July 18, 2011

OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6G 240 GB SSD
High Definition Mobile Editing From Your Boot Drive
Other World Computing

OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 6G 120GB SSD - $297.99
OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 6G 240GB SSD - $569.99
OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 6G 480GB SSD - $1279.99
Five Year Warranty

By David Saraceno

Introduction:  One of the least heralded, but technologically significant features of the 2011 MacBook Pros is a SATA III 6Gb/s bus.  Install a SATA III compliant SSD into the main drive bay and write/read specs can exceed 550MB/s.   These specs bring startling new capabilities for a mobile Final Cut Pro editor.  High data rate codecs such as Pro Res 4444 could be edited straight from the internal SSD boot drive.  But is such a set up sufficiently reliable and predictable for every day mobile editing?  What downsides exist?  Is it possible to edit uncompressed high definition video off a SATA III boot drive?  Are all 2011 MacBook Pros compatible with SATA III?  That’s what we set out to discover.

We recently took possession of Other World Computing’s (OWC) Mercury Extreme Pro 6G 240 GB SSD for some real world testing of data intensive HD video using a 2011 MacBook Pro.   Test video was transferred to and edited from the SSD boot drive where Final Cut Pro 7 was installed.  The codecs ranged from Pro Res 444 to 1080p DVCProHD.  We also tested some 335 MB/s uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2 high definition clips.  After two weeks of testing, we were impressed.

The Challenge.   Unlike testing designed to measure data rates exclusively, we were more interested in compatibility, editing capabilities, reliability, and every day performance.  Early SATA III adopters experienced issues ranging from OS X installation failures to poor or degraded drive performance.  Also, most experts argue against editing any video off a boot drive due to the data rate limitations of platter based hard drives.  Finally, how did the drive perform in daily tasks other than editing, such as application launches, accessing data, and common software based tasks?  On all points, we were astounded. 

The Hardware.  The OWC 6GB 240GB 2.5” SATA III drive is designed and manufactured in the USA by Other World Computing.  Although SATA III compliant, it is downward compatible with 3Gb/s and 1.5Gb/s buses.  The 240GB drive formats to 223GB/s with 16GBs allocated to real-time data redundancy and error correction.  It has SandForce 2281 series processor, utilizes Tier 1/Grade A synchronous NAND flash, and sports a five year warranty (extended two years from the original three year warranty).  Priced at $579.00, it is not inexpensive, but as we learned through our test period, worth every penny.

Our test laptop was a Sandy Bridge 13-inch MacBook Pro 2011 with 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor. We installed 8GBs of third party 1333MHz system RAM.  The stock factory 500GB 5400-rpm boot drive was pulled from the MBP, and replaced with the OWC Mercury Extreme.   Installation consisted of removing seven short and three longer screws from the bottom case of the MBP using a Phillips #00 screwdriver.  The battery cable was disconnected, the hard drive retainer bar removed, and the SATA power/data cable detached from the stock drive.  Cabling was reattached to the OWC SSD, and drive placed in the primary drive bay.  Replace the retainer bar, and connect the battery cabling and you’re done.  OWC has a short video installation tutorial hosted at their web site, and sells the tools for this purpose if you do not already have them.

First Challenge.  As noted earlier, web reports and internal testing by OWC revealed compatibility and/or performance issues with 6G SATA III SSDs in some 17-inch 2011 MacBook Pros.   Both its drives and those from other companies are affected, and the incompatibility appears to be Apple’s issue.  Unfortunately, until Apple addresses this concern, using any SATA III SSD in a 17” MacBook Pro is a hit or miss proposition. 15-inch and 13-inch MBPs are unaffected, however, and we experienced no problems installing MacOS 10.6.6 on our test 13-inch machine. 

The first test we performed was a base system test using the AJA Kona System utility.  Performance was off the charts:

That’s correct:  466 MB/s write and 491 MB/s read. 

Compare that with a Seagate ST3500320AS internal 7200 rpm SATA drive in my MacPro:

The 13-inch MacBook Pro utilizes the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics card, which may not have met FCP 7 minimum requirements.  However, it installed and launched uneventfully. 

The Test Suite:  We tried to mimic a typical, but intensive data rate workflow using Apple’s popular Pro Res format, and then push that workflow as far as we could.  We captured h.264 1080/60p footage from a Panasonic TM700 camcorder, and converted the footage to Apple ProRes 444, 1920 x 1080 at 59.94 fps and 48.000 kHz audio.  The Apple QT Pro player reported a data rate of 452.52 megabits per second, which converts to 56.565 megabytes per second.  All the video was stored on a desktop folder residing on the OWC boot drive.  We imported the four video clips into Final Cut Pro, and used the application’s automatic sequence setting feature to create a Pro Res 1080/59.94 set up.

Here were my sequence settings:

We set up a four video/audio stream using separate files in a sequence, and turned on the “report dropped frames on playback” preference.  RT settings were unlimited, full for playback and dynamic for quality.  No dropped frames.  Only when the four video streams were scaled 50% did an orange render line appear.  But no dropped frames were reported.

Even better performance was obtained using 1080/24p AVCIntra 100 footage from a Panasonic HPX 300, and DVCProHD footage from a AG-HPX 170.

Thirteen gigabytes of AVCIntra 100 1080/30p footage logged and transferred in 92 seconds.  I stacked eight video streams in an adjusted timeline, and no dropped frames were reported, although a red render line for some of the audio tracks appeared.

Other Applications and System Performance:  We wanted to gauge every day performance as well, because that experience provides additional real world use value to justify the drive’s higher cost.

A cold boot from chime to desktop was completed in eight seconds.  Shut down was instantaneous.  A full repair permissions using the disk utility took twenty-one (21) seconds.  A complete system, cron, cache and log clear in Yasu was completed in less than one minute and 58 seconds.  By contrast, the same tasks took 110 seconds on a Mac Pro for repair permissions, and three minutes and 12 seconds for the Yasu maintenance task.  Safari, Mail, iWorks apps, iTunes, and iPhoto opened almost instantaneously.  Photoshop launched in two seconds, and a second launch was instantaneous.  FCP had similar first and second launch times.  In addition, I didn’t experience any “sleep” issues with the drive, a problem experienced by some SATA III users.

One more thing:  We transcoded two Pro Res 1080 59.94 files to uncompressed 4:2:2 10-bit files.  Each weighed in over 24 GB/s with a data rate of 2,688.14 megabits per second or over 336 megabytes per second.  The QT Pro player wouldn’t move the video on my MacPro, but it played without any stuttering off the OWC Mercury on my 13-inch MBP both in the QT Pro Player, and with two streams of audio and video in FCP (unscaled). 

Thoughts:  There is much to applaud, and little to criticize in the Mercury Extreme SATA III drive.  First, the concerns.  The drive is expensive when compared to platter based drives.  In addition, there are unresolved compatibility issues with 17-inch 2011 MacBook Pros.  This is particularly troublesome because only 17-inch MBPs have a ExpressCard 34 slot, and provide the most powerful GPU and processor options.  Another concern relates to the maximum size available for SATA III drives, which in the case of the Mercury Extreme, is 480 gigabytes.   This presents some compromises for editing high definition footage, depending on the codec.

There are advantages to mitigate many of these concerns.  Thunderbolt based in/out devices are beginning to ship, which compensates for the lack of a Express Card 34 slot in 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros.  Editing from a platter based boot drive is problematic for most high definition video codecs.  Firewire based solutions require data and/or power cables, and are slower than internal SATA drives.  SSD drive prices dropped dramatically and maximum capacities have increased in the last year. Note that the OWC 480 GB Mercury Extreme was originally sold for $500.00 more than its current price. That trend should continue.    While the mobile editing experience is not ideal due to current SATA III capacities, it provides the most versatile, dependable editing experience for short projects, including uncompressed video in 2011 MacBook Pros.

With numerous offerings from other companies, why buy OWC's 6G Mercury Extreme SSD drive?  The performance numbers are clearly off the charts with this SATA III drive, and it facilitates a compact editing experience because no external drives or connections are needed.  Beyond the compelling performance specs, in my view, is the customer service offered by the company.   The company has extended the Extreme’s warranty to five years, and continues to explore compatibility issues with the 17-inch MacBook Pros.  Tough to find in today's retail market. 

Copyright ©2011 David A. Saraceno

David A. Saraceno is a motion graphics artist located in Spokane, Washington. He runs a video blog and review site called secondchairvideo that provides information on most things Final Cut Pro and video related.  He has written for DV Magazine, AV Video, MacHome Journal, and several state and national legal technology magazines. David moderates several forums on 2-pop.com, is active on the Apple Support Discussions forum for their Pro Applications, and and is a moderator at dvxuser.com.


This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.

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