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Ways to speed up an aging laptop

Yesterday Lifehacker did a feature on laptop tweaks and upgrades, that basically came down to reinstalling the OS, adding memory, and upgrading to an SSD. All of those are good things to do of course, but there’s more you can do. I posted a response there; I’ll elaborate a bit here, where I have more room to do so.

There are tons of links here to previous content I’ve written; optimizing aging machines is a recurring theme for me. I’ve been writing on that topic for 11 years now.

Read More »Ways to speed up an aging laptop

It’s been 15 years, and computer stores haven’t changed much

In the early 1990s, I learned how to fix computers because I got tired of long waits and shoddy repairs from computer stores.

Last month I took a friend to go buy a computer. I didn’t want her to get stuck with retail junk, so I took her to a computer store that I knew sold quality parts. Plus I know the owner. He wrote an O’Reilly book too. I figured it would be a smooth experience, since I knew exactly what to ask for. The salesperson said he’d get back to me within two days with a quote, then it would take about a week to build the system after we gave the OK. Seems pretty smooth and reasonable.

It turned into a nightmare. Or at least a mess.Read More »It’s been 15 years, and computer stores haven’t changed much

SSD myths

SSDs, like most disruptive technologies, face some questions and resistance. People will grasp at any straw to avoid adopting them. Thanks to this resistance, a number of SSD myths arose. Here are the myths I see repeated over and over again, and the truth, based on my experience actually using the things.

Note: I originally wrote this way back in 2010. The drive technologies I speak of as state of the art are rather aged now. But the principles still hold today, and will continue to do so. Hard drives have gotten better, but SSD have gotten better at a more rapid pace.

Read More »SSD myths

Very brief first SSD impressions

My OCZ Vertex SSD arrived yesterday. I don’t have it working yet–not completely. In retrospect, I should have just installed the drive and rebuilt the system from scratch. I’d be time ahead by now. But I can tell you a few things.It’s fast. I booted Windows XP in 20 seconds off the Vertex. Not a fresh install either–this was my existing installation I’ve been using for 18 months. Granted, off my factory Seagate Barracuda 7200.7, it booted in about a minute. (I’m still pretty good at optimizing a PC.)

It’s eerily quiet. You see the disk activity light but you don’t hear anything. On those rare occasions when the disk does grind, it’s weird to see the disk light going crazy without hearing anything.

The OCZ Vertex will work with an IDE-SATA bridge, such as the Rosewill RC-203. I think a better option is to put a new SATA card in the system, even if all your system will take is a SATA-150 card rather than SATA-300, and rebuild. You’ll get ever-so-slightly better performance, both from the SATA interface’s greater bandwidth, and from the fresh installation.

An older system like my Compaq Evo D510 can’t take full advantage of a Vertex’s capabilities. But the drive will keep the IDE bus saturated much of the time, longer than any conventional drive, including a 10,000 RPM drive like the legendary (in some circles) Western Digital Raptor.

I still haven’t figured out what went wrong with my installation, but I have an idea. The first time I booted with the new drive after cloning the system to it, I still had the old drive in the system and it decided to load my user profile off the old drive for some reason. Now it doesn’t seem to know to look for the profile on the new drive.

Maybe copying my profile over to the new drive will do the trick. Maybe I need to re-image and not boot until I’ve removed the old drive. I’m not sure. Copying the profile is fastest and easiest. Imaging takes about an hour, plus the time it takes to route cables and move things around in this small form factor case.

I’d hoped this upgrade would be a two-hour project, and back when I routinely did disk swaps, I probably could have done it that quickly. But I think it’s been six years since I’ve done one of these, and I found myself second-guessing things I used to just fly through.

But I’ll get it. I always do.

So I can’t verify yet that a six-year-old Compaq Evo with an OCZ Vertex can launch multiple memory-hogging apps simultaneously in less than a minute. But once I have the system running on that drive, and only that drive, it’s a test I intend to undertake. I believe it will, but of course I want the proof to back it up.

New life for a Compaq Presario S5140WM

I’m fixing up my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM. She bought it about five years ago, a few weeks after her daughter and I started dating. It’s been a pretty good computer for her, but lately it’s been showing signs it might be overheating.

I took the shotgun approach, replacing pretty much everything that I would expect to be at or near the end of its life at five years.Since we seemed to have a heat problem, I picked up a better copper heatsink/fan for the CPU. The copper heatsink promised to lower the temperature by 5-10 degrees on its own. Since I rarely get more than 3-4 years out of a CPU fan, this was pretty much a no-brainer.

I also picked up a Seasonic 300W 80-plus power supply. I doubt the machine will put enough load on the power supply to actually get it to run at peak efficiency, but I also figured an 80-plus power supply would probably be better built and more reliable than a more traditional power supply. Seasonic is hardly a no-name, acting as an OEM for a number of big names, including Antec and PC Power & Cooling.

Finally, of course I replaced the hard drive. Being a parallel ATA model, I was limited in choices. I bought a Seagate rather than a Western Digital, because I’ve had better luck with Seagate through the years, and Seagate has also absorbed Quantum through its purchase of Maxtor. Maxtor admittedly had a couple of rough periods, so say what you will about Maxtor, but every Quantum drive I ever bought still works. I have a Quantum drive I bought back in 2000 still working in my computer downstairs. Yeah, it’s slow and loud, but it’s been ticking away like a Swiss watch for 8 years, in almost constant use! Maybe some of those Quantum engineers worked on this Seagate. To Seagate’s advantage, they do offer a 5-year warranty on their drives, which is really good, considering the conventional wisdom on hard drives used to be that you should replace them every three years because they’d fail soon afterward. Unless the drive was a Quantum, that is.

The question is whether I just clone the old drive onto the new drive, or install Windows fresh on it. I know if I do a fresh installation, the thing will run like a cheetah, free of all the useless crud HP installed at the factory. The question is how lazy I am.

After buying a new hard drive, power supply and CPU fan, I’ve sunk nearly $120 into this old computer. But it’s an Athlon, faster than 2 GHz, so it can hold its own with a low-end computer of today. The onboard video is terrible, but I solved that with a plug-in AGP card. It has 768 MB of RAM in it and tops out at a gig, but since she mainly just uses it for web browsing, 768 megs ought to be enough. I’ll keep my eye out for a 512MB PC3200 DIMM to swap in just in case.

And besides all that, since this Compaq has a standard micro ATX case, if 1 GB starts to feel too cramped, I can swap in a new motherboard/CPU that can take however much memory I want. And the power supply is already ready for it.

But as-is, I think this computer has at least another three years in it.

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.

Memory

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.

Nlite and Windows XP

Well, I had my first major experience with Nlite and Windows XP tonight. I installed a new 160 GB Seagate hard drive into Mom’s Compaq Evo 510 and I used Nlite to slipstream SP2 into Windows XP, since SP2 is necessary to properly use a drive that big.

The resulting image was far too big to fit on a CD, so I started pulling stuff out.Mainly I pulled out stuff like Outlook Express, MSN Explorer, and Media Player. I thought about removing Internet Explorer, but since Mom is going to use MS Office, I thought twice about that. Office uses IE for some things. If I’d been building the system for me, I’d pull that too.

I also removed most of the international support. I saw no need for anything other than US English and maybe Spanish, so I pulled the rest.

Installation went fast. Really fast. I laid down Windows XP, Office 2000, and Firefox in less than an hour. I used the Nlite CD to install the OS, and I installed Office and Firefox from a USB flash drive. All I need now is antivirus software and the system would be usable.

It boots lightning fast–we’re talking 20 seconds from POST to a desktop with no hourglass. Installing antivirus software will slow that down, but it’s impressive. Part of that is due to the new hard drive, but it’s a Seagate 7200.10. It’s newer and faster than the five-year-old Western Digital drive the system came with, but the 7200.10 isn’t exactly new technology anymore.

Memory usage isn’t bad either–100 megs at boot. That’ll double or triple once I install antivirus software, but at least I’m starting lower than usual.

I didn’t check disk usage, but I’m sure it’s much lower than the typical 1.5 GB.

I’m a believer. The results make me wonder just how old and slow of a computer I could get away with XP on.

I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night

So, I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night. I didn’t make any hardware changes other than replacing the Western Digital hard drive inside, which was on its last legs.

Along the way, I learned a few things.I won’t say much about the WD drive except to say it’s the most recent in a long line of bad experiences I’ve had with the brand. I don’t know anything about current WD drives. But this one was loud and shrill, Windows bluescreened when I tried to install to it, and when I tried to run SpinRite on it, it said it would take 140 hours to test. A drive that size (20GB) should take 8-10.

In its defense, that drive was five years old. But I replaced it with a Maxtor drive that’s almost eight years old. SpinRite processed that Maxtor in 3 hours and found nothing worth commenting about. (Just because SpinRite didn’t say anything doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t do anything.)

The Dell Dimension 4100 does have a proprietary power supply (although it looks like an ATX). If you work on Dells, I suggest bookmarking PC Power and Cooling’s Dell cheatsheet. PCP&C power supplies are expensive, but they are reliable, and their prices are comparable to what Dell would charge for a replacement and they are higher quality than what you would get from Dell–assuming Dell will even sell you the part (they’re in the business of selling computers, not parts). I believe newer Dells use standard power supplies.

If you buy a Micron, you can punch in a serial number and get drivers for the machine. With a Dell, you just get guesses based on the options that were available for the machine.

Download the chipset drivers and other low-level stuff from Dell’s support site. Windows 2000 didn’t completely recognize the system’s Intel i815 chipset and I get better performance afterward.

Nlite offers a lot of promise–automating the Windows install, removing components, etc.–but I had trouble getting it to work with the OS recovery CDs I had. I didn’t have enough time (or blank CDs) to figure out how to get it to work for me. I’m sure it works better with a plain old Windows 2000 Workstation CD, but of course I can’t find mine. But if you have a CD that works with it, it’s nice even if you don’t remove the stuff Microsoft doesn’t let you remove, since it provides a nice interface for slipstreaming service packs and hotfixes and removing all of the prompts during installation.

The tricks in Windows 2000 with 32MB of RAM work pretty nicely, even when you have more than 32 megs. Of course, if you’re ruthless with Nlite and can get it to work for you, you probably don’t need that bag of tricks.

I didn’t try to install it without Internet Explorer. I’d love to try that sometime but I didn’t have time for that. At least disabling Active Desktop (see the link in the paragraph above) gives most of the benefit you would get from smiting IE.

The quality of the Dell hardware is reasonable. It didn’t floor me, but I didn’t see anything that made me cry either.