The two typical ways to speed up an older computer are to:
- Add more memory (RAM)
- Add a bigger (or faster) hard drive
Generally speaking, what you upgrade depends on what is being “stressed” in your computer at the moment. For example, if you have plenty of hard drive space, but only 1 GB of RAM, you’re probably hitting your RAM limit more often, which means you should upgrade that first. Likewise, if you have only a 250 GB hard drive, but dozens of large programs (Photoshop, Office, etc.) and a large collection of music, movies, and pictures, then you’re probably hitting your hard drive’s space limits, so you should upgrade that first.
In the case of my netbook, RAM was not the issue – while it does only have 1 GB of RAM, it can only hold (at most) up to 2 GB – and I usually only have one or two programs open at a time, and they are generally not RAM-intensive (just a browser or video player).
Instead, the real limit for my netbook – and, increasingly, the limit on almost everyone’s computer these days – was the hard drive. While my hard drive of 160 GB was technically rather small, I don’t have a lot of files, so the problem wasn’t the amount of space – the problem was the speed.
Hard drive speed isn’t just a limiting factor for netbooks and laptops, either – hard drives have been the slowest thing in computers (of any type) for years now.
Fortunately, the past few years have seen a new type of hard drive appear which helps us get past this hard drive performance problem – the Solid State Drive, or SSD.
Solid State Drives are sort of like giant USB memory sticks; they are the same sort of chip-based non-volatile (i.e., it doesn’t lose its contents when the power goes off, like RAM) memory that you see in USB drives or even in memory cards for your digital camera.
The benefit of an SSD is that, being totally digital, they have no moving parts, and since they are purely electronic, there is no mechanical delay in reading data from different parts of memory (like there is with a regular hard drive, which has to spin a disc and move an arm to a particular part to read the data). Basically, an SSD can be as fast as the memory chips that make it up, and the interface used to connect it to the rest of the computer… which means they can be made very fast.
The downside to SSDs is that they are relatively new technology, and therefore the price is still quite high. You can easily buy a regular hard drive with 1 TB of disk space for about $99 (possibly even less these days), which works out to about $0.10 per GB of disk space. On the other hand, SSDs are currently hovering around about $1.00 per GB of space – that’s about 10 times the cost per gigabyte.
I’ve been mulling over SSDs before, and while they aren’t quite practical for my desktop computer (with its huge disk space requirements), I thought they might be a good fit for my netbook. So I started price-stalking a few different models, and eventually one of them went on sale for the very reasonable (for an SSD) price of $120 (for a 120 GB SATA II SSD), so I snapped it up.
Since the new drive was slightly smaller than my old one (which was 160 GB), I didn’t even bother with the idea of transferring my old installation over to the new drive. Spending hours trying to resize two main partitions (one for Windows, one for Ubuntu Linux) plus all the recovery & swap partitions was just not very appealing to me. Plus, my netbook doesn’t really have anything on it – all my files live on my desktop, after all – so reinstalling the operating systems was not a big deal.
So, I popped out the old hard drive and put in the new one. This involved exactly 6 screws (2 to open the cover, 4 to secure the drive in a tiny little bracket) and took all of 5 minutes.
Even though my netbook is a little on the old side, it recognized the SSD without a hitch. All that was left now was to boot from the USB drives I’d prepared with Windows 7 and Ubuntu and then reinstall my programs.
Windows 7 was the first thing I installed (I prefer to install Linux last, so that it installs GRUB as the boot loader/OS chooser, which I like), and the installation itself took relatively little time (about 20 minutes.)
After that, it took several hours to download and install all the Windows Updates – and this version of Windows 7 I installed already included Service Pack 1! (To be fair though, some of these updates were for Microsoft Office as well.)
Installing Ubuntu went much faster, thanks to its ability to download updates as you install it (hint, hint, Microsoft?).
After installing the OS, I installed the few programs I use (Firefox and Chrome, Skype, Dropbox, and VLC media player, basically) and then I was up and running!
When everything was done, I had my new SSD cleanly split 50/50 between Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and everything was back up and running just fine.
Now though was the moment of truth. I’d rebooted many times already, but always to let some updates install… now it was time to see how fast this new hard drive could be.
Long-time readers will remember I did some completely pointless benchmarks of my computers a while back. The numbers I came up with from those tests showed that my netbook booted into Windows and Ubuntu to a fully-loaded desktop, ready to use, in 1 minute and 30 seconds and 47 seconds, respectively.
With my new SSD, those numbers have fallen to 1 minute even for Windows 7 and just 27 seconds for Ubuntu – a 33% improvement in Windows startup time, and a 42% increase in Ubuntu startup time.
Also, opening new programs is now much snappier (although not instant), and in general the computer just “feels” more responsive.
Keep in mind as well that my netbook, being a little on the old side, can’t really take advantage of the full speed of the SSD – the SATA interface is probably SATA 1, unlike the SATA II or SATA III interfaces that newer computers have. (The SSD drive itself supports SATA II, but it works just fine with SATA 1, just not as fast.)
While these startup times aren’t exactly “stellar” by modern computer & SSD standards, they are a significant improvement over my netbook’s old performance. Now the major limiting factor in my netbook’s performance is actually the old Atom CPU and the somewhat-sluggish graphics adapter.
Still, the SSD reduces much of the “lag” that my netbook used to have – and that’s always the way it is when upgrading a computer with more RAM or a faster hard drive. These things don’t really make the computer any faster, but they do reduce the things that used to slow it down (a subtle but important distinction).
In the end, the SSD was a good (and cost-effective) way to lengthen the service life of my little netbook. It may not be the fastest thing around, and new netbooks (and “ultrabooks”) are almost certainly faster, but I also spent a lot less than the cost of a new netbook/ultrabook.
Upgrading to an SSD is a great way to extend the life of any older computer – assuming that you don’t mind having to re-install all your programs and data. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need to buy an SSD that is the same size (or larger, if you can afford it!) as your old hard drive so that you can just copy (or “clone”) your old drive onto the new SSD. But at the current price of SSDs and the typical size of an average desktop or even laptop hard drive, that might be a very, very pricy option… at least for the next few years.
To put it another way: if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!
SSD image credit: Thrasos Varnava (via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, no derivative works license), USB drive image credit: Crystal Icon Set