With the release of Windows 7 and laptop prices dropping into the sub $400 range, one might take a look at their old, dated, nearly antiquated laptop and wonder whether it’s better to upgrade the old or buy brand new. After a few weeks of weighing the options, I chose to upgrade my 3-year old Dell Inspiron E1505, and here’s a few reasons why I did it. Additionally, I’ll go over a few simple steps I took to get the whole machine up and going.
Here’s the quick rundown of my current laptop configuration:
Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 2.0GHz 667MHz CPU
Windows XP Home 32-bit
15.4″ UltraSharp Wide Screen WGXA+ with TrueLife (1440×900)
2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
8x DVD-R/CD-R Drive
80GB 7200rpm HDD
256 MB ATI Mobility X1400 Graphics
9-cell 85watt/hour Battery
Intel PRO/Wireless 3945a/g
So why upgrade instead of buying new? Well, I still like my old Dell, it hasn’t given be any major problems in 3 years and overall has been a great laptop. It’s not as fancy as some of the newer laptops available but it was an extremely popular laptop back in its day. Mainly I just wanted to upgrade from XP to Windows 7 and I needed bigger hard drive. Though you can get new laptops for pretty cheap these days, they don’t come with near the features that my 3-year old Dell came with. For example, the standard screen resolution of even some 15″ displays is a measly 1366 x 768. That’s just too small for my tastes. They usually come with small 4- or 6-cell batteries, so runtime will suffer and though they come with decent sized hard drives, most of them spin at 5400 RPM so overall performance will suffer as well. Additionally, the processor will be on the low end as well to keep that cost down. So once you upgrade the battery, hard drive, screen and processor, the cost of this so-called inexpensive laptop has doubled or tripled. This is where the upgrade idea starts to make more sense. A C2D processor is somewhat dated, but it’s still pretty quick at doing most tasks. That old Dell Inspiron I bought cost over $900 new (with $500 off of $1400) and I upgraded just about everything I could at the time – HDD, screen, memory, wireless card and the processor. It’s a great laptop, is plenty fast and does what I need. Sure it’s not as pretty as some of the newer laptops, but it’s not as ugly as some of the newer laptops either.
I ended up setting a budget of about $300 to do the upgrade which would include only the necessary components to get that Dell running Windows 7 as good as it possible could. In terms of buying new, the only thing in this price range would be a netbook. And though I tossed around the idea of a sweet little 10.1″ internet device, I just decided I didn’t really want or need one that badly. So off to Newegg to pick out some sweet new laptop parts. And here’s what I bought:
First upgrade: a new 320 GB Wester Digital Caviar Black 7200 rpm hard drive. Though I have a 7200 rpm 80 GB drive in there now, the latest HD tune numbers I got were abysmal. Maximum transfer rate was around 40 MB/sec. This results in slow boot up times, slow application load times and overall sluggish performance. Obviously for the ultimate in performance, I could have gone SSD, but the cost of drives right now it just too high to justify for this old rig. Besides, I really wanted the extra space that 320 GB would offer. I picked up the Caviar for $79 from Newegg with free shipping. Users report over 80 MB/sec data transfer, which is double what I’m getting now. That should be noticeable in terms of boot/shutdown and app load times.
Second Upgrade: 4 GB DDR2 PC5300 667 MHz Crucial RAM. Thought Windows 7 can work fine with 2 GB of memory, most new laptops are running 4 GB, so I wanted to make sure my upgrade was on par with even the cheapest options available today. Especially since support for 64-bit Windows finally in full force, it just makes sense to run as much RAM as I can. I’ve got the old 2 GB modules on eBay right now, hoping to recoup some of the cost of the upgrade.
There’s been a lot of discussions I’ve read online in terms of whether or not the i945PM chipset in a Dell E1505 Inspiron can really support 4 GB of RAM. Dell’s website claims 2 GB is the max. Intel claims the chipset supports 4 GB. So the belief is that the limitation is most likely in the memory controller on the motherboard, or in the BIOS. So the final word from my setup is that Windows reports 4 GB of RAM installed, but only 3.25 GB is available. The BIOS reports the same thing. Windows Resource Monitor reports that 770 MB is reserved for system use. As far as I can tell, some of that is reserved for the graphics card. CPU-Z reports a full 4096 Mbytes of memory installed. So I’m still not entirely convinced whether or not the system truly supports 4 GB. But even with only 3.25 GB of available memory, with just a few windows open, task manager reports 1.61 GB of RAM usage. That would tax a 2GB system very quickly, but everything is running quick and speedy and there’s still room to open several more apps. So I’m happy with it.
Third Upgrade: a new 9-cell battery. Okay, so this isn’t so much an upgrade as it was just a necessity. The 9-cell KD476 85 Whr battery that came with my latop 3 years ago died just over 1 year ago. I’ve been using it “plugged in” ever since. Mainly because every search I did for a new KD476 battery resulted in thousands upon thousands of results from just about every etailer on the planet wanting to sell me a “genuine” “OEM” “Dell” knock-off. While dell wanted nearly $180 for a true Dell battery, I couldn’t make up my mind on whether I valued that Dell-branded battery or some equivalent battery for 1/5th the cost. I did nothing for a year because of it. The other night I decided I was done being plugged in and dropped by eBay and did a search: 1,193 results. Great, I’ll be here all night I thought. I ended up buying a replacement 9-cell 7800 mAh battery (the stock was only 7200 mAh) for $39 with free shipping from a guy who had over 42,000 reviews and 99.6% positive feedback. He had sold over 156 of these same batteries in the last 6 months. Every review I read gave the seller and the battery a great review. So I bought it. No more being plugged in for me!
Fourth Upgrade: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The more I use Windows 7 the more I like. Since the laptop gets used so much in this house (vs. the desktop), I wanted it to be the first to be running Windows 7. I downloaded and installed the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor and checked both the 32-bit and 64-bit options. Basically either setup was going to run without any issues (well there were a few issues with some software, but nothing a couple of new downloads wouldn’t fix). Hardware wise, the laptop got the green light for a 64-bit upgrade. I picked up a copy from Newegg for $99 with free shipping.
One last thing I bought was a Rosewill 2.5″ external enclosure. This way I was able to take out the old drive without backing anything up (even though I did back everything up), drop it into the enclosure, and once I got Windows 7 installed on the new drive, all I had to do was plug in the external enclosure with the old drive and copy all my data over. Easy peasy. And it was just that simple and it only cost an extra $10. Plus now I’ve got a cool external 80 GB drive that I can use for whatever.
So that’s about it in terms of hardware upgrades. This is probably the bare essentials in terms up upgrading to Windows 7 on an old laptop. The only other thing I could still upgrade would be going to a Wireless N card. Within the next year I’ll probably upgrade my home wireless from basic G to N, so when that time comes, I’ll just get a new card then. But overall this is really all one needs in my opinion to take an old laptop and get it running really well in Windows 7. I’ve got another blog post started going into some of the detail of how the upgrade went and my overall experience running Windows 7 on a Dell Inspiron E1505.
So far everything is working great. I love the Aeroglass look, the taskbar, the way windows open and close, widgets, Media Center, Libraries (it’s about time!) and not to mention just how fast everything is. I can be out of standby and on the Internet is less time than it takes to read this sentence. Much faster than XP ever was. That right there was worth upgrade. And for those wondering, here’s a quick snapshot of my Windows Experience Index. Not bad for being as old as it is. The graphics card ultimately pulls the score way down to 3.6, but other that, 5.0 for the CPU and memory and 5.8 for that brand new WD hard drive looks pretty good. Not too shabby for an old-school Inspiron.