New Life for an Old (early 2009) Mac Mini

My beloved Oswald (named after Nick’s grand sire) was getting as slow as his deceased name sake. The internal disk was failing, boot and shutdown times were long, and the machine was getting unstable. Time for a new iMac? Being a retired moocher, the thought of parting with $2500 while totally out of pocket was a bit unsettling. What could I do with an overhaul?

The Symptoms

The machine’s symptoms were

  • Dying in its sleep. I’d find the forbidden icon up on a gray background
  • Slow to log in
  • Slow to log out
  • Programs like Aperture ran slowly
  • Machine was not CPU bound
  • Machine was not swapping
  • Disk I/O looked reasonable. Most things read, modify in memory, then write.

Initial Investigation

  1. Review syslog using Console.app. Nothing scary. No panics called, no device errors for disks mentioned.
  2. Reinstall Mavericks. This helped for a while
  3. Check /Library/LaunchAgents and /Library/LaunchDaemons. They were full of crap from 12 years of Mac OS X updates and retired software. Clean these out.
  4. Do a general clean up using Clean My Mac 2. Remove broken startup items and broken preferences. There were some.
  5. Run About This Mac and check the kernel extensions. I found some from PPC days and the OS was actually trying to load one.
  6. Check and remove all KEXT’s older than Intel only OS X, say 2009. Remove all that were PPC only.

At this point the machine was somewhat improved. At least log in and log out were moving nicely. But the machine died in its sleep a week later.

On to Hardware

Now that the system was cleaned up, was the hardware old, ailing, or failing? Time for a visit to the Genius Bar.

I took the machine and power supply to the local Genius Bar at the MacArthur Mall Apple Store. After a few minutes to review the symptoms and my corrective actions, the Genius rounded up a monitor and keyboard and began a quick inspection. Once complete, he recommended running diagnostics. The disk phase quickly found a failing Hitachi Death Star disk. Apple could only put a disk like the original back in. Apple business rules did not allow Apple to make an alteration equivalent to repair. So I elected to reinstall Mavericks at the Genius Bar and restore the disk from Time Machine upon my return home.

On the way out, I launched a few things on the Mac Pro. Blinding fast. What’s in that sucker? About this Mac found a 256 GB SSD. Ah Ha! What can I do?

Alternative Courses of Action

While Time Machine was chugging, about 8 hours for 1/4 TB to restore, I did some research.

  • How hard was it to replace a disk? Not very.
  • How hard was it to reinstall and restore? Been there, done that, got the tee shirt!
  • Could I increase the memory? Yes, from 4 GB to 8 GB if the last firmware update had been installed. It was.
  • Could I put an SSD in? Yes.
  • Whose SSD?

SSD Selection

After some reading, I concluded that Samsung and Crucial were the go-to SSD suppliers. Both made their own flash and Samsung made its own controllers. Crucial was using recent Marvel controllers that were well regarded.

Could I get the memory and SSD from the same source? Maybe. Who?

  • Amazon did not have a good memory advisor AI so I ruled them out.
  • Samsung did not have a good memory advisor so I ruled them out.
  • Tiger Direct and NewEgg? They did not have Mac savvy memory  advisors so I ruled them out.
  • Crucial has supplied memory upgrades in the past and had a good Mac memory advisor. Did they also have a good SSD? The consensus of Ars, Toms’s Hardware, and AnandTech was that Crucial’s M550 was in the hunt.

So, I ordered 8 GB of expansion memory, and a 512 GB M550 laptop form factor eSATA 3 SSD. The SSD included a 9 MM spacer that would be needed in the Mac Mini. I also ordered Crucial’s Apple tools which included a spudger and small screw drivers.

Installation

Crucial was a bit back ordered so it was 10 days waiting for parts to come. Oswald took another header so I put an OS image on my media Drobo Gen2 to limp along while waiting for parts.

Parts arrived in Tuesday’s evening UPS run so I elected wisely to do the installation Wednesday morning.

 

  1. Are you satisfied with your backup? No. Run Time Machine and be sure things are up to date. They weren’t so I kicked that off around noon on Tuesday. Note which TM volume of three had the fresh backup.
  2. TM1 was mounted read only. Why? Run  Disk Utility to repair the disk. Nothing was wrong but it was 12 hours to find that out. Better safe than sorry.
  3. Does a recovery partition boot and run? Yes, from thumb drive made using the recovery disk tool from the App store, and also the recovery partition on the external media disk.
  4. Clean up and draw file an edge on a putty knife as described at iFixit.
  5. Do a normal shutdown before breakfast on Wednesday.
  6. After breakfast do the replacement following OWC’s 2009 Mac Mini disk replacement video.

OWC advises that the replacement is easy but not so easy. As to be expected, I found out why.

  • Getting the old disk out and the new one in looks easy when you watch an experienced tech do it. In practice, there are some sticky bits
  • Getting the drive tabs into the riser socket is tricky because there are no guides for the drive body. But it can be done with patience.
  • Getting the drive carrier tab into the mother board connector is a bit tricky. It took me 3 tries.
  • Seating the ribbon cable on the disk connector is a bit tricky. It needs a good push.
  • Replacing the memory was trivial. No skinned knuckles like desk top memory transplanting produces.

Once all was back together (well, almost all, one screw went missing), I fired the machine up. No happy chord. I let the machine boot. No internal disk. Three checks to find all the stuff mentioned above. Then the lost chord was back.

System Installation

Mac OS X installation goes like this.

  1. Start from the thumb drive (Alt/Opt down while booting until the drop down box shows).
  2. Start disk utility and partition the SSD. One 64GB Win81 partition and the balance to OS X HFS+ Journaled. ESPlanner brought the camel into the tent. Frown!
  3. Connect the Time Machine Drobo and restore the system disk from Time Machine. This took 8 hours for 1/4 TB of data.
  4. When Time Machine completes, the machine restarts.
  5. Complete the setup wizard.

Other than being agonizingly slow, the whole process was without drama. Only a bit of futzing around to get connectors seated.

The Results

For $500 and a day of BS&T, I have a new machine that is quick to boot, quick to log in, and pleasant to use. Even Aperture launch and Aperture import, both painful, are reasonably quick. This without making a working Aperture library on the SSD. Aperture is quick enough that there is no need to make a working library in addition to the archival library on the Drobo. Even image correction, which was slow before, is reasonably quick. Here’s why.

  • 4GB of memory was too little although nothing appeared to be swapped. My normal workload shows about 4.5 GB of App memory so stuff that was paging is no longer paging.
  • There is about 3GB of buffer cache. Enough said.
  • The SSD eliminates seek latency and rotational latency. Apps load much more quickly because they page in without mechanical waits.

Why the slow logins?

Just what were those LaunchAgents and LaunchDaemons? Would  you believe

  • A Google daemon to enhance the user experience?
  • An Adobe daemon to find the latest screwed up version of Flash?
  • An Oracle daemon to find the latest Java vulnerabilities?

Any or all of these were ill behaved. They’re worm food now. And the machine is happy. And Google’s helper is not missed.