THIS WEEK'S SPONSOR:

Kolide

A fleet visibility solution for Mac, Windows, and Linux to help you securely scale your business


New iMacs Can Only Use Apple’s Hard Drives

One of the perks of having an iMac, be it a 21.5-inch or 27-inch model, is that you’re signing up for an all-in-one solution that packs everything you need into a “screen” that only needs to be placed your desk, connected to a power source, and it’s ready to go. The iMac – certainly Apple’s top choice in the consumer desktop line – isn’t meant to offer “user serviceable parts”, meaning what you get with Apple’s standard configuration is what you’ll have to stick with until the end of the product’s life cycle. In the past years, however, users who wanted to customize their iMac experience with custom parts like, say, different internal hard drives or better RAM, were able to open an iMac (provided they followed the complex instructions that require to pay attention when disassembling the aluminum enclosure and display) and fit in compatible components to enhance the performances of the machine.

As noted by Michael at Other World Computing’s blog, however, the new 2011 iMacs – the ones with Thunderbolt, Sandy Bridge processors and better graphics – don’t allow you to use any other hard drive but Apple’s custom ones, which are running a custom firmware to provide temperature monitoring through a new 7-pin SATA connector.

For the main 3.5″ SATA hard drive bay in the new 2011 machines, Apple has altered the SATA power connector itself from a standard 4-pin power configuration to a 7-pin configuration. Hard drive temperature control is regulated by a combination of this cable and Apple proprietary firmware on the hard drive itself. From our testing, we’ve found that removing this drive from the system, or even from that bay itself, causes the machine’s hard drive fans to spin at maximum speed and replacing the drive with any non-Apple original drive will result in the iMac failing the Apple Hardware Test (AHT).

In examining the 2011 27″ iMac’s viability for our Turnkey Upgrade Service, every workaround we’ve tried thus far to allow us to upgrade the main bay factory hard drive still resulted in spinning fans and an Apple Hardware Test failure. We swapped the main drive out (in this case a Western Digital Black WD1001FALS) with the exact same model drive from our inventory which resulted in a failure. We’ve installed our Mercury Pro 6G SSD in that bay, it too results in ludicrous speed engaged fans and an AHT failure. In short, the Apple-branded main hard drive cannot be moved, removed or replaced.

To add insult to injury, the latest iMac EFI Update 1.6 unleashed 6Gb/s speeds on two internal ports – and naturally, one of them is the proprietary, firmware-limited, 7200RPM main drive that can’t take advantage of those speeds anyway.

Michael argues that by “closing” the system, Apple’s being evil in not allowing geeks and users who buy stuff on OWC or other Mac hardware shops to upgrade their iMacs to better configurations. As Marco Arment explains though (and I personally agree with him here), the iMac’s not really meant for fiddling and user customizations. Like I said above, when you purchase an iMac you’re signing up for the all-in-one idea of a machine that provides Apple’s latest and greatest innovations in desktop miniaturization technology – by using custom cables, firmwares and hard drives, Apple makes sure you get the best performances out of your iMac, with the “downside” of being unable to customize it. This aspect, of course, can also be seen a way for Apple to make sure that angry modders don’t queue up in the Apple Store asking for free replacements when they purposely opened an iMac to play around with its internals.

You can always find an old iMac online and make it your main machine to mod and improve over time, but you won’t be able to enjoy the improvements in Sandy Bridge architecture and Thunderbolt connectivity. And those, if you ask me, are pretty convincing reasons to get a 2011 iMac and stick with its default hard drives.

Unlock More with Club MacStories

Founded in 2015, Club MacStories has delivered exclusive content every week for over six years.

In that time, members have enjoyed nearly 400 weekly and monthly newsletters packed with more of your favorite MacStories writing as well as Club-only podcasts, eBooks, discounts on apps, icons, and services. Join today, and you’ll get everything new that we publish every week, plus access to our entire archive of back issues and downloadable perks.

The Club expanded in 2021 with Club MacStories+ and Club Premier. Club MacStories+ members enjoy even more exclusive stories, a vibrant Discord community, a rotating roster of app discounts, and more. And, with Club Premier, you get everything we offer at every Club level plus an extended, ad-free version of our podcast AppStories that is delivered early each week in high-bitrate audio.

Choose the Club plan that’s right for you:

  • Club MacStories: Weekly and monthly newsletters via email and the web that are brimming with app collections, tips, automation workflows, longform writing, a Club-only podcast, periodic giveaways, and more;
  • Club MacStories+: Everything that Club MacStories offers, plus exclusive content like Federico’s Automation Academy and John’s Macintosh Desktop Experience, a powerful web app for searching and exploring over 6 years of content and creating custom RSS feeds of Club content, an active Discord community, and a rotating collection of discounts, and more;
  • Club Premier: Everything in from our other plans and AppStories+, an extended version of our flagship podcast that’s delivered early, ad-free, and in high-bitrate audio.