This old laptop: Revitalizing an aging notebook on the cheap

All it takes is a couple hours and about $125 to breathe new life into an old laptop.

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Step 2: Upgrade to a bigger, faster hard drive

In 2003, I couldn't imagine filling up the ThinkPad R50's 40GB hard drive. What a difference five years makes -- today the drive is chock full of everything from MP3s of sound effects (for my son's elementary school play) to hundreds of Word documents (everything I wrote for five years).

Rather than using a ThinkPad replacement drive, I installed an off-the-shelf 80GB Seagate Momentus 5400.2 drive for two reasons. The 80GB ThinkPad drives are low-performance 4,200-rpm units, and they cost about $125, which would bust the budget in one move.

At the other extreme, a high-performance 7,200-rpm drive would have also cost too much -- plus it would've used so much more power that it would've probably cut my system's battery life by half an hour. By contrast, the Momentus 5400.2 drive uses the same connection interface as the original drive, spins its disks at 5,400 rpm and costs around $50. It offers a nice balance between power and cost.

How to do it

Before you do anything, back up the drive's data. You can use an external drive and software like Symantec Corp.'s Norton Ghost or Paragon Software Group's Drive Backup to transfer the data from one drive to another. An hour is a good estimate for a 40GB hard drive's initial backup, but it depends on the program being used and where the data is being saved.

I made a resolution to stop being a digital pack rat, so I started from scratch with a fresh Windows installation. I saved the key files I'll need on a DVD and wiped everything else clean. All told, it took me about 15 minutes because I got rid of much more than I saved.

The actual task of swapping a hard drive takes only a few minutes. Start by unscrewing and opening the hard drive cover on the side of the laptop and pulling out the old drive.

removing hard drive

Removing the old drive. Click to view image gallery.

After removing it from its drive caddy, put it aside -- we have plans for this puppy. Finally, screw the new drive into the rack and slide it into place.

screwing new drive in rack

Screwing the new drive into the rack.

Click to view image gallery.

The fresh drive doesn't have an operating system on it, so that's our first task. When you start up the machine, have the Windows (or system-restoration) disc in the CD drive. I lost the discs that came with the R50 long ago, so I used a basic Windows XP disc. When you do it, have the license code at hand because you'll need it to load the software.

If you're a little daring, consider trying Linux instead of Windows. It's particularly seductive here because it requires far less resources than Windows and will run like a sprinter with our new parts. For more information, see "The Linux Way."

Finally, install all your favorite applications, bring over the backed-up data from the external drive or DVD you saved them to, and it'll be good as new -- even better.

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