Upgrading my laptop to SSD disk: Hands on

My Lenovo T400 disk drive was small and slow, so here's how I replaced it with an SSD drive that is bigger and faster.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

About six weeks ago I bought a refurbished Lenovo T400 laptop with docking station for use on my desk at home. 

I have been very pleased with it so far - in fact, I would say that I could almost not be happier with it, almost. 

The only thing that has bothered me is that by today's standards it came with a rather small (160GB) disk drive. 

Now that I have decided that it is a "a keeper", meaning it will be my home desktop system for the foreseeable future, it's time to do something about that. Some time ago I upgraded my HP Pavilion dm1-4310ez to an SSD, and the results of that have been very good. Since thin SSD drive capacity has increased, and prices have come down so I decided to do that again, this time with a larger/faster SSD drive.

After looking around for a while I settled on a Kingston Hyper-X 240GB upgrade kit.  This is a wonderfully complete package, containing absolutely everything you might need to perform this upgrade:

  • 2.5" Hyper-X SSD drive (duh)
  • 3-1/4" mounting bracket
  • SATA cable
  • External USB disk case
  • USB cable
  • CD-ROM with documentation and software
  • Various mounting screws
  • Screwdriver (yes, really!)

This cost me CHF 190.-(~ £130 / €155 / $210).  Of course, the same unit is available as a disk-only package, but at least around here the price difference is ridiculously small (about 5-10 francs). 

The very handly little screwdriver included in the kit is worth that much.

Btrfs hands on: My first experiments with a new Linux file system

The first thing to do was figure out how to remove the disk drive from the T400.  In fact, I checked on this before making the decision to buy the SSD, because if it had been too much trouble I probably wouldn't have bothered. In fact it turns out to be trivial, remove one screw on the bottom left corner of the case and a small panel comes off, then pull a handy little tab to slide the disk drive out.

Then there are two rubber cover/slide panels on the disk drive assembly, which pull right off, and then there are four screws to mount the drive into the bracket.  Removing and replacing the drive took a total of less than five minutes.

The Hyper-X kit includes an external USB/SATA disk case, which has a slide-off cover, with the USB cable in the case. Remove the cable, slide the old drive into the case, replace the cover and connect it to the T400. Another two minute job.

Now comes the fun/interesting part, initializing the new SSD drive and getting whatever data you want transferred. The Hyper-X kit comes with a custom dedicated version of Acronis True Image HD on the CD. I assume that if you are running Windows, it does the job of copying everything from your old disk drive to the new Hyper-X SSD. 

Of course I have multiple Linux partitions and I use GRUB to boot, and Acronis doesn't handle this - after analyzing the old disk it basically said that it would copy the partitions to the new drive, but it was my problem to figure out how to get Linux to boot from it. Thanks a lot...

There are, of course, a variety of Linux-based solutions to this problem, here are just a few of the most common:

  • Gparted - Can create partitions on the SSD, and copy from the old drive to the SSD.
  • Clonezilla - Can clone disks or partitions, and a Live Image is available.
  • SystemRescueCD - A Live CD/USB Linux image including lots of disk/partition management utilities.
  • Parted Magic - A Live CD/USB image, includes Clonezilla and other disk/partition utilities.

Now, I don't want to get into a long discussion (or argument) here about which of these is better or worse, which has the best selection of utilities or whatever. So check them out, choose whatever you like and works for you, and be happy. 

Also, fair warning, if you go to the Parted Magic Downloads page, you will see that they want to charge $5.00 to download a copy, or various other amounts for an annual subscription or physical media (USB stick or CD). I have no problem with this, but if you do then simply go to one of the others listed above.

After considering my options, I decided that I wanted to reload the Linux distributions from scratch on the new SSD anyway - for one thing, I want to load openSuSE and Fedora with btrfs filesystems, and now that I will have a large disk drive I want to increase the size of both of them. 

Yes, I know that I could do both of those things after simply cloning the old disk (convert ext4 to btrfs and use Gparted to increase the partition and filesystem size), but it only takes me about 10-15 minutes to load whatever Linux distribution from scratch, and I couldn't do the convert-and-expand manipulation much faster than that anyway. 

So all I did was copy the Windows Boot (/dev/sda1) and Windows C: (/dev/sda2) partitions, and then installed openSuSE 13.1 to get GRUB loaded and configured for multi-boot. 

That all went very smoothly, and in about 30 minutes I was up and running on the SSD - and wow, is it ever fast.  The GRUB installer found the Windows partitions and configured that, and I booted Windows to confirm that is was going to work properly. No worries.

I then went on and installed the rest of the Linux distributions that I keep loaded on my desk at home. As I said, I installed openSuSE and Fedora with btrfs filesystems, and the rest with ext4.  Nothing else new, different or unusual in any of this. 

Once they were all done and configured, I did a bit of testing to compare boot speeds. The last thing I did before taking out the old disk drive was time the boot speeds, so now I could compare them to booting from the SSD drive, and the results are impressive. 

For all of these tests, the time indicated is from the boot where the boot sequence actually starts (i.e. when I press Return in the GRUB menu), until the Login window is shown and I could enter my password.

  HDD Boot SSD Boot
openSuSE 13.1 0:35 0:12
Fedora 20 0:34 0:11
Linux Mint 16 0:30 0:09
Windows 7 0:40 0:16

The first time I booted from the SSD was openSuSE, and my reaction was "You've got to be kidding me!".  By the time I got to Linux Mint, I was just shaking my head. I mean, really, less than 10 seconds for a cold boot?  That pretty much does away with any need for Suspend/Resume, doesn't it?

So, the bottom line here is pretty clear: converting to an SSD drive is very easy these days, and doesn't take much time. 

The performance improvement is substantial, cutting boot time in half or more, with corresponding improvements in disk performance during normal use. SSD drives are still a lot more expensive than normal SATA drives - and their price is still very non-linear, as drive capacity goes up, the price increases dramatically.  But if you can afford one, perhaps by balancing the disk space you really need against the cost of smaller or larger drives, it can really pay off.

One other note - the little screwdrive that is included in the Hyper-X kit has two different tips, and is magnetic.  I'm old enough that it still gives me the creeps to have magnets around disk drives. Oh well...

Related stories

Editorial standards