for that spinning “Beachball of Death” to release its icy grip.
This month I’m going to show you a couple of easy ways to expand the storage on your Mac and how you can boost its start-up time as well as the speed at which the whole system responds. I’ll be using two different types of external storage from Lexar, a name perhaps best known for professional grade memory cards for digital cameras and for USB thumb drives. Lexar also makes an impressive range of external and internal SSDs (solid-state drives) that can inject life into even the most slothful of old Macs.
Old school hard drives have been around for years but they are slow and can be unreliable. SSD
drives are much faster, more reliable and use less energy. But how do you upgrade to an SSD on an Apple Mac where getting inside the computer's case is almost impossible?
Future via Getty Images
It’s difficult to see a downside with using an SSD. They run cooler than a hard drive, use less power, are far faster for disk-intensive tasks like video editing, plus they are resistant to impact, unlike spinning hard drives which are prone to fail without warning and seldom survive a drop on a hard surface.
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On its latest Macs computers, Apple uses blisteringly fast SSDs storage but it solders the memory chips directly on to the motherboard. This enables the Mac to access storage much quicker than if Apple used a SATA interface. But even if you could easily open up your Mac, there’s no interface for you to install a larger capacity SSD as used to be possible with older models.
What’s more, Apple’s T2 security chip makes upgrading internal storage virtually impossible. Even if you own a shiny new Mac with a fast SSD, Apple’s mean and stingy 250GB base configuration is hardly sufficient for installing macOS and a good selection of applications. For large amounts of data, like photos and videos, that has to be stored externally, unless you choose to upgrade the storage option when buying your Mac, but then you will have to pay Apple’s sky-high prices.
The Lexar NM610 is an NVMe SSD drive that is blisteringly fast. It's normally installed internally
in computers but it is possible to use a drive externally on a Mac with a USB enclosure.
My first solution for getting around this problem involves using a Lexar NVMe NM610 SSD drive. NVMe is a standard developed specifically for SSD storage by a group of companies that includes Intel, Samsung, SanDisk, Dell, and Seagate. NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory express and it operates across a computer’s PCIe bus and is easy to install in the M2 form factor. You simply click it into place and that’s it.
NVMe behaves more like RAM than like a conventional hard drive and that means it is much faster than an SATA interface. Sadly, Apple doesn’t allow its customers to use NVMe inside iMacs or Mac Minis so to get at least some of the benefits of NVMe, it’s necessary to resort to using it externally with a USB 3 or Thunderbolt enclosure. Intel’s Thunderbolt standard is based on PCIe and is capable of some very fast speeds indeed.
An Apple iMac Pro shown here has both USB 3 and Thunderbolt port that can be used to attach an NVMe
MacFormat Magazine/Future via Getty Images
I used an external NVMe SSD enclosure from Plugable to house the 500GB Lexar NM610 that I was testing. This is a no-tool enclosure which means it can be opened and closed using a spring-loaded catch. Slipping in the Lexar NM610 into the interface took me all of five seconds. This Plugable enclosure supports speeds of up to 10Gb/s over a USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface. It can also be connected via a Mac’s Thunderbolt 3 port although you won’t get full Thunderbolt speeds. Older users with iMacs that have Thunderbolt 2 ports probably won’t easily find a cable that will do that job. The enclosure features lots of air vents and heatsink fins to keep the NM610 SSD cool. NVMe drives can create a lot of heat and without a fan to keep the temperature down, passive cooling is essential. The Plugable USBC NBVMe seems to be one of the best-designed enclosures in terms of cooling efficiency. There is lots more information available on the
This air-cooled USBC NVME enclosure from Plugable is the easiest way to hook up the Lexar NM610 to a
Mac. It doesn't require any tools and takes all M2 NVMe SSD drives.
Once installed, the Lexar NM610 appears on the macOS desktop just like any other external drive. It can be formatted and used exactly like a hard drive, except it is many times faster. I installed a copy of macOS on the Lexar NM610 and then migrated the contents of my hard drive using the macOS Migration Assistant. It worked like a charm with all my apps working without me needing to reinstall. One word of caution for anyone thinking about cloning the hard drive on their Mac to an external SSD. Apple uses a different format for SSDs than hard drives, so it can be problematic making direct clones from a drive formatted with one file structure to one formatted in Apple’s APFS. Not all backup software can handle the process to make a bootable clone.
The speed of the Lexar NM610 is impressive and with a PCIe interface it has quoted read speeds of up to 2,100MB/s, although write speeds are bit lower. It’s an NVMe 1.3 device and uses 3D NAND memory. The transfer speeds, even accounting for the bottleneck created by the USB 3 interface are so much faster than a hard drive. I reduced the boot time of my iMac from around two minutes to just 40 seconds. Once booted up, my programs launched in just seconds compared to, say, the 30 seconds it took Microsoft Word to launch from my hard drive. That can add up to a lot of time saved during a day. With the later USB 3.1 Gen 2 interfaces, the times will be even better. Connect using the USB-C connection over Thunderbolt and you may see even better speeds.
The Lexar NM610 is an affordable SSD drive available in a range of capacities. Lexar makes more
expensive versions with faster speeds, but given the data bottleneck of USB 3, the NM610 is fast enough.
Remember, the speeds the NM610 was achieving were being throttled by the USB 3.0 interface on my 2015 iMac. The NM610 is capable of much higher speeds when used with a faster interface. If only Apple would use NVMe internally it could stop a lot of Macs ending up in landfills too soon. If we are ever to get on top of our electrical waste problem, upgradability and expandability have to be the way forward.
My second solution for adding more space and a faster boot-up time to an older Mac also comes from Lexar. The Lexar SL200 is an affordable external USB 3 SSD that connects to any Mac using the supplied USB cables. It also appears on the desktop like an external hard drive and has much faster speeds than an old-style spinning hard disk. It’s also likely to be much more reliable.
The new Lexar SL200 is a budget-priced external SSD with a USB-C interface. It can read at 550MB/s
and write at 400MB/s. It ould make an ideal external start-up drive for a Mac or even a Time Machine backup drive.
Like the NM610, the Lexar SL200 can be set up as a bootable external drive by installing a copy of macOS on it. Once again, programs and data can be moved to it using the Apple Migration Assistant. If your Mac is already fitted with an SSD, it may be easier to clone the drive using Apple’s Disk Assistant or some other back-up software like
Carbon Copy Cloner
Get Backup 3.0
The Lexar SL200 is definitely a budget external SSD and it doesn’t have the same deluxe build quality of the
SanDisk Extreme Pro
that I reviewed earlier this month. It’s available in 512GB, 1TB and 2TB capacities and offers read speeds of up to 550MB/s and write speeds of 400MB/s. That’s not as fast as the NM610, but it’s certainly speedier than a traditional hard drive.
The construction of the SL200 does feel a bit lightweight and it probably could benefit from a padded case to keep it safe if taking it out on the road. However, as a permanent external start-up disk for a Mac, it would be fine. The SL200 is light enough to be taped to the back of an iMac and left. At just 60 x 86 mm it’s also small enough to slip into a pocket of a pair of jeans.
The Lexar SL200 comes in a range of capacities from 500GB to 2TB. It includes USB A and USB-C cables
and makes a great backup drive.
The Lexar SL200 comes pre-loaded with Lexar’s 256-bit AES encryption software for keeping the drive’s content safe. If you want to encrypt the drive, just remember to copy the software somewhere safe before reformatting the SL200 for Mac use.
The interface on this compact drive is USB-C and there are two cables provided in the box for USB-C and USB A. So far, the dependability seems good but if you are thinking of a drive with maximum redundancy and enterprise levels of service, it may be worth spending a little more.
Lexar NM610: £74 / $86.99 / €87.18
Plugable USB-C-NVME Enclosure:£39.95 / $49.95 / €44.39
Lexar SL200: $108 / $95.03 / €95.99
Plugable USB-C-NVME Enclosure: