Firmware update enables faster storage on new MacBook Pros (maybe)

Apple this week released an EFI Firmware update for the just-shipped MacBook Pro models that enable 3Gbps transfer rates with some third-party hard disks.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Apple this week released an EFI Firmware update for the just-shipped MacBook Pro models that enable 3Gbps transfer rates with some third-party hard disks.

[Update: Please note that a number of sites report problems with this update, (and perhaps I didn't give enough cautionary notice about it). Accelerate Your Mac has a reader warning,  as does this Apple Support Discussions thread. So, it might be wise to wait a bit on this "speed gain."]

The MacBook Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.7 lets machines take advantage of SATA II drives that support 3Gbps data transter rates. The standard Apple MacBook Pro drive has a top transfer rate of 1.5Gbps.

Apple has not qualified or offered these drives for Mac portable computers, and their use remains unsupported. All previous and current Apple portables with a SATA drive interface include a SATA 1.5Gbps hard drive.

The page with detailed instructions on installing the updated firmware is here.

There has been confusion around what the various SATA revision levels mean in terms of specs and performance. For example, everyone thinks that SATA II means 3Gbps data transfers, but to be compliant a drive really doesn't have to support it, although most do now. A few years ago, some didn't.

The next revision in the SATA spec., SATA Revision 3.0, was decided about a month ago. The SATA Revision 3.0 Specification enhancements include:

* A new Native Command Queuing (NCQ) streaming command to enable isochronous data transfers for bandwidth-hungry audio and video applications * An NCQ Management feature that helps optimize performance by enabling host processing and management of outstanding NCQ commands * Improved power management capabilities * A small Low Insertion Force (LIF) connector for more compact 1.8-inch storage devices * A connector designed to accommodate 7mm optical disk drives for thinner and lighter notebooks * Alignment with the INCITS ATA8-ACS standard * ...and many more!

The SATA-IO consortium is trying to "dispel the confusion" that it felt happened over SATA II.  So, it's come out with a rather confusing guideline to the naming conventions for the new standard. Good luck. "SATA III" — bad, bad, bad!

The term "Third Generation SATA technology" refers to the SATA 6Gb/s data transfer rate. Don't confuse "Gen 3" with a 3Gb/s Transfer rate. "Gen 2" was associated with 3Gb/s and often confused with the misnomer "SATA II." Do not use the terms "SATA II" or "SATA III," which are incorrect and have no meaning. In the past, the term "SATA II" sometimes was mistakenly used as a moniker for the SATA 3Gb/s data transfer rate, causeing great confusion with customers because, quite simply, it's a misnomer.

The first step toward a better understanding of SATA is to know that SATA II is not the brand name for the SATA 3Gb/s data transfer rate, but the name of the organization formed to author the SATA specifications. The group has since changed names, to the Serial ATA International Organization, or SATA-IO.

The 3Gb/s capability is just one of many defined by the former SATA II commitee, but because it is among the most prominant features, 3Gb/s has become synonymous with SATA II. Hence, the source of the confusion.

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