Upgrading an Old Laptop with an SSD: performance?

April 23, 2010

Science, Technology

After recently upgrading my desktop machine with an Solid State Drive (SSD) with a new Intel X25-M 80GB and, consequently, bring the four year old machine back to life, I decided to give my four year old laptop (a Dell 640M) the same treatment.  This was motivated  in part because boot and application times were driving me batty, but also because of an impending roadtrip during which the laptop was likely suffer as a passenger in the side-saddle of my push bike on some pretty rough roads.

The Chosen SSD: A-RAM Pro 128GB

Although tempted by another Intel X25-M, the 80GB didn’t give me the overhead that I needed for all my work data, so  instead, I went for a relatively unknown A-RAM Pro Series 128GB, which, at $AU362, was about the same price as the Intel. The A-RAM SSD ticked all the right boxes – Indilynx controller, Trim support (in Win XP and Windows 7), performance (240MB/s read and 140MB/s write) and good value.

Installation Method

This is where a Windows Home Server (WHS) comes in handy (in my case, the HP X510). The original 70GB drive was backed up to the WHS, removed; then the A-RAM SSD was installed, and the contents of the old drive copied to it. Here’s an outline of the process if you’re interested in doing a similar thing:

1. Backup old HDD to WHS
2. Remove the old HDD
3. Install the new SSD
4. Boot the machine from the WHS PC Restore Disk
5. Follow the prompts
6.Select the destination machine
7. Run the Disk Manager
8. Remove the old partition and format the new SSD  (to its full capacity)
9. Align the backed up volume with the newly created drive (which I assigned as C:)
10. NB: make sure you adjust the boot.ini settings for the new drive

All up the installation and restore process takes about 90 mins (for my 70GB of data).

There’s a good blow-by-blow article “Using Windows Home Server to upgrade your client hard drive ..” at Using Windows Home Server if you want more details. Thank you Timothy!

Performance

In terms of improved real world performance improvements, what can you expect?  Well, let me first preface this by saying that the experience of upgrading my desktop machine (a dual core AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 3800+ 2.0 GHz), led to conclude that:

a) the performance limitation of any hard drive based machine (assuming an old SATA2 drive) is likely the drive, however:

b) the next limitation on performance (once you remove the artificial cap of the hard drive) is not the SATA II performance (which is 300MB/s aka 3Gb/s), but the processor capacity. This point isn’t highlighted enough. You see, whilst the Intel X25-M truly liberated my desktop machine, HD Tune revealed that the average read speed was about 110MB/s, not the 220MB/s quoted by many tests (on higher specified machines).

So, in short – ‘your mileage may vary’.

With that said, let’s looks at the real world performance improvements I achieved with my lowly Intel Core Duo 1.6GHz Dell 640m (2GB RAM) ..

Boot & Startup Speeds

The benchmark values (in red) here were from a clean start with a network connection. As you can see, a normal load for me (with all my preferred applications auto-started and settled) was in the order of 5 minutes.

Show here in green are the reduced load times to login, initial desktop view, settled desktop and then initialise my RSS feed scanner. The result was a new load time of 50 seconds!

loadtime1

Or expressed as percentage speed improvement:

loadtimepercent

As you can see, my real world startup time has gone from 300 to 50 seconds.

Application Load Times

I chose a few key applications – mainly those that I’ve noticed bog the machine down on startup. The following shows the load application time improvement of each.

apptimemultiplier1

Both iTunes and Copying to File Server involve some interaction with my WHS, so it was not surprising that both of these didn’t performs quite as well as Fireworks and Blurb as a result of being hamfisted by an 100Mbs ethernet connection.  Certainly the real world improvements feels like about a 4 times speed improvement – definitely snappier.

Disk Speed Benchmarking

I’ve stuck with HD Tune to measure/benchmark drive performance. Here are the statistics with the old HDD and the new SSD:

Characteristic HDD (old) SSD (new)
Minimum Speed 5.2 MB/s 95.0 MB/s
Maximum Speed 36.0 MB/s 118.1 MB/s
Average Speed 26.3 MB/s 115.1 MB/s
Access Time 17.7 ms 0.1 ms
Burst Speed 76.0 MB/s 102.50 MB/s
CPU 5.5 % 29.4 %

There seems to generally correlate with the load time and application load time real world performance measured above.

The New Bottleneck: CPU

Interestingly, the 115MB/s average read speed is, like the Intel X-25M SSD upgrade of a similarly-aged dual core machine (2GHz), is not anything like the claimed 240MB/s read speed. However, this goes to my previous observation (see (b) above) – where the previous limit on performance was drive speed, the limit once an SSD is installed becomes CPU.  My experiences with both the Intel and this A-RAM SSD upgrade, I regularly observed the processor topping out at 100% (this is something I never observed when the machines were lumbered with their HDDs, albeit SATA).

Therefore, I full expect that if these drives were ever transplanted into faster machines (say an Intel QuadCore, or Intel i5), their potential performance would be realised:- probably somewhere around the manufacturers’ claimed speeds, and just below the SATAII maximum speed of 300MB/s.

Conclusion

Am I happy?  Hell yes. I highly recommend this type of upgrade to anyone looking to extract a couple of extra years out of their existing computer.  And even if the machine itself should faulter in some other way, I can always swap out the new SSD straight into a new machine (and, in so doing, realise an even greater benefit from the SSD without the confines of an weary CPU).

Photo credit: Steve Wampler

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About Justin Moss

An information and engineering technologist. Unabashedly opinionated, open-minded and an oft overthinker. Born Sydney Australia, home of the 'Southerly Buster'

View all posts by Justin Moss

5 Responses to “Upgrading an Old Laptop with an SSD: performance?”

  1. Alex Says:

    Hi, the detailed link on how to upgrade the drive seems to be broken. I’d really like to see how you did the align and changed the boot.ini to make sure the SSD worked and had optimal performance.

    Cheers

  2. Justin Moss Says:

    Hi Alex – thanks for picking up the broken link – it has been corrected to: http://usingwindowshomeserver.com/2009/04/25/using-windows-home-server-to-upgrade-your-client-hard-drive-on-a-friday-night/. As for the boot.ini issue, I recall that I got my best guidance from a technet.microsoft or social.microsoft article (go figure) on the basics of boot.ini. Importantly, I do remember that once the restore was complete, your opportunity to change the boot.ini was limited (if machine didn’t boot into Windows of course, in which case, you’d have no need to) – in other words, the only practical opportunity I had to edit the boot.ini (or planned boot.ini) was during the restore phase (where you are given access to modify it). In practice, this meant going through the Restore process a couple of times until I nutted out the correct boot.ini configuration. Again, I suggest you see the Microsoft articles on boot.ini (for once, an MS article didn’t leave me more confused than when I started :-)).

  3. archstud Says:

    Hi, great article. You can drastically improve performance with the intel core 2 duo T7200, T7400 or T7600 cpu. I just did that from a T2050 Core Duo, and boy what an improvement it made in my Dell Inspiron 640m!

  4. Justin Moss Says:

    Hi Archstud,

    Really? Does the processor snap straight to replace the T2050? If so, this would be a brilliant way to extend the life.

    Justin

  5. archstud Says:

    Sorry for the slightly late reply Justin. Yes, the cpu is a straight hardware drop in replacement. No special software hacks required. I am also breathing new life in to the old 640m with Elementary OS ‘Freya’. Perhaps one of the best (because it is dead easy) Linux variants. It looks and feels like Mac OS X, but with snappier responses on older hardware.

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