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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Puzzle solved: A faster Mac mini server

(Image: iFixit.)

My wife likes puzzles. For most of the holiday break, the coffee table in our living room was taken over by a couple of 1000-piece puzzles, and since I gave her a 2,000-piece puzzle for Christmas, I expect we’ll be seeing another living-room takeover soon.

But yesterday, with the puzzle cleared away, it was time for me to do my puzzle—namely, disassemble the mid-2011 Mac mini I use as a server, add a speedy flash drive, and reassemble it.

I’ve said it endlessly, but just to recap: spinning hard drives are really slow. The little 5400-rpm spinning disc inside the Mac mini was making it painful to use for just about anything—every act, from launching apps to opening Finder windows, was torture.

Originally my plan was to just remove the existing drive and replace it with an SSD, but after successfully transforming my daughter’s old 2009 iMac with a Fusion Drive, I decided to take that approach with the Mac mini. I ordered a $114 240GB SSD from Other World Computing and bought iFixit’s $20 Mac mini Dual Drive Kit.

The mid-2011 Mac mini had a high-end configuration with both an SSD and a hard drive, so there’s room for both inside the device. The iFixit kit supplies the hard drive cable, grommets, and mounting screws required to add the flash drive alongside the existing drive.

This was not an upgrade for the timid. I used iFixit’s instructions, and they were good, but the bottom line is that I had to remove every single part from the Mac mini in order to get to the space for the second hard drive. It took a couple of hours of work, and along the way I made a few missteps that slowed me down—the wrong screw here, improperly reading the instructions about where to tuck some power cables there. I managed to break the cable that connects the Mac mini’s infrared sensor to the logic board, but fortunately I have never, ever used that sensor, so it’s no big loss.

When I was all done, I had a Mac mini with a 500GB spinning disc and a 240GB SSD inside. I booted up the system, formatted the SSD, and then followed Albert Filice’s instructions on how to make a Fusion Drive out of two disks using a couple of Terminal commands. (I had already backed up the contents of my server’s hard drive to an external disk, which I used as the boot drive when performing these commands.)

Once that was all done, I had a single Fusion Drive volume on the Mac mini, on which I installed El Capitan and migrated my server. By the time I went to bed last night, the server was up and running. It probably spent a few hours overnight rebuilding the Spotlight database and running some other backup checks, but by morning all of the housekeeping was done.

The results were exactly as I had hoped—the Mac mini is like a whole new computer, fast and responsive. My investment of $130 was $600 less than the cost of a new Mac mini with a Fusion Drive.

It’s just another example of how, if you’re willing to take computers apart and put them back together, you can get a lot more life out of your old stuff.

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