Revitalizing an aging notebook on the cheap

All it takes is a couple hours and about $125 to breathe new life into an old laptop.

Step 2: Upgrade to a bigger, faster hard drive

In 2003, I couldn't imagine filling up the ThinkPad R50's 40GB hard drive. What a difference five years makes -- today the drive is chock full of everything from MP3s of sound effects (for my son's elementary school play) to hundreds of Word documents (everything I wrote for five years).

Rather than using a ThinkPad replacement drive, I installed an off-the-shelf 80GB Seagate Momentus 5400.2 drive for two reasons. The 80GB ThinkPad drives are low-performance 4,200-rpm units, and they cost about US$125, which would bust the budget in one move.

At the other extreme, a high-performance 7,200-rpm drive would have also cost too much -- plus it would've used so much more power that it would've probably cut my system's battery life by half an hour. By contrast, the Momentus 5400.2 drive uses the same connection interface as the original drive, spins its disks at 5,400 rpm and costs around US$50. It offers a nice balance between power and cost.

How to do it

Before you do anything, back up the drive's data. You can use an external drive and software like Symantec's Norton Ghost or Paragon Software Group's Drive Backup to transfer the data from one drive to another. An hour is a good estimate for a 40GB hard drive's initial backup, but it depends on the program being used and where the data is being saved.

I made a resolution to stop being a digital pack rat, so I started from scratch with a fresh Windows installation. I saved the key files I'll need on a DVD and wiped everything else clean. All told, it took me about 15 minutes because I got rid of much more than I saved.

The actual task of swapping a hard drive takes only a few minutes. Start by unscrewing and opening the hard drive cover on the side of the laptop and pulling out the old drive.

After removing it from its drive caddy, put it aside -- we have plans for this puppy. Finally, screw the new drive into the rack and slide it into place.

The fresh drive doesn't have an operating system on it, so that's our first task. When you start up the machine, have the Windows (or system-restoration) disc in the CD drive. I lost the discs that came with the R50 long ago, so I used a basic Windows XP disc. When you do it, have the license code at hand because you'll need it to load the software.

If you're a little daring, consider trying Linux instead of Windows. It's particularly seductive here because it requires far less resources than Windows and will run like a sprinter with our new parts. For more information, see "The Linux Way."

Finally, install all your favorite applications, bring over the backed-up data from the external drive or DVD you saved them to, and it'll be good as new -- even better.

The Linux Way:

Rather than trashing the dinky 40GB hard drive I took out of the R50, I recycled it to run Linux. Now I can swap between a Windows XP system and a Linux one by just changing the drives and starting the system up.

On eBay, I bought a spare hard drive caddy for $3, which makes switching between the new 80GB drive and my old 40GB drive quick and easy.

How to do it

The first step is to download the operating system. I really like Ubuntu's Linux, and not just because it's free. The essence of Ubuntu is its community of programmers who put the operating system together and support it.

The latest Ubuntu Linux software (Version 8.04, a.k.a. Hardy Heron) can be downloaded from Ubuntu's Web site; it's all free, and it comes with three years of support. At 700MB, it easily fits onto a CD. If you're not up to converting an .iso image and burning it to a CD, fill out the online form, and the the discs will be mailed to you. You won't even have to pay for shipping.

Start up the notebook with the installation disc in the CD drive, and the software takes over. Answer a few questions about language, time zone, networking and other details, and Ubuntu does the rest. It takes about 20 minutes. (Microsoft Corp. could learn a thing or two about streamlining operating system installation from Ubuntu.)

My R50 loves Linux. Because the resource requirements are so much lower than XP's, the revamped system is even more responsive running Linux. It also starts up in just 45 seconds, about half the time as Windows with a faster hard drive.

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