Is it worth swapping my laptop hard drive for an SSD? – The Guardian

My main computer is a Dell Studio 17 laptop from 2010 (specification attached). In my home office, I hook it up to a separate keyboard, mouse and monitor.

As a part-time university lecturer, I run the usual software – Microsoft Office, Adobe Illustrator etc – plus some specialist software such as ArcMap, part of the ArcGIS suite.

I have no problems with anything, but I am concerned about longevity and component failure. Should I be thinking of replacing the hard drive now? If so, would it be better to pay extra to go down the SSD route? However, if other components are likely to fail, would I be better off replacing the whole thing now?

Either route will obviously entail transferring a large amount of data crucial to my teaching and research. I do have back-ups: I am more concerned with ease of transfer so that programs retain their settings and paths to data if possible. This is especially important in ArcMap, where a map file may contain dozens of links to data spread over many different folders. Rebuilding these links would be very time consuming.

Just in case this makes it into your column, can I state for the record I have no interest in Macs or Linux. Neal

The Dell Studio 17 was a solid desktop replacement laptop with plenty of power but not much portability. It’s already running Microsoft Windows 10 with 8GB of memory, so there’s no urgent need to upgrade or replace it.

Of course, hard drives do become increasingly likely to fail after five to 10 years, but many fail within three years and no doubt some last more than a decade: there’s no easy way to tell. Motherboard batteries also tend to fail after five years. Otherwise, many common problems are mechanical ones. For example, hinges break, especially if you lift a laptop by its screen, and power cables fray.

The pros and cons of SSDs

It’s often worth replacing a spinning-platter HD (hard drive) with a chip-based SSD (solid-state drive). SSDs make your PC start up faster, and programs feel much more responsive. Programs can load data straight from an SSD without having to wait for a hard drive to spin up to speed, or for the read/write head to find the right sector on the platter.

SSDs have no moving parts, so they are impervious to the shocks that can damage hard drives when laptops are bumped around or even dropped. They also consume less power, which prolongs battery life.

However, SSDs are still much more expensive than HDs for the same amount of storage. SSDs are also prone to fail, though I believe that, today, they are less likely to fail than HDs.

Installing an SSD

In principle, SSDs are easy to install, as follows. (1) Connect the SSD to your laptop via an eSATA or USB cable or an external caddy. (2) “Clone” the current HD to the SSD, then unplug it from the laptop. (3) Close down the laptop, and remove the battery. (4) Unscrew the back of the laptop and swap the SSD for the HD. (5) Restart the laptop.

Before doing any of that, check that your laptop’s BIOS can support an SSD via AHCI, and find out whether the hard drive is SATA I, II or III. Later versions of SATA are faster but backwards compatible. For example, a SATA II laptop should work with a 6Gbps SATA III drive, but it will only run at the speed of a cheaper 3Gbps SATA II drive.

There is plenty of disk cloning software around. Some disk manufactures offer free software with their drives, and some suppliers sell cloning kits. (Crucial’s kit includes a special USB cable.) However, many back-up programs will do the job, including Acronis True Image, EaseUS To Do and CloneZilla. The thing to remember is that you must make a disk-to-disk clone, not just copy the Windows partition. It’s also a good idea to make a Windows start-up/repair DVD in case anything goes wrong.

The process should be somewhat easier for you because the Dell Studio 17 has two drive bays, and one should be free. If so, you can install the SSD before cloning the hard drive.

Is it worth it?

Since you’re using your laptop mostly as a desktop, you will not get all the benefits of an SSD, such as extra battery life. However, the main problem is the cost.

For cloning to work, the SSD must be bigger than the HD. Your Studio 17 has a 500GB drive with 50GB free, so you will need a 500GB or larger SSD. Prices range from roughly £100 to £200, but you could get a 500GB Samsung 850 EVO from for £119, or a Crucial BX100 for £146.86. (I have not checked these for compatibility with your Studio 17.)

There should be plenty of options, but even £120 is quite a lot to spend on an old laptop.

One solution would be to remove more than half your data so that you can clone the HD to a 120GB or 240GB SSD – you can get these from around £35 to £50. If you have 250GB of movies, this would be easy. If your HD is full of ArcMap files, it’s probably not an attractive option.

Buy a new PC?

Your Dell Studio 17 has a 2.40GHz Intel Core i5-520M processor, which is from the first generation of Core chips. It was fast in its day, but now it’s lower mid-range. I reckon it would rank around 290-300 in Notebookcheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors. Newer Core-i5 and even Core-i3 chips should be noticeably quicker.

So, for example, you could get an HP Envy 17 with a 17.3in screen, Core i5-6500U processor, 12GB of memory, 1TB hard drive and Windows 10 for £899.95. This is faster, has more memory, and twice the hard drive space of your Studio 17. Also, the Nvidia GeForce 940M would be a massive upgrade on your current ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5000 graphics card.

There are cheaper versions of the Envy 17 around, depending on specification and source. For example, you can get one with 8GB of memory for £699.97. Also, the old model with a Core i5-5200U and Windows 8.1 is cheaper at £749.99. Shop around.

Frankly, I’d stick with what you’ve got. You can keep running your Dell Studio 17 until it’s too slow to do what you want or the screen or motherboard fails. If the hard drive fails, you can replace it with a similar HD for £35 to £40, or an SSD. They’ll probably be even cheaper by then.

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