Monday, March 5, 2012

How Long Could It Take?

Every once in a great while it becomes necessary to take off the tie, roll up your sleeves and get a little dirt under your fingernails. SMART, that automatic device monitor inside the PC, kept telling me one of my two internal disk drives was going to fail. "Back up your system immediately," it said, "and call tech support."

Of course, I back up regularly so there was no threat of data loss. But being a force of one, tech support is me!

Since the system is old but still functions well, I decided that I would replace one of the drives with a solid state drive or SSD. In addition to replacing the broken drive, this would deliver significant performance gains. An SSD looks and responds to the operating system just like a regular drive. However, it has no moving parts. It is simply a box of random access memory (RAM) with an interface that makes it behave just like a disk drive. While not as fast as the main memory of your PC, these solid state units are much faster than mechanical drives and just as easy to install.

It arrived Saturday morning so I set about the installation. True to form I first laid out all of the parts and carefully reviewed the instructions. Four screws and two cables to install. Seemed simple and straight forward enough. How long could it take? As a fail-safe approach, I decided to add the SSD as an additional (third) drive, leaving the other two in place. To achieve the maximum boost in performance the SSD would become the new "C" or system drive.

Anyone who has ever undertaken any project that even involves computers knows straight away the actual time to completion is always several times the initial estimate. The phrase two steps forward, then one step back comes to mind. This project was no exception.

Step 1: attach the drive to the mounting brackets. The screws were the wrong size. Fortunately I was able to find some that fit but then my screwdriver was too large. Attaching these two mounting rails, which by the way turned out to be unnecessary, burned the first hour of this 20 minute project.

Cracking the lid on the PC we went on a hunting expedition for connectors. It took a while (and an internet search for a diagram of the motherboard) before I clearly identified the SATA style connectors. Then I discovered there was no place to plug in for power.

A quick chat with my dear friend Frank Garufi Jr. solved the problem in a heartbeat. At his suggestion I simply stole the power connector from the second CD unit (rarely used in any case) and voila, we had the new drive up and running. Now we were practically done at only three and one-half hours into the project.

The drive comes with special "cloning" software. No, I couldn't make duplicates of me but I could magically copy, bit for bit, all the contents on the "C" drive to the SSD. The copy worked quickly and flawlessly. Now it was a simple matter of swapping some cables around so the SSD would be drive "0" which is the drive the PC uses to boot.

Not so fast. No matter how the cables were connected, the drive letter assignments remained constant. I could not make the SSD be the system drive. Another call to Frank confirmed you must use a utility to move drives around in Windows 7. I'm sure that would have worked but since my machine is a little older and is running Windows XP, this was not an option.

In the end, I simply used the SSD as the third ("F") drive, leaving both the original system and failing data drives in place. This was a perfectly acceptable alternative. Moreover, I was able to squeeze considerable performance gains by moving the page file to the SSD and setting the default for temporary files there as well. It may not be the most elegant solution, but it works.

The PC is back up and running better than ever. At some point I will yank the old data drive, returning the systems to its original configuration and restoring power to the second CD unit.

I put the tie back on and revised all future estimates of hardware upgrades by one order of magnitude. That way next time it will only take twice as long as I expect.

Captain Joe

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