Apple’s diminuitive Mac mini has been an enduring classic, ever since it launched seven years ago. It’s the most affordable of all Macs, takes up next to no desk space, and quietly gets on with its job. No fuss in a cute package.

For the first year of its life, the Tupperware box-sized computer ran a PowerPC G4 processor, but was swiftly transitioned to Intel Core Duo when Apple moved all its Macs to Intel chips in 2006.

Today more than ever the Apple Mac mini represents an incredible feat of hardware engineering, to squeeze very fast processors, memory and storage, and now even the complete power supply into one low-profile aluminium armoured case.

Packing so much into a small space makes it the anathema of the typical Windows desktop PC, a wheezy box as high as your knees – but one that's relative doddle to nip inside and replace the memory, the hard drive, and more.

The original generations of Mac mini didn’t even let you upgrade the RAM, unless you got jiggy with a putty knife and were willing to take a leap of faith as you prised the box apart, probing inside with the broad flat blade.

The new Unibody-style Mac mini at least gives you ready access to the RAM. Flip the Mac mini over, and neat tank-turret cover can be removed to reveal memory chips and a very dapper layout of wireless antenna and its perforated guard. The new Mac mini is as beautiful inside as it is sleek and svelte from the outside.

And upgrading the memory is as far as Apple will let you go before invalidating the warranty. To go beyond this point and delve inside requires a little knowledge and some nerve. But why would you want to, beside maybe upgrading the hard disk?

The answer is of course in the headline: to add a second drive.

Taking the slot

When the Apple Mac mini went Unibody in 2010, Apple created an option for a DVD-less Server edition. In place of the slot-load optical drive was a second hard disk, not just swelling capacity but enabling faster or more robust RAID storage options.

With the latest Apple Mac mini (Mid-2011), released last summer, Apple has made the slotless mini the only option, joining the MacBook Air as another computer to lose the integrated optical drive..

This leaves a nice empty space inside to add your own second drive in these non-server editions. All the pieces are in place in every modern mini – except a custom SATA ribbon cable and mounting screws for the hard drive.

Catering for these needs is the iFixit Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive upgrade kit

Mac mini upgrade kit

This includes all the necessary components, along with a natty set of Torx drivers to help you on your way. While you may have a good toolset already, you’re unlikely to have one specialised piece: a U-shaped tool that makes the task of removing the logic board a cinch.

The job involves a compete disassembly and rebuild of the Apple Mac mini. With good light and an hour or so of methodical work, you too can have a dual-drive Mac mini.

The upgrade is particularly compelling to add a small but affordable solid-state drive (SSD), while keeping the original 500GB hard disk for good storage capability. For OS X, a 30GB SSD is sufficient to run the operating system and install many applications.

If you intend to keep your OS X Lion user directory on the boot drive, you'll probably need considerably more space. If you can stretch to it, a 256GB capacity solid-state drive makes a good compromise between space to breath while keeping price within reach.

 Mac mini upgrade step 1

1. Down the hatch

With the Mac mini powered down and disconnected, turn upside down and remove the black plastic hatch by rotating it a few degrees anti-clockwise. Now’s a good time to attach an ESD strap to yourself to ensure you don’t destroy the delicate electronics with a tiny static spark while working inside.

Mac mini upgrade step 2

2. Cooling off time 

After marvelling at the beautiful symmetry within, start the disassembly by first removing the cooling fan, held in place with three T6 screws. After lifting carefully, pry off its power connection from the board with a spudger. Next remove a plastic cowling to the left of the fan, held in place with one T6 screw. This plastic piece will require a little wiggle to extract.

Mac mini upgrade step 3

3. Antenna plate-off

The antenna plate supports Bluetooth and one of the mini’s three Wi-Fi aerials. Remove its four T8 screws and carefully pull out, then disconnect the signal lead that attaches it to the board. Note how the semi-circle edge fits into the mini’s chassis: this will also require some alignment when you replace it later.

Mac mini upgrade step 4

4. Drive away

The installed SATA hard disk (‘lower drive’) connects to the system through a press-to-fit flat ribbon cable on the edge of the logic board. Pry this off with the spudger. At a push, you can just get the drive out now, but better to wait a few steps when it slides out much easier. You will also need to disconnect the remote IR sensor, by lifting its connector from the board, by the RAM.

Mac mini upgrade step 5

5. Prepare to slide

The logic board is almost ready to be removed from its aluminium armour. Sliding out the logic board is tricky because of the resistance you must overcome from clips around the back panel. But before this most satisfying of stages, don’t forget to remove the one remaining screw that secures the board, near the cooling vents.

Mac mini upgrade step 6

Mac mini upgrade step 6

6. All tooled up

For this stage, you’ll need the customised tool that iFixit provides in the kit – a U-shaped wire that slips into two special holes that the Apple design team thoughtfully included for this task. Insert the tool until the ends touch the inside of the chassis, then carefully ease the tempered wire back towards you. 

Mac mini upgrade step 7

7. Spring into action

The logic board should now be loose from a number of spring clips all around the black plastic back plate. It may help to stand the mini upright and continue to ease the board, carefully, so it stands clear of all these clips. And when rebuilding later, ensure that none of the clips are misaligned.

Mac mini upgrade step 8

8. Release the power

Now's a good time to lift out the existing lower drive. The unibody Mac mini has an integral power supply, an 85W Delta Electronics switch-mode power supply unit (PSU) that lives down the right-hand edge when viewed from the front. This provides all power to the mini through a 9-pin connector – this sits between the lower drive and the memory. With the main board now partially removed, it’s possible to disconnect this by hand.

Mac mini upgrade step 9

9. Logic flies out the mini

After the preceding steps the logic board will now slide easily free of its metal jacket. Note that both memory cards can be left in place for this operation. The black L-shaped pieces on the circuit board are heat pipes to conduct heat away from the CPU and graphics chip, toward the cooling fan and exhaust slot.

Mac mini upgrade step 10

10. Rotate to release

The PSU is held in place by just one screw, easy to identify with the logic board removed. But first, you must remove the figure-eight mains socket. A tiny hairclip-style retainer slides out, allowing this socket to rotate 90 degrees anti-clockwise and be teased out. The whole PSU itself can be liberated easily after this by drawing out through the chassis.

Mac mini upgrade step 11

11. You’ve been framed

One final screw is all that remains and then the upper-drive frame can be removed. This occupies the space originally populated by an optical drive when the unibody Mac mini was first designed. Apple had always allowed for a second hard drive here, in the Mac mini server edition, and the mounting holes are just waiting for your second drive.

Mac mini upgrade step 12

12. Cracking good job, grommet

The new upper-position hard drive (or SSD) is held in place by four rubber grommets and set screws, supplied in the kit. Insert each of the grommets into existing holes around the sides of the frame. Attach the custom SATA ribbon cable from the kit onto the bare drive. The SATA edge connector is asymmetric so it cannot be inserted the wrong way.

Mac mini upgrade step 13

13. Ready, get set

Screw in just two of the four T6 set screws from the kit, into one side of the drive as shown in the photo. The drive can then be positioned entirely inside the frame by pressing the drive and cable assembly into place. After lining up the drive’s mounting holes through the remaining grommets, screw in the final two set screws.

Mac mini upgrade step 14

14. Crucial last step

In this refit, we have a 256GB Crucial M4 SSD ready to roll. This drive is ideal to take advantage of the latest 6Gbps SATA bus found in the Mac mini. To rebuild the mini, follow the same prodedure in reverse, not forgetting to later push home the new drive’s custom SATA cable into its predestined place on the logic board; right next to the lower drive’s connection post.

Kits and tips 

The Apple Mac mini is a marvel of computer engineering. Apple has squeezed a powerful computer into sleek metallic pancake, applying its long experience in high-end notebook design to safeguard thermal requirements.

Taking this model apart is akin to taking down a ship in a bottle, as it all slips into a milled-from-solid ingot of aluminium. Ironically, the process is actually less fraught than the previous generation of Apple Mac mini, which required a putty knife and much manual manipulation to tear down.

Make sure you work in good light, and allow yourself time to take each step slowly. Label screws as you remove them, for example by popping in an empty eggbox while writing on the box where each came from.

Ensure you earth yourself at all times, for example with an anti-static wrist strap.

The kit supplied by iFixit has everything you need apart from ESD protection. The Torx-driver toolkit is not lab-grade, but it gets the job done – and it even includes the latest tri-star driver bits required to strip down the latest MacBook Air models.

As a final tip, try to flex the new SATA ribbon into shape to accomodate the original drive above it, before reinstalling that drive. It needs two bends, in places easily found as you align it into place to connect to the logic board.


iFixit Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit: Specs

  • Requires Apple Mac mini 2.33, 2.5, or 2.7 GHz 2011 (Model A1347)
  • kit includes custom SATA ribbon cable, 4 x T6 set screws, 4 x rubber mounting grommets, logic board extraction tool, plastic spudger, Torx driver set
  • Requires Apple Mac mini 2.33, 2.5, or 2.7 GHz 2011 (Model A1347)
  • kit includes custom SATA ribbon cable, 4 x T6 set screws, 4 x rubber mounting grommets, logic board extraction tool, plastic spudger, Torx driver set

OUR VERDICT

The iFixit Mac Mini Dual Hard Drive Kit provides the essential components and the tools you need to upgrade your Mac mini to dual-drive status. The process is perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but iFixit provides clear online instructions and even a video to help you on your way. The key part, the SATA ribbon cable, is good for SATA 6Gbps operation, enabling scorching performance when used with an SSD.

Find the best price