Upgrade diary: Compaq Presario C552US

The Presario C552US shipped from the factory with a 1.6 GHz Celeron M single-core CPU, 512MB of RAM, and Windows Vista Home Basic.

It’s the most miserable computing experience I’ve seen in a very long time, if ever. I don’t know how they ever sold a single one of these machines, performing like that.

Fortunately, there’s room to improve it.

The first order of business with a C552 (it says Presario C500 on the cover; flip the back over to see the specific model number, as I understand some of the C500s may not have been quite this miserable) is to upgrade the memory. The system will boot with 512MB of RAM, but when I first fired this thing up, it was 10 minutes before it would let me do anything. Maybe a little longer. I opened Control Panel to tone down the settings (like turning off Aero), and literally walked away for 10 minutes until the disk was done thrashing. The machine meets the minimum requirements for Vista, but clearly someone forgot to consider whether the purchaser would want to do anything with it. It’s too slow to take to a sloth race. And too slow for Apple to use in a commercial because 60 seconds isn’t long enough for it to do anything.

It has a single 512MB DDR2 SODIMM in it and one empty slot, so the question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to buy two 1 GB DIMMs or one. DDR2 memory is still pretty inexpensive, so you’ll probably want to fill ‘er up, if you’re upgrading for yourself. If you intend to run Vista or Windows 7 on it, definitely go for 2 GB. If you intend to run XP on it, 1.5 GB should suffice but 2 GB won’t hurt. What DDR2 memory prices do from here on out is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think it’s going to get much cheaper.

Upgrade the memory, and this budget laptop actually has pretty good potential.

The 80 GB Toshiba SATA HDD is a little weak too. It wasn’t designed to be fast, it was designed to meet a price point. I’ve seen reports that large drives don’t always work in this series of laptop, so the obvious platter drive upgrade–a current-generation Western Digital Scorpio Black–is out. Perhaps an older 160 GB Scorpio Black would be OK. But I’d put a 40 or 80 GB Intel SSD in it if I were looking to improve its disk performance. Intel’s SSDs are a conservative, reliable choice because you know they tested their drives with their chipsets, and their performance is always at least competitive. The BIOS won’t complain about the size, and the performance will blow away the old low-end Toshiba drive it shipped with.

And, frankly, I wouldn’t leave Vista on the machine. Windows 7 might run fine on it, but I loaded XP on it. I know Windows 7 fans say anything that runs XP will run 7 better, but I don’t find that to always be the case, especially with lower-end processors like Atoms and older Celerons. But there is no question Windows 7 will run better on it than Vista does. Anything would.

Some laptops have some BIOS options that let you trade off silence for performance, but the C552’s BIOS is very spartan. About all it allows is toggling the SATA between native and legacy (you want native, unless you’re trying to run a 20th-century operating system on it), setting a delay to give yourself more time to enter the BIOS at power-on, and changing the boot order. Put the hard drive first in the boot order and set the delay to zero if you want it to boot up as quickly as possible and you want to feel like you did something.

There’s no option for a SATA password for security. Perhaps the SATA SX BIOS patch would work, but I wasn’t willing to try it.

It’s definitely not a tweaker’s delight or anything, but with the memory maxed, a new hard drive (preferably an SSD) and something other than Vista, it’s a decent machine. It’ll be faster than a netbook for most things, with a nicer sound system and a nice, full-size keyboard.

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