February 22, 2021 digital

Setting up an external SSD on the mac mini

at the desk

This has been my view for much of the weekend, but after setting up the external disk for the mac mini (late-2014 model) the experience has been extremely enjoyable—rather than the exercise in frustration the last few years have been.

I didn’t realise that these late-2014 mac minis were so painfully slow when I first ordered mine, but after a bit of frustrated googling found out that many, many people were complaining about their performance. Not just a bit of old-computer-sluggishness; launching an application took many minutes to start up, accompanied by non-stop beachballing. I would have to walk away and come back, just to open (for example) system preferences.

But! Several folk online also mentioned that doing an install of the operating system to an external SSD resulted in a new lease of life for their minis. I had nothing to lose (apart from my sanity, mwahaha), so thought I’d at least have a go.

I ordered (as I mentioned a while back) a Samsung T5 portable SSD (500 GB). (As an aside, it’s a lovely little bit of hardware. So small! It’s honestly hard to believe how small hard disks can be these days.) Obviously you’re not going to want to do this on a laptop; the connection (in this case via USB) would just be too fragile to sustain running an OS from it. But in the case of the mini, which just sits on a set of drawers here in the study and never moves, it’s totally fine.

The process (well, my process) was as follows:

  • download the installer for the OS you’d like to use. I just went whole hog and used Big Sur. It’s available in the App Store, even if you’ve already got it installed. (Older versions are readily (legitimately) available online, you just have to google for them.) Once you’ve finished downloading the 12.6 GB, you’ll be prompted to install. Do not! Instead command-Q yourself out of there.
  • plug in your SSD and then erase it in disk utility. Make sure disk utility is showing all devices’ rather than all volumes’ in the little view dropdown menu. It needs to be set to a GUID Partition Map, and apart from that you’re good.
  • I saw conflicting information about how you needed to enable booting from an external drive. This is not the case for these old mac minis, so you don’t need to worry about that.
  • next step is to install to the new external disk. Simply run the installer (from your Applications folder) and make sure to choose other disks’ as an install location, and then the disk in question.
  • This is the point where things got a little gnarly for me. No matter what I did, I could not get my mac to reboot to the external disk unless I went through the hold down opt while rebooting’ bit. But I finally figured it out.
  • In any case, you’ll want to reboot your mac at this point. Make sure when it restarts you are holding down the option key as you very well may just wind up rebooting to your old (slow) internal disk.
  • If (upon holding down the option key during reboot) you can’t actually see the new disk, try rebooting (with option key) with all of your other usb drives unplugged. As soon as I removed my time machine disk the computer was able to detect my SSD. Do this, basically until your setup has completed.
  • You may be done at this stage, but I wasn’t!
  • The other thing I had problems with was setting my startup disk in system preferences. I wanted to make sure that by default I’d be booting into my SSD and not the internal disk. There’s an option for this in system preferences, but no matter how many times I made sure the external disk was selected, the reboot would always be to the original disk.
  • I found a way to set things up via terminal, and the following worked for me: disabling system integrity protection, and then using the bless’ command to set my volume as the default boot volume.
    • boot into recovery mode (hold down cmd+r while you reboot), and from the utilities menu bring up terminal. From there enter:

      csrutil disable

    • I had to reboot again, and then (again, in recovery mode), bring up terminal again, and this time enter:

      bless - mount /Volume -setBoot

      (obviously with /Volume” being the name of your drive. Mine was /Volume/Jess Mac Big Sur”)

And what do you know, it worked. There was a lot of trial and error, and it took me the better part of the day to do, what with downloading, lots of rebooting (most of them with the slow old disk). But if anyone out there is considering giving their old mac mini a new lease of life I 100% recommend doing it.


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