Give your system a mid-life kicker

If the economy has made you put off buying a faster system, you aren't alone. The good news: you can make your current system much snappier with faster storage - DRAM and disk.

If the economy has made you put off buying a faster system, you aren't alone. The good news: you can make your current system much snappier with faster storage - DRAM and disk. Here's how - and why.

Your CPU speed is fixed. So is your network and memory bandwidth. Only new storage can give your system a performance boost.

Even better news: storage prices are at all-time lows. There's never been a better time to upgrade.

The basic strategy Start with #1, then look at #2. The 3rd option isn't cost-effective for most people today and you have to be careful to avoid some really awful 1st and 2nd generation products - buyer beware!

  1. Add main memory - also known as DRAM, RAM, DIMM or SO-DIMM.
  2. Install a faster and/or higher capacity disk drive.
  3. Install a flash-based Solid State Drive - which doesn't make sense for most people.

RAM or disk There are 2 kinds of storage or memory in your system: DRAM or RAM - Dynamic Random Access Memory - fast electronic storage; and disk or hard drive storage. If there isn't enough DRAM for the work you want to do, the operating system uses the disk memory as a substitute.

That works OK for light use, but disk drives take a million times longer to access data than DRAM, so as you get busier your system gets slower. For maximum performance you want to minimize disk I/O.

First To minimize disk I/O increase your DRAM. More memory reduces disk I/O in 2 ways:

  • Entire programs and data can be loaded into DRAM and run without having to swap parts in and out. For example, Photoshop maintains several copies of any image you are working on. For a 50 MB image Photoshop will run best with ~250 MB free DRAM. Your OS and other programs need DRAM too, so the demand quickly adds up.
  • When DRAM runs short, Windows or Mac OS start using the disk drive as "virtual memory." Since disk drives are so slow compared to DRAM, this slows your system down. Too many outstanding I/O requests will overflow the on-chip memory, further slowing your system.

Typical desktop systems support up to 8 GB of DRAM - check the specs - and more is better. Doubling the amount of DRAM you have now - assuming you aren't at full capacity already - is a good rule of thumb for maximum bang for your buck.

How much better? I went from 5 to 8 GB DRAM on my quad-core Xeon Mac Pro and was amazed at how much snappier and stable the system became. The added DRAM almost eliminates disk swapping.

I typically have a couple of dozen programs open - often including I/O intensive video, image and audio editors - so if all you do is surf the web, read email and type a few letters you won't need 8 GB - 2-4 GB will be fine. One caveat: a 32-bit OS, which includes most versions of Windows, won't support more than 4 GB of RAM, even if the hardware will.

Later this year I plan to upgrade to 16 GB of DRAM. When I do I'll let you know how it goes.

Disk drive upgrade I recently upgraded my system disk from a 7200 RPM disk to a 10,000 RPM Western Digital VelociRaptor. It made a HUGE difference in machine performance.

1/3rd faster boot times. 3 GB swap files that I didn't notice. Snappy app loads. It's like a new system.

You'll see similar results upgrading a 5400 RPM notebook disk to a 7200 RPM disk. Either upgrade offers a 30-40% improvement - one you will certainly notice.

If you edit much video, a 2nd drive can help. Keep the project on the 2nd drive and render to the system disk for greater speed.

Even if you don't upgrade to a faster drive, a much more dense drive - for example, moving from 80 GB to 500 GB - will give performance gains. The higher bit density means large reads and writes are faster and average seeks shorter. Not as dramatic as a 10k drive, but noticeable.

Performing the upgrade Most memory upgrades are user installable. Check your vendor's web site for instructions. For the best prices I check out dealram.

Many notebook drives are upgradeable as well. If you have a plastic MacBook check out my 1 minute guide. Otherwise consult the vendor web site.

Tower systems vary in their expansion ease. The Mac Pro is really easy. Most Dell's and other towers are ok, but expect to spend some time. Or find a friend who's done it before and learn with them.

The Storage Bits take I/O bottlenecks slow systems down. Faster and more abundant storage speed them up. With RAM and disks so cheap, upgrading storage is a great mid-life kicker.

Comments welcome, of course. If your hard drives more than 3 years old, replacing them is a good idea. They are mechanical devices and simply start to wear out.

Yes, I ignored overclocking. If you want to overclock, do it right!