Speed up your laptop with a new hard disk

If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the speed of your laptop, there are a couple of quick and relatively low-cost ways to give it a bit of extra zing. The first option is to add more RAM. Most modern laptops make their memory slots easily accessibly by means of small panel that you can open up with nothing more than a screwdriver. Check with somewhere like Crucial to find out what memory modules you need, slap ’em in, and watch it go.

The second option is less known, but it is definitely the connoisseur’s choice: upgrade the hard disk. The ease with which this can be done varies greatly between manufacturers. With some, there’s a simple panel you unscrew; with others, you might have to consult Google to find a guide to fully opening up the case. And the reason a new hard disk can give you a speed boost is that most present-day laptops are fitted with a 4200 rpm disk, which is slow, slow, slow. The faster a hard disk spins, the faster it can provide your processor with data, and the faster your machine will load programs, read and save files, and even boot and shutdown. In fact, the whole machine will just feel snappier.

As a rough illustration, have a look at these (informal) timings from a WinXP laptop (Dell Inspiron 5150) I just upgraded:

Operation 4200rpm drive 7200rpm drive
From power up to Windows logon screen 46s 29s
Start up Outlook 2003 (cold start) 9s 5s
Start up Firefox 1.5.0.1 (cold start) 13s 7s

Faster disks are more expensive than slower ones, but you can get a sweet little 80GB Hitachi 7K100 Travelstar drive (7200rpm) for around £100. If you’re thinking about buying a new laptop because your own one has lost its zing, you might consider upgrading its disk rather than splashing out many times that price for a new machine.

One thing that always puts me off upgrading my main hard disk is the hassle of reinstalling Windows, applying patches, and configuring the system–and that’s all before I get round to installing all the applications I need for my everyday life. But…there is a BETTER WAY! Oh boy, is it better. Basically, you clone your disk (and its whole Windows installation) using open-source (free) tools.

The key requirements for this solution are a network connection, and access to an FTP server with LOTS OF SPACE (enough to hold your old hard disk). Ideally, this FTP server should be on your local network, because if it’s out on the internet, data transfers are going to take ages.

First of all, go to http://www.feyrer.de/g4u/ and download the g4u ISO image. Burn this image to a blank CD, and then use it for booting up the machine whose hard disk you’re upgrading (with the old hard disk still inside it). By following the instructions on the g4u web site, you can use the uploaddisk tool to upload a bit-for-bit copy of your main hard disk to an FTP server of your choice. (It will upload as a single, gzip-compressed file to save space.) Depending on the speed of the machine and the network, this may take some time (i.e. several hours), but it’s hands-off time. Set it going overnight, and come back the next morning.

Next, replace the old hard disk with the new one. Don’t bother with formatting. (YAY.)

Boot up with the g4u disk again, and now use the slurpdisk tool to download the old hard disk onto the new one. Again, this may take some time, but it will probably be faster than the upload.

Remove the g4u disk, and restart the machine. Assuming it was Windows you were running before, then your machine should boot up as normal without any further changes.

If your new disk is the same size as the old one, you’re done. If the new disk is bigger than the old one, though, (not an unreasonable assumption) there is one further step to take. If you go into the Disk Management tool, you’ll see that your new hard disk has a partition on it of the same size as the old disk, and a bunch of unallocated space. If you’re happy with adding a new drive letter to your machine, you can create a new logical drive in the unallocated space. However, if you want your system drive to make use of the whole disk’s space, you’ll need additional tools, because Windows doesn’t have built-in ability to resize your system partition.

Enter Knoppix. Go to the Knoppix web site and download the iso image for version 4.0.2 (or later), and burn this to a CD. Boot up from this CD into Linux, and use the QTParted tool (already present on the Knoppix disk) to resize your system partition. (Further instructions are available at the ntfsresize page.)

End result: a faster, bigger hard disk, containing an identical clone of your previous system installation. Although the elapsed time may be longer than the time for a complete Windows reinstall, you don’t have to worry about configuration or post-installation tasks. In my book, that’s a BIG win.

1 comment

  1. I upgraded my Acer with a 60GB 7200rpm disk. But be careful…faster drives typically consume more power and run warmer. I’d check the tolerances and cooling capabilities of the laptop before doing this. I had problems with the laptop overheating and shutting down. Clearing out the crap that had accumulated around various heatsinks and airflows over 18 months more or less solved the problem along with propping the back up on matchboxes to improve all round convection cooling.

    That said it does still run significantly hotter which can only mean component stress in the longer run.

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