Early 2011 model, A1278 / 2.3 GHz i5 or 2.7 GHz i7 processor.

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Is a PCIe ssd upgrade possible?

With the Samsung 950 available, is it possible to benefit from the performance leap? Or are early 2011 MBP's restricted to SATA drives?

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The Samsung 950 is a PCIe M.2 blade SSD. Which has a 4 Lane PCIe interface unlike the older SSD's which have 2 Lane PCIe interface. In addition, Apple uses a different proprietary interface so this SSD would not work in the Retina series systems.

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The 13" MacBook Pro (Early 2011) only offers a SATA III (6.0 Gb/s) interface so you won't get more performance than what the interface of the system offers.

With that said, your current HD is not even close in pushing the SATA limit here. I would recommend upgrading the drive to a SSD drive but you'll need to stick with one of the 2.5" SATA interfaced drives.

One bump here is Apple used SATA II (3.0 Gb/s) drives in this series and the SATA cable in your system is only rated at SATA II specs so you will also need to upgrade the SATA cable.

And the last thing here is making sure the systems firmware is up to date before even starting things. Follow this Apple T/N: About EFI and SMC firmware updates for Intel-based Mac computers. Make sure you're at the level listed or newer for your system.

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