Macworld Masterclass: Mac mini two-drive upgrade

Add another disk or even an SSD to the unibody Mac mini

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  • Intro 1
  • Step 1: Down the hatch 2
  • Step 2: Cooling off time 3
  • Step 3: Antenna plate 4
  • Step 4: Drive away 5
  • Step 5: Prepare to slide 6
  • Step 6: All tooled up 7
  • Step 7: Spring into action 8
  • Step 8: Release the power 9
  • Step 9: Logic flies out 10
  • Step 10: Rotate to release 11
  • Step 11: In the frame 12
  • Step 12: Cracking job, grommet 13
  • Step 13: Ready, get set 14
  • Step 14: Crucial last step 15
  • Bonus tip: Take your time 16
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Step 1 of 16: Intro

When the Mac mini went unibody in 2010, Apple made  a DVD-less Server edition. In place of the slot-load optical drive was a second hard disk.

With the latest Mac mini (mid-2011), Apple made the slotless mini the only option. This leaves a nice empty space to add your own second drive in non-Server editions. All the pieces are in place except for a custom SATA ribbon cable and mounting screws for the hard drive.

Catering for these needs is the iFixit Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit (www.ifixit.com). This includes all the necessary components and a set of Torx drivers. While you may have a good toolset already, you’re unlikely to have the specialised U-shaped tool that makes removing the logic board a cinch.

The job involves a compete dissembly and rebuild of the mini. But Apple has made this Mac as sleek inside as it is outside and with just a couple of hours methodical work, you can have a dual-drive Mac mini. The upgrade is particularly compelling for adding a small but affordable solid-state drive (SSD), while keeping the original drive for good storage capability.

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When the Mac mini went unibody in 2010, Apple made  a DVD-less Server edition. In place of the slot-load optical drive was a second hard disk.

With the latest Mac mini (mid-2011), Apple made the slotless mini the only option. This leaves a nice empty space to add your own second drive in non-Server editions. All the pieces are in place except for a custom SATA ribbon cable and mounting screws for the hard drive.

Catering for these needs is the iFixit Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit (www.ifixit.com). This includes all the necessary components and a set of Torx drivers. While you may have a good toolset already, you’re unlikely to have the specialised U-shaped tool that makes removing the logic board a cinch.

The job involves a compete dissembly and rebuild of the mini. But Apple has made this Mac as sleek inside as it is outside and with just a couple of hours methodical work, you can have a dual-drive Mac mini. The upgrade is particularly compelling for adding a small but affordable solid-state drive (SSD), while keeping the original drive for good storage capability.

Step 2 of 16: Step 1: Down the hatch

With the Mac mini disconnected, turn it upside down and remove the black plastic hatch by rotating it a few degrees anti-clockwise. Now’s a good time to attach an antistatic wrist strap strap to yourself to ensure you don’t destroy the delicate electronics with a tiny static spark while working inside.

Step 3 of 16: Step 2: Cooling off time

Start the disassembly by first removing the cooling fan, held in place with three T6 screws. After lifting carefully, pry off its power connection from the board with a spudger. Next remove the plastic cowling held in place with one T6 screw. This will require a little wiggle to extract.

Step 4 of 16: Step 3: Antenna plate

The antenna plate supports Bluetooth and one of the mini’s three WiFi aerials. Remove its four T8 screws and carefully pull out, then disconnect the signal lead that attaches it to the board. Note how the semi-circle edge fits into the mini’s chassis: this will require some wiggling when you replace it later.

Step 5 of 16: Step 4: Drive away

The installed hard disk connects to the system via a flat ribbon cable on the edge of the logic board. Pry this off with the spudger. You could get the drive out now, but it’s better to wait a few steps when it slides out more easily. Disconnect the remote IR sensor by lifting its connector from the board, by the RAM.

Step 6 of 16: Step 5: Prepare to slide

The logic board is almost ready to be removed. Sliding out the logic board is tricky because of the resistance you must overcome from clips around the back panel. But before this most satisfying of stages, don’t forget to remove the one remaining screw that secures the board, near the cooling vents.

Step 7 of 16: Step 6: All tooled up

For this stage, you’ll need the customised tool that iFixit provides in the kit – a U-shaped wire that slips into two special holes that the Apple design team thoughtfully included for this task. Insert the tool until the ends touch the inside of the chassis, then carefully ease the tempered wire back towards you.

Step 8 of 16: Step 7: Spring into action

The logic board should now be loosened from a number of spring clips all around the black plastic back plate. It may help to stand the mini upright and continue to ease the board, carefully, so it stands clear of all these clips. When rebuilding later, ensure that none of the clips are misaligned.

Step 9 of 16: Step 8: Release the power

The unibody mini has an integral power supply (PSU) that sits on the right-hand edge when viewed from the front. This powers the mini through a 9-pin connector that sits between the lower drive and the memory. With the main board now partially removed, it’s possible to disconnect this by hand.

Step 10 of 16: Step 9: Logic flies out

Now the logic board will slide easily free of its metal jacket. Note that both memory cards can be left in place for this operation. The black L-shaped pieces on the circuit board are heat pipes to conduct heat from the CPU and graphics chip toward the cooling fan and exhaust slot.

Step 11 of 16: Step 10: Rotate to release

The PSU is held in place by just one screw, easy to identify with the logic board removed. But first, you must remove the figure-eight mains socket. A tiny hairclip slides out, allowing this socket to rotate 90 degrees anti-clockwise and be pulled free. The PSU can be liberated easily after this.

Step 12 of 16: Step 11: In the frame

One final screw is all that remains and then the upper drive frame can be removed. This occupies the space originally populated by an optical drive. Apple had always allowed for a second hard drive here, in the Mac mini Server edition, and the mounting holes are just waiting for your second drive.

Step 13 of 16: Step 12: Cracking job, grommet

The new upper drive is held in place by four rubber grommets, supplied in the kit. Insert each of these into the existing holes around the sides of the frame. Attach the custom SATA ribbon cable from the kit onto the drive. The SATA edge connector is asymmetric so it can’t be inserted the wrong way.

Step 14 of 16: Step 13: Ready, get set

Screw two of the four T6 set screws from the kit into one side of the drive as shown. The drive can then be positioned entirely inside the frame by pressing the drive and cable assembly into place. After lining up the drive’s mounting holes through the remaining grommets, screw in the final two set screws.

Step 15 of 16: Step 14: Crucial last step

In this refit, we have a 256GB Crucial M4 SSD ready to roll. To rebuild the mini, follow the same prodedure in reverse, not forgetting to later push home the new drive’s custom SATA cable into its predestined place on the logic board, right next to the lower drive’s connection post.

Step 16 of 16: Bonus tip: Take your time

The Mac mini is a marvel of computer engineering. Apple has squeezed a powerful computer into a sleek metallic pancake, applying its experience in high-end notebook design to safeguard thermal requirements.

Taking this model apart is akin to taking down a ship in a bottle, as it all slips into a solid slice of aluminium. Ironically, the process is actually less fraught than the previous generation, which required a putty knife and a lot of manual manipulation to tear down.

Make sure you work in good light, and allow yourself time to take each step slowly. Label screws as you remove them, for example by popping them in an empty egg carton while writing on the carton where each one came from.

Ensure that you earth yourself at all times, for example with an anti-static wrist strap.

The kit supplied by iFixit has everything you need apart from ESD protection. The toolkit is not the finest money can buy, but it gets the job done, and even includes the latest tri-driver bits found in new MacBook Air models.

As a final tip, try to flex the new SATA ribbon into shape to accomodate the original drive above it, before reinstalling that drive. It needs two bends, in places easily found as you align it into place to connect to the logic board.

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