Friday, October 19, 2007

Adventures in DIY Computer Upgrading

Could you replace the hard drive in your laptop? Even if you're not "handy" and not "mechanically inclined"? If my experience is any indication, the answer is "Yes! You can!"

First, a little background on me. I'm probably the least "handy", least "mechanically inclined" person that you'd ever meet. Power tools are dangerous things of wonder to me. I once took the Kolbe A Index and my lowest conative ability was working with my hands. Theoretically, I shouldn't be any good with computers or anything technical. My lack of ability and interest has never stopped me from daydreaming about building a car or an airplane from a kit. However, my common sense has always prevailed. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I decided to try to replace my own laptop hard drive.

I discovered that the 40GB hard drive in my Toshiba Satellite was almost completely full when I tried to defragment it one day and found out that I didn't have enough space to defragment. Who knew you needed space? I did some investigation and discovered that it was allegedly easy to replace a hard drive. I supposedly only needed to clone the new drive and swap it for the old drive. Yeah, right!

My first mistake was buying the wrong kind of hard drive. I needed a SATA drive but I bought an IDE drive. The connectors are not compatible. Fortunately, the big box retailer where I got the drive took it back and refunded my money, but they didn't have any SATA drives in stock so I had to go elsewhere. My second mistake was prematurely sealing the Nexxtech 2.5 inch USB hard drive enclosure. I thought it would snap apart as easily as it snapped together. I was wrong. I had to pry it apart with a screwdriver, which ruined the enclosure. I wish I hadn't done that. It was a pretty nice little enclosure. I could still use it to hook up the drives to my laptop even though I had ruined the case. I downloaded some software from Acronis and after some fiddling around managed to "clone" my hard drive. I see now that I didn't follow what Acronis recommends. Everything seemed to go well until I installed the new hard drive in the laptop and tried to boot the computer, and then I got an OS error. I tried it again with the same results.

I decided that maybe it made more sense to have professionals do it. So, while visiting the big box electronics store to get a new car stereo, I took my laptop to get a quote on installing the new hard drive. While discussing what was involved and the estimated cost (around $278.00), the fellow helping me asked if I had the original installation disks because the OS wouldn't transfer. If I didn't have the disks, then they'd have to charge me for Windows XP. The lightbulb went off and I realized the missing step that hadn't been explained in what I had read ---- the OS wouldn't clone and I needed to reintall it. EUREKA! I decided to try it myself one more time.

I went to the store and bought a new copy of Windows XP. I sat down with my laptop, new hard drive, external USB drive case, and my Windows disks. I installed XP on the new hard drive and cloned my old drive again. I had a few glitches along the way. I got several error messages that files couldn't be found as I installed XP. I had a Windows upgrade disk and for some reason that seemed to help. In any event, I eventually was able to boot up the new hard drive and it was a thing of beauty. My desktop looked and acted exactly as it had before. It was as if no change had been made to my computer, except that now I had three times the hard drive space. I've noticed some other changes as well. For some reason, the Western Digital 120GB drive seems to run much cooler than the 40GB Hitachi Travel Star drive even though they both run at 5400 rpm. Consequently, the cooling fans don't run all the time and create a lot of noise. The computer also no longer overheats and shuts down unless it gets excellent airflow to the fans. I liked the laptop before, but I like it even more now that it isn't so hot that it burns my lap.

I replaced the external USB hard drive enclosure with another one from Tiger Direct. Now I have a new internal 120 GB hard drive and a 40 GB external hard drive for back ups. Unfortunately, the drive case requires two small screws, but did not come with them. I think the assumption is that you'll use the screws from your hard drive, but my hard drive screws are holding in the new internal hard drive. Nevertheless, the case seems to fit together pretty well without the screws.

Because my hourly rate is $250.00, I probably would have saved money by working and paying someone else to install the hard drive. But that wouldn't have been as interesting or as much fun. The final cost was $321.00 with tax for Windows XP Professional, about $14.99 for the second drive enclosure, $25.00 for the first drive enclosure. and around $100.00 for the new drive. The total was about $461.00 plus my time. At that rate, I was on my way to the price of a new low end laptop.

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