Plenty of step-by-step guides exist for this machine, and this article is long enough already, so I’m not going to go too in-depth into the process. But what a lot of the guides omit is what you’ll actually face when you crack the machine open, or offering advice on what parts to buy. Here’s my take.
Choosing a New Mechanical Drive
Since it’ll live inside your cramped iMac, do your research and pick a drive that’s got a reputation for being quiet, running cool and, above all, proven reliability. I’ll just come out and say it here: I have had crap luck with Western Digital GreenPower drives. Seriously, two out of the five that I’ve owned have died. I’m never gonna buy one of these again, and I’d recommend you avoid them too. If you want a low-power kind of drive, look at the Hitachi/HGST/Toshiba/whatever they are today Deskstar 5K series. Toshiba is picking up Hitachi’s desktop drive line (after Hitachi’s hard drive division, HGST, got bought by WD) and with any luck their record for good quality will continue.
While I would have loved to go with a Hitachi drive, the better buy for me was the Seagate ST3000DM001, a 7200-RPM, 3TB drive that uses 1TB-per-platter tech. It hits all the points I want it to hit (speed, temperature, noise), and you can get a decent price on one if you buy it as an external Backup Plus drive and yank the drive out.
Upgrading to an SSD
This is something I definitely wanted to do while I had my machine open. My 27″ iMac has the awesome ability to have both a 3.5″ mechanical drive as well as a 2.5″ SSD installed internally; this would offer me a nice, fast boot drive and a big (albeit slower) drive for my iTunes and iPhoto content. I did a ton of research on SSDs until I eventually said F it, found a good deal on Slickdeals and clicked the Buy Now button.
SSDs are such a new technology that there’s a lot of debate amongst the Internet fanboys. I’ll admit I got sucked into it, looking at expected lifetimes and the minutiae of how the actual flash media and controllers worked. Ultimately, though, as long as the drive is reliable and offers good performance, that’s all that matters.
Stay away from OCZ, at least until we see the results of “we’re a serious SSD company now” initiative. Their drives have just been too unreliable for many people. Based on the pricing, it would be worth the roll of the dice if the drive was being installed in a desktop or some other easy-to-service machine, but the iMac is too big of a PITA to want to have to go in again to swap out a defective drive.
I used to recommend Crucial SSDs, until I got burned in a very, very bad way at work by a firmware bug on their M4 drives. The read speed on the M4’s is decent, but the write speed is pretty subpar compared to other manufacturers. Stay away from the V4 drives at all costs.
What I would have really liked to install is a Toshiba THSNSF-series SSD. Toshiba builds its own SSDs using its own flash (Toshiba is one of the world’s biggest flash manufacturers), and their latest series offers respectable performance along with Toshiba’s history for reliable SSDs. (They’re the OEM 2.5″ SSDs that many computer manufacturers use, including Apple.) The bummer, though, is that Toshiba doesn’t have its act together and isn’t really selling these new drives yet. I tried throwing my wallet at my screen; it didn’t help.
I ended up with a Samsung 840 drive. Man oh man is there hostility on the Internets about the 840 vs. the 840 Pro, and I won’t bother to recap it here. (Here’s a nicely technical, non-BS explanation.) I found it, as mentioned above, through Slickdeals; B&H had the 500GB model for $310. Done.
But why 500GB? Easy, I only wanted to open my iMac once. Chances are I’d outgrow a 256GB drive within a year or two then have to bust out the suction cups again.
Cables and Bits
If you’re adding an SSD to your 2011 iMac, you’ll need a combo SATA power/data cable. Here’s a nice kit from the cool folks at iFixit for the 27″ model and 21″ model; they include all the tools you’ll need to get inside the machine. (I don’t make any money if you click those links, honest.) I already had all the tools from working on my previous 2007 iMac, so I picked up a legit Apple cable instead. If you want to go this route, you’ll want Apple service part 922-9875 for the 27″ model, and both parts 922-9861 and 922-9862 for the 21″.
If you’re swapping out the mechanical hard drive, you’ll probably want to address the temperature sensor issue. Read the scoop on that here.
Whose Guide to Follow
That answer is easy, follow iFixit’s guides. They take DIY repairs and upgrades seriously, and since they make their money selling parts, they pay a lot of attention to making sure that their guides are good.
Here’s the 27″ guide, and here’s the 21″ guide.
I strongly, strongly recommend you print these out. You’ll see why later on.
My Upgrade Experience
Some suggestions I can offer from my years of working on Macs, along with my observations from this particular upgrade:
1. Get a nice, big, clean towel to put on your work surface before you begin. Some of the steps involve laying the iMac face-up, and it would be a bummer to scratch up the back of your machine (or your desk).
2. Have a NEW can of compressed air handy. Cans of air that are dying are more likely to shoot out some propellant (that frosty stuff), and if any of that gets on the inside of the glass screen cover, it’s a pain to completely clean off.
3. The iFixit guides, oddly, omit the step for dealing with the AirPort card. Most likely they’d suggest that you disconnect the antenna cables with a spudger. A much easier way to deal with it is to leave the antennas connected, remove the single retaining screw, and just pull the card out of its slot (as seen at the top of the page).
4. Speaking of the iFixit guide, this is why I recommend you print that sucker out. They do a good job of showing where all the screws go, but it can be a pain to keep track of which screw goes in which specific spot, as they can be different lengths (like the motherboard screws). If you print out the guide, you can just tape those suckers down to the step in the guide. Note that I have the end of the screw pointing at the spot on the picture where it goes back into.
5. Awww dammit, it turns out I could have bought the real-deal SSD mounting brackets for my machine, instead of taping the SSD in. It’s a crap shoot as to whether your iMac will have these mounting points; only the ones that came with an SSD from the factory will have them for sure. There’s no way to tell if yours has them until you disassemble the machine.
6. Here’s how I attached the cBreeze to my new 3TB hard drive. There’s a piece of 3M double-stick automotive trim tape on the lower-right corner holding the leads to the top of the drive, so they don’t put strain on the soldered connections of the cBreeze board.
7. When putting the motherboard back into place, the tolerances around the ports on the back are very tight. The best process to follow is to put the board back into place and reinstall all the screws, but don’t tighten them down fully. Plug cables into all of the USB ports (yes, all of them) and adjust the position of the board in the machine until all of the cables are easy to insert and remove. Then, finish tightening down the screws.
8. Say hi to Frank.