MacBook Hard Drive Upgrades - dummies

By Mark L. Chambers

Asking whether you can upgrade your MacBook hard drive is a trick question. Yes, you certainly can upgrade your hard drive. But before you start cruisin’ the Internet for a 1TB monster, though, here are two suggestions:

  • Don’t upgrade your internal hard drive yourself.

  • Be sure you really need a hard drive upgrade.

And, all in all, Apple’s pretty generous when configuring drive storage for its base systems — current models run with anywhere from a 64GB solid-state drive to a 1TB magnetic hard drive.

Most folks simply don’t need more than 128GB or 500GB of drive space. You’re likely to find that you still have plenty of elbowroom on your drive unless you’re heavily into

  • Digital video (DV)

  • Cutting-edge video games

  • Tons of digital audio or digital photos

If you’re short on drive space, clean up your existing drive by deleting all the crud you don’t need, such as game and application demos, duplicate or work copies of images and documents, archived files you downloaded from the Internet, and the contents of your Trash.

Consider external hard drive options for your MacBook

If you do need additional hard drive space, consider using an external drive! Use a high-speed Thunderbolt, FireWire, or USB port to connect a second hard drive the quick and easy way.

Most of today’s external peripherals don’t even require the driver software that Mac old-timers remember with such hatred. You simply plug in a FireWire, Thunderbolt, or USB device, and it works. You can move your external drive between different Macs with a minimum of fuss and bother. A typical external USB 3.0 hard drive that holds 1TB will cost less than $100.

An external hard drive can do anything that your internal hard drive can do. You can boot from it, for example, or install a different version of OS X. External optical drives work just the same as internal models; Apple sells an external USB SuperDrive optical drive for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro Retina for about $80.

Apple’s Time Capsule unit is an external hard drive with a difference: It stores the huge Time Machine backup files created by the Macs running Mountain Lion on your network, and it uses a wireless connection to transfer data!

Here’s one problem with external drives: Data typically transfers more slowly over a USB or FireWire connection than via an internal drive. That’s why most Mac owners use their external drives for storing lesser-used documents and applications or for Time Machine backups. Their favorite applications and often-used documents are housed on the faster internal drive.

USB 2.0/3.0

The USB standard is popular because it’s just as common in the PC world as in the Mac world. Your laptop carries at least two USB 3.0 ports on the sides of the case, and older MacBook models that can run Mountain Lion will have at least one USB 2.0 port. Hardware manufacturers can make one USB device that works on both types of computers.

Naturally, USB 3.0 offers faster data transfer speeds than the older USB 2.0 standard, so if your MacBook model sports USB 3.0 ports, you should buy only USB 3.0 external hard drives, CD/DVD recorders, or flash drives.

FireWire 800

The faster FireWire 800 port has now replaced the older FireWire 400 port (also called IEEE 1394) on today’s MacBook Pro models. However, with an adapter, you can use your FireWire 800 port for connecting older FireWire 400 external devices to your MacBook.


A Thunderbolt external drive offers much better performance than either a FireWire 800 or a USB 3.0 drive, and today’s shiny Thunderbolt drives are getting cheaper every day. All current MacBook models proudly sport a Thunderbolt port on the side.

How to connect an external drive to your MacBook

With FireWire, Thunderbolt, or USB, you can install an external hard drive without opening your laptop’s case. With your MacBook turned on, follow these steps:

  1. Connect the FireWire, Thunderbolt, or USB cable betwixt the drive and your computer.

  2. Plug the external drive into a convenient surge protector or uninterruptible power supply.

    Note that some external devices are bus-powered, meaning that they don’t need a separate power supply. These devices draw their power directly from the port.

  3. Switch on the external drive.

  4. If the drive is unformatted (or formatted for use in Windows), partition and format the external drive.

    The drive comes with instructions or software for you to do this. Partitioning divides the new drive into one (or more) volumes, each of which is displayed as a separate hard drive in Mountain Lion.

    If the drive comes preformatted for use with a Windows PC, consider reformatting it for use with OS X — doing so will result in faster performance and more efficient use of space.

After the drive is formatted and partitioned, it immediately appears on the desktop. Shazam!

Gotta have an internal hard drive

If you decide that you must upgrade your existing internal drive — or if your internal drive fails and needs to be replaced — you should always take your MacBook to an authorized Apple service center and allow the techs there to sell you a drive and make the swap. Here are four darned good reasons why:

  • Warranty: You’re very likely to void your laptop’s warranty by attempting a drive upgrade yourself.

  • Selection: If you’re worried about choosing the proper drive, your friendly neighborhood Apple technician can order the correct type and size of drive for you.

  • Difficulty: Swapping a drive in your Mac laptop isn’t anywhere near as easy as adding RAM modules in the MacBook Pro.

  • Backup: That very same Apple service technician can back up all the data on your existing drive, format the new drive, and move all your data to its new mansion, so you won’t lose a single document. That will save you time and possible angst.