SATA and SSD Options for PowerBooks and iBooks

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 SATA drives.

PowerBook 100 SeriesIn 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 with SCSI. All early PowerBooks used SCSI drives, and the PowerBook 150 (1994) marked the first time a PowerBook used IDE instead of SCSI.

From then until Apple transitioned to Intel CPUs in 2006, all PowerBooks and iBooks used IDE drives. Over time, less and less SCSI notebook drives were made, and the cost difference between comparable IDE and SCSI mechanisms increased. Also, as fewer SCSI drives were being sold, less and less drives were available. SCSI was left behind.

With the switch to Intel, Serial ATA (SATA) became the successor to IDE. As when IDE displaced SCSI, we are now seeing less and less IDE/PATA/Ultra ATA hard drives on the market, and to the best of my knowledge there are no 2.5″ IDE solid-state drives (SSDs).

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.

You Can’t Swap IDE and SATA

Although there are bridge cards that will let you use a 3.5″ SATA hard drive on a Mac with an IDE controller, the design of most notebook computers doesn’t provide sufficient space to fit an adapter between a 2.5″ SATA drive and an IDE cable. If you want to swap out your PowerBook or iBook IDE hard drive for a SATA one, you’re out of luck.

Almost all SSDs are designed as swap-in replacements for 2.5″ hard drives, which means that there’s no way to use them as replacement drives in iBooks and PowerBooks.

Note that your maximum drive capacity depends on which version of the IDE bus and which version of the Mac OS you are running. Many older ‘Books will not be able to see more than 128 GB, so there’s no sense buying a larger drive for them. (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.)

Why 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, the 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.

Hard Drive Replacement

I don’t know of any SATA-to-IDE adapter small enough to fit in a 2.5″ drive bay along with a SATA hard drive or SSD. Crazy as it sounds, this may be one place where those old G3 PowerBooks with their device bays have options that later ‘Books don’t.

Micro-ATA SSDs

The only option I can find for the internal hard drive slot is to use a Micro-ATA SSD with the appropriate adapter allowing it to interface with a notebook drive cable. And this isn’t an inexpensive route to take – Lenovo drives start at $219 for 32 GB and go up from there. This probably isn’t an economically viable option. I mention it only as a possibility.

Compact Flash

Addonics makes a Compact Flash Hard Drive Adapter that holds one or two CF cards and can replace your ‘Book’s hard drive (see Silence Is Golden: Running Your Existing Notebook Using Flash Memory). You need to use a CF card that supports UDMA or you won’t be able to boot from it.

One problem here is that CF cards have a limited number of write cycles, so using them with Mac OS X, where virtual memory is always active, is asking for trouble. However, they work well for the Classic Mac OS, especially if you avoid using virtual memory.

Expansion Bay Modules

WallStreet PowerBook G3 SeriesMCE Technologies still has some Xcaret Pro expansion bay had drive kits for the WallStreet/PDQ and Lombard/Pismo models at $69. I have not heard back from MCE as to whether they may have enough room for a SATA drive and a bridge.

PC Cards

Another SSD option for G3 PowerBooks and 15″ and 17″ G4 PowerBooks is a PC Card flash drive. Search for “ATA flash card” and see what you can find. Capacities go as high as 16 GB, but they are expensive.

A more affordable alternative is to use a PC Card adapter for Compact Flash (CF) along with a high capacity CF card that supports UDMA (which means it can be used as a boot drive). The same warnings about OS X apply as with the Addonics adapter noted above.

Optical Drive Replacement

Titanium PowerBook G4The MCE OptiBay Hard Drive for PowerBook G4 is available in a SATA version for $99 and includes a free portable USB 2.0 optical drive enclosure for your pulled optical drive. It is listed as compatible with all G4 PowerBooks.

iFixit sells an  Optical Bay ATA Hard Drive Enclosure for $50, and it looks like there is enough space for a SATA-to-IDE bridge. It is compatible with all G4 PowerBooks, all G4 iBooks, and the G4 Mac mini.

NewModeUS makes similar adapters that include a built-in SATA-to-IDE bridge. It looks like it should replace the optical drive in any G3 or G4 iBook or PowerBook. Priced from $42.

External Drive Options

Another alternative is to forget the whole idea of mounting a SATA drive or SSD inside your ‘Book 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.


Although FireWire isn’t nearly as fast as SATA, it’s been built into most PowerBooks and iBooks since 2000. All you need is an external 2.5″ FireWire enclosure that supports SATA.

In comparing bus performance with an SSD and current Macs, Bare Feats found SATA the fastest bus at 273 MBps, followed by USB 3.0 (not yet built into any Apple product) at 206. FireWire 800 came in at 86 MBps, and USB 2.0 at 38. We can estimate FireWire 400 at 43, half the speed of FW800.

G4 iBooksThe fastest G4 ‘Books have a 100 MBps ATA-6 bus, which is approximately equal to FireWire 800 in terms of throughput. Earlier FireWire models had 66 MBps ATA-5, which is two-thirds as fast – still a bit faster than FireWire 400.

SSDs keep getting faster, with the fastest rated at 360 MBps for reads, 275 MBps for writes. Converted to bits-per-second, which is how FireWire and USB are measured, that’s 2.88 Gbps and 2.20 Gbps, which puts read speed near the 3.0 Gbps theoretical maximum of SATA 2.0. Other SSDs achieve speeds between 90 and 200 MBps (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 (1.5 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 (6 Gbps) is more than fast enough for any SSD available today.

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 a lot of us, that’s a 4200 or 5400 rpm hard drive that 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 ‘Book can handle it.

If you are fortunate enough to have a 15″ or 17″ aluminum PowerBook, you have built-in FireWire 800, which is a completely viable alternative to using the internal drive bus.

I’d say there are no drawbacks to going this route instead of using an internal SSD with the built-in drive bus, outside of the nuisance of using an external drive. While an SSD on the internal ATA-6 bus – or even the older ATA-5 bus – would be faster, SSD on FireWire 400 will definitely give you some benefits over using an internal hard drive.

Another plus: Most older 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 using FireWire 400 for your SSD boot drive, but I think it is a viable (if not ideal) option.

USB 2.0

A lot of people don’t realize that you can boot most G3 and later PowerPC Macs from USB. Although you can’t select a USB drive as your startup drive in the operating system, most ‘Books with built-in USB will boot from a USB drive if you hold down the Option key during startup and then select it as your boot volume.

Pismo Powerbook with 2 batteriesAlthough USB 2.0 if officially rated at 480 Mbps, in the real world maximum throughput from a single device is 320 Mbps – and that’s an unachievable goal for PowerPC Macs. Back in 2004, Bare Feats benchmarked the same drive using FireWire 800, FireWire 400, and USB 2.0 on three different Macs. Their finding: USB 2.0 was at best half as fast as FireWire 400. FireWire 400 topped out at about 75% (38 Mbps) of its rated maximum speed, while USB 2.0 was on the order of 20% (64 Mbps).

You might do a bit better with an SSD and more recent version of OS X than Bare Feats used in 2004, but USB 2.0 is so slow relative to FireWire that I can’t recommend it as your normal practice. While you can boot from a USB 2.0 drive, at half the speed of FireWire 400, I don’t think you’d be happy with the results. This can be a great feature in a pinch, but it’s not for everyday use.

As for those ‘Books with USB 1.1 (all G3 iBooks and PowerBooks plus the Titanium G4 PowerBooks), don’t even think about it. USB 2.0 is 40x as fast. With USB 1.1 you will be pulling out your hair.


These legacy workhorses are very affordable, often providing a lot more bang for your buck than a cheap Windows or Linux netbook. With a fast SATA drive – whether a regular hard drive, a hybrid drive, or an SSD – you can unleash even more of their potential.

A ‘Book with maximum RAM and an SSD will take it well beyond its original performance, so if you have an iBook or PowerBook 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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