Breathe New Life Into Your Old Laptop with a Solidstate (SSD) Drive

Greetings! I am usually posting stuff fairly in the weeds server side, but I thought I’d pause for a few and write up an article for all my average user friends out there. I often get asked for my recommendations when friends and family are looking to buy new computers. I frequently recommend getting a used (but not used up) enterprise grade Dell laptop because the damn things are bullet proof and easy to repair, and parts are cheap. Rarely it seems does anyone actually take me up on my advice, except my good buddy Josh who is still loving the crap out of his Dell. In any case the biggest reason friends and family are after new laptops is that their laptop feels slow. Usually at this point the computer is about 2-4 years old and the speed just isn’t what it used to be.

While there are multiple factors that contribute to slow (usually too many background process, spyware/malware/greyware/bloatware, etc) if you find your computer still running like crap even after a fresh install of Windows it may not be time to toss it aside just yet. If your machine has at least an i3, i5, or i7 (if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at the Intel sticker or right click “My Computer” and click properties) or the AMD equivalent you can do a few things to speed things up. If you do not have at least 4gb or RAM in your machine look into upgrading your RAM. This can be done easily, and the right RAM can be acquired off of http://newegg.com using their memory finder tool, or by going to Crucial’s site and using their scan tool.

Aside from RAM the biggest bottleneck in your computer is your slow magnetic drive. Most cheap laptops (under $1000) come with a 5400 RPM drive which is an absolute joke for performance. You can have the world’s most badass processor and if you have a 5400RPM drive you might as well have a crappy Celeron. As magetic drives grow older they start to perform poorly and often die around the 4 year mark. Before they get to this point they can get unusable (the beachball on Mac or the spinning wheel of non-deterministic time on Windows). If you’re in the market for a new computer you know what I’m talking about…where launching Google Chrome takes so long you go make a sandwich while you’re waiting. In any case a SolidState harddrive will solve all of these woes and breathe new life into your machine. I recently replaced my mother-in-law’s old magnetic disk with an SSD and the results were off the charts. With the old spinning disk drive it would literally take 3-4 minutes to boot and be usable. With the SSD the same load of Windows (I cloned the contents of the old drive) clocks in at about 7 seconds for boot time. The use case for this laptop is word processing, web browsing, and watching Netflix. Why spend $500 on a computer that’s moderately faster at best that you’ll be replacing in 2 more years for the same reason when a $120 drive will give you better results than a new sub $1000 laptop.

The major obstacle here I think is that taking apart a computer to replace a hard drive sounds daunting. It generally speaking isn’t (unless you have an all in one touchscreen computer or an Apple iMac). For the most part it’s as simple as removing a few screws, pulling out the drive, unscrewing the old drive from the mounting bracket (usually 4 screws), putting the new drive in the bracket, re-inserting the drive and closing it up. When it comes to getting all of your stuff back there’s a few options, the first is to backup all your files, music, pictures, etc to an external drive before replacing your hard drive, then booting the Windows installer disk and away you go. The second option is to go on Amazon and find a SATA to USB converter for about $10 and order this with your new drive. Then following my CloneZilla instructions (http://richsitblog.com/index.php/2015/05/01/drive-cloning-with-clonezilla/) you can clone the contents of your old drive to your new SSD before replacing the drive and you’re all set.

By the way as someone who owns multiple computers my go to computer is a 4 year old Dell E6220 with an i5, 8gb RAM, and an SSD runnign Fedora Linux. I would pit this up against any new $300-$500 computer and it would win. I literally paid $250 for this laptop, and picked up a docking station for $8 at a computer recycling store. When I was dual booting Windows and Linux on this prior to loading Fedora it kept up with my Surface Pro 3 just fine. Anyways enough of my rambling, I hope this inspires some of you to look into saving some cash, saving some waste, and getting the most out of what you have with less money. Stay tuned for more fun stuff!

 

Drive Cloning With CloneZilla

We’ve all had that moment in time when we realized we were out of space and needed a bigger drive. I don’ think this has ever been more true than the past 2-3 years as SSD performance has caused many of us to switch to smaller high performance drives. With the price of storage rapidly decreasing and larger SSDs becoming more affordable it’s become rather attractive to move to a larger driver, but not many of us want to go through the pain of reinstalling our OS from scratch. Older tools like Ghost and commercial solutions can have annoying licensing terms, funky quirks, or just aren’t really an accessible option. I’ve personally found great success in using clonezilla to clone hard drives and figured I would create a quick tutorial to illustrate just how easy it is to clone a driver with clonezilla.

 

Step 1: Gather The Prerequisites

To successfully clone your drive with Clonezilla you will need the following:

  • The clonezilla ISO from  http://clonezilla.org/downloads/download.php?branch=stable
    • choose the appropriate architecture (this will be AMD64 for most of you) and ISO as the file type
  • A USB drive 4GB should be sufficient
  • Pendrive Linux Universal Installer from http://pendrivelinux.com
  • A USB to SATA converter (something along these lines: http://www.amazon.com/Patuoxun-Converter-Adapter-Cable-Drive/dp/B008ASF5MC/ref=sr_1_4?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1430442966&sr=1-4&keywords=usb+to+sata)
    • Some newer devices use mSATA drives not regular SATA drives. Please double check this so that you can buy the appropriate drive and drive adapter for your device.

A larger hard drive than what is currently in your machine

Step 2: Create a Bootable USB

  • Insert your USB stick you will choose to use for clonezilla (please be aware that installing this will format the USB drive and will clear any information currently on it.
  • Open the Universal USB Installer you downloaded from pendrivelinux.com
  • Choose clonzilla in step one of the USB creator, browse to the ISO you downloaded for step 2, and select your flash drive for step 3, then press create

create usb

 

Once the live USB creation process has completed, you can unplug the USB drive from your computer and plug it into the machine you are going to be cloning.

Step 3: Boot Your PC From USB

Once the USB is plugged into the machine we will be cloning, you will want to also plug in your USB to SATA converter with your new hard drive attached. After this you can power on the machine (if the computer is currently running shut it down). Upon boot choose the boot menu, this will vary by manufacturer but is typically F11 or F12 on most devices. If this fails you can alternatively try ESC or DEL to boot into the BIOS and change the boot order to start from USB. If your machine boots properly from the live USB, you should see the following screen, if so, proceed to the next step.

czmain

Step 4: Proceed Through Clonezilla Menus & Start Clone

  • From the menu screen shown above, choose the Clonezilla Live options (this should be the first option).
  • After a black and white window of scrolling text goes by, you will be placed on a blue screen with a language selection box, choose your language
  • Next you will be prompted about keymap, choose the default option to not touch keymap

keymap

  • On the next screen choose start clonezilla

startcz

 

  • Choose device to device for cloning options

d2d

 

  • Choose beginner mode
  • Choose disk to local disk in the next option

d to ld

 

  • Choose your old hard drive as the source (this will typically be the smaller drive that’s larger than the flash drive you’re using)

source

 

  • Choose the destination (this should be the largest drive in the list)
  • Choose the skip checking/repairing option
  • Press Enter
  • When the warning message pops up, make sure it shows the larger drive you’re cloning to, press y followed by enter

warn

 

  • When you receive the second warning prompt press y and hit enter again
  • Next you’ll be asked if you want to clone the bootloader, press y and hit enter

clone bl

 

  • At this point partclone will run a few assessments and then begin cloning your drive. This will take some time depending on the speed of the drives and whether your using USB 2.0 or 3.0 with your USB to SATA adapter.

partclone

 

  • Once the drive cloning process is complete a few checks will be run and you will see the screen below. Press enter

done

 

  • Choose Poweroff and wait for your machine to turn off

poweroff

Step 5: Remove The Old Drive, Install the New Drive

  • Now that drive cloning has completed, you can safely remove the Clonezilla USB and the USB to SATA converter
  • Remove your old hard drive and replace it with the newly cloned drive
  • Power on and proceed to the next step

Step 6: Expand the Partition in Windows

Once your machine is powered on there is one final step we must take, which is to expand the partition. This will be done through the built in disk management tool in windows.

  • Press the windows key  and R to bring up the run box. Type diskmgmt.msc into the run box and press enter.
    • Alternatively you can type this into the search box on Windows 7 or on the start screen search in Windows 8/8.1
  • You should see your C drive followed by unallocated space

unallocated

  • Right click the C drive (portion in blue above) and choose extend volume, then click through the wizard with the defaults. Now you should see the C drive has been extended

finished

  • With that ladies and gents we are done!

 

Thank you for checking out this blog post, I will likely create a video to demonstrate this process in the near future. In the meantime please feel free to leave any questions or comments.

 

Offsite Backups for Home Use

One of the most frequent situations I run into when helping friends and family out with random computer issues (viruses, malware, computer won’t boot, dead hard drive, etc) is that almost nobody backs up their data. We live in a digital age where photos and family memories live on hard drives more often than they live in photo albums. Ask yourself, when was the last time you backed up photos from you vacations, photos of your children, or wedding photos? I know some folks are good about backing up weekly/monthly/quarterly to an external hard drive, however I’ve encountered situations in which the external backup drives have failed or have been dropped. The other potential issue of backing up to an external drive is that it often resides in the same house as the computer it’s backing up, meaning in the event of burglary or a fire, all would be lost. So by this point you’re probably asking yourself where I’m going with this, and rightly so, we’ll answer a couple of quick questions and jump right in.

What Constitutes an Offsite Backup?

Realistically, anything that gets your backups offsite, this can be as simple as backing up to an external hard drive, and backing that drive up to an additional external drive that you store in a safety deposit box or elsewhere. Additionally online backup services such as iDrive, Carbonite, or Amazon S3 are all reasonable solutions, however they take time to backup (2 of the 3 run on a schedule the other requires manual intervention) and unless you’re using a desktop most people will only crack open their laptop long enough to do what they want and put it back to sleep. The other option is the use a cloud based document storage solution.

What is the Cloud and Why Should I Backup There?

Loosely defined, the cloud is a software or service that is a web based solution, typically hosted in a large data center that meets major industry security standards, and more often than not is backed up redundantly to other data centers globally. Most of us carry multiple devices now, be it a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, I would venture to bet that you have at least 2 of the 3 if not all of the above. The four major cloud storage solutions we will discuss have apps for both desktop operating systems as well as common mobile operating systems. This allows you to access you data from any device seamlessly.

Which Cloud Storage Should I use and How Much Does it Cost?

While there are a multitude of cloud storage vendors out there, the most notable and commonly used 4 are Dropbox, Onedrive (formerly Microsoft Skydrive), Amazon Cloud Drive, and Google Drive. Fortunately in the arms race to attract more subscribers prices have continued to rapidly drop for cloud storage. While I will list prices below, the best bet is to check the vendor website before subscribing as prices will likely change. As to which vendor is the best choice, the answer is found in your current ecosystem and pricing needs.

Dropbox (www.dropbox.com)

Dropbox is one of the most widely known names in cloud storage and has one of the larger subscriber bases. Dropbox is simple to install and use. To setup Dropbox simply go to www.dropbox.com and download Dropbox. After install, you will be prompted to sign in or create an account. Once your account is created a Dropbox folder will show up in your user folder as well as in your system tray (Windows) or titlebar (Mac). Using Dropbox is quite simple, the tutorial during install walks you through the basics of dragging and dropping your files into your Dropbox folder. If you have a smartphone, you are able to go to the app store to download the Dropbox app, which will allow you to view your Dropbox files on your mobile device, as well as the ability to turn on automatic photo upload (automatically uploads any new pictures you take with your phone/tablet to Dropbox)

Costs: 2GB free storage, 1TB=$9.99/month

OneDrive (www.onedrive.live.com)

At the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft made the jump into the cloud storage business with SkyDrive. After some trademark issues with the name, Microsoft has rebranded the service to OneDrive. If you are currently running Windows 8 or 8.1 and have signed up for a Microsoft account, you will notice that OneDrive is already installed on your machine. Additionally if you opted to sign up for Office 365 (subscription based Microsoft Office), you are given 1TB of Onedrive space for free already. Additionally, Office 2013 allows you to save directly to OneDrive. If you are in this boat, this is probably your best value. Using OneDrive is simple, all you need to do is open windows explorer (click the folder icon on your taskbar) and click OneDrive on the left hand side of the window. Within OneDrive you can create folders, and simply drag and drop your documents, pictures, music, movies, etc and they will sync with OneDrive. Additionally if you have a smartphone or tablet with the OneDrive app installed, you are able to turn on automatic camera upload, which will automatically sync any pictures you take to OneDrive.

Costs: 15GB free storage, 100GB=$1.99/month, 200GB=$3.99/month, 1TB=$6.99/month (or free with Office 365)

Amazon Cloud Drive (https://www.amazon.com/clouddrive)

Anyone with a computer and internet connection surely knows who web retailer giant Amazon is. Among the many other entrants into the cloud storage space, Amazon has jumped into the game as well. Amazon features a similar feature set and use case to Dropbox and OneDrive, however it does slightly differ in the area of cost. If you have an active Amazon Prime membership, you are entitled to unlimited photo backups based on Amazon’s current offerings. Much like the other two services, backing up is as simple as drag and drop into the Amazon Cloud Drive folder, and mobile apps are available on all major smartphone platforms. If you are storing small amounts of data or just simply looking to backup pictures, Amazon may be one of the more affordable options, however the pricing quickly shoots up to more than double what competitors are charging as you begin to near the 1TB level of storage.

Costs: 5GB free storage, 20GB=$10/year, $50GB=$25/year,1000GB=$500/year

Google Drive (https://www.google.com/drive/)

If you’ve been on the web much over the past decade, you’ve realized there isn’t much on the web Google isn’t involved with. In an effort to help facilitate collaboration for small startups and to grant easy data sharing and backup for Universities and users alike, Google jumped into the cloud storage market as well. If you are a currently a Gmail or Google Docs user, you may find Google drive to be an appealing options as it seamlessly integrates with other Google services. The desktop and mobile clients function nearly identically to their competitors. Like many other Google services, Google drive is dead simple to use and works reliably without any notable issues or hiccups.

Costs: 15GB free storage, 100GB=$1.99/month, 1TB=$9.99 per month

The Bottom Line

The most expensive solution of all is choosing not to back up or not to back up effectively and redundantly. With so much of our digital lives at stake on a single point of failure, it just doesn’t add up to choose to go on without backups. I can promise you as an IT professional even the best kept systems will fail, even the best hard drives will fail, and the cost of professional data recovery starts at a minimum of $300-$500 and does not guarantee that all of your files will be recovered. At the end of the day, any of the four solutions provided above will offer adequate redundant offsite data backups, giving you piece of mind that your precious digital memories are safe and that you’ve done your part to protect yourself. There are other additional cloud services I did not mention in this post for sake of keeping this post from being any more excessively longer than it already is. Thanks for sticking with me, go get yourself a cup of coffee and start backing up! See you all in the New Year!!!