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Apple, SSDs, and the Fusion Drive Ripoff: The High Cost of ‘Innovation’

Apple, SSDs, and the Fusion Drive Ripoff: The High Cost of ‘Innovation’

When Apple announced their new ultra-thin iMacs and Mac Minis in October 2012, they introduced a new feature called Fusion Drive, a “breakthrough concept” that combines a traditional hard drive with a 128GB SSD, which it uses as a sort of cache to improve overall drive performance.

While it does seem like a good option for many users – combining the speed of an SSD with the storage capacity of a standard drive – there’s an unspoken and extremely devious scheme behind the technology, pressuring users into overpaying for hardware (namely a 128GB SSD) to take advantage of what is, at its core, a software tweak already built into OS X.

It’s also particularly interesting that Apple labels their Fusion Drive technology as a “breakthrough”, when in fact it’s extremely similar to Intel’s Smart Response Technology, which has been around for a while (although there are some differences – such as software-level file handling).

We’ll take a look into what makes Fusion Drive tick, why we believe it’s extremely overpriced, how it pressures users into unnecessarily purchasing more expensive hardware, and why Fusion Drive, combined with Apple’s proprietary SSD connector, is essentially an anti-consumer trick designed to force users into purchasing Apple’s more expensive hardware upgrades rather than cheaper third-party parts.

What is Fusion Drive?

Apple employs a great deal of artful language in describing Fusion Drive – but it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors. At it’s core, Fusion Drive is nothing more than a clever way for an SSD and a traditional hard drive to work together more effectively. It requires no new hardware – just a 128GB Apple-supplied SSD and a traditional hard drive. Everything else is built into OS X. Apple’s iMac page offers the following description of the technology:

Fusion Drive is a breakthrough concept that combines the high storage capacity of a traditional hard drive with the high performance of flash storage. With Fusion Drive in your iMac, disk-intensive tasks — from booting up to launching apps to importing photos — are faster and more efficient.

Fusion Drive works by looking at which files you use most often (including core OS files), and intelligently moving some of those files to the SSD to improve overall data speeds. It’s a matter of combining the best of both SSD technology and the capacity of a regular hard drive.

Apple’s description of Fusion Drive (from the Fusion Drive support document):

Presented as a single volume on your Mac, Fusion Drive automatically and dynamically moves frequently used files to Flash storage for quicker access, while infrequently used items move to the hard disk. As a result you’ll enjoy shorter startup times, and as the system learns how you work you’ll see faster application launches and quicker file access. Fusion Drive manages all this automatically in the background.

An Innovative “Breakthrough Concept”

Apple describes the Fusion Drive as an innovation, and a “breakthrough concept,” painting a picture of something unprecedented that simply hasn’t been done before. In reality, however, this simply isn’t true. Similar technology – such as hybrid drives (ex: Seagate’s Momentus XT), and Intel’s Smart Response Technology.

Apple has polished the ideas fostered in these technologies that came before it by integrating it into OS X and allowing software to intelligently manage SSD caching rather than relying on hard drive firmware, they certainly haven’t created a new idea, or pioneered or revolutionized SSD caching in any truly significant way.

Joel Hruska of ExtremeTech rightly explains away the “breakthrough” nature of Apple’s so-called innovation:

 Apple has dubbed the new option “Fusion Drive” — and with annoying predictability, labeled it a “breakthrough storage option,” despite the fact that Nvelo and Intel have been shipping SSD cache software for well over a year. Now that Apple has acknowledged the technology’s existence, it’s a breakthrough. Fine.

Fusion Drive Pricing

Now that we’re clear on exactly what Fusion Drive is, and what makes it tick, it’s time to move on to the second dark stain in what Apple paints as a magical, consumer-focused technology: Pricing. Apple charges a $250 premium for Fusion Drive.

While a casual consumer who buys into the hype and doesn’t understand what makes Fusion Drive work may consider that reasonable (it’s a “breakthrough” innovation, after all…), the fact of the matter is that the only thing that $250 buys you is a 128GB SSD, which is available for much, much less ($85 at the time of this writing at Amazon.com, and often available for even less).

Apple and SSDs

Unfortunately, remedying Apple’s price gouging isn’t as simple as purchasing your own 128Gb SSD. Apple made sure of that by using their own proprietary SSD connector, introduced with the Retina MacBook Pro, rather than the standard mSATA connection. The third huge dark stain on Fusion Drive.

While some might wrongly think that Apple has pioneered a new and potentially better connector in place of mSATA, the truth of the matter is more disturbing: Apple has merely modified the shape of the existing mSATA connector. As you can see below, the pins between Apple’s connector and standard mSATA match up perfectly. The end result is that you can’t simply purchase a 3rd-party SSD for your new iMac or Retina MacBook Pro. Instead, you have to fork over a premium price to buy an SSD from Apple (the one exception is OWC, who offers a compatible 512GB SSD).

Tweaking a connector in order to force customers into buying upgrades directly from Apple isn’t innovation. It’s an evil, anti-consumer trick veiled under the thin mask of what Apple considers innovation. And it’s increasingly clear that Apple’s definition of the term is quite a bit different than Webster’s definition. Smoke and mirrors.

Forcing Users Into Unnecessary Hardware Upgrades

As if claiming that Fusion Drive is an innovative and visionary “breakthrough” technology and price-gouging users on SSD upgrades wasn’t bad enough, Apple has gone even further, committing a fourth anti-consumer sin: Forcing users to pay for unnecessary hardware upgrades in order to take advantage of Fusion Drive.

At present, Fusion Drive is not available as an option on Apple’s entry-level 21.5-inch iMac (or their entry-level Mac Mini), despite the fact that these entry-level Macs are 100% capable of taking advantage of Fusion Drive from both a hardware and software standpoint. Instead, you have to pay an extra $200 to upgrade your iMac or Mac Mini to the next model up. An extra $200 that a customer might not otherwise spend, that goes straight to the cause of increasing Apple’s already immense cash reserves.

The $250 premium to add Fusion Drive to a Mac has now become a $450 premium. $450 is a damn high price to pay for a 128GB SSD and a bit of magical marketing.

Repair and Upgrade Implications

If you aren’t mortified yet, don’t worry. It gets worse. Aside from costing end users hundreds of extra dollars, Apple’s decision to use their own proprietary SSD connector has one further benefit to Apple (again, at the cost of end users), and sums up Apple’s 5th anti-consumer sin with the new Macs: The inability to upgrade or repair their iMac or Mac Mini without bringing it to Apple.

While that works for Macs that are under warranty, Apple’s 1-year hardware coverage expires faster than most realize when using their Mac – and replacing a bad SSD, or upgrading after their initial purpose, becomes very, very expensive.

Advantages

Apple’s highly overpriced Fusion Drive certainly comes at a cost. But surely it’s worth it in terms of the advantages you gain, right? For most users, the answer, unfortunately, is probably not. Adding your own external Thunderbolt SSD or buying an aftermarket SSD from eBay, adding them in addition to the standard 1TB hard drive, and managing SSD storage yourself (by storing OS X, certain applications, your home folder, etc. on the SSD), and using the spinning hard drive as file storage, the vast majority of users will experience nearly every advantage that Fusion Drive has to offer – at a fraction of the cost.

For users who don’t mind bending over and forking out $450, however, Fusion Drive does simplify the process. It’s up to you whether that simplicity is worth a huge chunk of your hard-earned cash.

The End Result: An Overpriced Blow to Consumer Wallets

So far, we’re left with the notion that Apple has committed at least 5 rather blatant anti-consumer mask, veiled beneath magical marketing terms and the label of “innovation.” That’s OK, though – those repair costs and inflated hardware upgrades go directly to feeding hungry Apple technicians, and buying Jony Ive’s next custom-designed Italian sports car.

The end result of Apple’s crafty anti-consumer design “improvements”, the hardware price gouging that goes along with it, and the inability to repair an iMac without seeking Apple’s help (or an Apple Authorized Technician) is that your shiny new $1500+ iMac is essentially a disposable appliance. Like a toaster or a cheap hand mixer. Planned obsolescence at it’s worst.

Solutions

If you don’t want to pay $450 for a 128GB SSD (and who in their right mind would want to?), there are options. First, you can simply refuse to pay Apple for their Fusion Drive upgrade, and instead install a traditional hard drive in the iMac or Mac Mini hard drive bay (or a cheaper 3rd-party SSD, if you crave speed). You can also buy SSDs on eBay that have been taken out of Retina MacBook Pros or, soon, taken out of iMacs. Installing one, then reinstalling OS X should enable Fusion Drive (assuming Apple hasn’t done something dastardly to prevent you from trying to save money).

Assuming that Apple has blocked consumers from simply buying an aftermarket SSD to enable Fusion Drive, a second option is to “roll your own”. Since Apple’s Fusion Drive is entirely software-based, it can be enabled by ambition users with a bit of clever hacking. Check out our tutorial article for all the details on making this work.

Wrapping it Up

I like Apple. I love Macs. And I like supporting companies who offer great products that help their customers. But It’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand behind Apple as they continue to take advantage of customers with extra cash – and who aren’t aware of just how badly they’re being gouged.

Ever since the release of the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple seems to be headed in a dangerous direction – at the cost of the customers they should be serving. It’s sad to see a great company like Apple essentially abusing customers in this way, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Shame. For the time being, unless you really feel that Apple’s unfortunate design decisions are for the better, and don’t mind forking over unnecessary cash to pay for imported cars, leather handbags, and shiny toys for Apple executives, I’d encourage most consumers to shy away from Apple’s Fusion Drive.

For Apple, “innovation” apparently comes at an extremely high cost – and I, for one, feel consumers should call them on that.

Update (9/25/2013): Apple has since begun offering the Fusion Drive upgrade on their entry-level iMac and Mac mini models. Further, following the release of the new late 2013 iMacs,  the price of the Fusion Drive upgrade has dropped to $200 from $250. The fact remains, however, that the only thing $200 buys you is a 128GB SSD, which is available for much, much less (many choices available at $100 at Amazon at the time of this writing, and often available for even less) elsewhere.

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