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Hands-on hardware upgrade: Installing a new SSD

I replaced the original disk drive in my Acer Aspire V3 with an SSD, and got a stunning performance improvement.

As I have mentioned several times recently, the Acer Aspire V3 has very quickly become my favorite laptop. It has a nice 13.3-inch display, it is quite fast, and every Linux distribution I have loaded on it has worked, top to bottom, with no problems. So, when I saw an advertisement for what looked like a very good Samsung SSD at the end of last week, I decided to check into the possibility of swapping out the disk drive.

Acer Aspire V3 Bottom Cover

The first thing to check was how easy/difficult it would be to access the disk drive. I checked the bottom of the laptop, and was a bit disappointed to see that it doesn't have a simple access panel for the disk drive, as some of my other systems do.

But it looked like it could still be pretty reasonable, because there were about 10 easily-accessible screws in the bottom which looked like they would release the entire bottom cover.

Acer Aspire V3 Inside Bottom

Sure enough, remove all ten screws and then run something gently around the seam at the edge of the bottom cover (a thumbnail or a very thin screwdriver blade), and the bottom cover pops right off.

Very nice. Closer inspection of the disk drive revealed that it was mounted with only two screws, so removing those and then gently disconnecting the SATA cable and the disk drive was out! Total time required for this was less than 5 minutes.

Now, the replacement drive. The sale advert I saw was for a Samsung SSD 850 EVO, at a price of 103 Swiss Francs (~ £70/€90/$108). I checked the specifications, and a couple of reviews, and it sounded like a very good unit at a good price.

The last time I did an SSD swap/upgrade, I used a Kingston Upgrade Kit, which included a variety of cables, brackets, screws and software to make both the physical and logical (data) transfer easier. This time I decided that I didn't need all of the extra stuff. Having already opened the bottom of the case I could see that a standard 2.5" form factor would fit right into place, and the standard SATA flat cable would connect easily.

As for data transfer, I had already decided that I would not bother with Windows on the new drive. I have still not gone through the Windows setup on the original drive (I have never even booted Windows on it), so that was an easy decision.

I will put the original disk back into the box the SSD came in, and then store that in the original box for the Aspire, so if I ever decide to pass this system on to someone else I could just swap the disks back again, and they could load and configure Windows from scratch if they wanted.

Acer Aspire V3 with SSD Installed

So, once the SSD arrived it took me another 5 minutes to connect and screw it into place and then snap the bottom cover back on and replace its screws, and it was ready to go.

First up for installation was openSuSE Tumbleweed, which I use as the default boot distribution on all of my laptops. Here's a tip about that: keep in mind that Tumbleweed is actually a development distribution, and the openSuSE developers say that the DVD installer is the preferred image, they do not guarantee that the Live ISO images will be entirely clean and reliable.

I have actually had a few cases where the Live images would not boot or install properly but the DVD installer worked. Because of this, I always install openSuSE from the DVD image now. It takes a bit longer to download, and of course a larger USB stick to hold it, but then all of my 8GB+ sticks are now USB 3.0 so the installation is then a bit faster as well.

Installation took less than 15 minutes, and it was ready to reboot to the installed system. I made a small mistake at this point. I looked away after clicking "Reboot Now".

Honestly, the boot was so fast that I didn't even get to see it. I couldn't believe it. I had actually thought ahead far enough about this to know that I wanted to compare boot times before and after the SSD installation, so I had gone through and timed booting each of the Linux distributions on this system. The average time to boot from the GRUB multi-boot selection list to the login; prompt was about 50 seconds. I have openSuSE configured to boot directly to the desktop without going through login, and that took a total of just over a minute. This first boot after installation had taken a lot less than that, and I know that openSuSE does some extra work to setup the system during the first installed boot. Wow.

I rebooted several times, just so that I could time how long it actually took. Then I shut down and powered off, so that I could time how long it took for a cold boot. Less than 15 seconds. Really. Honestly. Less than 15 seconds from power-on to the openSuSE Tumbleweed KDE desktop, ready to use. On a little sub-notebook that cost me 399 francs, plus a 100 franc SSD drive. That's a lot of bang for the buck! It's so fast that when you reboot a running system, the time that it takes to shutdown becomes a significant part of the total time (about 30 seconds)!

This was way better than I had expected, so I was anxious to get the other distributions loaded and see how they performed. Fedora 23 (TC9) was next, it installed and everything worked, as expected. Cold boot to the Gnome 3 desktop takes less than 20 seconds. Wow.

Ok, time to go for the throat. The distribution I expect to be the fastest, Manjaro 15.09 with the Xfce desktop. Routine installation, everything works... and it cold boots to the Xfce desktop in 10 seconds! Good grief, how is that even possible!

This is not like Windows 8 actually using suspend or hibernate mode when it tells you it is shutting down. This is a full-down, power off, nothing preloaded cold boot.

If this kind of performance improvement also happens in normal use with various applications and utilities, it will be great. So let's check that.

Firefox has become one of the more irritating programs to start. I don't know what all Mozilla has done to it over the past few releases, but the startup time has gone from "slow" to "glacial". So I tried that first... and it now starts in about 2-3 seconds. Whoa. I rebooted to each of the three installed distributions, and it was the same on all three.

One of the slowest-loading applications that I regularly use is digiKam. It seems to spend quite a bit of time loading tools and plug-ins, and off the top of my head I would say that it usually takes about 20-30 seconds to start. So I went back to openSuSE, the only one of the three so far which has digiKam, and tried it. Less than 10 seconds. Significantly less, actually, more like 6 or 7 seconds from the time I click the launcher to the time it is up and has the Albums and Pictures displayed, ready to use.

The other common task that I can think of which would be interesting to test is updating the Linux system itself. All of these freshly-installed distributions are going to need some amount of updating, so this is a good chance to get a feel for it. The overall update process is not entirely disk-intensive, of course, it will spend a fair amount of time downloading and preparing the updates. So this should give a reasonable impression of what the difference in a mixed-load application is going to be.

openSuSE Tumbleweed and Fedora 23 TC9 have both been installed from very new ISO images, so there isn't actually much to update. Both ran through the update process quickly enough that I couldn't really say if there was a noticeable difference or not. But I installed Manjaro from the 2015.09 ISO images, and they come out with a pretty significant update almost every week. So there were a lot of updates to download and install. I started that up, and watched it with interest. The download seemed normal, that was no surprise. But when the installation started, it was very clearly faster than it had been with the old disk. The progress bar moves steadily across the window, rather than going in fits and starts as it had done before.

So this is just really good news. A hardware upgrade which is not terribly expensive, easy to perform, and produces significant performance improvements across the board, both in boot time and everyday system administration and application use. Hooray!

All that was left at this point was to install the other Linux distributions. The next that I did was Debian, first installing 8.2 (jessie), and then upgrading that to the testing repositories (stretch/sid). This installation required the usual side-trip to enable the non-free repositories, then pick up the Intel Wireless Firmware package (firmware-iwlwifi) in order to get the wireless network going. No other problems or surprises, and it boots in less than 15 seconds. Good stuff.

Both Linux Mint distributions went in next. First Mint Debian 2 (Betsy) installed with no problems. Although derived from Debian, this time I didn't have to do anything extra to get the wireless network going. The drivers and firmware necessary are included in the LMDE base distribution, so it all just came up normally. Then Mint 17.2 (Rafaela) installed just as easily. Both of these required substantial updates, because it has been a while since the release of the ISO images, but the complete installation and update time was less than 30 minutes each.

Next up was Ubuntu, but here I had to be careful because of the name conflict with Mint 17.2 in the UEFI boot directory. I created a second EFI boot partition, and installed the Ubuntu boot directory there. This turned out to be the fastest-booting distribution of them all. It goes from the GRUB boot menu to the login screen in less than 5 seconds. That just totally blows me away, how can it do that? Another 5 seconds or less after the password is entered. Less than 10 seconds total startup time!

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I just couldn't believe that was possible, so I went into the User Accounts control, and enabled automatic login for my account. I then rebooted, and timed it from the GRUB menu to the Unity desktop, and it was between 8 and 9 seconds. Gaaaa.

The last distribution I was going to install was KaOS, but I ran into an unexpected problem with that. The Live USB image boots with no problem, but the installer (calamares) refuses to run. Trying to start it from the "Welcome to KaOS" window produces nothing at all, not even an error message (pretty boring). Starting calamares (as root) from a terminal window at least gives an error message "std::bad_alloc" (not terribly helpful). I don't use KaOS enough to make it worth fighting with it right now, so I decided to move on.

I then realized that since I have already created a second EFI boot partition, I could easily install openSuSE Leap RC1 without disturbing the Tumbleweed installation. So I did that, and when the installer got to the disk layout/partitioning screen, I manually selected the second EFI boot partition. That's it. The rest of the installation was routine, and boot time is about 12 seconds from the GRUB menu to the KDE desktop.

So, there you have it. Total cost 100 francs, total time less than four hours, and I have a very fast laptop with eight different Linux distributions installed for multi-booting. That is considerably less time than I would have spent only on Windows if I had chosen to install it. In fact, if I had been installing only one Linux distribution, and I had let it just take over the SSD drive and partition as it wanted, the whole hardware upgrade / software installation process would have taken less than an hour!

Oh, and one other thing this Linux-only multiboot installation shows, which I have been asked about several times recently. The UEFI boot configuration has been very simple and very stable. Obviously when you don't have Microsoft mucking around in the background trying to 'help' you avoid 'mistakes' such as not booting Windows by default, and OEMs such as HP not blindly insisting on booting one specific file no matter what, then UEFI systems are really not so bad!

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