Let’s Make Your Computer Great Again!

Need-An-Upgrade-Brick

What is the first thought that comes to mind when your computer starts feeling slow and when your hard drive is almost full? Some of you will start deleting files (aka cleaning up some junk) and others will be thinking about purchasing a new PC (by the way, I use the term PC as is stands for Personal Computer, which means this applies to machines operating Windows, OS X, Linux ,etc.). But do you really need to buy yourself a new computer?

One of my friends was in this situation and asked me for advice. He has a MacBook Pro 13″ mid 2010 with an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.4 GHz, 4GB of RAM and a 250GB Hard Drive. His first problem was that his 250GB was almost full. He could delete some files, but this would only be a temporary patch as in the long run, he would always run out of space (first time Dad, so he’s grabbing a ton of pictures/videos of his newborn baby girl). The second issue was that sometimes the computer felt slow: long loading times, unresponsive, etc. The easy fix would of been to simply upgrade the Hard Drive for a bigger one, move his files to an external drive (or on the Cloud) or buy a new computer altogether. But, in my opinion, none of those solutions were optimal.

Upgrade Vs New Computer

Buying a new computer can be somewhat of a pleasant experience. I mean who doesn’t like to have a shiny new machine with top of the line specs? But, is it really worth it? What are you really using your computer for? Is it for general use like browsing the Web, banking, word processing and other light tasks? In the last couple of years, laptops have become slimmer, lighter and more energy efficient. To a certain extend, a tablet would be enough for most people (if you can live with limited storage and are confortable storing everything in the Cloud). Even smartphones are becoming so powerful that you can do pretty much all of your regular tasks on it (Microsoft is releasing a dockable/connection method for their new Windows Smartphones and most Android phones can be plugged to a bigger external monitor). It’s simply a matter of time before your smartphone becomes your main machine for all your needs.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot has changed in the past 5 years, but most of these upgrades aren’t of real relevance for the average user. M.2, eSata, DDR4, 4K, Octa Core, external GPUs and so on, are really great if you are a gamer, work in the visual entertainment industry (video production, 3D, engineering, etc.) or simply need extra power to perform demanding tasks. In my opinion, PC sales have drastically decreased over the years as only a small portion of users can benefit from the latest tech (and most of the time a tablet will do the job). If you computer is 5-6 years old (around 2010), some component upgrades will do the trick and in some cases, your current PC might even feel faster than a new one. The thing with new laptops, below 1000$ (Canadian Dollars), is that you usually won’t see a drastic improvement in overall performance, as the component that makes the biggest difference, an SSD, doesn’t come standard. Manufacturers still put a high price tag on SSD storage upgrade.

Now, some of you might not know what an SSD is, and that’s OK. To keep things simple, here is a quick little explanation. Most computers have a Hard Drive, in other words, a mechanical drive. These drives have spinning platters (small metallic disks) and an arm to access the data. You might of heard the clicking or spinning noise that it produces. This technology has been around for years (more preciously 1956, in IBM’s humongous computer).

The IBM 305 RAMAC - Fifty 24-inch-diameter disks for a total of 3.75MB of storage
The IBM 305 RAMAC – Fifty 24-inch-diameter disks for a total of 3.75MB of storage

Hard-Drive-VS-SSD

Hard Drives have evolved in speed and size, but over the years, they were not able to catch up with the other components in your computer. Mechanical drives become slower over time and usually break down after 5 years. They are the bottleneck of modern computers.

This is were SSD comes in play. Instead of having moving mechanical parts, it uses and stores information in microchips (think of an USB memory stick on steroids). An SSD stores information on its chips and doesn’t need a physical head to read and write the information, so fragmentation of data doesn’t occur. As for a mechanical disk, it scatters the information on the physical disks, so things get fragmented. This is one of the reason why SSD are so much fast than Hard Drives.

Also, because there are no moving parts, an SSD is much more durable. It can withstand greater shock (say if you drop the drive while it’s powered) and it can last 10 or more years. But, on the downside, the cost per GB for SSD is much greater than a regular Hard Drive. Prices went down significantly in the past year, but a Hard Drive is a much better choice for big storage needs (Backups, Movies, etc.)

The Solution

As you might of guessed it, the solution is pretty simple: Buy an SSD! This process is fairly simple as most SSDs come in 2.5″ for factor, meaning it will fit in your laptop or desktop (1.8″ also exists, but it isn’t widely used), and uses SATA which is an universal interface.

To make things easier, I’ll use my friend’s Macbook as an example and guide you with the upgrade process. His 250GB drive was full, so he needed more storage. The sweat spot would of been 500GB, costing around 200$-250$ CAD. But we found a deal on NCIX for a 960GB at 280$ CAD. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend anything below 256GB. With today’s ever growing need for higher resolution and bigger files, you will eventually fill up your drive pretty fast. SSDs also have a tendency to slow down when they reach 95%+ of usage. Also, prices have significantly decreased over the years for SSDs, so I’m certain you can find something that fits your budget. Heck, if you have the money, get a 2TB SSD if you want to be as future proof as possible. Not only will this speed up your computer, increase available storage but it will also increase resale value, say you need to change your PC for something that better suits your needs.

Another solution would be to add extra virtual memory, AKA RAM. Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 still only recommend 1GB of RAM. OS X El Capitan requires 2GB of memory, but still works on models from 2007! But, again, RAM price has drastically decreased over the years. 8GB isn’t a luxury anymore. I find 8GB to be the sweet spot for most users. 16GB is nice if you multitask a lot, but make sure your computer supports it. I have 32GB on my main computer ( I work a lot in After Effects) and 8GB of my Dell XPS 13″. For my friend’s computer, I went to Apple’s support page to check compatibility and maximum amount of memory that can be installed. In his case, I went with 8GB of PC3-8500 DDR3 at 1066 MHz. The cost was fairly low, 57$ CAD. On a side note, RAM for Apple products is a little trickier to find as it needs to be Apple certified. For the rest, simply check the frequency, type (DDR2 or DDR3 in most cases) and length. The best place to find this info is in the user guide (Google it as I know you didn’t keep your computer’s user guide).

Before You Start

Now before you start taking your computer apart (might be your first time or not), backup your data. If you aren’t regularly backing up your computer, SHAME!!! SHAME!!! One day, and this is not a question of IF, but WHEN, you will lose data because of corruption of faulty hardware. So be warn! I will do a post about data backup in the near future.

Also, before you take apart your computer, check some online videos of people that have already done the operation. Youtube is a good place to start. Some unibody computers are harder to disable. Check some videos to see if you feel comfortable doing so, otherwise find a professional that can do it for you. I also recommend taking pictures at every step of the way, so you know how to assemble the damn thing back!

Let’s Get Started!

Now that you have backed up your data to an external drive (I have used Time Machine on my friend’s MacBook), familiarized yourself with the disassembly procedure (iFixIt is a great place to look. Here is the one I used) and got all the necessary tools, you can start. If you are upgrading a Mac, simply use Time Machine to backup your data to an external hard drive. This way, once you swap your drive, you will actually have two copies of your system (the external drive backed up by Time Machine and the actual drive that was in your machine). You will be able to use your backup to restore it to your new SSD (more on that below). For Window machines, it depends what backup software you are using, but I would recommend a fresh install (you need the copy of Windows on a bootable DVD or USB stick) and simply copy your files over once the install is done. Even for Mac OS X I would recommend doing a fresh install. Not only will you have a smoother machine (no old software hanging around), but it will also force you to look at all the data you have on your computer and filter what you want to keep. It’s up to you!

For my part, because it’s not my computer, I have copied all the data to an external drive via Time Machine. I took out the old Hard Drive and RAM, and replaced it with the new SSD + RAM sticks. Once that was done, I booted the computer to make sure the RAM and SSD were detected by the system (giving me no error). At that point, I put back the lower case and screws of the Macbook (in case RAM or Drive isn’t properly installed, I don’t want to unscrew the thing again). After that, I rebooted the computer, hit Command and R keys on the keyboard until I heard the chime noise. At that point, I followed the onscreen procedure. Click Here for a more step by step guide.

What Next!?

Once you have done the upgrade, test your computer. How does it feel? Savor the speed and smoothness of a computer with an SSD!

Now if you haven’t done so, clean up some of the junk you might have. Delete some old files you don’t need and uninstall unused software. You could even use the old internal drive you removed as a backup or storage drive (buy an external USB enclosure for example).

This is how you make your computer great again and save some money.

As usual, don’t hesitate to drop my a comment if you need some assistance.

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