Pimp your Mac Mini!


I think the Mac Mini is the unsung hero of Apple’s computers – it offers the power of a nice laptop for a fraction of the price; however, like a laptop, its compact size makes it trickier to upgrade.

Below is my photo journey through upgrading the guts of a 2008-era Mac Mini (also known as a “MacMini2,1” in System Profiler – 1.83GHz Core2Duo, 1GB RAM, 80GB disk).  This is my second venture under the hood of this compact little gem – the first was for a RAM upgrade; this time it’s for a new hard disk.  Hopefully this post will give others the confidence to beef up their own Mini!

Why upgrade?

Surprisingly, it’s not because I need more storage (despite the small 80GB factory disk); rather, it’s for performance.  You see, disks are slow – they’re the slowest part of a computer, and typically 100x slower than the RAM.  Adding RAM makes the computer faster up to a point (because it doesn’t have to swap RAM to/from a slow disk), but your computer still spends a surprising amount of time waiting on the hard disk to read and write files.

You’ve probably heard of Solid-State Disk (SSD) drives that use flash chips instead of magnetic disks – they’re blindingly fast to read from, but also amazingly expensive (roughly 10x the price of a magnetic disk).  In many cases, you can compromise with two drives – one small SSD disk, plus a larger magnetic disk… if you have room for 2 drives.  Laptops and Mac Mini’s don’t.

Enter Seagate’s Momentus XT, a newly-released “hybrid” disk drive – it packs both 4GB of SSD storage and 500GB of magnetic storage into a single 2.5″ laptop hard drive.  At USD$130, it combines the best attributes of large magnetic media and the speed of SSD.  It’s ideal for tight spaces like a Mac Mini or laptop, where only one disk can be installed.  I’m hooked!

I’ve installed this drive in three Windows PCs lately, and it’s reduced their boot times between 60% and 90%, and general performance has become much snappier!  The 4GB of SSD is smaller than I’d like, but the drive automatically shifts the most frequently accessed disk blocks to SSD for super-fast read access.  (E.g., if you launch Photoshop often, then Photoshop’s executables would be accelerated.)  This makes much more efficient use of the SSD capacity than a classic 2-drive SSD+magnetic setup would, and that helps offset the drawbacks of a smaller SSD.  The SSD components are invisible to the operating system, making this drive a nice, clean solution.  For a visual demo of the performance, see the video on Seagate’s Momentus XT page.

My results

A common benchmark for SSD seems to be boot-up time… but this is a Mac and I almost never need to reboot it, so I don’t care.  Nonetheless, it’s a point of reference that’s easily measured and compared.

Prior to the upgrade, booting and then launching Photoshop CS3 took 75 seconds – hardly a figure that needed improving.  I didn’t expect it to get much better after the upgrade, but it did… now it takes just 30 seconds.  I can’t say how much of the gain is attributed to the SSD acceleration vs. the drive being newer, faster technology (and 7200RPM instead of 5400RPM), but I like the results and everything’s a bit snappier to launch.  Going from 80GB to 500GB didn’t hurt either.

I noticed a touch more noise from the Mini due to the higher-RPM drive, but it’s practically silent compared to the other gear in my home office.  It may be more noticeable in a laptop – that’s an upcoming project.

Upgrading my Mini took about 2 hours, excluding the time for photos and this article – and one of those hours was just waiting for the Time Machine restore.

[Edit 24Aug2010] It seems this fantastic new drive has some pretty fundamental warts.  With version SD22 of the firmware, the drive spins down (goes to sleep mode) when it’s not supposed to, causing OS X apps to beachball at odd times while waiting for the drive to spin back up; I’ve heard the drive do this, but haven’t suffered the beachball symptoms.  On the other hand, firmware update SD23 fixes the problem by disabling sleep mode altogether, so the drive won’t spin down even when the OS tells it to – this is a problem for disk longevity, but especially for MacBook users because it kills the battery life.  Surely this will be fixed in an upcoming firmware update (SD24?), but it’s ridiculous to have slipped through QA testing in the first place and the SD23 “fix” is ludicrous.

What you’ll need

  • New RAM – the 1.83GHz Mac Mini takes DDR2 PC5300 200-pin DIMMs.  I bought mine from Fry’s Electronics (about USD$90 for a pair in early 2008), but there are plenty of sources.  (A 4GB kit may be cheaper, like this one from NewEgg.)  My version of the Mac Mini can take up to 4GB of RAM, but recognizes slightly less.  I’m told that newer Mac Mini models can take even more RAM, so check the RAM specs for your model before buying.
  • New 2.5″ SATA hard drive – I chose a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT for USD$130; it’s also available in 250GB and 320GB but they aren’t too much cheaper.  NewEgg, Other World Computing, and Amazon are popular sources.  Note that these are “bare drive” kits, which means it comes with nothing else (no screws, brackets, etc.) – that’s fine for the Mac Mini, but desktop computers will need a 2.5″ to 3.5″ mounting kit.
  • Replacement fan – Unrelated to this upgrade, I’ve since needed to replace a failed fan in another Mini and 98% of the process is the same.  Some guides will list the fan as Apple P/N 922-7317 for this model, but it’s a pricey $60 from a handful of name-brand sources.  Searching by the part number on the fan itself (720-0639) yields more plentiful sources as low as USD$6.00 each.
  • #1 Phillips screwdriver
  • Two putty knives
  • OS X installation disks – you remember where you stashed them 3 years ago, right?
  • A current Time Machine backup of your Mini

Cracking the case

To open the Mac Mini,  insert a flat blade between the shell and the base plate, then gently pry outward.

A putty knife works really well, but it’s too blunt to wedge open the seam and you’ll mar the case trying.  Instead, use something with a sharpened edge to widen the gap, then slip in the putty knife and use it to pry outward to pop the base plate up.  Pizza cutters have been suggested (it’ll probably work but mine wasn’t sharp enough); someone else used a cheese slicer.  Really, any very thin but rigid metal blade will do the job – even a butter knife would probably to the job.

In the photo below, the red putty knife was previously bent and its edge sharpened on a grinder for an old flooring project, so it made an ideal tool to wedge the joint apart to start the job and also to pry; the second putty knife is used as a “follower” to hold the joint from closing as I worked all the way around.  You’re prying against about 20 stiff plastic clips molded into the Mini’s base, so you need to be firm.  I suggest starting near a back corner, since the back panel has no clips.

Remove the mounting screws from the 4 corners of the internal assembly:

To access the 4th screw, the WiFi antenna needs to be removed from its mounting bracket.  This is done by squeezing together the two clips under the antenna; the spring will pop the WiFi antenna off the mount.

On the front of the Mini, under the optical drive, there is a small connector with a pair of wires.  Unplug the connector by pulling up on the lip of the connector using a fingernail or the edge of a putty knife – don’t pull on the wires.

For reference, here’s a tour around the perimeter of the Mini’s interior:

A small tip – stick screws to a piece of tape as they’re removed, and label them for easy reinstallation.

Getting to the guts of the matter

After the 4 mounting screws are removed, it’s time to separate the two major parts of the Mini and get inside.

  • Gently wiggle the upper section while pulling up slightly near the rear of the optical drive to disconnect a circuit board that connects the upper and lower sections.
  • Wiggle the upper section until it works mostly free of the lower section.
  • Next, lift the upper section like it’s a clamshell that’s hinged along the back of the Mini (where the ports are).  There’s a brown ribbon cable that’ll still be connected there, along with a couple antenna wires to work around.

Upgrading the RAM

Once you’ve gotten this far, replacing the RAM is the easy step.  The RAM is installed in a stacked socket – you have to remove the upper DIMM to get to the lower DIMM.  Use care when handling memory DIMMs – they aren’t fragile, but they can be damaged by static electricity that you can’t even feel, and the damage can cause subtle problems like premature failure later.  Keep the DIMMs in the anti-static pack until you install them in their sockets.

  • Press out slightly on the metal spring clips on either end of the DIMM.  The DIMM will usually spring up a bit when its released.
  • Notice how far into the socket the DIMM is inserted, so you can properly seat the new DIMMs.
  • Pivot the DIMM up at about a 30-degree angle, then pull it straight out to remove it from the socket.
  • Repeat the process for the second DIMM.
  • Put the old DIMMs directly into an anti-static package (like the one the new RAM came in).  Handle them with care, in case they need to be re-installed during troubleshooting.

Install the new RAM in roughly the reverse order:

  • Position the DIMM in the socket – ensure the offset notches in the DIMM are aligned with tabs in the socket.
  • Holding the DIMM at about a 30-degree angle, firmly press the DIMM directly into the contacts.
  • Pivot the DIMM down until the spring clips engage.

Upgrading the hard drive

  • I normally try to avoid disconnecting flexible PCB cables like the brown one holding the two Mini sections together, but in this case I decided it was safer to work with the two sections separated.  If this step makes you squeamish, instead find a book or something to slide under the upper section for support while you work.
  • To remove the brown cable, release the dark brown clip by gently but firmly sliding it downward (but don’t remove it) on each side using your fingernail.  The PCB cable will easily pull free.

  • The hard drive is secured by 4 mounting screws – two on its bottom face, and two on its side face.  Once unscrewed, gently but firmly pull the drive toward the speaker to unplug it from the PCB.  Lift one edge of the drive to angle it out of the bracket.

  • Carefully peel the foam bumper from the old drive and install it on the new drive.
  • Set the old drive aside someplace safe (perhaps the sleeve and box your new drive came in) – this is your fallback plan in case the Time Machine restore fails.
  • Reverse the steps to get the new drive into the bracket.  When sitting in the bracket, the drive will lie too low to align with the PCB connector; I found that holding the assembly upside down easily aligned the drive with the PCB connector.
  • Re-install the 4 drive mounting screws

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again

  • Re-connect the brown PCB cable.  Slide the cable all the way into the connector and firmly press the dark brown clip up on both sides.  Note the position of the white line on the cable in the photo above to ensure you’ve fully seated the cable.
  • Lay the upper section of the Mini on top of the lower section and align the two halves (don’t press yet).
  • Check the cable for the WiFi antenna – it needs to fish up between the fan duct and the small PCB.

  • Gently wiggle the upper section until it drops into position over the lower section.
  • Check that antenna wires are still connected and not being pinched.
  • Press down and wiggle gently on the upper half near the rear of the optical drive to reconnect the two Mini sections.
  • Again, check to ensure no loose wires will be pinched when the cover is installed.  Especially, check that the Bluetooth antenna cable did not come unplugged near the back of the Mini.  If it did, simply press-fit it back onto the PCB coupler.
  • Check that the Bluetooth cable is still clipped along the black housing between screws 1 and 2.  (It tends to slip out during handling.)
  • Re-install the 4 mounting screws, taking care to use the long screw for #3.  You may find it handy to stick a magnet on the screwdriver to magnetize it and get the deep screws into position.  Screw #1 is particularly difficult to get started.
  • Re-mount the WiFi antenna PCB over screw #4.
  • Re-connect the black wire & connector on the front face of the Mini under the optical drive.
  • Align the Mini’s cover over the top of the assembly.  Firmly press straight down, taking care to keep the back panel of the Mini aligned.  The cover should click into place.

Restoring the Mini’s data

  • Reconnect your Mini’s keyboard, mouse, monitor, power, etc.
  • Reconnect your Time Machine backup drive (USB or Firewire)
  • Insert the OS X installation DVD #1 and boot the Mini; it’ll take a few minutes.  If you booted the Mini before inserting the DVD, you’ll see a folder with a question mark until the DVD is inserted.
  • When the installer launches, select Utilities -> Disk Utility from the menu bar
    • Select your new disk drive in the left pane
    • Select the Partition tab
    • Set the volume scheme pulldown to 1 Partition
    • Leave the partition name as-is, since it’ll be overwritten during the restore process.
    • Use the default format of Mac OS Extended (Journaled)
    • Click Apply
    • Exit Disk Utility
  • REBOOT NOW – if you don’t reboot, the destination disk will not be available for restoring, because the partition table is only scanned for valid drives during boot-up.
  • In the Mac OS X Installer, select Utilities -> Restore System From Backup
    • Select your Time Machine disk as the source
    • Select the latest backup and click Restore
    • Select the new disk as the destination
    • Be patient during the restore.  For my 80GB Mac Mini, restoring from a USB drive took about an hour.

Verify the RAM

In the menu bar, select the Apple logo, then About This Mac.  You should see 4GB listed, although something like only 3.6GB will actually be usable, due to some of the address space being used for peripherals (the video adapter, I believe).

Troubleshooting

When you boot your Mini after re-assembling it, you should hear the chime and see a folder with a question mark.  If so, re-read the steps above for restoring the hard disk content.

If you don’t hear the chime and your Mini seems dead, try these steps:

  • First, make sure the power, video, etc. are plugged in and turned on.  Really.  Even experienced folks can overlook an unplugged cable.
  • Open the case and re-check all the connections using the re-assembly steps above, then test again.  You should be able to test-boot without re-installing the Mini’s cover, but don’t run it for long this way.
  • If there’s still no joy, your Mini might not like the new RAM for some reason (most likely because the new RAM is the wrong type).  Try re-seating the RAM DIMMs and try booting again.  If that doesn’t work, re-installing your old RAM seems to fix it for many folks.

If you’re getting a lot of fan noise from the Mini, that seems to be caused by the black connector in the front being overlooked during re-assembly.

Credits

A big tip o’ the hat goes to smee on AppleInsider.com forums for an excellent teardown, where he detailed how to upgrade the RAM in a Mac Mini.  In January 2008, I found myself the proud owner of a new Mac Mini (1.83GHz Core2Duo, 80GB disk, 1GB RAM) and knew I wanted more than the 2GB RAM upgrade Apple offered.  At the time I added my notes to his thread, but since I’m cracking the case again to upgrade the hard disk I figured I’d document the process for myself.

Caveats

Proceed at your own risk.  This is just a journal of my activities; you need to assess the risk and your ability to perform this project.

Do let me know how it turns out, or if you see any blatent errors above!

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