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M1 Mac SSD Wear – Queue Uninformed Freakout

You knew it was inevitable, it simply couldn’t be avoided, there HAD to be a collective freakout over the new M1 Macs at some point! And here it is! We have arrived upon M1 Mac SSD Wear – gate!

M1 Mac SSD Wear

M1 Mac SSD Wear Issue Not Well Researched

The TD;lr of this issue is the fact that Solid-State Memory has a finite life span and it was reported that M1 Mac SSD were burning through this lifespan, possibly becoming unusable within a year. The main problem simply that the SSD is built into the computer, and not a removable module. This would make the entire computer useless if the part failed prematurely. 

But, when it all boiled down, it was found that some of the folks who were reporting the potential issue had computer problems causing excessive disk use, not using properly optimized tools, had flaky math, and/or didn’t understand the fundamentals of the issue. I’m not saying Apple isn’t capable of some impressive guffaws, but for people to think Apple would release a product with such a glaring flaw is impressively cynical. Ok, so am I letting them off the hook? No! I still think there is PLENTY of room inside ANY computer for a removable storage memory module. I don’t care if it’s a standard SATA drive, a crazy M.2 variant or some insane Apple proprietary connector.. but at least make it modular! 

Because yea, no matter what, parts fail, and the more modular a system is, the easier it is to repair it. It would suck if you had to replace your car’s engine if your tires wore out, right?

The Basics Of SSD’s

M1 Mac SSD Wear

So what is the underlying issue that this is all about and can anything be done?

No. Not really. 

Solid State Hard Drives all work the very same way. They are comprised of millions, billions, hell, TRILLIONS of individual Memory Cells, each capable of storing 1 bit of data. In a traditional mechanical drive, these bits are stored by flipping a magnetic particle, either in a North/South or South/North configuration. Unless acted upon by an external force, nothing should change their state, and they can be flipped pretty much as many times as you need. Email me if you like to learn just how that works!.

In an SSD that bit is read or written by either charging or draining that individual memory cell of electricity. This process relies on an oxide layer to contain the charge. Unfortunately, as the electrical charge passes through this oxide layer it wears down, and eventually, it’s unable to contain that charge, which renders that memory cell unusable. If you want a super in-depth video on this, check this out

This wearing out is the basis of the problem everyone freaked out over. Because this is a basic limiting factor of SSD’s, manufacturers have a statistic referred to as Total Bytes Written. This is usually measured in Terrabytes, meaning that a total of say, 600 Terrabytes can be written to the entire drive before it “wears out”. 

When new Apple M1 Mac users ran 3rd party diagnostic tools to view the stats on their solid-state drives, some people were shocked to see that this reportage lifespan was already at 1% after two months, some were doing math that seemed to indicate they would wear out their drives in only 6 months!

The Devil Is In The Details

So, it was found later that a lot of errors and assumptions had been made. 

  • The software used to measure was untested with the M1 Mac SSD configuration, incorrectly reporting bits written and erroneous power readings.
  • Calculations were made on bytes of data written AND read. Wearing only occurs during the time data is WRITTEN, not read.
  • Total Bytes Written warranty was low balled, assuming Apple uses crap memory modules rated for as low as 150TB.
  • The assumption was that the drive suddenly dies at the Total Bytes Written limit. 

When you are testing something, you need to make sure the providers of the testing software have properly configured their software for what you are testing… this wasn’t done. Now, it’s true that there seemed to be a lot of data being read and written on some of these drives, more than should happen. This was due in some cases because of runaway apps, in one case a piece of software called Hand Mirror was using enormous amounts of resources. 

However, in everyday computer use, available hard drive space is used by the operating system for something we call swap space. In its day-to-day background operations, the Operating System has to read and write all sots of data. This is typically done in RAM, but should the system use up all of the available RAM, it uses the “empty” space on the hard drive to do these functions. This is also the reason it’s important to restart your Mac once and a while! Now, when you have to consider that that memory has a finite number of use cycles, it does become a concern. 

BUT, considering the two other factors, it’s not nearly as much to worry about! Since the wear only occurs during the write cycle, the numbers improve drastically as most folks were measuring data read and written. Then, when you consider most good quality memory is rated for 10,000 cycles or 600TB TBW, not that bargain bin 150TB TBW, the numbers improve even more. Even with just these numbers factored in, lifespans improved to 6-8 years with standard use. 

Manufacturers Know And Plan

SSD Memory

MacWorld’s Jon Jacobi made a great statement of fact, 

No person in their right mind would buy a new car thinking that would cease working in five years or 50,000 miles, but that’s a common warranty.

So why did people think this would happen with M1 Mac SSD wear? We’ve used the exact same memory in iPhones for 13 years, and I have yet to see an iPhone stop working due to memory wear out. 

Furthermore, manufacturers are fully aware of this issue. Tell me, if you manufacturers whatsits, and you know they would fail after 4 years of regular use, would you warranty it for 4 years? No, you warranty it for 1 year, hoping to have to replace as few whatsits as possible. SSD manufacturers are logically doing the same. So, they warranty the drives for up to 600TB, but more than likely will survive at least 1200TB, and even more, I’m sure. 

Additionally, there is a spec in the industry referred to as “overprovisioning”. This refers to the practice of manufacturing an SSD drive with more memory cells than advertised. The manufacturers know all about wear and tear, and they provide more than the advertised number of memory cells just so that if some fail, they can “retire” those, remap and provision a new cell to take its place. 

They also build methods into the hardware to reduce that wear and tear. They spread out the writing cycles over a large array of cells that include the pool of overprovisioned to reduce wear and tear on all cells. They do a LOT to increase the longevity of this memory, and they keep coming up with ingenious ways to make it even better. 

What Can You Do About Your M1 Mac SSD? 

With that being said, you can do a few things to improve the life span of your M1 Mac SSD as well. Since it’s possible a significant amount of wear could come from that OS swapping stuff we mentioned, learn to run your system a bit leaner… don’t have 70 bloody tabs open in Safari, like a certain lady I know and I’m quite fond of not mentioning any names or particular relations to myself. 

For some folks, power users like video editors and photographers, keeping your RAM usage low is just not possible! So what do you do? Make sure you buy your system with an excessive amount of RAM, and as large a drive as you can budget for. Shift your thinking from, “will I ever use this amount of RAM or storage space?”, to “the more I have, the longer it will last”. 

But what is the absolute, number one thing you can do to protect yourself?

M1 Mac SSD Wear

So, you lose the lottery, your drive packs it in and suddenly dies after writing 125GB and you want to call and shout at me about this article… did you have a backup? Good! Just never trust technology and back up your data, in double, hell, triplicate if you can, and make sure you have an offsite copy!

By the way, a super important fact that most people don’t mention about Solid State Drives is that they LEAK. Yes, they leak electrons! With some of the newer memory especially, those oxide layers are getting thinner and thinner, electrons can leak through those layers over time…meaning that the “state” of that bit can change… corrupting those beautiful photos of your new baby. It’s been shown that an SSD sitting on a shelf unpowered for a year or two can leak enough electrons to make you have a very bad day. So, do not use solid-state memory for long-term storage.

Relax And Buy M1

I’m actually of the opinion that it’s generally a bad idea to buy “1st Gen” products. But, the fact is, the M1 is a 15th generation product… it is the same processor we’ve been using in our iPhones and iPads for ages now. Technically, it’s an A15 if you want to think about it! I personally was still going to hold off and purchase the last generation Intel iMac, the specs were great and it would last me another 9 years like my current 2012 iMac has. 

But after the M1 event we saw that Apple wasn’t exaggerating their unbelievable claims, the performance of these new machines could not be ignored, and I felt I’d be a fool not to migrate to the M1 platform. So, I’m currently waiting on what they have in store for the first Apple Silicon desktops. Truthfully though, it is my hope that the iMac will at least have a modular hard drive and upgradable RAM. 

We are seeing an evolution of computers, the inevitable continued shrinking and conglomeration of components into single modules.  This integration of the storage chips is natural, unfortunately, but there is hope we can steer the industry back towards some basic modularity. 

In the meantime, feel confident in your purchase of an M1 Mac, what we’ve seen so far is fantastic… and always give collective freakouts a lil time for the truth to bubble to the surface. 

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Ryszard (Rick) Gold, From Calgary, Alberta, Canada has over 20 years of experience working with Apple products in a technical capacity. Passionate about technology in general, his natural troubleshooting abilities, curiosity and appreciation of good design lead him into working exclusively with Apple Computer products.
Ryszard Gold
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