“macZilla” Core i5 Mac mini: more RAM + hybrid drive + SSD drive = completely successful surgery for fast Windows 7 VM that dual boots too!

Posted by Paul Braren on Mar 19 2012 (updated on Jan 12 2013) in
  • Apple
  • Mac
  • OSX
  • Reviews
  • Virtualization
  • Windows
  • iFixItTools

    This Core i5 Mac Mini 2011 started life with 4GB of RAM, a 500GB traditional (slow, 5400) hard drive, and respectable discreet graphics. A very efficient and cool little beast!

    Beefing it up considerably will likely not increase the watt burn much (which I'll measure before and after), or heat output.

    • the goal is to accelerate and learn, by providing a way to toggle between OSs, running at full native speeds
    • the idea is not going all-out, but taking reasonable/affordable steps to give it more storage and performance
    • in a year or two, 16GB may be quite affordable, but spending $120 now on 16GB of RAM isn't necessary
    • also "fun" would be to try ESX 5.0 Update 1 too, but that's a whole 'nother project, and not the priority/focus for this week
    • Thunderbolt options, like this $429 Elgato external SSD, are not exactly affordable, yet
    • no matter how the final build winds up, they'll be more versatility here, and the first step is getting the hardware beefed-up, with only 4 evenings to complete this work

    Here's the parts, pricing as of March 22 2012:

    Newegg  $180+$170 USD
    Seagate Momentus XT ST750LX003 750GB 7200 RPM 32MB Cache 2.5" SATA 6.0Gb/s Solid State Hybrid Drive -Bare Drive
    Corsair Force Series GT CSSD-F120GBGT-BK 2.5" 120GB SATA III Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
    Amazon $15+$41 USD
    ineo iPile I-NA214U Plus, 2.5-Inch SATA External Hard Drive Module to USB 3.0
    Crucial 8GB Kit (4GBx2), 204-pin SODIMM, DDR3 PC3-10600 Memory Module (CT2CP51264BC1339)
    iFixit $70 USD
    Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit
    MacRumors Bundle $50 (includes $40 VMware Fusion 4.0)

    $699 (original cost of Mac mini) plus $526 upgrades = $1,225 USD Grand Total

    The tentative workplan is to:

    1. flash Corsair SSD to latest firmware
    2. flash Seagate Momentus XT 750GB to latest firmware
    3. use free Carbon Copy Cloner to dupe/resize the existing 500GB Mac OS X to the 750GB Momentus XT Hybrid drive
    4. reboot, then manually test booting from the external USB 2.0-attached (slow) external 750GB drive, just to be sure it works
    5. perform the surgery to remove the existing drive, and install 2 new drives, using iFixit's "medium difficulty" Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit Instructions
    6. install Windows 7 x64 SP1 onto the 128GB Corsair SSD, using Boot Camp drivers, with Apple's Installing and Setting Up Boot Camp procedures here, using a USB based Windows 7 installation source
    7. boot back into OS X
    8. tentative: install VMware Fusion 4.0

    March 23 2012: Steps 1 to 6 are complete!
    The patient not only survived the surgery, but it's most definitely new and improved, with faster boots and launching of applications, of course. The physical procedure to swap the old drive for two new drives took about 2 hours, using extreme caution, and a 7 day pill-box to hold the screws from 7 of the steps. I'd say this was indeed intermediate skill level, much as any laptop surgery ever performed was (given the potentially fragile and tiny connectors). But it was also a fun inside look at some fine engineering, evident in every screw, connector, and clamp.

    Carbon Copy Cloner took about 5 hours to clone the 80% full 500GB original drive over to the 750GB hybrid drive, as expected over slow USB 2.0. Here's the method:

    I then booted it off USB 2.0 just to be sure it worked (step 4), and it worked, slowly, of course. Paid the $20 donation using PayPal to bombich.com, well worth the $20 for this quality freeware, which is now used for weekly backups of OS X to an external USB 2.0 drive. The Windows 7 instance is backed up using Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials (based on Windows Home Server 2011).

    OS X on Seagate Momentus XT Hybrid:
    Boots noticeably faster.
    Running iPhoto on the new hybrid drive took 10 seconds, the first time. The second time took just 1.5 seconds, even after reboot, so hybrid drive "learning" is fast, and persistent, as the results profound.

    Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 on Corsair Force GT SATA3 128GB SSD:
    The installation of Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 was straight forward, once we disconnected the OS X drive just for the Windows 7 install from the Boot Camp 4.0-created installation USB key. After the initial installation was complete, and the SATA connector to the OS X drive reattached, OS X became the default boot again, so holding the Option key while powering up was all that was needed to select the Windows drive instead. The Boot Camp 4.0 Windows driver set was then installed. Quite impressively, it took care of all automating the install of all peripherals, including Bluetooth associations. Wow. Even the Apple Bluetooth keyboard and Trackpad worked just fine after the upgrade.

    Microsoft Windows Update was the usual nuisance, with about 3 reboots just to get roughly 67 updates applied, and another set of dozens of updates after Microsoft Office 2010 was installed, requiring another 3 reboots.

    Running CrystalDiskInfo revealed that SATA3 / 6Gbps speeds were negotiated by both cool-running drives. Running ATTO Disk Bench reveals speeds much more like SATA2 however, I'll have to dig deeper into potential causes of that slight strangeness, not a big deal. The most important 4K read/write results are decent though, with about 70,000MB/sec for writes, and 55,000MB/sec for reads.

    ATTO Disk Benchmark
    CrystalDiskInfo Drive C: Corsair Force GT SATA3 128GB
    CrystalDiskInfo Seagate Momentus XT 750GB

    March 24 2012 Update:
    Amazing, all steps 1 to 8 are complete, VMware Fusion was not only a complete success, but it runs the SSD instance of natively installed Windows 7 just fine, as a VM. In other words, the best of both worlds, physical when you demand absolutely speed (gaming), and virtual for more casual use, and to easily transfer files between HFS+ and NTFS.

    Many little lessons learned along the way, including:

    • default NAT networking for VMs is slow, 1/20th what it should be for moving files around the local network, changing it to bridged networking boosted it to about 1/2 of Mac OS X's wired network file share move speed, which is acceptable
    • disk I/O benchmarks show about half the performance of native disk I/O (same Windows 7 instance booted natively running ATTO, versus booted as a VM)
    • VMware Fusion runs Windows 8 Consumer Preview 32 bit version just fine, VMware tools installed fine as well, pretty smooth/fluid motion to the UI, with full Aero support and sound, windowed or fullscreen
    • StarCraft II runs better under Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 than under OS X, faster frame-rate, and more responsive Razer Orochi bluetooth mouse, 40 to 110 fps while burning just 45 watts, that's about 1/5th what a roughly equivalent typical desktop would burn
    • Boot Camp's handling of Bluetooth peripherals like the Apple Trackpad and keyboard works very well and seamlessly, allowing dual booting and use of VMs to be a seamless experience, even at the UEFI boot screen
    • to run Windows 7 VM, just launch Fusion, to launch same Windows 7 natively, just told OS X to restart, held down Option key when the grey boot screen shows up again, and watched for green light to go on for 2 seconds, then let go of key and this simple selection screen then showed up, with OS X on the Seagate Momentus being the default drive highlighted:
    Choose boot drive [Momentus XT has OS X, SSD at right is Windows 8]


    Well, after installing VMware Fusion 4.0, and running the SSD install of Windows 7 in a VM, results in a smooth VMware Tools. But when dual-booting over to Windows, no sound present over HDMI. Simple fix, go into Device Manager, point to the sound device, and right-click driver settings, "Roll Back Driver" and then was immediately all set, sound returns, all is well.

    The other issue was a little scarier,where clicking the menu bar didn't have the mornal magnify working, which almost felt like the OS X desktop/launcher was scrogged. Turns out nope, just the fact that the Bluetooth mouse was present was triggering this, discussed here. Told OS X to forget the mouse and added it again. Now everything was fine, back to normal.

    That's it, no other signficant issues, not bad.

    So that's nearly double the storage capacity, much more than double the speed for all disk drives, and exactly double the RAM. So, despite some minor speed issues with SSD benchmarks and VM performance, this project is a complete success, no regrets, and a great fit for my family's requirements.

    All the bits and pieces, laid out nicely.
    Apple's original 500GB Toshiba drive
    Mini motherboard
    SATA cable Origami [folded carefully]
    Cloning 321GB of data over USB 2.0 takes a while, no matter what software you use
    Device Manager in Windows 7 x64
    Same Windows 7 x64, Device Manager as shown when running in VMware Fusion Virtual Machine
    After the upgrade, here's OS X at idle
    and Windows 7 at idle
    and Windows 7 under highest CPU stress
    CPU Burn In

    Jul. 16 2012 Update:
    Amazon $86.99 for 16GB Corsair (8GBx2)

    Aug. 17 2012 Update:
    Windows 8 Pro x64 (RTM) installs just fine with existing boot camp, but had to turn of auto-update of drivers, and manually chose VGA to replace the WDDM 1.2 Video Driver it configured. Why? Because I then needed to then install this older beta driver from 5/31/2012  to get the Catalyst Control Center, fixing overscan (blank black bars around 1920x1080 image).

    Jan. 12 2013 Update:
    Upgrade to Samsung 840 Pro was a success, read all about it at “macZilla” Core i5 Mac mini gets an SSD drive upgrade, the operation was a complete success.