Onboard Flash Storage vs. ‘Onboard Flash Storage’

The first reviews and shipments of the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar have started to hit. As usual, Michael Tsai has the best roundup with some choice quotes.

One thing has been nagging in the back of my mind since the first shipments of the MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar showed up. It’s about the upgradability of these machines, and how much egg I might have on my face. Shortly after their introduction, here’s what I said (emphasis added):

Speccing it up the way I’d want to — 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB drive, because it now appears to be soldered and therefore can’t be upgraded — would run me a bill of $2,859.

My reference to a non-upgradable SSD was based on some specific language used by Apple on their site. The MacBook Air tech specs page describes its storage like this:

128GB PCIe-based flash storage

The Air’s SSD is a blade-style card. While its shape is proprietary, it can be swapped fairly easily — I know this because I’ve upgraded mine. This is the way Apple has described their SSDs since they started shipping them as part of the Air in 2010, and continued with the Retina MacBook Pro in 2012.

The MacBook’s tech specs page, on the other hand, introduced some slightly different language upon that product’s launch:

256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage

The “onboard” designator seems to be Apple’s shorthand way of saying that the storage is soldered to the logic board. So, when the marketing pages were published for the new MacBook Pros and I saw “onboard flash storage”, I thought they had joined the club of non-upgradability.1

And yet, when OWC opened up a MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar, they found that its SSD was mounted as a separate card which, while a unique size and shape, could theoretically be upgraded.

If you’re a nerd about the supply chain side of tech, you might reasonably assume that Apple would have a similar assembly process for all 13-inch MacBook Pro models. But that isn’t the case, according to Ben Lovejoy of 9to5Mac:

Owners who have opened them up are finding that the SSD chips in the Touch Bar machines are permanently soldered to the logic board.

This means that, like the 12-inch MacBook, the SSD size you order from Apple is the capacity you’re going to be stuck with for the life of the machine, so you may want to take a fresh look at those rather eye-watering upgrade prices.

Here’s the thing, though: both 13-inch MacBook Pro models are described by Apple as having “onboard flash storage”, but that’s clearly not true. The Touch Bar model has onboard storage; the model without doesn’t.

For many users, this distinction is entirely academic — Apple hasn’t officially supported aftermarket upgrades in any of their MacBooks with flash storage, and most users probably wouldn’t attempt to do so. And, to their credit, Apple has reduced the price of a 1 TB upgrade to $600 as a built-to-order option, about the same price as an aftermarket option for older MacBook Pro models.

But there’s a little bad news for anyone hoping to save a little money out of the gate or upgrade their storage at a later date beyond what Apple has available at launch. For me, this news comes with a side effect: I also have a little egg on my face, but not as much as I’d feared.

  1. I was also told by someone who, as they say, is familiar with the matter, but I didn’t clarify with them which MacBook Pro models were affected. ↥︎