Installing SSD on Macbook Pro 5,3 (mid 2009) : A Saga


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SSDs seem to be all the rage these days. Since my Macbook Pro still used a traditional drive, I decided to upgrade it to a brand new shining SSD. Off I went to the store and returned with a Samsung 830 series 256 GB SSD. Now, my Macbook Pro runs Ubuntu Linux exclusively(I like the hardware) and that’s my ultimate goal – run Ubuntu on an SSD in a MacBook Pro.

Using the instructions on iFixit I swapped out the old drive for the new SSD. I created a bootable USB image of Ubuntu 12.04, plugged that in, and booted up the machine while holding down the Option key. The EFI boot manager showed up, I selected the USB device, and then everything went awry. Ubuntu wouldn’t boot into live mode. Disappointed, I restarted the laptop(hard reboot). Nopes, the same story. Tried again and this time the EFI did not even offer a choice for the USB drive but just a dull gray screen!!! Rebooted a few more times with the same result. Since this was not working, I decided to install Mac OS X Snow Leopard on the SSD and then install Ubuntu on it. Cool.

Popped in the Snow Leopard CD into the drive and booted up the machine. The Snow Leopard installation program started running. But when it came to selecting the disk to install Mac OS on, the SSD was not listed!!! What the….? Googling did not help much. This was proving to be a challenge.

I reinstalled the old drive and installed Snow Leopard on it(did not have anything to save from the existing Ubuntu installation). This worked without issues. Now I connected the SSD using a SATA to USB connector to the laptop and formatted it as HFS+. I verified that the drive was working fine by creating a directory on it. So I formatted it again, swapped out the old drive and reinstalled the SSD, popped in the Snow Leopard installation CD and booted up. This time the SSD did show up in the installation program. Fantastic! I selected the disk for installing Mac OS X and clicked a button to confirm my choice. The installer seemed to be doing something, but then it gave me an error. The message was something like “POSIX reports:…”. Is this a problem with Snow Leopard then? What next?

Ok, since Mac OS X Lion is already out and I had a bootable USB drive of it, I decided to give that a try. Connected the USB and booted the machine. Lion installer started and recognized the drive (thankfully). I selected it as the installation destination and confirmed when asked. The installer started doing something, but then it threw an error. Can’t remember the exact message. Now what? This was getting really frustrating. Maybe it was a bad drive? But then again the drive seemed to work beautifully when connected via USB. Anyway, I swapped in the old drive, connected the SSD via USB and formatted it again. Then I boxed it up and returned it for a Crucial M4 128 GB. Let’s hope this one works.

As before, I formatted the drive(HFS+) by connecting it via USB and then swapped it into the machine. Booted up Mac OS X Lion installer, selected the drive and confirmed. This time the installation started successfully. Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Finally the installation completed and I could boot into Lion. The performance was just brilliant. Everything seemed to be faster.

Now let’s get Ubuntu on it. I plugged in the live Ubuntu USB and rebooted the system while holding Option. The boot selector came up where I selected the USB stick. And then everything just stalled. Oh come on!!! I started googling about this. It seemed that this happens with Ubuntu 12.04 because of the dual Nvidia cards that are present in the Macbook Pro. The discrete card does not work with Ubuntu’s drivers. Following the instructions here, when booting from the live USB stick, at the GRUB menu I edited the boot options and added the following at the end and rebooted:

outb 0x728 1
outb 0x710 2
outb 0x740 2
outb 0x750 0

That seemed to do the trick! After that installing Ubuntu was pretty straight forward. However, after installation, the problem with the graphics card came back and I had to modify the GRUB configuration with the above settings again to make them permanent. Strangely enough, I never ran into this issue with 11.04. Hmmmm…..

This was definitely not the most efficient way of going about doing this, but once I ran into Mac OS X not installing on the SSD, it became all about making that happen. Anyway, so that was my story of getting Ubuntu running on an SSD in a Macbook Pro. If you have had better, worse or similar experiences, chime in in the comments.