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Upgrading Your Notebook Hard Drive: Does It Make Sense?

Upgrading Your Notebook Hard Drive: Does It Make Sense?
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We recently looked at the impact of a hard drive upgrade on a desktop PC to find out whether or not it's worth replacing a three-year-old disk with a brand new one. Our scenario involved the now-common choice of upgrading from Windows XP or Vista to Windows 7, and starting over with new storage at the same time. We found small benefits on the power consumption side and more noticeable increases on the performance side.

In short, if you intend to make major modifications to your system, then it makes a lot of sense to question your hard drive. Capacity, performance, and power consumption have reached new levels. But what are the results on a mobile machine, where many of those factors end up being multiplied? Can you get noticeably more performance or increase the battery life if you exchange the hard drive?

Desktop drives have marched straight up to 2TB capacities, but progress has been even more extensive on the mobile side. While 2.5” hard drives remain much slower than desktop hard drives, capacities have reached 640GB, and the drives have been more finely tuned for power consumption and efficiency. Additionally, growth in the mobile space has been more substantial than in the desktop segment.

Mobile HDDs typically fall into two markets: mainstream and high-performance. Mainstream drives often provide the highest capacities at a 5,400 RPM spindle speed while performance models rotate at a faster 7,200 RPM speed, albeit at smaller capacity points. Mainstream hard drives are available at up to 640GB capacity (9.5mm z-height) while the high-performance segment has reached 500GB.

We took a Dell Latitude D630 laptop running a 160B Hitachi Travelstar 7K200. This was one of the first mobile 7,200 RPM SATA hard drives. Hitachi recently released its Travelstar 7K500, which is two generations newer than the 7K200. What’s the 7K500's impact on performance for our Core 2 notebook? Will the new drive be efficient enough to increase battery life? Let’s check it out.

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  • -1 Hide
    henrikd , January 30, 2010 10:12 AM
    What about going straigth for a SSD... How about having a look at that for an updated version..
  • -6 Hide
    lamorpa , January 30, 2010 12:36 PM
    Using an old hard drive as a backup solution is precisely what you do not want to do. What's next, using your old micro-disks as a backup for your HD backup?
  • 0 Hide
    Proximon , January 30, 2010 7:02 PM
    I searched in vain for the SSD option. I think most laptop users would like faster boot times and lower power consumption, rather than more storage space.
    Then there is the robustness of an SSD compared to mechanical disks.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 30, 2010 7:20 PM
    lamorpa, there is a HUGE difference in using a perfectly good 1 year old hard drive as a backup and using one that is 10 years old. Many people will be replacing fairly new drives with larger faster ones and thes drives would be perfect for use in a usb enclosure.
  • -1 Hide
    jazzyb88 , January 31, 2010 2:30 PM
    I agree with da Rev. There is no harm in using a drive that is a few years old for a backup solution. Think about it...backup once a week or even once a month, for the rest of that time, the hard drive is off! It's very unlikely your main drive AND the backup will die at the same time.
  • -2 Hide
    cap223 , January 31, 2010 8:56 PM
    I'm running a WD1200BEVS (120GB, 5400RPM) and bought a WD3200BEVT (320BG, 7200RPM). I have an old Gateway MX6920 notebook. I've tried installing this 320GB with no luck. Is there a restriction based on HD capacity or speed that may be causing my problems? I'm about to try Tom's Hardware method above now that I've upgraded to Windows 7. But i'd like to know if there are restrictions anyway
  • -4 Hide
    cap223 , January 31, 2010 9:12 PM
    I'm running a WD1200BEVS (120GB, 5400RPM) and bought a WD3200BEKT (320BG, 7200RPM). I have an old Gateway MX6920 notebook. I've tried installing this 320GB with no luck. Is there a restriction based on HD capacity or speed that may be causing my problems? I'm about to try Tom's Hardware method above now that I've upgraded to Windows 7. But i'd like to know if there are restrictions anyway
  • -3 Hide
    ehsad , January 31, 2010 9:43 PM
    Wow, so replacing an 7200 rpm drive withanother one does not give you performance benefits? Of course it does not, you should not expect it.

    However, if you took an old 5400 rpm hd (most laptops come with these drives), and repalced it with 7200, you WOULD see a BIG difference. Trust me, I've just done it on the 2 years old sony vaio, and you can see how much faster the drive is.
  • -2 Hide
    liquidsnake718 , February 1, 2010 6:43 AM
    Yes, its always good to maximize your laptop/netbook to the max before changing it. If you can max out the RAM and get a decent amount of HDD space out of it, then why not before replacing your system?
  • 0 Hide
    cpatel1987 , February 2, 2010 8:21 AM
    How is this benchmark at all surprising? They basically compared an old hard drive to a new hard drive that had the same RPM?
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , February 2, 2010 1:12 PM
    Exactly, cpatel1987. This is a frustrating article because the first few pages were spent discussing all the performance increases in hard drive technology, with the implied expectation that it should make for a noticeable performance boost, but that never seemed likely to me. I guess it's good to see some proof that a newer drive is not really faster than an older one just because the bus bandwidth is higher, but there's not much value beyond that.
  • 0 Hide
    actionjksn , February 3, 2010 1:46 PM
    There is a speed benifit to be had. When you have an older smaller hard drive, you tend to end up too low on free space, this slows down your computer. You won't notice this benifit on a fresh install. But after you have been using it for a year or two, the computer with the newer larger HD will be faster.
  • 0 Hide
    actionjksn , February 3, 2010 2:00 PM
    actionjksnThere is a speed benefit to be had. When you have an older smaller hard drive, you tend to end up too low on free space, this slows down your computer. You won't notice this benefit on a fresh install. But after you have been using it for a year or two, the computer with the newer larger HD will be faster. My wife's two year old Lenovo had an 80 gig Hitachi hard drive, I replaced it with a Western digital 320 gig. It is now much faster. Because her free space was below 70 percent, Windows runs better with more free space. Another advantage to a larger size is you have more programs close to the outer parts of the platters
  • -1 Hide
    teodoreh , February 3, 2010 5:13 PM
    Although in Greek, this article is more interesting:

    http://oem.gr/main/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=305%3Aantikathistontas-ton-skliro-disko-tou-laptop-me-ssd&catid=4%3Aapothikeytika-mesa&Itemid=36&limitstart=2

    At least default 2.5" 5400rpm HDD was replaced by an Apacer SSD! ;D
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , February 3, 2010 5:38 PM
    A key performance optimization technique that was not talked about is this: Get the largest 7200rpm hard drive that you can afford for the upgrade and partition it into three partitions so that one takes advantage of the fact that "outer" partitions are accessed much faster than "inner" partitions. Partition a 500GB drive into (1) a small 80GB C: drive for storing only Windows OS and programs, (2) a ~200GB D: for storing all data, then finally (3) assign the remaining 220GB into a E: "spare" partition that is basically not used. The C: partition will be fastest as it uses the most outer parts of the disk platters, with D: being next fastest. Accessing the inner parts of the disk platters (which E: uses) can be as much as 25% slower. This is also a good data integrity safeguard as one's data is partitioned off from the OS/programs. Finally, a further optimization technique is to create a very small partition used strictly for Windows swap/temp file and scratch/temp by programs such as Photoshop, etc.
  • 0 Hide
    jowunger , February 4, 2010 3:46 AM
    forget HDD's - time to get SSD's!
  • -1 Hide
    ossie , February 8, 2010 6:11 PM
    Just another dynamic duo article to fill the page quota...
    The 7k200 was a great drive a few years ago - still is even now. Replacing a slow 5k4 with a 7k2 one was/is revealing, but a newer 7k2 will mostly have just a significantly higher linear transfer speed, hardly useful for most workloads.
    A neglected aspect is that in a family of drives there are some performance variations. For the 7k200, the best were the 100 and 200GB ones.
    Another important aspect is the interface: SATA150 is less power hungry than SATA300 (the latter one is hardly necessary for today's laptop HDDs). Also PATA is more energy efficient than SATA - serdes burns at least 1W, by itself.
  • -1 Hide
    tmc , February 10, 2010 5:17 PM
    Here's my take on this.. as long as laptops can function on usb flash drives (starting @ 128gb of course).. there will soon not be a need for internal hard drives. For BIG storage needs, you can buy a HUGE external drive.
  • -1 Hide
    bpdski , February 13, 2010 2:42 PM
    A newer 7200rpm drive will be faster with sequential r/w because it has a higher density platter. However, that makes almost no difference on a laptop. The only place that has any effect is with video editing which is also the only place in this test we see a difference. As ehsad said above, replacing a 5400rpm drive should have shown a bigger difference. This really was a waste of an article because probably 98% of old laptops have a 5400rpm drive and that's what we wanted to see. This would have been much more useful to take an older 5400rpm drive and compare that not only to a brand new 7K500 drive, but also to an SSD like the Intel X25-M or maybe a Vertex. There are also quite a few 4200rpm laptop drives out there, would have liked to see that thrown in too.