Mobile Computing: Upgrade Your Notebook's Hard Drive

As I mentioned last week, notebook users are more likely than desktop PC users to fill up their hard drives, simply because notebook hard drives are smaller in physical size and consequently in capacity. And with notebooks--because of space limitations imposed by their form factor--you don't have the same options for adding additional drives. Last week's newsletter, with tips on how to maximize your notebook's existing hard drive, is archived online.

If you've tried cleaning up and archiving unnecessary apps and data, and you're still running low on storage space, it's probably time for a new hard drive. But the upgrading process isn't without some "gotchas." Here are some things you need to know.

Know Your Warranty

Before you do anything, check your notebook's warranty. You may void the warranty if you replace an original part, such as the hard drive, yourself. When in doubt, call the notebook maker's support line. You may learn that you will void your warranty unless you buy the replacement hard drive from your vendor. The tech support rep may even offer to guide you through the process over the phone. Be aware, though, that the notebook maker may not offer the best price for a replacement hard drive.

Know What You've Got

Next, collect all the specs on your current notebook hard drive, so that you can pick an appropriate replacement.

For example, it's important to know the capacity so that you can gauge your future needs. You'll also want to know who manufactured the drive so that you can contact the manufacturer to find any of the facts that aren't listed on the drive itself.

Other very important facts to know:

  • Form factor. You'll find 2.5-inch hard drives in almost all full-size notebooks; subnotebooks may have 1.8-inch drives.
  • Height. The most common are 12.5 mm and 9.5 mm.
  • Interface. Newer notebook drives are often serial ATA.

The rotational speed (such as 4200 rpm) is less important, although you may be able to improve your performance by choosing a replacement that spins its disks at a faster rate, such as 5400 rpm or 7200 rpm.

If you can't find the info you need on the drive itself, note its model number and ask your notebook vendor or check the drive manufacturer's Web site.

Consider Upgrading the Speed

Increasing hard drive capacity is the primary reason most people upgrade. But you might also want a faster hard drive.

The majority of notebook hard drives in use today have rotational speeds of 4200 or 5400 rpm. Newer models, often found in gaming notebooks, rotate at 7200 rpm. Upgrading from a 4200-rpm hard drive to a 5400- or 7200-rpm drive should give you a nice overall system performance increase. Indeed, a sluggish hard drive is often the primary culprit in poor notebook performance, says Simon Blackstein, senior network engineer for MicroMenders, an IT service organization in San Francisco.

However, a faster hard drive may also drain your notebook's battery more quickly and generate a bit more heat. So are the tradeoffs worth it? If you plan to frequently edit video, play high-end games, or run large database searches, definitely. Otherwise, you may want to stick with a 5400 rpm drive.

Can You Do the Job Yourself?

Increasingly, notebook manufacturers are making it easier to remove and replace an internal hard drive. Physically, the entire process may take just a few minutes, requiring not much more than removing a screw, sliding the old drive out, and popping in the new one. Before you attempt this, though, check your notebook's documentation to get a sense of what's involved. If you don't feel comfortable following the instructions in the manual, you might want to hire someone for the job.

Of course, just physically swapping the drive isn't all there is to it. You'll need to move your OS, apps, and data over to the replacement. If you're not an upgrade sophisticate (or even if you are), consider using a product designed to facilitate the process, such as one of Apricorn's hard-drive upgrade kits, which vary in price from $39 to $289, depending on what's included and the interface you want to use for the transfer. (Apricorn also offers PC Card-based solutions.)

Here's how it works if you buy a complete hard-drive upgrade package: The new notebook hard drive arrives housed in an external drive enclosure. You attach the new drive to your notebook via a USB 2.0 port (for optimal performance) and install the data transfer software on your notebook. The software turns the external hard drive into a mirror image of your notebook's existing internal drive, transferring all your files, applications, and settings, according to Apricorn.

When the transfer is complete, remove the old drive from your notebook and the new drive from the external enclosure. Then you swap the two drives, popping the new drive into your notebook and inserting the old drive into the external enclosure. The end result is that you'll have a new hard drive in your notebook with all the settings, files, data, and applications intact from your old drive. And you can now use your old drive as an external drive for archiving or other purposes.

You may want to do yourself a favor and stop by Apricorn's online hard drive configurator first; you'll find offerings of compatible hard drives for popular notebook models. (Note: I haven't personally tested Apricorn's upgrades.)

Do Your Homework

Of course, you'll want to shop around for the best prices on internal notebook hard drives. Some places to look include the following:

Did You Upgrade?

Have you upgraded your notebook's hard drive? If so, tell me about your experiences.

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