Tuesday, May 10, 2011

how to upgrade the firmware on an OWC SSD without installing Windows

Wow, has it really been almost 2 years since my last post?


Well, let this post mark my triumphant return to the blog-o-sphere.

If you're here to read about how to do the upgrade, skip to the bottom. Read on for the full story.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine gave me a 120GB OWC SSD. One of these, to be specific. She was having issues with the drive after having installed it into her MacBook (one of the older, first-gen white ones), where the machine would seem to arbitrarily freeze up. This would happen a few minutes after the machine had been powered up and/or awakened from sleeping.

I took the drive home, and figured I'd install it in my older, MacBook Pro (a 4,1 machine; the last version prior to the unibody models), figuring that it'd give that machine a nice little performance bump.

And sure enough, after getting everything installed and set up, the machine was booting in 15 seconds, launching apps instantly, and performing very impressively. This wasn't my main machine, however, so I wasn't really spending much time working on it.

Skip to this past weekend, where I decided that I'd take a crack at experimenting with some audio software (for an upcoming project), and lo and behold - after about 20 minutes of regular use, the machine would just seize up on me. Spinning beach ball, no errors, no warning. The only way out was to power the machine off forcefully (by holding down the power button for a few seconds).

The machine would come back up quickly, which was nice, but the freezing issue seemed to persist. I noticed that it would also happen after putting the machine to sleep by shutting the lid and re-opening it.

I did some basic troubleshooting; re-installed the OS, ran diagnostics, etc, but nothing seemed to stick.

I started doing some research online, and found that OWC had recently released a firmware update for their SSDs, which allegedly addressed this issue, along with another problem related to sleep/hibernation that other folks seem to be experiencing.

Here's where things start to get annoying. For some reason, despite the fact that OWC's target customer base is predominately Macintosh-based (macsales.com, hello?), the firmware updater is only available for the Windows operating system. To their credit, OWC did put together a pretty well laid-out page of documentation, but all of their solutions involve either installing Windows, or having access to a machine running Windows.
And the kicker here is that the drive MUST be connected to the computer via SATA - so you can't simply plug the drive into a drive sled and bring it over to your pal's house and plug it in via USB. It has to be attached via SATA. I'm not sure if eSATA would work... but I'll go out on a limb and guess that it won't, cuz eSATA can be a bit finicky.

So. My first thought was to call up my good buddy Bill. He's got a nice little home-made Windows box, and he pulls drives in and out of it all the time. I speak to him, and uh-oh - his recent switch to the Hackintosh Way means that he doesn't actually have a bootable version of Windows set up anymore.

Strike One.

My next option is to take the documentation's suggestion to go ahead and install Bootcamp and Windows on my machine, and run the update that way. Sigh. Fine.

So I go ahead and download and burn a Windows 7 installer, and go through the whole Bootcamp/Windows installation routine. This takes some time.

Finally, I've got the old MacBook booting into Windows, and yay, the updater is downloaded and installed, and ready to roll! I fire it up and hit the "update" button and - FREEZE. The machine completely locks up. White space where the dialog just disappeared. No cursor. Frozen. Sigh.

I reboot again, and figure "huh, maybe there are some software updates I need to run or something". So I go through the hassle of downloading and installing every Bootcamp and Windows 7 update I can find.

Again, no luck. Freezetown, population: me.

Strike Two.

Finally, it's getting late, and I decide to give the folks at OWC a call. Can't hurt, right?

So after telling my whole story to the nice fellow from OWC, he puts me on hold for a bit, and comes back with a suggestion, which, I'm happy to report, actually worked. And best of all, it turns out to be WAY EASIER than going through the hassle of installing and updating Windows.

So, without further ado, here's what I did:

First, I assembled the necessary items to complete the task:

1x Windows installer (I used a Windows 7 SP1 disk, but I'd imagine that any 7, Vista, or XP disc would work just fine)

1x USB flash drive, formatted as a FAT32 volume (most of these come this way by default)

1x copy of the OWC SSD firmware updater software

Step one: MAKE SURE YOU'VE BACKED UP YOUR SSD. I don't think that this process is destructive, but you never know. You should always back your drive up before doing major stuff like this, anyway.

Step two: While booted into the Mac OS, you should add an additional MS-DOS formatted partition to your SSD. I already had one of these from my Bootcamp experiment, but from what I understand, the disk needs to have an MS-DOS/Windows-friendly partition on it in order for the firmware updater to see it.

To do this, simply fire up Disk Utility, select the SSD device from the menu on the left, then click on the "Partition" tab. Hit the "+" button in the lower left corner to add an additional partition - it'll appear as a white box underneath the existing (blue) box in the Volume Scheme section of the window. Click on it, and under the Volume Information section, be sure to select the "MS-DOS (FAT)" option from the Format pop-up menu. Name it whatever you want. Make it however big you want (you'll be deleting it afterwards).

Then hit the "Apply" button. This process shouldn't take too long.
When it's done, you should see a new hard drive icon appear on your desktop (assuming you have that setting turned on in the Finder), and you now have a Windows-friendly partition on your SSD.

Step Three: Download the SSD firmware updater, decompress it, and copy it to the top level of your USB flash drive. Be sure to grab the whole folder (it's got 4 files in it, if you count .DS_Store files as actual files).

Step Four: Insert your Windows installer disc, and restart your computer. As soon as you hear the startup chime, hold down the option key on your keyboard. When you see the cursor arrow appear on your screen, you can let go, and in a moment, you should see an optical disc icon with the word "Windows" under it. Click it, and hit return.

Your screen should turn black at this point, and you will probably see a flashing white cursor in the upper left hand corner of the screen. You might also get prompted to "press any key to boot into Windows" or something like that. Go ahead and do that. You should hear the optical drive spin up, and eventually, the Windows installer will appear.

Select your language preference, and get to the dialog where you get to choose if you want to do an install or a recovery. You want to do a Recovery.

You can plug your USB flash drive in at this point, if you haven't done so already, by the way.

Now, I should mention that I'm far from an expert when it comes to Windows, so I can't really tell you how this will work with install discs that aren't Windows 7, which is what I used.

Moving forward, once you get to the "recovery" dialog, you should see an option to use a command prompt. On my disc, it was the bottom-most one. Select this, and you should then see an old school DOS window appear. It took me a few tries, but I was able to eventually find my USB flash drive at E:. For those who don't know how to hunt/peck, here's what I did: at the prompt, type "C:". This should be one of the volumes on the SSD. If you get an C:> prompt, you can type "dir" and hit return, and that should give you a directory listing. If you don't see your firmware update folder, then you can move onto the next letter. Type "D:" (return), and then "dir" (return). Keep doing this until you find your files.

Once you've found your files, you can access the directory by typing "cd" and then the directory name. I was pleasantly surprised to find that hitting the tab key auto-completed the directory name for me (unix stylie), so I didn't have to type the whole thing. Once in the directory, I did another "dir", and just typed the name of the executable file, which is called "ssdupdate.exe". After hitting return, a new window popped up, and I found myself looking at the firmware updater application window. It looked a lot like what I saw before, but it was a little different. It had more of a Windows 2000/XP sort of feel to it.

Anyway, from there, I just followed the same steps as I tried before - selected the firmware .pkg file, checked the little checkbox for the drive I wanted to update, and then... I hit the button. And to my delight, the dialog went away, the window redrew itself properly, and lo and behold - the firmware update completed. It look like, 15 seconds.

I restarted the machine, and everything seemed fine. All of my data was there, and it booted up as if nothing happened. I went into Apple System Profiler to check on the firmware version number, and sure enough - it was updated. I went back into Disk Utility and removed the MS-DOS partition,

So. That's the whole story. I've been using the machine for a few hours now (since the update), and it hasn't frozen up yet. I suppose there's still a chance it could happen, but so far, so good.

Sorry for the big ramble. Hopefully this was helpful for you.


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