Kevin Hunt: With a new solid-state hard drive, an old laptop is reborn



A technologically dated computer isn't as lucky as an old smartphone. Instead of becoming a trade-in, then reused, it's a hand-me-down, basement clutter or electronic waste.

It doesn't have to be that way. Anyone brave enough to dig inside an aged laptop can perform relatively easy and inexpensive upgrades that will transform the machine. I've recently completed archeological digs into a MacBook purchased, I believe, during the Nixon administration and a 2009 Mac Mini rescued this summer from Craigslist, along with an Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse, for $300.

After adding RAM, the random access memory used by computers to read and write data, and a solid-state hard drive to each, I barely recognize the old-timers. They boot up faster, shut down faster, open applications faster and act years younger. I turned both into dedicated music servers, but make yours into whatever you want, whether it's connected to an HDTV as a movie library or for general-purpose computing.

The biggest difference-maker for most computers is replacing the original hard drive with a solid state drive. A traditional hard drive is a spinning disk at 5,400 or 7,200 revolutions per minute. Aside from being noisy, it generates heat.

An internal solid-state hard drive looks like a traditional drive but it's actually more like a USB flash drive that stores data on microchips. A solid-state drive has no moving parts, so it's quieter and faster than standard drives, uses less power and runs cooler.

They also offer significantly less storage for the money, though prices are coming down. Dealnews.com says prices in September on 256-gigabyte solid state drives dropped 65 percent and 64-gigabyte drives 45 percent since January. The trick is to get the lowest-capacity, least-expensive SSD that will store essentials and put everything else, like large photo, music or video collections on a traditional external hard drive.

A memory seller's website can recommend a SSD based on your computer and its age. Crucial.com, the source of the RAM upgrade and 64-gigabyte solid-state drive for the Mac Mini project, also has a system scanner that recommends memory compatible with your computer.

To replace my MacBook's 120-gigabyte hard drive with a comparable SSD would have cost about $250 in 2010. But in July, I moved quickly on a 120-gigabyte OCZ Agility 3 SSD available for $60, after a $10 rebate, from a one-item-a-day sale site. Little Whitey MacBook previously had been upgraded from 2 gigabytes of RAM to the maximum 4 — a pair of snap-in 2-gigabyte RAM modules cost about $25 — so the SSD installation was the final part of this makeover.

Before the hard-drive transplant, I first had to transfer an exact copy, or clone, of the original hard drive to the SSD. After buying an enclosure for the SSD (an $11 Vantec case from Newegg.com), I used the free Carbon Copy Cloner software to turn the SSD into a bootable disc that contains the files to run the computer's operating system.

The transfer took 74 minutes, swapping the drives about 15 more. All it took was removing the battery, then moving the tiny screws from a metal bracket that protects the compartment housing both the hard drive and the RAM modules. (While you're there, the RAM is also easily swapped. ) The drive itself was attached to thin metal bracing, also attached by screws.

What a difference, even though the MacBook is limited to the slowest storage interface (1.5 gigabytes per second) while the SSD is compatible with today's faster specifications (3 gigabytes per second).

This should be a relatively easy operation, even for the novice. Search the Web for more description instruction and YouTube for visual guides. The old drive in the new case, meanwhile, becomes either an instant backup or a portable hard drive.

Working inside a Mac Mini, however, might intimidate the novice. Without the experience with the MacBook, I might have turned back when, after accessing the Mini's interior with a putty knife, I saw the delicate antenna clips and springs, all the screws and the ribbon cable.

By following a step-by-step video, however, I finished the makeover in about 45 minutes. Now I have two computers suddenly renewed, refreshed and ready for several more years of service.

khunt@tribune.com

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