Is it worth it to upgrade my netbook/laptop hard disk to SSD?

A few years back I started using solid state drives (SSD) whenever I got a new netbook/laptop or when someone asked for hardware upgrade suggestions. The speed increase and shorter boot times on any given system is phenomenal and current GNU/Linux distributions take care of the configuration details. I don’t even take into consideration finer details like bus speed, hybrid disks or other technical features.

I’ll say this just once again, even though the price is high, the speed increase is ridiculous. If your job is in IT or requires using a dedicated computer full-time (some accounting positions or other engineering, graphic design, development, etc.), you may be able to justify the time gain (ie. booting/rebooting/starting apps/loading data) and calculate a short ROI justifying the expense. That’s not my line of expertise but I think I get the point accross.

Having picnic while waiting for the email indexing to finish
From the archives: having picnic while waiting for the email indexing to finish. License: CC-BY, source: Moon Stars and Paper

Back from one week at the hospital after two small but painful operations, I have one month leave to get back on my feet. I also just finished my employment and needed to upgrade my older personal laptop, so I decided to also evaluate how to make my housewife’s netbook a bit faster for occasional use at home – I can’t move much or sit down for extended periods at the home computer / with a big laptop.

Although I know the speed increase will justify the upgrade, I still want to confirm how slow the current disk is, and of course what type of disk it is – if the system is using the older PATA interface, I am not even sure if you can find such SSDs. Confirming the system has a SATA interface will make it easier to shop around and prevent ending up with a hard disk I can’t connect.

Most consumer laptop/netbook systems come with the cheapest hard disk at the time of manufacture, which often means 4200 RPM. The hard disk exact model number can be found easily via command line or graphically, without opening your system.

The following information can also be used after booting from a live CD, if you’re evaluating such a hardware upgrade for a system that doesn’t have a GNU/Linux OS installed. That’s right, no need to find (or buy) and install any vendor-specific disk utilities for the simple checks I am sharing how to do here. Just an Ubuntu live CD.

Using the command line from a terminal you can get such information as follows (assuming your system only has one hard disk, extra information redacted):

magicfab@hermes:~$ sudo hdparm -I /dev/sda


ATA device, with non-removable media
Model Number: Hitachi HTS545016B9A300
Serial Number: 090726PB5B03QCH542MH
Firmware Revision: PBBOC66G
Transport: Serial, ATA8-AST, SATA 1.0a, SATA II Extensions, SATA Rev 2.5, SATA Rev 2.6; Revision: ATA8-AST T13 Project D1697 Revision 0b

Form Factor: 2.5 inch
Nominal Media Rotation Rate: 5400

Using the graphical environement there is the Disk Utility application that will give you the same information. It’s under System > Administration unless you’re using the Unity interface in Ubuntu.

The above results indicate it’s a 2.5 inch 5400 RPM SATA drive, a perfect candidate for an SSD upgrade. On higher-end laptops you may have a 7200 RPM hard disk which may be fast enough if you optimize your system otherwise (and having cheap, matching SSD-per-GB to 7200 RPM drives is not happening anytime soon).

I also use this method to check the firmware version of newly installed SSD drives, which sometimes needs updating depending on its manufacture time and purchase time – if I am buying a drive that has been on the market for some time, there are high chances its initial firmware as shipped at the factory has a new version available for updating.

If you’re somewhat of an SSD geek like me, take a look at my SSD checklist, it has a few tricks to optimize SSD configuration and some of those tricks can also increase performance on non-SSD systems.

Once you have installed and used your first SSD hard disk, please don’t hurt yourself too much for not having done so before 😉 I still think it’s the best ratio of dollar/performance gain of any hardware upgrade you can simply accomplish on most laptop/netbook systems.

Oh, and don’t forget to sell your older, slower hard disk – or re-purpose it for external storage and backups using an external case!