Sunday, December 29, 2013

Can a SSD deliver CPR to an old computer?

In a number of my prior tech posts, I have noted that my greatest discontent with laptops and computers in general is the boot up time.  In contrast, I can turn my iPad or Android phone on and in seconds be searching the internet to resolve my latest curiosity.  However, when it comes to any serious typing neither Android nor iPad can compete with a good old fashioned QWERTY keyboard.  My speedy dual core test computer died, leaving me with "old faithful" a single core, Vista operating system machine that I had purchased new from Walmart back when sub-$300 computers were beginning to be all the rage.  This particular model is the CQ60-410WM.  Some may be shocked to hear me say that it has been one of my best buys - the screen is nice and bright, the keyboard has a nice feel and is responsive with a separate number pad to the side and it even came with 3 GB of RAM, but it can be slow and boot ups and shut downs are particularly painful.  My boot up time on this machine into the original Vista operating system runs a little over a minute and the shut down sometimes runs even longer.

I had read several enthusiastic reports of users who have gone to a Solid State (hard) Drive (SSD) and reported enviable boot ups - some as low as 7 seconds.  While I never believed 7 seconds would happen on this machine, my curiosity was piqued and I was eager to see whether a SSD could breath new life into this machine.  It should be noted from the "get go" that there are pros and cons to SSD drives, while SSDs will tend to run cooler and deliver faster performance, they are much more expensive and will likely be much smaller than your traditional hard drive.  For this venture, I purchased a 60gb Kingston SSD from Amazon for around $50.

Changing a hard drive within a computer is an interesting project because you need to negotiate both hardware and software.  For hardware, you need to research your specific model and identify the location and how to remove the hard drive.  Fortunately, on many modern laptops, the hard drive is easy to access and in my case required removing the covering (2 screws) and then 3 more screws to permit the hard drive to slide out.  In addressing the software, you should first get familiar with your system's BIOS - this is the start up routine that your computer runs.  You will want to make sure that your BIOS is set up to read from the DVD (or USB if you will install from the USB) before selecting the hard drive for boot up.  I did some Google searches to determine how to access my BIOS and also to get an overview on installing an SSD.  These searches indicated that I should set my hard drive to "AHCI" mode in the BIOS.  This was one step that I was not able to perform as I did a thorough search of my BIOS but did not find this setting.  I suspect this may have been due to the age of my computer.  Regardless, I was able to swap out the hard drive without issue and the computer had no issues working with the new SSD hard drive.

My first decision was what operating system to install.  If I were a "pure" scientist, I would have installed the same Vista system from my recovery disks, but I'm not a "pure" scientist; rather, I'm an impatient user who doesn't want to wait forever for a boot up so I decided I'd go with the operating system I envisioned being fastest first.  This was Linux and I had a Linux Mint install CD already from my "What about Linux" post so that was the obvious choice.  The install was uneventful and (drum roll...) after timing several boot ups, Linux was coming in at around 35 seconds.  I suppose if you compare that to the over 60 seconds that Vista was taking that can be considered a substantial improvement; however, in my "What about Linux" post, I reflected that my old Dell (without an SSD and with less memory) was booting Linux in about 45 seconds.

Next up, I decided to install Windows 7.  As many are aware, Windows 7 tends to boot up a bit faster than Vista so my guess is that even without the SSD, just by installing Windows 7, I would shave some time off the Vista boot up speed.  Once again, the install went smoothly.  I timed several boot ups and the system start time averaged around 45 seconds.  I also took a snapshot of Windows 7 performance data and note the substantial scoring of the "Primary hard disk" which due to the SSD install shines far above the other areas.

While this is a noticeable improvement from Vista, I had anticipated a marked improvement just due to moving to Windows 7 so I was a bit disappointed that the combination of Windows 7 and SSD wasn't more significant.  Anecdotally, I will note that when using the system, it does feel a bit less sluggish.  Also I was besieged by Microsoft updates (53) during one shutdown (forgot to turn off automatic updates) and I suspect that the SSD helped to speed up the process.

Was it worth it?

Unfortunately, I would respond with a qualified, "no".  In short, I believe an upgrade to a SSD drive would be worthwhile in a dual core, 64 bit computer, but was not worthwhile on a computer such as the one used in this example.  I paid about $50 and dropped from a 160 GB hard drive to a 60 GB SSD drive with only a resulting boot up improvement of about 15 seconds.  In my opinion a boot up of either 45 or 60 seconds doesn't make much of a difference and neither is desirable.

If I were to purchase another SSD, I think I would pay more and get a larger drive.  The 60 GB is adequate for a test laptop, but for a daily use laptop it is likely too small.  While I understand that pictures and even music can and should be stored on alternate media, if you want to add applications such as Microsoft Office, an extra browser, a PDF application (Adobe Reader), iTunes, and other programs that may be desired, you may need to make some hard choices.  Just looking at my installation of Windows 7, Chrome and printer software and I notice that I only have a little over 36 GB remaining.  I have added a selection of SSD drives to my Amazon Tech store.

I have not yet activated my Windows 7 install and likely will not.  This experience suggests to me that other factors are required to truly benefit from an SSD drive and I anticipate that I will be searching Craig's list for a laptop with a better processor (dual core or better) and designed for 64 bit processing which can better serve my goal of a laptop with a fast boot up.  In the meantime, I will continue to toy with the SSD on "old faithful" until the Microsoft activation deadline forces a decision.