Friday, 5 April 2013

Installing an SSD into an old ThinkPad X60

A while back I installed Windows 8 onto an old ThinkPad X61, and after five months I have grown to... I have grown to ignore it. Before Microsoft discontinued their cheap upgrade offer I took the opportunity to install Windows 8 on my ThinkPad X60 as well. The X60 was the X61's immediate predecessor. It was launched in 2006, and was one of the first laptops of any kind to use Intel's then-new Core Duo CPU, in this case running at 1.83ghz. Spec-wise it's very similar to a contemporary 13" MacBook - it has the same Intel graphics card, it even has a FireWire port - but with a 12", 4:3 screen running at 1024x768 instead of a 16:10 1280x800 widescreen.

And it's dressed all in black, like Joan Jett. This is one of the reasons why ThinkPads rock. They're much cheaper than used Intel MacBooks, too, although I'm not suggesting that Joan Jett is cheap. She would fetch a high price. Upgrade-wise I've always been very conservative when a new technology comes along, because I want other people to experience the pain and misery of failure first, and furthermore new tech depreciates quickly.

Solid state drives (SSDs) are one of the most interesting upgrade options of recent years, and the thought of owning one has nibbled away at my peace of mind. They're an elegant solution to the problem of data storage. Solid-state hard drives have been the next big thing since the 1980s, but until recently the price and capacity has kept them tantalisingly out of mankind's grasp, like nuclear fusion power or images of Christina Hendricks bending forwards. For example, here's an article from the June 1988(!) issue of PC Magazine on the bright future of flash memory, in the form of EEPROM modules.

"Flash EEPROM could provide the key to the PCs of the future: fast, secure machines with bigger memory-storage capacity - and no moving mechanical parts ... The nonvolatility of EEPROM raises some other interesting possibilities. Is there any reason why it can't replace floppy discs? I can't think of one. With surface mount and wafer-scale technologies, EEPROM modules may match 3 1/2-inch floppies in size and storage density."

And a reader letter from the October 1983 edition of the same magazine:

"Q: One of the main reasons why I would want to buy a hard disk for my PC is for convenient storage of programs. But could I save money and gain more convenience by adding EEPROMs and loading the program onto them? - Dan Proctor, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A: I think you would find the EEPROMs (erasable, programmable non-volatile storage chips) are decidedly not cost-effective. For about $3,000 you can purchase a hard disk with 10mb of memory. this will hold perhaps 100 programs. The same amount of money would buy you approximately 300k of EEPROMS (not counting the cards to mount the chips) that would hold perhaps three programs.

It must have been painful for Dan. He could see the future, but he was trapped in the past, with the little people and their tiny minds. Modern SSDs can generally hold more than three programs - unless that program happens to be Max Payne 3. With an installation footprint of 35gb, Max Payne 3 would indeed only fit into a 120gb SSD three times. In contrast it would fit comfortably into a typical 2tb desktop drive more than fifty times over, so the ratio between magnetic and electronic storage is obviously more favourable than it was back in 1983. The 2011 Thailand flooding wiped out a chunk of the world's hard drive foundries and caused traditional hard drive prices to zoom skywards, which for the SSD market was the equivalent of those old musicals where the lead actress catches a cold, and her understudy has to go out as a naive young chorus girl and come back as a star. SSDs are that young girl. They can do whatever Fred Astaire can do, but backwards and in high heels.

In a way I already have an SSD - my old Asus Eee 701 has a 4gb SSD, which still works after all these years. The rule of thumb is that larger solid state drives perform better and last longer than smaller drives, and so I waited until the 120gb models had dipped below £100. Samsung's SSDs tend to get good reviews - everybody liked the 830 - and although the reviews have been mixed for the 840 (more later) it's temptingly cheap. The cheapest price I could find was from Amazon; they're slightly more expensive on eBay, which has always puzzled me. Why buy new technology from eBay when it's more expensive than Amazon? Is it a tax dodge, or part of a money laundering scheme? Or what? Here's what you get in the box:

Worth it for the cute little stickers. Before opening the jiffy bag I assumed it contained a card reader or some MIDI cables or something similar, because the drive is almost comically lightweight. SSDs don't need as much shock-proof packaging as conventional hard drives and are presumably much cheaper for manufacturers to ship in bulk, which must help offset their generally higher cost. Samsung includes some data migration software on the CD, although it's also available on Samsung's website. In fact the CD installation immediately downloads a complete installation of the latest version of the software as an upgrade, so you might as well use the CD as a cat-fascinator. Samsung also includes some bloatware that seems to have one useful function (it reserves part of the drive's capacity for error-correction).

Here's what the 840 looks like, next to a conventional HDD ripped from my X60:

Installing a modern new SSD into an elderly X60 is a bit perverse. The X60 has an old-fashioned SATA I interface, which has a top transfer speed of 150mb/s. This is a quarter the theoretical maximum transfer speed of the 840's SATA III interface, and roughly a third the drive's sustained transfer rate. SATA is backwards-compatible, and so the 840 works in the X60, it just wastes two-thirds of its potential. And yet in most other respects I don't have a problem with the X60 - with sufficient memory, even the original 32-bit Core Duo is plenty fast enough for basic stuff circa 2013, and the audio applications I use aren't generally CPU-limited.

Boxout: Ten Suggested Collective Nouns for Moths

1. A Majesty of Moths
2. A Muttering of Moths
3. A Motherhood of Moths
4. A Month of Moths
5. A Manoeuvre of Moths
6. A Merrydew of Moths
7. A Maundering of Moths
8. A Mentality of Moths
9. A Mystery of Moths
10. A Magniloquence of Moths

SSD's have a number of killer positives and a couple of drawbacks. In their favour they're lighter and less power-hungry than conventional hard disk drives, and they're much faster. They're also physically much more robust, because they don't have any moving parts. Install one in your laptop, and it boots up faster, opens things faster, shuts down faster, and lasts a little bit longer on battery power. Here's a short video in which my veiny white person hands prod my X60, before and after installing the drive:

First Iain Banks reveals he is going to die, and a day later Roger Ebert beats him to the punch, which wasn't unexpected but is still a blow. I've always thought of Roger Ebert as a kind of movie version of John Peel, a hip old man with a surprisingly deft command of his medium. Peel sometimes played records at the wrong speed, but he always put things right, and he could talk entertainingly non-stop without spluttering or saying something offensive, which is difficult. Roger Ebert's opinions were occasionally baffling - one star for Blue Velvet, two for Fight Club, three for Spawn - but you could always see where he was coming from, and he had the attitude of someone who had seen it, done it, proved it, and still loved it. I have been raising a glass to him since the beginning of this post, which explains why my mind is wandering.

On the other hand there are good reasons why SSDs have not taken over the storage world. Pound-for-gigabyte they're more expensive than good old HDDs, and large SSDs (north of 500gb) are so prohibitively expensive that they generally aren't sold to consumers. The £74 that I paid for my 120gb 840 would have bought me a 2tb 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda with £10 left over to spend on (thinks) you can't buy much with £10 these days.

Consumer-level 2tb SSDs exist. Five thousand dollars. Very much a niche product, and as one of the commentators points out you can buy four 500gb SSDs for much less. In practice, desktop users tend to reserve the SSD as an OS drive, with a HDD storing masses of porn and Death Star blueprints etc. Yes, you can use computers for things other than pornography, I was just picking an example off the top of my head.

The other major drawback of SSDs is that they have a finite life span. Like love, and human beings, and the universe in general. The drive is divided into individual memory cells, which wear out after a certain number of read/write operations. The drive combats this by spreading data evenly across the disk, and by including a hidden reserve that is deployed when necessary, but for some people the write limit is one of those deal-breaking issues. The limited life is an inherent characteristic of flash memory, and has been around ever since the days of EEPROMS in the 1980s, in fact the PC Magazine article mentioned above points this out. Digital camera memory cards, mobile phone SIM cards and so forth have the same problem, although it's not as apparent because computer operating systems tend to generate a lot of read/write cycles. Whenever you boot your computer up it spaffs temporary files all over the place and if you have a limited amount of system RAM the OS uses the hard drive as virtual memory.

The 840 uses a new type of memory chip that costs less but wears more than Samsung's earlier 830, but nonetheless the estimates I have seen place the life at roughly ten years (with lots of writes) and much more than that for typical usage. Samsung also sells a Pro version which used the older, more robust storage standard. HardOCP pooh-poohs the non-Pro 840 in this review, but they seem to be reviewing it in the context of a desktop boot drive or high-performance laptop. I just want something that will turn my X60 into a kind of super-netbook with a taller screen, for light internet browsing. In fact the big draw for me is the physical endurance, which is important for a machine I expect to carry around. And there's nothing to stop me from cloning the 840's contents back onto my 250gb hard drive, which I will keep around just in case.

Still, installation. After spending an age fretting about sector alignment and whether I should reinstall Windows 8 from old-fashioned (ugh) physical media the resulting process was a bit of an anti-climax. Reason being that Samsung's migration software works and works well, or at least it did for me using Windows 8. You plug the SSD into a spare USB port and Samsung's software clones the internal drive onto the SSD, not caring that the two are different sizes. It aligned the sectors automatically. In my case the internal drive was a 250gb model but only 35gb or so was in use.

The tricky thing is that you need a way to power the SSD externally whilst you do this (unless your laptop has two hard drive slots, which it almost certainly doesn't). Fortunately I have one of these:

It's an endlessly handy sonic screwdriver that also lets me use DVD drives with my X60, which doesn't have an optical drive. It's also useful for extracting data from older hard drives that you might have lying around from your previous computer build, without having to stick the drives into an external caddy. Whilst waiting for the drive to clone I had a cup of tea and read a bit of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, an old book from long ago.

Hoggart's thesis was that international media tends to displace the kind of local culture he grew up with, and to his credit he generally avoids being a fuddy-duddy about it. What makes the book noteworthy is that it was published in 1957, five years before The Beatles' Please Please Me and the concurrent invention of sex. Quite what Hoggart would have thought about the internet I have no idea. When I was growing up working-class culture was an affectation put on by the middle classes. Localised culture simply did not exist, and it's never going to come back.

Beyond Hoggart's immediate location there was Britain in general, but the majority of British mass media of Hoggart's day was naff, absolutely wretched in comparison with the American variety. And this hasn't really changed. Britain failed to produce a distinctive internet culture apart from American internet culture, which is for all of the English-speaking world synonymous with internet culture in general.

As I pondered this the drive cloned away in the background, which took about ninety minutes or so. I had already set up the BIOS to use discs in AHCI mode, which is apparently a very good thing. After slotting it back into the laptop I was disappointed to find that it worked straight away. No lock-ups, no cryptic pattern of beeps, no booting to the desktop and then immediately crashing, no ERROR 601. It did not release a cloud of toxic gas.

Windows 8 was developed during the SSD era. It recognised the 840 straight away - asking it to defragment the drive performs a TRIM operation instead. What's it like to use? The most obvious difference is the general lack of noise. The SSD isn't quite silent - it sounds like an insect navigating mountainous terrain at night - but it no longer ticks. The X60 feels slightly lighter although I suspect this is mostly psychological. Operationally the X60 is noticeably quicker, at least until the novelty wears off, which isn't very long. Applications seem to spring onto the screen and as per the video above the machine boots faster. I now have fewer qualms about picking up and moving the machine when it's turned on.

It would make even more of a difference on a machine with a faster SATA interface. Officially, the first small ThinkPad with SATA II was the X200, which came out in 2008, but the X61 is apparently SATA II compatible with an unofficial BIOS. Which I have already installed in my X61. And so for the next post I might just whip the drive out of my X60 and stick it in my X61 (after doing the necessary cloning).

Is it worth putting a Samsung 840 into an old machine? In my opinion if your laptop costs more than £200 on the used market and you use it at least once a day then yes, go for it. Keep the HDD for when you want to resell the machine (used SSDs aren't particularly in demand - what if the previous owner thrashed it?). The X60 is a borderline case. The older small-format ThinkPads - the X32, X40, X41 - had PATA interfaces, and although PATA SSDs exist the performance gains in such old machines are slight and don't compensate for the ageing infrastracture. Used X200s are so cheap on the used market you might as well sell your X60 and get an X200 instead. In fact the X60 still has the same problem it had during its heyday - it was quickly overshadowed by the X61, and nowadays the price gap between the X61 and the X200 is such that the X60 isn't a rational choice. I keep mine because I'm sentimentally attached to it.

On the other hand, if I had and regularly used a 1400x1050 X60 Tablet or the X61 equivalent I wouldn't hesitate to put an SSD into it. I would end up with a kind of end-game netbook/laptop/tablet hybrid with a quasi-HD screen for much less than the price of an iPad.