Last week I reported my progress upgrading my Mac Mini’s RAM and hard drive to extract much more performance out of Apple’s little desktop. And indeed, adding a 7200 rpm high-performance laptop hard drive did make a noticeable difference in system responsiveness.
But a question came in via email asking, will Western Digital’s killer 10,000 rpm VelociRaptor SATA drive work in the Mac Mini? So inspired, I set out to find out just how far one can push a Mac Mini’s performance!
Pillars of Performance
As I noted in my last update, there are four keys to desktop system performance: CPU, RAM, storage, and graphics. The Mac Mini’s CPU is soldered in place and its graphics are integrated into the system chipset, so neither are upgradable. The best one can do on the CPU side is to order a built-to-order 2.26 GHz Mac Mini from Apple, adding $150 to the base Mac Mini price of $599.
Base Mac Mini: $599
2.26 GHz CPU upgrade: $150
Running total: $749
PC hackers commonly upgrade their systems’ performance by tweaking the system BIOS to overclock the CPU, memory, and system bus. But you can’t overclock a Mac Mini, or at least I haven’t found the secret yet.
More RAM always helps, but the Mini won’t accept more than 4 GB 8 GB of RAM. The graphics can also be improved slightly by installing more than 1 GB of RAM because the system will then use 256 MB of RAM as a frame buffer instead of 128 MB. Since we’re going to be opening the system anyway, we can save some money by upgrading the RAM ourselves. The Mac Mini uses 204-pin DDR3 SO-DIMMs rated at PC3-8500 (1066 MHz). A nice 4 GB matched set can be purchased from Amazon.com for $60.
4 GB RAM upgrade: $66
Running total: $815
Your Apple Mac Mini is now maximally configured, with the exception of storage.
The only remaining upgrade is storage. And here, the Mac Mini is amazingly adaptable. About 2/3 of the vertical space covered by that aluminum and plastic exterior consists of a black plastic cage containing the DVD SuperDrive, hard disk drive, and cooling fan and serving as a support for the BlueTooth and 802.11 wireless antennas. This is your target.
The Mac Mini’s storage subsystem is up to date, with two SATA channels supporting 3 Gbit speed and advanced capabilities like native command queueing (NCQ) even though the stock Mini’s hard drive lacks these features.
The hard drive sits in a cradle immediately under the optical drive, face-up in an open cavity over the motherboard. Although it ships with a slim 9.5 mm high hard disk, my ruler says that the Mac Mini cradle can accept a 12.5 mm z-height disk. This is interesting from a capacity standpoint, since some higher-GB drives are 12.5 mm 3-platter units, including the popular TravelStar 5k500 drive from Hitachi.
However, the Mini was designed to have an air gap between the hard disk and DVD drive, and a 12.5 mm drive will press against the optical unit, potentially causing heat problems. And a larger 2.5″ drive will not fit, including the 15 mm mechanism from the Western Digital VelociRaptor.
Therefore, any crazy disk drive dreams that also include leaving the Mini and its DVD drive in the original case are right out. All is not lost, however! Apple kindly included the MacBook Air’s Remote Disc support, so the Mini doesn’t need a DVD drive at all if you happen to have another Mac or PC handy. Removing the SuperDrive leaves room for up to two 2.5″ hard disks!
Without the SuperDrive in the way, a 2.5″ Western Digital VelociRaptor hard disk drive should fit just fine. Although it ships with a massive heat sink, the VelociRaptor isn’t as power-hungry or hot as you might imagine. It might be a good idea to apply some cooling fins or add an extra fan, but I’m betting the Mini wouldn’t have any trouble driving this 10,000 rpm drive once the SuperDrive is removed. So the WD VelociRaptor is a serious option for the Mac Mini.
Another killer performance option is a RAID-0 set of internal SATA drives. Although the Mini’s second SATA channel (normally used for the DVD drive) does not have the proper connectors or mounting supports for a hard disk drive, iFixit sells a DIY kit to connect a second hard drive. This kit, which includes two 500 GB 5400 rpm hard drives, sells for about what a single 300 GB VelociRaptor costs, and should provide similar performance using RAID-0 striping.
Running total: $1,065
So there you have it! For just over $1,000, you can have the baddest Apple Mac Mini possible. But for quite a bit less, I suspect that a 2.0 GHz/4 GB/7200 rpm disk combo would be nearly as fast.
One more thing: If you decide to use RAID-0 on your internal drives, you must use Time Machine to protect your data! A stripe set of disk drives poorly mounted in a tiny chassis without a properly-engineered cooling or power system is a recipe for disaster. Your disks will fail, and your data will be lost!