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Is it worth fitting an older laptop with an SSD?

posted 17 Nov 2012, 13:35 by James Gibbard   [ updated 17 Nov 2012, 13:44 ]
Solid state drives (SSDs) allow far faster data transfer rates than standard hard drives. This leads to faster boot up times and quicker loading of programs. Although including an SSD in any new computer is highly recommended, it is less apparent whether it is worth upgrading an old laptop (3 to 4 years old) by switching the hard drive for an SSD.
Since laptops normally only have space for one hard drive the SSD must be large enough to hold all required programs and files. For most people this means that at least a 256GB drive it required, ruling out the cheaper 64 and 128GB options.
The price of solid state drives (SSDs) has dropped rapidly since the beginning of this year, however there is still a large cost premium when compared to regular hard drives.
SSD Price
The above graph shows the price of a Samsung 256GB 830 SSD from April 2012 to Nov 2012.
At time of writing laptop hard drives can be purchased for less than £0.10/GB while SSDs are around £0.50/GB mark.
SATA 2.0 limitations
Another issue is that most older laptops feature a SATA 2.0 hard drive controller instead of the newer SATA 3.0.   SATA 2.0 has a maximum transfer rate of 3Gbits/s. Although this sounds high, it is only equivalent to 384Mbytes/s. Furthermore there are additional communication overheads that reduce the maximum speed to around 300Mbytes/s. Since most modern SSDs can manage about 500Mbytes/s transfer speeds the SATA 2.0 interface will be the limiting factor.
If you are lucky enough to have a laptop with a SATA 3.0 port you should not experience any throttling.
For this test a Dell Studio 1555 laptop was used. The laptop was purchased in Aug 2009.
  • Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 @ 2.40GHz
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4500 Series
  • Intel ICH9M I/O Controller (Sata 2.0)
  • Seagate Momentus 5400RPM, 320GB Hard drive
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
Before the SSD was fitted a clean install of Windows 7, Office 2010, Firefox and Microsoft Security Essentials was installed. All Windows updates were also installed.
The following measurements were recorded:
  • Boot up time (From pressing power button to displaying the desktop): 1 Minute 42 Seconds
  • Boot up time (and loading Firefox): 2 Minutes 12 Seconds
  • Loading Microsoft Word: 8 seconds
HD Tune was installed and a speed test was run. The results are shown below:
 A Samsung 256Gb 830 SSD was then fitted in place of the Seagate hard drive.
The Samsung 256Gb 830 has the following specifications:
  • Sata 3.0 6Gbits/s (Backward compatible with SATA 2.0)
  • Up to 520MB/s Sequential Read Speed
  • Up to 400MB/s Sequential Write Speed
Windows 7 was reinstalled and set up as before (All updates installed, Office 2010, Firefox and Microsoft Security Essentials).
The following measurements were recorded:
  • Boot up time (From pressing power button to displaying the desktop): 37 seconds
  • Boot up time (and loading Firefox): 38 seconds
  • Loading Microsoft Word: 1 second
 HD Tune was installed and a speed test was run. The results are shown below:

Although the SSD failed to get anywhere near the manufactures specifications (due to the SATA 2.0 interface), the difference in loading times before and after the upgrade is massive. The laptop now feels highly responsive where before it felt slightly sluggish. I can definitely recommend upgrading an older laptop with an SSD. It will likely result in a very noticeable performance gain, maybe even extending the useful life of a laptop for a year or two.