Apple's Retina MacBook Pro and all but the earliest MacBook Air models have relied solely on SSDs for internal storage, as Apple slimmed down the designs to the point that even a 1.8" hard drive was too bulky. Rather than adopt the mSATA or later M.2 form factor, Apple's SSDs have used custom form factors and pinouts. This has contributed to keeping the market for third-party upgrades very small. Only a few companies have produced SSDs in Apple-specific form factors, most notably Other World Computing (OWC) and Transcend. Transcend has generally used Silicon Motion controllers while OWC has used SandForce controllers, but until now their offerings have been limited to SATA-based SSDs.

Apple migrated their notebook SSDs to PCIe-based interfaces in 2013 and has been using drives supplied by Toshiba, SanDisk, and Samsung. OWC has finally devised a compatible replacement and released it as part of their Aura SSD product line. Like the Apple originals, the OWC Aura PCIe SSD uses the AHCI protocol; Apple so far only supports and uses NVMe on the Retina MacBook that doesn't have a removable SSD. The requirement to use AHCI instead of NVMe limited OWC's choices for SSD controller. While Apple is a big enough customer to convince Samsung to make the SM951 in a custom form factor, OWC is not. Marvell has shipped several AHCI-compatible PCIe SSD controllers, but their typical business model is to sell just the controller and leave it up to the customer to write their own firmware or license from a third party, either of which is a substantial up-front expense.

In order to keep costs under control, OWC has opted to not use a native PCIe SSD controller. Instead, the PCIe Aura SSD uses a Marvell 9230 SATA RAID controller and a pair of Silicon Motion SM2256 SATA SSD controllers. The Marvell 9230 has a PCIe 2.0 x2 host interface, so the PCIe Aura SSD has the potential to outperform SATA SSDs but won't be able to approach the peak transfer rates of the recent Samsung SM951-based Apple originals. The Silicon Motion SM2256 controllers mean the PCIe Aura SSD is almost certainly using TLC flash, which is less expensive but also performs worse and draws more power than MLC flash. The PCIe Aura SSD's RAID design unfortunately does not support passing through TRIM commands nor retrieving SMART information from the individual SSD controllers.

  480GB 1TB
Usable Capacity 480GB 960GB
Controllers Marvell 9230 + 2x SM2256
Interface Apple custom PCIe x4 @ PCIe 2.0 x2
Peak Read Speed 763 MB/s
Peak Write Speed 446 MB/s
TRIM support No
Price (drive only) $347.99 $597.99
Price (upgrade kit) $399.00 $649.00
Warranty 3 years

Based on OWC's measurements of the first PCIe SSDs Apple used back in 2013, the Aura SSD's peak performance is slightly better than the slowest 128GB SanDisk/Marvell drive, but without TRIM the Aura's write performance advantage could easily disappear over time. That leaves the PCIe Aura SSD with capacity as its only strong selling point. The MacBook Air can be configured with up to 512GB of storage from Apple, but the Aura SSD can provide up to 960GB. Many Apple customers are put off by the steep price of build-to-order SSD upgrades: $200 to upgrade from 128GB to 256GB, another $300 to move up to 512GB, and another $500 to move up to 1TB for the MacBook Pro. At $347.99 for 480GB and $597.99 for 960GB, OWC's Aura manages to be both much cheaper than Apple's SSD upgrades and much more expensive than single-controller drives with a standard form factor.

The Aura SSD is sold either as a bare drive or an upgrade kit that includes the necessary screwdrivers to install the SSD and a USB 3.0 enclosure to facilitate data migration. The drive is expected to start shipping in late March.

Source: Other World Computing

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  • Space Jam - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    Pardon my French but HOLY SHIT! IT HAPPENED!
  • Space Jam - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    This still has a long way to come but still, fantastic.

    What's the cause for the lack of TRIM? Third party SSD TRIM functionality has been a breeze since at least Yosemite. Is it due to the RAID controller usage?

    TLC usage is shameful.

    Still, it did finally happen.
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    Yes, it's due to the RAID controller usage.
  • JoeMonco - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    The article states quite clearly the issue:

    "The PCIe Aura SSD's RAID design unfortunately does not support passing through TRIM commands nor retrieving SMART information from the individual SSD controllers."
  • Taristin - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    Are these the same form factor and pinout as the PCIe SSDs used in the iMac line? Meaning will these also work in a Retina iMac?
  • mczak - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    The SM0128G (128GB pcie ssd) is used in both some fusion drives as well as MBPs, so my guess would be they just _might_ be compatible. But don't quote me on that, maybe it just got the same name by coincidence without being really the same, apple might just be crazy enough :-).
    I think for iMacs, you'd be far better off just replacing the sata-based hdd with an ordinary cheap sata ssd however (of course, for some models, at least for all the the new ones, that means you're required to order it with either a hdd or a fusion drive, unless you're really brave and good with soldering, since otherwise the pcb will just have solder pads instead of the not required (either sata or the one for the proprietary ssd) connector...).
    You could get pretty much 2TB for the price of 1TB from OWC (or 512GB from apple...) that way.
  • Lepton87 - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    I hate it that apple overcharges for the SSD storage as much as the smartphone vendors do, I really need around 1TB of storage in my main day-day laptop but I don't need all of it to be high-speed as most of my data is not speed-sensitive so having it read at 50MB/s or 500MB/s makes no perceptible difference, however I also need a sizable chunk of high-speed storage for example for the operating system. Currently I have the best solution for my needs from the value point of view. I bought a laptop with only HDD storage namely 750GB 2.5 HDD and despite the Quad Core i7 CPU it felt slow and I couldn't leave my modern laptop in such a sorry state and MSI was wise enough to realize that a modern computer really needs to have NAND storage if not for the proper data retention than at the very least as a caching solution. The laptop has a M.2 slot for adding in an SSD that is sorely needed. I bought a 256GB version so it is large enough for me to manage the data on my own but even a 64GB SSD acting as a caching solution would make the computer feel like an another machine compared to an unaided mechanical storage. Not installing an SSD in that laptop would be a travesty and a waste of a fast laptop for the time and even now, (i7 3630QM IVY BRIDGE at 3.2GHz and the cooling
    is adequate to keep it at the all core turbo frequency all the time, but the higher bins are elusive, I only saw very brief spikes to 3.3GHz even at 1T load and I've never seen it boosting to 3.4GHz which is the advertised maximum turbo frequency of that CPU a claim that is apparently false at the very least in my laptop. I won't make a fuss about 100MHz-200MHz but I think this is due to MSI being overly conservative in their BIOS. (I have the MSI GE70) Unfortunately the storage solution that I use is only viable for large laptops as it needs a 2.5'' slot and M.2 connector like my laptop.
  • kaidenshi - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    Holy run-on sentences Batman! Slow down and take a breath, dude.
  • ~Belisarius~ - Sunday, March 13, 2016 - link

    Used to think the same until I learned more about the technology. Apple, Samsung, Dell, Microsoft are some of the cheapest SSD drives you can buy- at that high cost. yes, they are cheap, because they are even more expensive if not manufactured in bulk. OWC has atrocious failure rates. Could be 6 days, could be 6 months. 20-30% odds to have the replacement fail. Take Samsung and Toshiba with failures rated at less than one in ten thousand, and I consider them cheaper. Been travelling for the last year, and I'd rather pay the $9.99/month 1 TB One drive cloud storage (do not have it, but, if forced, would get it), and always have access vi wifi, than 400-600$ USD for OWC and have it fail then wait for replacements to arrive somewhere. Never had a Samsung/Toshiba SSD fail on me no matter the unit.

    One really gets what they pay for. When it comes to SSD's we pay for the controller, subsequent R&D, firmware upgrades, not just the storage.

    Like the touchscreen on phones, SSD storage is expensive, particularly GOOD SSD storage, industrial grade, no fail.

    Check out the OWC failure forums.
  • bull2760 - Monday, March 14, 2016 - link

    You can manually enable trim in OSX, for a tech article you sure did not do enough research.
    that is just 2 articles I found in 10 seconds.

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