July 4, 2011

Repost: Hardware Hacking Made Easy

We're on vacation this week, so I'm reposting a few pieces from that past that I enjoyed writing. You can catch our latest adventure on Twitter, @BazingaJournal.

Well, kinda easy. I took delivery of a shiny, new MacBook Pro a few weeks ago, and although I'm very happy with it, I wanted to tweak its hardware to make it better fit my needs.

MacBooks have long shipped with an internal optical drive. CD-ROM, DVD, CD burner, DVD burner; each new generation sported a faster, more capable drive for reading and writing music, movies, and data. The new MacBook Pros carry a "SuperDrive," capable of reading and writing nearly any format short of BluRay. Trouble is, the SuperDrive takes up a lot of internal space, and I have almost no use for it.

Western Digital My Passport Essential

At the same time, I'm in the habit of making a daily backup of my machine's boot drive with a software application called SuperDuper!. I plug an external hard drive (at right) into a USB port, and the software makes a bootable clone. If I ever encounter a problem with the internal drive I can simply re-boot from the external drive, and I'll be back in business almost immediately.

But plugging and un-plugging the USB drive is annoying, and it takes up room in my bag. How great would it be if I could swap out the unused optical drive for a laptop-sized hard drive, maybe even the USB model I already have?

MCE Tech OptiBay Hard Drive

I was intrigued to come across MCE Tech's OptiBay solution. This product (at left) allows a user to mount a second, laptop-sized hard drive in place of the factory optical drive, providing a built-in backup drive and/or more storage (more on that later). For $99 they shipped me the OptiBay internal drive caddy, as well as an external, optical drive enclosure. They will include a new hard drive, for a higher price, if you don't already have one on-hand. The idea is to move your optical drive to the enclosure, which can be connected to the laptop with a USB cable when needed. The hard drive goes into the caddy, which is mounted in place of the optical drive. It's the best of both worlds.

Most USB external hard drives are just regular laptop drives with a special converter card attached at one end. I opened my external drive's case, slipped off the USB converter card and set the drive aside. The case and parts went into a box for a future project.

Installation of the OptiBay caddy was a mild challenge. Laptops are tightly engineered, and MacBook Pros are the most extreme example I've come across. The optical drive sits right up against the internal boot drive and logic board. Removing screws is made more difficult by interfering components. Everything is a perfect fit, so it took me a good half-hour to remove the optical drive before I could turn my attention to re-assembly.

I mounted the external hard drive it into the OptiBay, then carefully lowered the OptiBay into the space just vacated by the optical drive. After a bit of jostling I had it in place and fastened it in. Another fifteen minutes of careful manipulation and all the cables and components were back in their original positions, I had no left-over screws and was fastening the chassis bottom back in place. Total time from first screw to last was about an hour. Bring reading glasses and a flashlight to this party.

But would the machine boot? It sure did. The default startup drive, an SSD, brought my machine back to life in seconds. I used the Mac OS Finder to examine the now-internal Western Digital drive and found all of its data intact. I tested the backup drive's bootability by restarting the machine with the Option key held down, selecting the backup drive and hitting enter. What a difference it makes booting from a standard hard drive! Much slower than the SSD I've become accustomed to. It all worked, though, restoring my machine as it had been when I made the last backup. Convinced that the project had succeeded, I quickly re-booted on the SSD.

I set up a scheduled backup for SuperDuper!, running each day at 8 PM. I usually have the machine awake and in-use at that time, so SuperDuper! can copy any changes to the internal backup drive. I'll have a constantly updated backup right inside the laptop in case something goes wrong with the SSD.

The internal backup drive has more space than the SSD, so in addition to backup duties I can use the extra space for infrequently used files, or even the occasional movie ripped from DVD. It won't matter that the internal backup drive is much slower than the SSD; movies stream just fine from a hard drive and use less battery power doing so.

This was a fun little project, made somewhat difficult by the tight space within the MacBook Pro. I'd recommend it to anyone handy with electronics and small tools who's looking for a more versatile drive arrangement.