Could An SSD Be The Best Upgrade For Your Old PC?

It's a foregone conclusion that SSDs are must-haves in performance-oriented PCs, but our testing reveals that solid-state drives are reasonable upgrades in older mainstream machines, too. We build three old boxes to gauge the impact of an SSD on each.

The solid-state drive industry is currently shifting from the 3 Gb/s to the 6 Gb/s SATA interface, increasing potential throughput from 250+ MB/s to more than 500 MB/s. Enthusiasts currently hamstrung by slow storage performance can definitely appreciate the higher ceiling, particularly in new builds with cutting-edge processors and powerful graphics configurations.

However, we also find ourselves wondering if an SSD makes sense as an upgrade in an older system with components that might not be as fresh any more. It turns out that yes, solid-state technology does have a place alongside previous-generation hardware. It doesn't take a Nehalem- or Sandy Bridge-class configuration to let flash-based media stretch its legs after all.

This article looks at what happens when you replace an existing hard drive with a solid-state drive. We built a few systems that represent PC hardware from 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010, and then upgraded each of them using an SSD.

Processor, graphics card, and motherboard vendors might not like this revelation, but here it is anyway. If you're not an enthusiast with specific performance requirements, it's not necessary to buy new components every time AMD or Intel launches a platform. If you're just browsing the Internet, using social media, watching video, communicating over Skype, or word processing, a five-year-old Core 2 Duo still probably feels like a snappy-enough system. Granted, gaming, workstation apps, and transcoding workloads are all great reasons to invest in modern components. But entry-level, mainstream Windows-based boxes simply don't need any more muscle than that.

Once you do feel an urge to upgrade, the question becomes: where to start? Should you drop in a new processor? Many folks like to think that simply adding more RAM is the cure-all; will dropping in additional modules help? Would a new graphics card address the situations where you notice slow-down? Or how about a larger hard drive because you're simply running out of space? There are plenty of ways to spend money trying to beef up the speed or capacity of an older machine.

But almost nobody considers adding an SSD. After all, an SSD is hardly effective for addressing capacity issues. And SSDs generally fall below all of those other parts when power users think about the pieces that'd help improve performance.

Before you even try dropping an SSD into an old box, though, consider a couple of caveats first. We're neither concerned with the model of drive you use, nor the price at which you buy it. Practically, even value-oriented SSDs are considered relevant when it comes to upgrading aging hardware. However, we do want to mention that it is important to use a SATA controller with AHCI support because it's necessary to support the TRIM command. Every SSD can be operated without TRIM, but at the risk of decreased performance after intensive use. As more general guidance, there is a minimum amount of processing power and memory you'll want before an SSD makes sense. Own a decent dual-core CPU and at least a couple gigs of memory. Otherwise, you're probably on a trajectory for a full system revamp, and not just a single-component upgrade.

This thread is closed for comments
    Your comment
    SSD is just too exaggerated, yes it is faster than HDD and may be more reliable but that doesn't justify its price.

    Waiting until it is price gets reasonable.
  • mayankleoboy1
    The conclusions we're drawing relate to the mainstream folks trying to get more life from an already-aging box

    since its for mainstream, i would have liked a subjective test where some 'average' folks, doing 'average' tasks, would use the machines with/without SSD's, and rate the perceived speed on a scale of 1=10.
    those should have been included as well. most people "feel" the speed, rather than benchmark it.
  • Can you run gaming/photoshop/actual applications instead of benchmarks?
  • Please do a test with a Pentium 3 + KingSpec PATA SSD.
    I'm very curious about the results. My Dell Lat C400 is chugging along just fine on Windows 7 but I believe a SSD would greatly improve performance.
  • I recently bought a Transcend 32GB SSD to be my Boot Drive in my 5+yr old system- Athlon64 3200+ (Venice) S939 , Gigabyte GA-K8N51PVMT-9 ( Geforce 6150), 2 Gb DDR400, WIN7 SP1.
    I do not see that the SATA controller mentions AHCI in the device manager tab, however when I run the TRIM check commnand through CMD, it returns a "enabled" reply. Also,have made the necessary registry changes to ensure that AHCI is enabled. There is however no option in the MB bios to set AHCI.

    So is my drive configured with TRIM enabled or not?
  • buxx I wish I knew the answer to your question too. I have a Dell Dimension XPS600 which I would love to put an SSD into, just as this article suggests. However I can't find any mention of AHCI in the BIOS, manuals or anywhere on the web. Hard to say if it's present, but you would guess not, if they don't mention it... right?
  • compton
    I think that if you're trying to get more legs out of an older system, a SSD is definitely a great way to do that. Especially with laptops from the past four years -- a Core 2 Duo processor in a laptop still isn't fast, but a decent SSD will make it feel like a new system (at least in my experience) and then some. I think trying to make your Pentium 4 system better with some solid state storage is a lost cause however.

    MAGPCSSD is just too exaggerated, yes it is faster than HDD and may be more reliable but that doesn't justify its price.Waiting until it is price gets reasonable.

    How much is reasonable? A 64GB Crucial M4 is $105... that's pretty damn reasonable to me. For that kind of money you could get a low-end mobo, an Athlon X4, or 16GB of DDR3. Upgrades don't get much more reasonable than that. But if you already have a decent, if older system, installing an SSD will make it feel like a brand new system should for the least amount of money.
  • jsrudd
    I installed an SSD in my netbook with an 1.6ghz atom processor and it really sped things up. The computer went from unusable to fine for casual usage.
  • SpadeM
    Predictable outcome but informative article non the less. My only concern is that since you talked about mainstream pc, i didn't see any amd equipped system. This is not about AMD vs. Intel it's about storage controller performance. Thinking back, most builds I did back in the 2004 - 2006 time frame where based off nvidia + amd. This article would have painted a more complete picture if it had taken into consideration the other half of the pc landscape. In theory i guess you can argue that yes, if it is AHCI enabled then it "should" be the same outcome as the ICH scenario ... but is it for a fact?
  • echdskech
    Maybe Tom's can do double blind subjective tests like they do in Mythbusters.

    Spend 10 mins doing office/internet stuff on each config without knowing which is which and rank them by speed subjectively.
  • yannigr
    It could be a so much better and more interesting article. Unfortunately it is not. Half job=nothing. It is just another "There is NO AMD, there is ONLY Intel" article. You could just take a today's Intel system and underclock it. Less trouble, same almost useless results. When we are talking about different eras and different systems we try at least to have different systems.
  • clonazepam
    Thanks for the article. It was a good read.

    The best part about buying a SSD for your aging system is... you can take it with you onto the next build!

    It may be only the part that is spared now that opticals are making the move to sata.

    I don't have an AMD proc, but I have a SSD on a nvidia 750i chipset, and all around, the performance is much worse than an Intel controller but still feels 5x faster than standard sata drive, and a million times faster than an old ide drive.
  • serendipiti
    I have used an 64GB Sandforce SSD but not in my work machine. It's hard to show to someone something impressive and mind blowing if you compare it against a modern HDD. But just use it, become accostumed to the response times, and then when you get back to use HDD you will realize why enthusiasts love SSDs.
  • sceen311
    Ram is usually the best upgrade for an old computer, or a minor graphics upgrade if you're running on an old integrated solution. for the price of an SSD > 60gbs you have half the price of a new machine and should probably start looking at going that route.
  • JohnnyLucky
    Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.

    Tom's Hardware published the first articles and reviews of ssd's back in 2007. One thing has remained constant - price is an obstacle to mass acceptance.
  • Onus
    The article was better than I expected, in that it wasn't another "Oh you gotta get this!" piece trying to get people to spend money. It gave every excuse why buying a SSD might NOT make sense, then clearly showed why in other cases it very definitely does.
    I'd say if a machine has at least 2GB of RAM, two cores, and any better graphics than an Intel IGP, then a SSD would indeed be the next good choice for an upgrade.
  • SSD upgrades make a lot of sense in business office environments where the existing computers have existing expensive software and the computer users have invested a lot of time into learning how to work productively with one specific computer setup. While $400 in today's computer market buys a very nice computer, upgrading an old computer prevents a lot of new technology issues (where is the on/off switch...). In a small business environment, a new computer requires both buying/loading new software and the loss of employee productivity when learning how to use the new computer. SSD upgrades do not create these costs.
  • 4745454b
    I wish I had a better idea of if it would really make a difference. I saw pretty much synthetic benchmarks. The only real world test I saw was window boot. I suppose drawing from that I can assume any other program would load ~50% faster. At this point consider $/GB, I'm not sure it's worth it for an older machine.
  • custodian-1
    abby662buxx I wish I knew the answer to your question too. I have a Dell Dimension XPS600 which I would love to put an SSD into, just as this article suggests. However I can't find any mention of AHCI in the BIOS, manuals or anywhere on the web. Hard to say if it's present, but you would guess not, if they don't mention it... right?

    you could try an add in card their fairly cheap
  • hiekkamies
    I recently upgraded my Core2 duo E7200 & GeForce 8800GT with Corsair Vertex2 SSD, Windows 7 and 2GB of ram (to the total of 4GB) and I was definitely worth it:
    Overall responsiveness is much better and actually also my work with 3-D rendering got much smoother, because of the shorter loading and saving times of my projects.

    My motherboard is based on P31/G31 + ICH7 and as i understand it, it does not support AHCI. But behold: TRIM is working, or at least by the command "fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify" it is working.

    I have also read in other forums, that TRIM does not actually require AHCI. So, if my TRIM really does it´s thing, AHCI support is not needed. Can someone confirm this?
  • rolli59
    Good article, maybe I will be on a lookout for a deal to stick in my reliable socket 939 nforce4 opteron X2 system.
  • ram1009
    These SSD articles continue to ignore the potential reliability improvement over spinning drives. I realize there's a time element to actually prove this with numerical studies however common sense dictates that there must be a significant improvement, at least to me it does. I think this factor especially impacts the computers in this article since they will probably have a spinning drive that's already several years old.
  • CaedenV
    now lets think a minute... If you have a 5+ year old system you would get much more bang for your buck upgrading the tower, or at least the CPU/RAM/Mobo than by getting just an SSD. Sure for those of us who have relatively modern systems, or aging top of the line systems, it makes sense because there is nothing else to upgrade until we move to a new platform. But to say that it is a good idea in general for someone stuck on a P4 or PD to sink money into an SSD instead of a platform is just silly.
    Once the mythical $1/GB mark is crossed then we will all be jumping on board, but until then it is still a premium upgrade for those with no more room to grow.
  • AnUnusedUsername
    I've been considering buying a SSD for an older laptop I have, as basically nothing else is replaceable.
    It's a moderately old system with a Core 2 duo, old but not as old as some in the article. The major issue that's deterring me is whether or not SATA 1.0 would allow for much performance increase from an SSD. All of the systems in the article support at least SATA 2.0, which I don't think was all that common in laptops, even in 2007. The question I have is whether a SATA 1 connection is fast enough for an SSD to have any noticeable benefit. It's obvious the SSD would be faster, but would the connection mean I'm effectively limited to HDD-level performance anyway?