Potential Solutions to the MacBook Air’s Small Solid State Drive

macbook air tear down, hard drive expansion

For all of the MacBook Air’s features and functions, one thing that adversely affects the experience of many owners is the storage size.  OS X comes with a ton of great features for managing your digital life, from iTunes to iPhoto and iMove, and the very use of these programs demands that you have a place to store all of your digital goodies.  The use of these programs can quickly eat away at your hard drive space; the more you use your fancy new laptop, the more you need to consider where you are going to store and manage all of the files.  A few years worth of photos from a DSLR, a music library that has been growing exponentially since freshmen year of college, and a handful of HD videos from an HD Flip video recorder can quickly fill the standard 64 or 128 GB drive that the MBA comes with. So, with this issue in mind, I present some of the possible solutions to the MacBook Air’s small solid state drive (or small ‘hard drive’, as many people refer to it as).

macbook air tear down, hard drive expansion
MacBook Air Tear Down, photo courtesy of iFixit

Solid State Drive Upgrade

If you really just want to fix the root cause, the solution appears to be to upgrade the flash drive all together.  It is highly unlikely that any average user is going to be able to do this.  In fact, even trying to do so will void your warranty.  But, based on iFixit’s tear down of the MBA, it appears that the Flash HD used in the MBA uses an industry standard mini SATA connector.  Since the MBA’s release, a number of companies have released Flash HD’s that should be compatible with the MBA.  While we haven’t seen any successful (or failed, for that matter) implementations, you certainly could experiment if voiding your warranty or losing out on your investment doesn’t scare you.  Toshiba’s Blade X-Gale line of Flash HD’s would be what I would consider upgrading to.  My only concern would be ensuring that the size of the new parts can fit inside the sardine case that is the MacBook Air.

External Hard Drive

One of my absolute favorite parts about the MacBook Air is how compact and light it is to carry around.  While the very idea of carrying around an external hard drive seems absurd to me (why buy a tiny laptop, only to turn around and carry an external HD?), I suppose it is a viable solution for some.  If I decided to go this route, I’d pick up a portable 1TB external drive, like this one from Western Digital.

Put it in the cloud

I’ve toyed with this idea quite a bit in the last few days.  My perfect solution would be to have access to an unlimited amount of space somewhere in the cloud, and have that space mapped to a drive on my laptop, like x:/ or whatever. As long as I have an internet connection, I’d have access to my files and could use them in software just as if they were on my hard drive.  After trying a few services out over the past few days, and exploring as many options as I could, I just don’t think my perfect solution is a reality, yet.

My initial thought was that, if I could just put all of my images into the cloud, I should be able to manage my music and video on the Air without too much trouble.  So, I signed up for iDisk (as part of MobileMe) and made the connection that is built into the OS.  Its pretty slick how MobileMe and iDisk are part of the OS – I’m new to all of this, so I was impressed.  My intention was to completely run my iPhoto library from the cloud.  Not back it up in the cloud, not store a copy in the cloud, but have the actual library and photos live directly in the cloud.  I fired up iPhoto (holding ‘option’ while opening it) and selected the ‘Create New Library’ option.  It then prompted me for where I wanted to save the library, and I selected a location on iDisk.

At first everything seemed ok and I was able to interact with it fine.  I closed out the program, then opened it back up, and got this error message:

iPhoto library is locked error

The error message states:  The iPhoto Library is locked, on a locked disk, or you do not have permission to make changes to it.  Odd, I thought.  I tried everything I could to troubleshoot this, and it would just not go away. For some reason iPhoto assumed that it was already in use and it would not allow me to open it. I then proceeded on to my next option, Jungle Disk.

Jungle Disk is another ‘cloud storage’ solution that mounts a storage location to your computer using the WebDAV technology.  At $3/month plus ~$0.15 per GB of storage, I thought that this was a pretty economical solution (ends up being much cheaper than iDisk) and so I signed up.  I downloaded their application and it then mounted my Jungle Disk space in the ‘Shared’ section of Finder.

My first test was to again attempt to run iPhoto directly off of the cloud storage, but this time Jungle Disk instead of iDisk.  Unfortunately, the same exact problem occured.  I emailed their tech support (who were super responsive, props to them!), and they gave me some insight into why this probably isn’t working.  Here is what they said (shared with permission):

Hello Brian,

Thank you for the update!

I understand what you’re trying to do now. I just tried it myself, and here’s what I’ve found- it looks as though iPhoto is constantly trying to write to the network drive. The files that it’s writing seem to be revision information and meta-data about the file (I just added one file to the library on the mapped drive, but this immediately queued up hundreds of write actions right away, with more and more added to the queue over time). It looks as though the network drive just can’t keep up. I played with the settings for iPhoto, but couldn’t find any way to disable this constant update. Since Jungle Disk cannot keep up due to the limits imposed by my uplink (and I have a pretty good connection here), it’s never finished updating the library.

About the error received when trying to open the library – it looks as though the permissions for the library are not preserved when the online disk is mapped (through WebDAV) in such a way that iPhoto can access it. Permissions are preserved for automatic (legacy or backup vault) backups, so that when a file is restored it will have the same permissions as when it was backed up, but when directly accessing files from the online disk, these don’t come into play.

I checked over our past tickets, and it doesn’t appear that any of our other customers have successfully used a mapped network drive with Jungle Disk to store iPhoto libraries in the past. I’d hazard to say that the two difficulties mentioned already (constant updates to the library not being pushed through to the library due to uplink limitations, and the permissions issue when accessing a library directly from the mapped disk) may make using Jungle Disk to store your iPhoto library directly on the disk impossible.

We do, however, have many users who have scheduled backups for their images and iPhoto libraries – they can then remove the local copy of images and use the online copy of images from a mapped network drive or web access (or restore the entire library to another machine, if needed).

If you have any other ideas, questions or concerns, please let us know!

Regards,
Jungle Christy

Unfortunately my small goal of running iPhoto in the cloud just doesn’t seem to be feasible at this point.  Something that iPhoto is looking for out of a storage device just isn’t jiving with these cloud solutions.  I’m not 100% sure that Jungle Disk got this right, I think there may be something else at play here causing the issue, but nonetheless, I wasn’t able to make headway with running iPhoto in the cloud.

My next test was to perform a very similar test; this time I wanted to run iTunes directly from Jungle Disk.  Again, I didn’t want to backup or store to Jungle Disk, I wanted the iTunes library to live on Jungle Disk.  I’m happy to report that this was a resounding success.  It worked as if the library was native… no delays, no error messages, nothing.  If you have a huge iTunes library, I’d definitely consider this as a solution if you’re fairly confident you’ll have connectivity whenever you’ll want access to the library.  I didn’t try this same test on iDisk, so I can’t guarantee it will work there, but I think it should.  I’ve read a number of reports that iDisk can be very slow at times, so make sure to take advantage of the free trial period and ensure it’ll work right for you.

Conclusion

Unfortunately I can’t wrap this marathon post up in a nice little red bow.  I wish I could.  The answer to “What should I do about my MacBook Air’s small hard drive/small steady state drive?” is…. “it depends”.  If you aren’t going to be very mobile, then maybe an external hard drive is the right solution for you.  If you are comfortable with a cloud solution and are sure that you’ll have connectivity whenever you’ll need access to the data in the cloud, then Jungle Disk or iDisk might be right for you.  And, if you are a really technical person, maybe doing your own MacBook Air hardware upgrade and getting a 256GB Flash HD into the laptop is best…. just make sure you are really willing to risk it all to try the upgrade.

Are you dealing with a storage or space issue?  Do you have any creative solutions for us?  If so, please share in the comments.