SATA and SSD Options for G3 and G4 Power Macs

One of the best ways to speed up your Mac is with a bigger, faster hard drive (adding more system memory is the other), but there are less hard drives for PowerPC ‘Books than before, and they tend to be lower in capacity than today’s Serial ATA (SATA) drives.

In the world of computing, there are incremental, almost invisible changes, and there are significant, game changing ones.

For Mac users, one of those game changers was the move from more intelligent and more expensive SCSI hard drives to IDE* drives, which are electronically incompatible. Starting with the Macintosh Plus in 1986, Macs supported SCSI drives. The Quadra 630 and it’s near twins, the Performa and LC 630 Series (1994) marked the first time a desktop Mac used IDE instead of SCSI for hard drives.

Blue & White Power Mac G3However, it wasn’t until late 1997 that IDE made its way into Apple’s pro-oriented Power Mac line with the introduction of the Beige Power Mac G3, which still had a built-in SCSI bus. That was gone with the next model, the Blue & White Power Mac G3 (early 1999), which was IDE only, although Apple did offer SCSI cards for those who needed access to SCSI drives and peripherals.

For the bulk of the Power Mac’s history (mid 1995 through late 2005), the PCI expansion slot was the norm. Apple offered PCI-X on the Power Mac G5 models from mid 2003 through late 2005, when the last generation of G5 Power Macs was introduced with dual-core CPUs and PCI Express. Since all G5 models have built-in SATA support, we won’t focus on them here.

With the switch to Intel, SATA replaced IDE across the board for hard drives. As happened when IDE displaced SCSI on Macs, we are now seeing less and less IDE hard drives on the market, and to the best of my knowledge there are no 3.5″ IDE solid-state drives (SSDs). In fact, almost all SSDs are SATA drives and us the 2.5″ notebook form factor.

UPDATE: A reader let me know that Transcend makes 2.5″ SSDs that use the IDE bus – and that he’s installed one in his WallStreet PowerBook, cutting boot time for Mac OS 8.6 in half. Drive sizes range from 2 to 128 GB. Prices are high in comparison to SATA SSDs. The company also makes IDE flash modules that connect to a standard 40-pin connector.

A year ago, I wrote IDE Is Dead; Long Live SATA!, and things have only moved further in that direction since then.

Let’s look at options for adding SATA to G3 and G4 Power Macs, along with other options for connecting SSDs.

Adding SATA Support

The Cheap Way

The cheapest way to add a SATA drive to these Power Macs is with a SATA-to-IDE bridge. Prices start at under $10, making this an inexpensive way to add a high capacity, high speed hard drive to your aging Power Mac. However, this may not be ideal. Except for the Mirrored Drive Doors G4 models (August 2002 and later) and the G5s, G4 Power Macs have an internal ATA/66 drive bus, and most of them (particularly the pre-Quicksilver models) don’t support drives over 128 GB on the internal drive bus. (See How Big a Hard Drive Can I Put in My iMac, eMac, Power Mac, PowerBook, or iBook? for more on the “big drive” issue.)

The Better Way

If you have an empty PCI slot in your Power Mac, it’s trivial to add a SATA card. The basic PCI bus supports a transfer rate of 133 MBps (1,067 Mbps), while fast (66 MHz) and wide (64-bit) versions double that rate. PCI-X, found in many G5 Power Macs, support 1024 MBps – one gigabyte per second. These data rates are far beyond the 16.67, 33, 66, or 100 MBps rates of the built-in IDE bus. (Another way to speed things up is with a faster PCI IDE card, but that’s outside the scope of this article.)

Be sure you choose a card that supports booting your Mac from an attached SATA drive; there aren’t a lot of options, since not many PCI SATA cards were ever made for Macs (avoid PCI-X and PCIe cards – they are not the same as PCI).

  • The Acard AEC-6293M has one internal SATA port, one external eSATA port, and one internal ATA/133 port, which may boost performance of your existing hard drive. According to OWC, it requires OS X 10.4 Tiger or newer, while Acard says it’s compatible with all versions of OS X. OWC has a limited supply at $65, while Acard sells it for $80.
  • If you want two internal SATA ports, the Sonnet Tempo Serial ATA card is a good option at $80 ($74 from OWC). It’s a rarity, in that it supports Mac OS 9 along with OS X 10.3 Panther and newer. This will let you add an SSD and a big, fast SATA hard drive as well.

Mounting Your SSD

SSDs have one big advantage over old fashioned hard drives: no moving parts. There are no spinning platters or moving drive heads, so accidental physical damage is unlikely. No moving parts means less noise, less heat, and no power draw spike while a sleeping drive spins up.

SSDs are also a whole lot faster. With a hard drive, it takes time for the drive to spin up during a cold boot or when waking from sleep, and there’s some latency as it seeks and reads data from the drive. With an SSD, the drive is available immediately, and latency is virtually zero. Even if the hard drive is already spinning, a zero-latency SSD is going to be faster.

Another thing to keep in mind is that virtual memory is always running with Mac OS X, so your Mac could be moving data back and forth between system memory and your system drive (hard drive or SSD) at any time. This is another place where the no latency advantage of SSD works to your benefit.

SSDs aren’t designed for 3.5″ drive bays; they are usually designed for the 2.5″ form factor used in most notebook computers, and Power Macs don’t have 2.5″ drive bays.

Other World Computing (OWC) to the rescue. This company, which really understands the needs of the legacy Mac user, has developed Multi-Mount, an adapter that lets you install a 2.5″ drive in a 3.5″ or 5.25″ drive bay. For $18, you can adapt a 2.5″ SSD to fit a 3.5″ drive bay, and for $40, you can mount two such drives in a 5.25″ drive bay. OWC also offers SSDs from $99.

Since SSDs have no moving parts and generate very little heat, you may also be able to find creative ways to mount them, perhaps using Velcro™.

External Drive Options

Another alternative is to forget the whole idea of mounting a SATA drive or SSD inside your Power Mac and go with an external drive, either FireWire or USB.

One advantage of an external drive is that you can easily connect it to another Mac to access the data or perhaps even boot from it. The disadvantage, of course, is one more piece of hardware.

FireWire

Although FireWire isn’t nearly as fast as SATA, it’s been built into Power Macs since 1999, although the Blue & White G3 and Yikes! G4 cannot boot from FireWire. All you need is an external FireWire enclosure that supports SATA.

In comparing bus performance with an SSD and current Macs, Bare Feats found SATA the fastest bus at 273 MB/s, followed by USB 3.0 [not yet built into any Apple product when this was first published in 2010] at 206. FireWire 800 (found on the final generation Power Mac G4) came in at 86 MB/s, and USB 2.0 at 38. We can estimate FireWire 400 at 43, half the speed of FW800 and about 15% faster than USB 2.0.

The fastest G4 Power Macs, those with Mirrored Drive Doors, have an ATA/100 bus, which is approximately equal to FireWire 800 in terms of throughput. Earlier FireWire-bootable models have ATA/66, which is two-thirds as fast and still a bit faster than FireWire 400.

SSDs keep getting faster, with the fastest rated at 360 MB/s for reads, 275 MB/s for writes. Converted to bits-per-second, which is how SATA, FireWire, and USB are measured, that’s 2.88 Gbps and 2.20 Gbps, which puts read speed past the 2.4 Gbps theoretical maximum of SATA 2.0. Other SSDs achieve speeds between 90 and 200 MB/s (720 Mb/s to 1.6 Gbps).

Based on these numbers, most of today’s SSDs will have no problem providing data over FireWire 800 or any slower protocol at the maximum speed the data bus allows. SATA 1.0 (1.2 Gbps) will be adequate for most current SSDs; the fastest SSDs may saturate SATA 2.0, USB 3.0 (3.3 Gbps maximum per device), and FireWire 3200 (3.2 Gbps); while SATA 3.0 (4.8 Gbps) is more than fast enough for any SSD available today [2010].

In light of that, FireWire 400 may not seem like a realistic option. Then again, you have to look at what you’re using right now. For many of us, that’s a 5400 rpm hard drive that came with the computer and can’t provide data as fast as the bus can handle it, so SSD (or a 7200 rpm IDE drive or a SATA drive) should have no trouble delivering data as fast as your Power Mac can handle it.

If you are fortunate enough to have a a Power Mac G4 with FireWire 800, you have a completely viable alternative to the internal drive bus. I’d say there are no drawbacks to going this route instead of using an drive with the built-in drive bus, outside of the external enclosure and the FireWire cable connecting it to your Power Mac.

While an SSD on the internal ATA/100 bus – or even the older ATA/66 bus – with a SATA-to-IDE bridge would be faster, SSD on FireWire 400 will definitely give you some benefits over using an internal hard drive. (Another plus: Pre-2001 Power Macs don’t support drives over 128 GB on the internal drive bus, a problem you won’t have with an SSD or hard drive in a modern FireWire enclosure.)

That may not be an issue at today’s SSD prices, where 240 GB SSD from OWC – the smallest one to fall in the “big drive” category – is going for over $500. That’s a big investment to make in a legacy Mac, but prices will come down.

There are pros and cons with FireWire 400 for your SSD boot drive, but I think it is a viable (if not ideal) option.

USB 2.0

Booting from USB 2.0 simply isn’t an option for G3 and G4 Power Macs, because they don’t have built-in USB 2.0. While you can install a USB 2.0 card, you can’t use that card until its drivers are loaded, so you can’t boot from a PCI USB card.

As for USB 1.1, which is built-in, all I need to say is that it’s 1/40 the speed of USB 2.0! I don’t think you even want to try it.

Conclusion

These legacy workhorses are very affordable nowadays, and if you already have one, upgrading can give it a new lease on life. With a fast SATA drive – whether a regular hard drive, a hybrid drive, or an SSD – you can unleash even more of your Power Mac’s potential.

A Power Mac with maximum RAM and an SSD (or a hybrid drive or even a fast modern 7200 rpm SATA drive with a big buffer) will take it well beyond its original performance. If you have a Power Mac that you love and would like to use more, it’s definitely worth considering.

* Technically there are several standards and names for various versions of Parallel ATA – IDE, EIDE, ATA, Ultra ATA, etc. For the sake of simplicity, we use IDE in this article.

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