Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Plugged In: Hardware upgrades can be relatively easy fix to sluggish PC performance

After this weekend’s bout of upgrading my own computers, recalibrating printers and then shutting down for Mount Redoubt’s tantrums, I’m not inclined to write a sassy lead, so let’s dive straight into geek speak mode and examine how to implement some useful and cost-effective PC upgrades.

Adding RAM and why
Microsoft and most third-party software vendors constantly add more and more “little” bits of software that automatically load when your system first boots. Every “little” bit demands more of your system’s DRAM memory, sometimes as much as an additional 25 megabytes. As a result, 2- or 3-year-old Windows XP systems, which typically sold with 512 MB installed DRAM memory, frequently no longer have enough free DRAM to work quickly and efficiently, even with undemanding application programs like basic word processing, Web access or e-mail. Demanding applications like photographic programs need a great deal of free DRAM or they’ll slow down to the point of unusability.

Luckily, upgrading DRAM is fairly easy, and DRAM has become quite inexpensive. I’ve seen a four-gigabyte matched pair of brand-name DDR2 1066 DRAM for as little as $63 plus shipping prior to a substantial rebate.

Modern replacement DRAM must always be installed in matched pairs and be of the correct type and speed for your system. There are several current types of DRAM, termed DDR, DDR2 and DDR3. These are absolutely NOT interchangeable.

Plan upon removing any DRAM that’s already installed in your system — it’s not going to work reliably with your newer-upgrade DRAM. All installed DRAM in all channels should be identical.

A 32-bit Windows XP or 32-bit Windows Vista operating systems are physically unable to use more than four gigabytes DRAM. Although two gigabytes should be sufficient for most consumers, DRAM has become so inexpensive that there’s little economic benefit to installing less than a full four gigabytes.

A-64 bit operating system like Windows XP x64 or 64-bit Vista can physically access much more DRAM, so an upgrade to at least four gigabytes DRAM would be in order.

Before you start your upgrade, discharge any static electricity by touching the metal exterior of the computer case, then unplug your computer’s power cord from the back of the system.

Memory modules are notched off-center so they will snap and lock into place only when correctly inserted. Don’t force the module but be sure that the lock on each end of the memory slot snaps securely into the notch at each end of the DRAM module.

Modern computers typically include four slots for two separate memory channels; each channel will have two separate memory slots. Be sure that your upgrade modules are properly inserted into the two matching slots for the first memory channel. Although these are usually color-coded, check your computer and system board manual if you’re not sure which slots to use. These manuals are often found online at the system board manufacturer’s Web site. If you decide to upgrade to four gigabytes, then installing two, two-gigabyte memory modules will usually be preferable and less expensive.

If you haven’t installed the new DRAM properly, your system will not boot, a situation that’s usually the result of bad memory or improperly installed memory. Be sure that your memory is fully and properly seated in the correct slots. If you’re not sure, remove all memory modules, check your system board manual and start over.

Be sure to buy DRAM that is the correct type and has a rated performance at least as fast as the minimum speed rating required by your CPU and system board. As a relatively inexpensive precaution, I generally prefer to buy upgrade DRAM that is one grade faster than the minimum required by my system. It will work at the lower speed and provide a little extra margin of reliability. For example, if your old DRAM is DDR2 800, then I personally would prefer DDR2 1066.

Replacing hard disks
Hard disk performance is another area where a fairly inexpensive replacement can yield substantial performance benefits. However, changing to a newer hard disk can be daunting.

Do the easy part first. Not all new model hard disks provide equally good performance. Generally, hard disks with higher rotational speeds and higher storage capacity tend to perform better for the simple reason that high-rpm hard disks, and hard disks with a great amount of data stored in a very small area, will mechanically rotate that much more data under the magnetic read-write heads inside the hard disk.

Before you upgrade
Before deciding to upgrade your hard disk, however, I suggest you try a free optional feature in Windows XP — disk compression, which improves the efficiency of how Windows stores hard disks data. My tests indicate that compressing a disk can improve some hard disk performance metrics as well as freeing up some storage capacity.

I have not experienced any problems associated with compressing the disks of my own computers, but I strongly recommend against trying compression on a multidisk RAID array because RAID arrays store data in a manner very different from an individual hard disk. I believe that the risks associated with compressing a RAID disk array are unpredictable but potentially severe.

Disk compression is very slow, so it’s something that should be done overnight. To access disk compression, click on My Computer, then right click on the C: drive icon. Left click on the Properties menu item, and then choose Disk Cleanup to delete any junk files. Empty the Recycle Bin. Then, in the same disk Properties window, check the Compress Drive check box, choose to apply to all subdirectories and files, and then wait several hours.

Do not use your computer and do not turn it off until the process is competed. Repeat this sequence for any D: or other internal hard disks. Ideally, any computer running disk compression should be connected to an uninterruptible power supply to avoid an unplanned shutdown in the event that there’s a power outage.

Recommended hard disks
Consumers have relatively limited choices in high performance hard disks because the really fast 15,000-rpm SCSI drives are too expensive and too complex for consumer-grade computer systems. Most consumer-grade hard disks are SATA drives that rotate at 7,200 rpm. Some of these can be surprisingly good performers.

The fastest consumer hard disks are all SATA type drives, and of these the 10,000-rpm Western Digital Raptor drives are remain the fastest consumer-level hard disks. The 300-GB VelociRaptor currently costs about $229, while the slightly slower 150-GB version costs about $179. The older but still very quick 74-GB Raptor is now $99. You’re paying a premium, though, per gigabyte of storage for the fastest possible hard disk performance.

The overall performance of Western Digital’s Black Caviar and Caviar SE16 hard disks is only slightly slower than the Raptors and the cost per gigabyte is quite a bit lower. The 7,200-rpm, 640-GB Black Caviar drive (WD6401AALS) is an unusually good performer among 7,200-rpm drives, and only costs about $80 plus shipping, a very reasonable price that works out to about 12 cents per gigabyte.

My recommendation for the performance-oriented user would be to use a Raptor drive as the C: boot drive, from which Windows and all application programs are loaded, and a WD, 640-GB Black Caviar drive as a D: drive, where all data and documents are stored. Not only does this arrangement optimally balance performance, cost and storage capacity, but it’s easier to reliably back up your data if the data is located on a physically separate hard disk.

If your system board is fairly new and has the necessary SATA RAID hardware attachments, and if your computer’s case and power supply are sufficiently robust, using four WD6401AALS drives in a RAID 10 disk array would result in a very low-cost. but fast and reliable, RAID 10 disk array. I recently installed such an array in my own law office file server and have been very happy with it. Although the RAID 10 disk array would not have as much storage capacity as the four individual drives, the cost per gigabyte is still excellent and your shard disk performance will be quite a bit faster and more reliable.

How to change a hard disk
Changing hard disks is not necessarily for the computer novice, so if you’re uncertain, have the job done by a local technician. Before you do anything, be sure you have completely backed up every hard disk in your system and that the backups are reliable.

It’s not physically difficult to replace a hard disk, mostly consisting of loosening four screws, an SATA power plug, and an SATA data plug, switching the hard disks, and then replacing screws and the data and power cables. The real trick is to move your operating system, data and paid-up program activations as easily and smoothly as possible.

To do that, you’ll need fresh hard disks, some external SATA disk enclosures that connect to your computer system through USB 2.0 ports, and a special program from Acronic called Easy Migrate 7. You can buy a copy of the Easy Migrate program as an Internet download from www.acronis.com. Easy Migrate basically copies the internal hard disks of your computer to the new target hard disks, which are usually connected through USB external hard disk enclosures.
Most external hard disk enclosures will work OK if you make sure the enclosures are specifically intended for use with SATA drives. I’ve gone through many external hard disk enclosures over the years and they’re mostly a yawn. As long as they work reliably, that’s usually good enough.

However, I recently found a series from Bytecc, the ME-300SU-BK 3.5 Black USB 2.0 Easy-Open Enclosure, that cost only $27 each including base and power supply. This external disk enclosure seems faster than average and is quite compact because it fits the SATA drive so snugly that the case itself becomes the cooling unit for the hard disk, neatly solving several problems at once. These are also recommended as a home and office data backup solution when used with the WD 640 GB Black Caviar drives and Microsoft’s basic backup accessory.

Acronis Easy Migrate 7 generally does a very good job of transferring the Windows operating system, application programs and data to new hard disks and then setting these disks up properly for physical transfer into your computer.

I found the program properly transferred most program activation data but failed to transfer activation and license data for some lesser-known utility programs and some device drivers. As a result, I had to delete, then reinstall, a few scanners and printers. I also had to find my purchase invoices and transfer the activation data and serial numbers manually into several programs. Aside from that fairly minor glitch, using Easy Migrate was fairly reliable and certainly much easier than re-installing operating systems and application programs to new hard disks.

Next week, we’ll continue the hardware upgrade discussion with information on changing out CPUs, video cards and power supplies.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.

No comments: