The difference an SSD makes

Back in the spring I bought a used computer. My wife wanted one, and while I probably could have cobbled something together for her, I didn’t have any extra Windows 7 licenses. So I bought a home-built Pentium D-based machine with Windows 7 on it from an estate sale for $70. The Windows license is worth that, so it was like getting the hardware for free.

When I got the hardware home to really examine it, it turned out not to be quite as nice as I initially thought. It was a fairly early Socket 775 board, so it used DDR RAM and had an AGP slot, limiting its upgrade options. The system ran OK, but not great, and it was loud.

The hard drive was a 160 GB Western Digital IDE drive built in 2003. That’s an impressive run, but a drive that old isn’t a good choice for everyday use. It’s at the end of its life expectancy and it’s not going to be fast. This weekend I got around to replacing it with an SSD. Read more

The world’s fastest budget PC

So, a relative’s PC was getting a bit aged, and runs Windows XP, barely, so I talked them into an upgrade. I noticed that Micro Center had HP/Compaq DC5700s for $99. They were standard issue office PCs a few years ago, and there are a lot of them in the refurb channel. We went and got one over the weekend.

“What are you going to do with that?” the sales rep asked. “We only use them as cash registers.”

“Word processing,” I said.

“You sure you want to run Windows 7 on an 8-year-old PC?”

“I wrote the book on running Windows on older PCs. Literally. It’ll be fine.”

I hate calling rank like that, but sometimes it’s what you have to do.

And really, for $99, it’s awfully good. Web browsing is plenty fast, Libre Office runs fine on it, and think about it. Windows 7 retails for $100-$109. So it’s like getting the hardware for free. Or Windows for free, however you want to look at it.

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Notes on the Compaq Presario SR2011WM

I’ve been working on a Compaq Presario SR2011WM. It’s a basic, low-end, single-core Celeron D system from 2006 or so. It can take up to 2 GB of RAM, runs Windows XP adequately, and has SATA ports, so you can put an SSD in it if you want. But don’t be fooled by the name–the Celeron in this machine is single core, and has a Prescott-era Pentium 4 core in it at that, not a low-TDP, Pentium D-style core.

In case you’re wondering, the easiest way to get it to boot from USB is to plug in a USB drive, hit ESC as the system runs POST, then select your USB drive from the menu.

Now let’s talk about options for upgrades. Read more

My Socket 775 adventures, Chapter 1

So I bought an Intel Socket 775 board to support a crash webserver rebuild project. I present the story in hopes that it might be useful, or entertaining, or both. I don’t know the ultimate outcome of it yet, but all of the decisions made sense at the time.
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Be careful when buying previous-generation hardware

So I was hoping I could score a bargain on some older Socket 775 hardware, being previous generation and all. And sometimes you can. But sometimes you can just think you’re getting a bargain.

Here’s an example.

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A serious case of one-downmanship

While researching nLite (I’m thinking about rebuilding a PC), I found a page about two Germans exploring the true minimum system requirements of Windows XP.

I won’t spoil the ending, but one of them managed to accidentally discover the world’s slowest Pentium.I used to enjoy that kind of tinkering but really don’t have time for it anymore, especially when you’re talking boot times of 30 minutes.

At any rate, it was very interesting to see what these two tinkerers could do, even if I’m not too keen on running XP on anything less than about 1.5 GHz these days. I run a Pentium D system at work, which probably runs around 2.6 GHz, and it’s a slug. But that’s probably mostly because they insist on foisting Office 2007 on us.

But sometimes that work PC feels like one of the PCs on that web site must.

Better upgrade advice

PC Magazine has a feature about inexpensive PC upgrades. There’s some good advice there, but some questionable advice too. Since I really did write the book on free and inexpensive upgrades, I’ll present my own advice (but I’ll skip the pretty pictures).Hard drives

The best upgrade they didn’t mention is replacing the hard drive. I’ve been squeezing extra life out of old systems for years by taking out the aging drives and replacing them with something newer and faster. The trick is figuring out whether the drive is the old-style parallel ATA (with a 40- or 80-conductor cable) or newer SATA. If you can afford it, it makes sense to upgrade to a SATA controller so you can use a more modern drive. Newer drives are almost always faster than older drives if only because the density of the data is always increasing. If a drive stores twice as much data in the same linear space as an old one, it (roughly) means it will retrieve the data twice as fast, assuming the disk spins at the same speed (and it may spin faster). You can go all the way up to the 10,000 RPM Western Digital Raptor drives if you want, but even putting a mid-range drive in an old PC will speed it up.

Some people will point out that a new drive may be able to deliver data at a faster rate than an old controller in an old PC can handle. I don’t see that as a problem. There’s no drive on the market that can keep a 133 MB/sec bus saturated 100% of the time, and the old drive certainly isn’t. Even if your older, slower bus is the limiting factor some of the time, you’re still getting the benefit of a newer drive’s faster seek times and faster average data transfers.

While replacing a hard drive can bust an entire $125 upgrade budget in and of itself, it’s still something I recommend doing. Unless your system is really short on memory or you’re heavily into gaming, the hard drive is the best bang for your upgrade buck.


The other point I disagree with most strongly is the memory. There’s very little reason anymore to run a system with less than 1 GB of RAM. As a system becomes more obsolete, memory prices go up instead of down, so it makes sense to just install a ton of memory when you’re upgrading it anyway. If you need it later, it will probably cost more.

The caveat here is that it makes very little sense to install 4 GB of RAM, since the Intel x86 processor architecture reserves most of the 4 GB block for system use. If you install 4 GB of RAM, you really get more like 3.2 or 3.5 GB of usable memory unless you’re running 64-bit Windows. I don’t recommend going 64-bit yet. When it works, it works well. Unfortunately there’s no way to know if you’ll have good drivers for everything in your system until you try it. I wouldn’t go 64-bit until some popular software that requires (or at least takes really good advantage of) 64 bit arrives. The next version of Photoshop will help, but I think the thing that will really drive 64-bit is when id software releases a game that needs it. Until then, hardware makers will treat 64-bit Windows as an afterthought.

I usually put 2 GB of RAM in a system if it’ll take that much. If you do a lot of graphics or video work, more is better of course. For routine use, 2 GB is more than adequate, yet affordable. If a system won’t take 2 GB, then it makes sense to install as much as it will take, whether that’s 1 GB or 512 MB. If a system won’t take 512 MB, then it’s old enough that it makes sense to start talking replacement.

Outright replacement

Speaking of that, outright replacement can be a very practical option, especially if a system is getting up in years. My primary system is a 5-year-old office PC. Take a 2-ish GHz P4 or equivalent (current market value: $75-$125), load it up with 2 GB of RAM and a moderately fast hard drive, and you’ll have a better-built system than any $399 budget PC on the market. It will probably run as fast or faster, and it will cost less.

I have two PCs at the office: a 3 GHz Pentium D, and a 2.6 GHz Core Duo. Both have 2 GB of RAM. They theoretically encode MP3s faster than my home PC and would make better gaming PCs than my home PC (ahem), but for the things I do–namely, web browsing, spreadsheets, word processing, e-mail, and the occasional non-3D game–I can’t tell much difference between them. The System Idle Process gets the overwhelming majority of the CPU time on all of them.

Other upgrades

The other things discussed in the article can be worthwhile, but faster network cards won’t help your Internet speed. If you routinely copy huge files between multiple PCs, they help a lot, but how many people really do that on a regular basis?

Fast DVD burners are nice and they’re inexpensive, but if you needed one, you’d know it. If you don’t know what you’d do with one, skip it. Or if you have an older one that you use occasionally, you probably won’t use a faster one any more often.

For $60 you can get a decently fast hard drive, and that will do a lot more for overall system performance than either a network card or DVD burner upgrade.

The video card is a sensible upgrade under two circumstances: If you’re using the integrated video on your motherboard, or if you play 3D games and they feel jerky. If neither of those describes you, skip the video card upgrade.

Free upgrades

The article describes CHKDSK as a “low level defrag.” That’s not what CHKDSK does–it checks your drive for errors and tries to fix them. If your drives are formatted NTFS (and they probably are), routinely running CHKDSK isn’t going to do much for you. If you run CHKDSK routinely and it actually says it’s done something when it finishes, you have bigger problems and what you really need is a new hard drive.

If you want to defragment optimally, download JK-Defrag. It’s free and open source, and not only does a better job than the utility that comes with Windows, but it does a better job than most of the for-pay utilities too.

The first time you run it, I recommend running it from the command line, exactly like this: JkDefrag.exe -a 7 -d 2 -q c:. After that, just run it without any options, about once a month or two. (Running more often than that doesn’t do much good–in fact, the people who defragment their drives once a day or once a week seem to have more problems.) Run it with the options about once a year. Depending on what condition your system is in, the difference in performance after running it ranges from noticeable to stunning.