In preparation for some upcoming events, I recently got a new laptop, and had decided on a fairly heavy-duty machine, an HP 8530w, with a large screen, and plenty of RAM (8GB). It’s a very nice machine, but I was a bit disappointed that even with all that RAM it maxed out at a Windows Experience Index (WEI) score of 5.9, due to the HDD, which although it was a 7200 RPM drive was still the slowest part of the system (your overall WEI score is only as high as the lowest component score):
I Feel the Need…the Need for SPEED!
I’ve been researching Solid State Drives (SSDs) for a while now, in part because of the promised speed increase, but also because my personal desktop machine at home had a drive that was loud and buzzy, and I figured SSD would also be a nice solution to that problem. That drive stopped acting up, however, and with SSD prices still several times higher than equivalent platter-based drives, I never pulled the trigger.
So I was delighted when I got word that I would be able to pick up an SSD for my 8530w in order to ensure top performance for upcoming demos. Based on the reading I’d been doing, I purchased the 2nd-gen 160GB Intel X25-M from NewEgg.com for $499, with free 3-day shipping. The drive arrived yesterday, and you could fairly say that I was excited.
A Fork in the Road
Yogi Berra (let me Bing that for you) once famously said “If you come to fork in the road, take it.” In my case, the fork was the question of whether to do a fresh install of Windows 7 on the SSD, or try to clone the existing hard drive over to the SSD to preserve my OS and application software.
Given that I’ve had the machine I was installing the SSD on for less than two weeks, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal to do a fresh install. But it would have been my second fresh install in as many weeks, as the machine arrived with an x86 OS pre-installed (and yes, that meant that most of the 8GB of installed RAM was useless), so an immediate repave with the x64 bits was essential. So I opted to go for the cloning route. If you want to follow this path, there are many good recommendations for free or cheap drive-cloning software on Lifehacker.com.
TIP: Shrink to Fit
One thing I discovered is that most of the free drive cloning tools can only clone to a drive that is of equal or larger capacity than the original drive. Why does this matter? Well, because the HDD I was cloning was a 250GB drive, and my SSD was only 160GB. D’oh!
Thankfully, this was pretty easy to solve, since I didn’t have 250GB of data on the drive. I just defragged the drive to maximize contiguous free space, then used Windows’ built-in disk management console to shrink the primary partition on the drive I was cloning. After defrag, I was able to shrink the partition down to around 135GB, which made it plenty small for cloning to a 160GB target drive.
TIP: Avoid USB 1.1 for Copying Data
The next trick was how to get the data from the old drive to the new…I had the software, but still needed to actually connect the new SSD to my laptop so that the software could do its thing. The docking station for my 8530w has a MultiBay II bay, but since I don’t have the required SATA drive caddy, and didn’t want to wait while one was shipped, that wasn’t really an option.
Fortunately, I had an inexpensive USB to SATA adapter that I’d picked up a couple years ago to get some data off an old laptop hard drive on a machine I was upgrading, and I was able to plug the SSD into that, power it up, and get Windows to see it (I did have to initialize the drive first using the disk management console).
Unfortunately, I discovered after initiating the drive cloning operation that the adapter was USB 1.1, which maxes out at 12Mbp/s data transfer rate (compared with a max of 480Mbp/s for USB 2.0). You can do the math yourself if you like, but the end result was that transferring the approximately 93GB of data on the source drive took well over 6 hours…blech! If I decide to buy additional SSDs, I will definitely be sure to find a faster way to copy the data, whether that’s a USB 2.0-based SATA adapter, or installing the drive internally.
It’s Alive! ALIVE!!!
Once the cloning process was complete, I went into the disk management console and marked the SSD partition as active (I wasn’t sure whether this was necessary or not, but since the system drive was marked as active, it seemed like a good idea).
After that, I shut down the laptop, disconnected the external drive adapter, removed the existing HDD, and installed the SSD into the 8530w. Kudos to HP for good engineering on the drive bay, with captive screws on everything but the drive caddy itself. For klutzes like myself, captive screws are a great way to make sure that you can reassemble that which you have taken apart.
TIP: Get a grip!
One hitch I ran into when swapping drives was that the screws holding the old HDD in the caddy were very tight, and the jeweler’s screwdriver I was using to make the swap just didn’t give me enough torque to break them loose, because the shaft of the screwdrivers are very small. The solution, which probably isn’t original with me, was to wrap the barrel of the screwdriver with a couple of rubber bands, which provided just enough additional grip to break the screws loose, allowing me to free the old drive from the caddy and install the new one.
Once the new drive was installed, I re-docked the laptop and fired it up. Unsurprisingly, given that I hot-cloned the drive, Windows complained that it had not been shut down properly. I nonetheless went ahead and started normally, and the system booted and I got to the desktop, and all looked fine.
If you’ve read anything on SSDs, you probably have a good idea of where they offer the most benefit, but my experience has been that my boot times, which were already pretty fast, didn’t improve a great deal, probably because a significant amount of the boot time is POST and BIOS stuff that doesn’t have much to do with the drive. I will say that a big difference is that once I hit the desktop, the system is immediately usable, which is a nice change over having to wait while various startup programs are loaded into memory.
The two most noticeable improvements for me have been program startup and shutdown, and application installation. One example is Outlook. I’m running the beta of Outlook 2010, and it now starts essentially instantly when I click the icon on the taskbar. Likewise, when I close it, it takes next to no time to close down completely.
Software installs aren’t instantaneous, but they’re definitely faster. And interestingly, it’s also faster to download stuff, because my 20Mbit FiOS connection no longer has to wait as long for the hard drive to write the data it’s firehosing into my network.
Putting the machine to sleep and waking it up each take 15 seconds or less, as does shutting down the machine. Boot runs a little over a minute, but as noted, once I’m at the desktop, it’s fully usable from the start.
Is it worth the price?
There’s the key question, right? Is it worth $499 to get the speed boost represented by the SSD, and is it worth giving up 90GB of drive space (recall that my factory-installed drive was 250GB)? Obviously, if your employer is willing to pick up the cost, I think SSD is a no-brainer. Easily the best performance upgrade available today.
Would I spend my own money? I’m still on the fence there. I’d really like to add an SSD to my main desktop machine, and to the Acer 1420p tablet that I picked up for doing multitouch demos. The question is whether it’s worth $499 per machine to get the perf boost. After experiencing SSD speed, I’m much more likely to update my other machines, but the truth is that I may still wait for prices to drop some more before I buy another SSD.
A couple of other notes…the Intel SSDs have a new set of firmware and tools designed to help you optimize the drives’ performance. I ended up installing the firmware after I had cloned the existing drive to the SSD, which may not have been the smartest order (though I figured I could always re-clone if necessary). When I rebooted after the firmware upgrade, chkdsk ran, and found a number of errors on the drive, all of which were apparently successfully corrected (whew! bullet dodged!).
The wiser course would probably be to download the tools and check the firmware version before copying data to the drive, and update if necessary. Once the firmware is updated, you can then use the Intel SSD optimizer, which works with the Windows 7 TRIM command to ensure that your SSD performance does not degrade over time.
UPDATE: In addition to using the optimizer, a twitter follower reminded me that you should turn OFF the defragger for your SSD drive, since defragging does no good on an SSD, and moving the files around for no reason will only reduce the lifespan of your SSD. Just right-click the drive in Windows Explorer, select Properties, and click over to the Tools tab to find the defrag options:
The big button in the Schedule section is what you use to enable or disable the scheduled defrag…in the image below, mine is already turned off:
The process of installing the SSD was very straightforward, and would have been even more so had I wanted to just do a clean OS install. But even adding in the need to clone the existing drive, it’s a pretty easy upgrade to take on, and if you have $499 to spare, it’s the biggest bang for the buck I’ve EVER experienced in using a PC.