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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  • kefkiroth - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    It's good to see more third-party options pop up for SSD expansion on post-2013 MacBooks. Though it definitely needs time to further develop and become cheaper, given the Aura's performance, lack of TRIM, etc.
  • ~Belisarius~ - Sunday, March 13, 2016 - link

    Problem is there are no real options. Had done some estimates one year ago and concluded that, based on customer reporting, OWC must have a controller failure of 20-30% to have multiple users reporting repeat SSD failure. Apple's Toshiba and Samsung, very pricey indeed, are also worth their 0.0001 failure rate. When you are a busy professional on the go, or travelling, loosing your SSD is the most difficult IT problem you can face.
  • cygnus1 - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    I'm confused, those prices look MORE expensive than Apple:

    "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"

    So Apple charges $500 for 1TB vs OWC charging $600.... Please explain how they're cheaper than the Apple BTO SSDs?
  • Billy Tallis - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    Apple charges $500 to upgrade from 512GB to 1TB, on top of the $300 to upgrade from 256GB to 512GB. There's an $800 difference between the 15" rMBP with 256GB and the same with 1TB. If you've already got a MacBook Pro or Air then your existing SSD is a sunk cost, but if you're looking to maximize the storage on a new machine the Aura is way cheaper.
  • cygnus1 - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    Your wording makes sense. The wording in the article parses out such that all the prices are upgrades "from 128GB". The author should clarify.
  • cygnus1 - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    And I now realize you're the author, Billy Tallis. Sorry if it sounds harsh, but the way you constructed that sentence in the article does not convey that each dollar amount is in addition to each smaller upgrade.
  • Space Jam - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    Because Apple's charging $500 to *upgrade* your SSD from 512GBs to 1TB (discounting the $500 spent to go from 128 to 512). Not $500 outright for the SSD. If you want a standalone 1TB SSD for a rMBP using the custom form factor you'll pay more than $500!

    Prices on Ebay for the relevant rMBPs are $1/GB or more. Even if used.

    So yes, a standalone SSD from OWC at $600 for 1TB is still cheaper than a standalone 1TB SSD from Ebay at $1000. Or, if you're considering the upgrade paths and you are choosing between ordering a 128GB rMBP and adding in the 1TB OWC drive vs. just getting a 1TB rMBP from Apple, you're still looking at $600 for 1TB from OWC (and you get the 128GB drive which you can sell) vs. $1000 for 1TB from Apple.
  • ~Belisarius~ - Sunday, March 13, 2016 - link

    Maybe cheaper, but lost time is the most expensive commodity. Transcend has a pretty good reputation for reliability. OWC has atrocious failure rates. Could be 6 days, could be 6 months. 20-30% 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.

    Check out the OWC failure forums.
  • RAFAEL MARCHANTE - Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - link

    I wish I had read this comment 4 months ago... I upgraded my 2015 MBP to 500GB with an OWC SSD and it didn't fail per se but I had to downgrade to the original 128GB SSD because the speed wasn't nearly enough to run a medium sized Logic project without crackling sounds and constant crashes. All they did when I made them aware of the situation was sending me some speed testing software and confirming that the SSD was working within the accepted speeds... $500 down the drain when you include the customs charges form the UK
  • Ithaqua - Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - link

    @ cygnus1

    The way I read it is that to go from 512MB to 1TB Apple charges you $500. That is $500 above the cost to get the original 512MB ($200+$300+the original cost factored into the base model). That works out to be $1k + of upgrades.

    This is $600 for a replacement. And thus cheaper.

    Now that said I hope you can keep the apple SSD in the enclosure so you'll have 2 SSD drives to work with. SInce in my opnion 1TB is getting to be a bit small.

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