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Confusion with Fusion

October 26, 2012 - Dave Hecei

There is a new type of storage system available, by special order, for the new super-thin iMac and Mac mini. Apple calls it a Fusion drive. They have taken the best of both worlds. Take a speedy flash-based drive, add a high-capacity spinning drive and combined them into a single drive. The problem is that everyone is pretty confused.

Combining flash memory with a spinning hard drive is not new. The Hybrid hard drive was introduced back in 2007. Over the next few years they did see some improvement, but the idea behind the hybrid drive only made sense when used in a notebook computer. Speed improvements were seen, but when higher capacity full-SSD storage came to market, at a reasonable price-per-gigabyte, interest in the hybrid drive fell of.

Apple is about to reinvigorate the hybrid drive with their new Fusion drive. Available as an option in the new iMac and Mac mini, they offer drives with 128GB of flash storage and from 1TB to 3TB of spinning storage. While you might think that this is just the same ol’ hybrid drive, I disagree. Apple is combining similar technology with a unique OS-level software solution.

To the user, a Fusion drive looks like a single storage device. What Apple has done is allow the OS to ‘watch’ how applications and data are used on a system. It will automatically move data and Apps to either the flash side or spinning side of the storage device, depending on priority level. The OS and essential Apps/data are kept in flash storage for faster boot times and application launching. For large data sets and Apps that are little used, they will reside on the spinning part of the drive.

Bottom line, your Mac will automatically learn and adapt as you use it allowing the Fusion drive to operate as efficient as possible. You really get the benefits of fast SSD and high-capacity traditional storage in a single unit without any user intervention.

On the negative side of things, a Fusion drive is very new technology. There are some things that you have to be aware of regarding one. First is maintenance. The Disk Utility app that comes with the version of Mountain Lion is specially made to work with the Fusion drive. Older version of the Disk Utility app will not work. This probably also goes for third-party programs like Tech Tool Pro and Diskwarrior. These undoubtedly will eventually get updated, but be aware that running the version you have now could cause major problems.

For some of the latest information of the dos and don'ts with the new Fusion drive, check out this link on the Apple web site.

If you want to get the most performance out of your new iMac or Mac mini, then a Fusion drive is the way to go. It is an additional premium to an already premium priced computer, but it is less than buying two separate drives – an SSD and spinning drive. Plus, with Mountain Lion doing all the heavy lifting by automatically optimizing what goes where, Fusion is a fast and seamless solution.

Only the Mac mini is currently shipping. The quad-core mini has the option of a 128GB SSD/1TB Fusion drive for an additional $250. When the new thinner iMacs start shipping in November and December, pricing will likely be the same plus an option for a 3TB Fusion drive.


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