Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tech Tip: Extra Life From Your Old Computer

One of the things I did this week was try to upgrade my netbook computer with an SSD (Solid State Disk) drive to make it faster and more bearable to use (more on what that is in a minute… bear with me). It’s always been kind of slow, and I figured if I could put $100 into it instead of buying a whole new one, that would be a good thing, right?  Well, that didn’t work out so well… performance with the SSD was actually far worse than it was with the hard drive that was in it, and the “fix” to make it work right just ended up not being worth it… so I had an SSD without a home.  After playing around with a couple other ideas, I decided to put it into an old Toshiba laptop I’ve had for a little over 3 years because it has always felt a little slow.  And boy, what a difference it made.

An SSD is a storage device that acts like a hard disk drive, but uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter to store data.  Since there are no moving parts, they are very fast.  They’ve been prohibitively expensive until fairly recently (and it’s still expensive to get something with a lot of storage capacity) but they’re finally in the realm of being affordable for the masses as long as your storage needs aren’t extreme.  The SSD I bought was an OCZ Vertex 2 60GB model which I picked up on sale for just over $100.  Since I don’t store music or movies on that laptop, this was plenty large enough.  Windows 7, Microsoft Office, and Photoshop take up around 20 GB total, which gives me plenty of room to spare for anything else I might need to put on it.  The difference in performance was enormous!

If you can work a screwdriver you can install an SSD drive in your computer.  The physical installation is very easy.  The only part that might get a bit tricky is getting Windows installed onto it.  If your computer came with a Restore DVD, or you have an original Windows installation DVD, setting it up is a piece of cake.  If it didn’t, you may want to invest in a data transfer kit (this one is my favorite).

Prior to installing the SSD, my Toshiba laptop would take about 60-75 seconds to boot.  With the SSD it takes about 13 seconds.  That’s logo screen to usable desktop, folks.  While it previously took about 5-10 seconds to load Microsoft Word on the hard drive, it now loads in less than 1 second on the SSD.  Photoshop loads in 6 seconds instead of 40, and web browsers come up instantly.  Launching most programs occurs almost instantaneously.  As I was installing Windows updates (I started with a fresh copy of Windows), I was amazed to see the majority of them install about one per second instead of watching the minutes tick by.  From start to finish (empty drive to installing Windows to installing all available updates) it only took about 30 minutes to do everything.  And this computer is SO fast now… even though it’s over 3 years old and wasn’t that much to shout about when it was new.

Swapping out a hard drive for an SSD isn’t the only easy and relatively inexpensive thing you can do to speed up an aging computer.  Upgrading the memory is also very easy and doesn’t cost that much (the Crucial web site has a scanner that can tell you what type of memory your computer needs).  I upgraded my Toshiba laptop to 4GB of RAM for $35 a couple months ago, and recently upgraded a different laptop to 8GB of RAM for $85.  The desktop computer I built last month got 8GB of RAM for about $80 as well.  If you’re running a computer with just 1 or 2GB of RAM, it’s time to upgrade.  The performance difference can be pretty dramatic.  Not quite as drastic as replacing a hard drive with an SSD, but still quite noticeable.

So how do you know if your computer can be upgraded with an SSD? If it’s less than about 4 years old, the chances are very high.  The computer requires an SATA interface for the hard disk drive, which most computers made in the last 4 years are likely to have.  If you’re working with a desktop computer, you can probably buy a relatively small SSD for your operating system and programs, and use your existing hard drive as a secondary drive for storing your personal data.  That’s the route I’ve gone with the last two computers I’ve built, and I’ve been thrilled with the results.  As far as which model to get, the drives based on the SandForce controller chips currently yield the best performance (the OCZ Vertex 2 series give the best bang-for-the-buck and is available in 60GB, 120GB, and 240GB sizes.  For better performance at a higher cost, step up to the OCZ Vertex 3 series.)

So, long story short, if you’ve got an old computer that is just slower than you’d like and you don’t want to shell out a pile of money to buy a newer model, chances are you can swap out your hard drive with an SSD, and upgrade the RAM, not have it cost you that much, and you’ll end up with a computer that feels better than it did when you first pulled it out of the box.  It will actually feel much faster than a new computer unless the newer one happens to come with an SSD.

Installation of either the SSD or memory is pretty easy, but if you’ve got a hungry computer-savvy buddy, bake him or her a pie or plate of cookies to install yours for you.  You’ll be SO glad you upgraded.

Tip: SSDs perform best under Windows 7 (or the most recent versions of Linux).  Windows Vista, XP, and Mac OS X will run on SSDs, but they do not fully take advantage of the extra performance that SSDs offer.  These operating systems also suffer from a problem which causes writes to the disk to become incredibly slow after a period of time because they do not support a feature called TRIM.  This happens once the total amount of data written to the drive exceeds the total capacity of the drive.  This doesn’t mean you’ll see performance decrease when the drive is full, but after that much data has been written to the drive in total, whether you’re overwriting or deleting files or not.  Since the operating system itself writes to the disk a lot just as part of its normal operation (especially if you don’t have enough memory), you’ll probably hit this limitation a lot faster than you’d think you might.  Windows 7 knows how to properly communicate with the drive to let it know what parts of the drive are no longer being used, so it does not suffer from this problem.  If you’re running Vista or XP, you should also upgrade to Windows 7 if you’re going to run an SSD for the best results.  Mac users, you’re kind of out of luck... you’ll see amazing performance on your SSD for a while, then it will slow down drastically.  And there isn’t anything that can be done about it; it looks like not even the forthcoming OS X Lion upgrade is going to support TRIM unless you buy the computer with an SSD pre-installed by Apple.

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