Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 

Drive Speed Bragging Rights
by Alan German

Is the speed of your hard disk just too slow for today's high-tech world? Perhaps you need a "Super-Sonic Disk" – actually a Solid State Drive – an SSD!

The prices of SSD's have dropped dramatically in the past couple of years. And, if you look out for sales, you can pick one up at relatively low cost. For example, at the time of writing, a 120 GB, SATA 3 SSD, with read/write speeds of around 500 MB/s, is on sale for just under $100, i.e. less than $1/GB.

SSD manufacturers will tell you that SSD's provide access times 100x faster than conventional hard drives, consume 75% less power, weigh 90% less, and will last 2-3 times longer.

So, with far superior performance, low cost, and high reliability, what are you waiting for? Perhaps all you need is a quick-and-dirty guide to SSD installation. If so, read on – for stories of instant success – and a tale of extreme caution!

If you have a desktop machine, installation of an SSD – either as a second hard disk, or as a replacement for an existing drive – should be child's play. Opening up the computer's case will provide access to the drive bays. If your machine is equipped with a single hard drive, there will almost certainly be an empty drive bay next door, together with unused power and data cables.

The SSD has two electrical connectors that are different sizes (number of pins) so that it is obvious which cable attaches to which connector. Furthermore, the cables and their connectors are keyed so that they can only be attached one way round (Figure 1).

The SSD comes with a mounting bracket, and screws with which to attach the SSD to the bracket. In my installation, the hardest part of the whole job was figuring out how to attach the mounting bracket to the drive bay. None of the pre-drilled holes were located so as to conveniently line up with existing holes in the drive bay. The answer was to position the mounting bracket, mark the location of two existing drive bay holes, drill corresponding holes in the bracket, and secure the bracket to the drive bay using self-tapping screws. Not the most elegant solution – but quick – and effective.

Figure 1. SSD for a desktop computer Figure 2. Inserting an SSD into a laptop’s drive bay

Replacing a laptop's hard drive with an SSD was even simpler. On the laptop in question, a single screw allowed the existing hard drive, mounted in a carrier, to be slid out of the unit. The hard drive was unscrewed from the carrier, and the SSD mounted in its place (Figure 2). Sliding the carrier back into the drive slot automatically made the electrical connections. The retention screw was fastened into place and the system was ready for use.

My experience with a netbook – an Acer Aspire One 522 – was a little more challenging. Fortunately, there are a number of how-to postings on the web, in addition to several YouTube videos (e.g., indicating specifically what is required. However, knowing what to do is one thing; actually doing it can be quite a different prospect!

The problem is that the hard drive is located under the netbook's bottom panel. However, in their undoubted wisdom, the engineers who designed this machine, placed the screws securing the bottom panel – on the top of the computer – but underneath the keyboard!

The first trick, therefore, is to use a small, thin-bladed tool (I used a jeweller's screwdriver) to push back the spring-loaded plastic retention clip at the right-rear edge of the keyboard, slide the thin blade down behind the keyboard and – gently – pry it upwards. A hard-plastic card is then slipped underneath the right-rear corner of the keyboard so that the clip cannot re-engage. The procedure was repeated for the remaining clips, sliding the plastic card along the rear edge of the keyboard as I worked along. So far, so good.

There are two additional retention clips, one in the centre of each side of the keyboard. However, rather than being spring loaded, these clips are rigid. The second (almost magical) trick is to – very gently! – bend the keyboard so that the central portion bows upwards and the keyboard can be slipped out from underneath the clips. This is the most nerve-wracking part of the operation. Bend the keyboard enough to be able to remove it, but not so much as to snap it in half!

Carefully moving the keyboard, with its ribbon cable still attached, away from the centre of the computer's deck, the screws holding the rear panel can now be located and removed. A Robertson screwdriver (or similarly blunt tool) can then be pushed down a specific hole to pop the rear panel off the computer.

The retention screw for the hard drive is removed and the drive slid out of its electrical connector. Finally, a wrap-around carrier is removed. The entire process is then reversed in order to install the SSD. (Since the machine's RAM is also located under the bottom panel, now is a good time to replace the module and maximize the installed memory.)

The disappointment in the process came when benchmarking the netbook's performance following installation of more memory and an SSD. The machine's boot time for Windows 7 Starter Edition went from 70 to 52 s. This was nowhere near as good as the result for the desktop machine where Windows' boot time was reduced from 46 to 15 s. In addition the shutdown time for the desktop under Windows went from 15 to 5 s.

The fact that the netbook's boot time changed so little led me to abandon the installation of the SSD in this machine and instead use the device to replace the hard disk in the laptop. The laptop benefited much more from this change with the boot time for Vista going from 85 to 43 s and the shutdown time being reduced from 17 to 7 s.

If you are thinking about installing an SSD in an existing machine, my advice would be to check the web to see how easy, or how difficult, the process might be. And – if you have an Acer Aspire One 522 netbook – buy a new machine!

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Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

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