To Upgrade Or Not to Upgrade

If you had told a fifteen-year-old me that in adulthood I would be using exclusively laptops, having eschewed the expandability of desktops for the convenience and portability of the smaller (but at the time prohibitively expensive) form factor, I would probably have laughed at you. Of course, had you told me then that I would be walking around with a smartphone that was more powerful than the supercomputers of the day, I would have been equally unbelieving.

Had you told a fifteen-year-old me that by the time I was in my forties, laptops (and tablets, and hybrids) would be so inexpensive as to be commodities that almost never got fixed but were replaced after a 3-5 year lifecycle, I would have never believed you. That we walk into Costco or Best Buy or WalMart and pick up a new computer that might be less expensive than the rest of our food order for an average family of four would have been science fiction. Yet here we are, and that is exactly what is happening… or at least, mostly.

I cannot count how many laptops I have gone through in the past fifteen years. There have been several Dells, a few HPs, probably ten Microsoft Surfaces (from the original Surface Pro which I bought in 2012, through my current Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Pro 6). There was a Toshiba and a Lenovo, an Acer, and for a few weeks there was even a MacBook Pro. They are truly replaceable, which is not helped by the fact that the smaller they get, the less user-serviceable they have become. I have gone through laptops like some people go through shoes… often more frequently. There would be a new requirement (or sometimes just a new exciting shiny thing) and I would immediately go out and get it… selling off my older devices to pay for it.

There is one exception to this trend in my long line of laptops. In 2012 I got an HP EliteBook 8570w that was (when I got it) a top-of-the-line, fully loaded powerhouse. I got it (in fact, I got two of them) to run a server virtualization class that I wrote. The device that I kept (I handed down one of them to a friend before I moved to California) has an Intel Core i7 CPU with 32 gigabytes of RAM. It may be a decade old (an octogenarian in the world of computers), but it remains a powerhouse.

So when I noticed that the second hard drive on my old man computer was lagging, I had to decide whether it was worth the investment to replace it or not. It has been seven years since I paid to have a cracked screen on it replaced, and I have not spent any money on it since. I am also wracking my brain to think of the last time I decided to invest money in any device that was over three years old. After all, why would I? What would be the shame in retiring this old system? I would not even have to replace it – I have two other computers (both Microsoft Surface devices) that could more than make up for its workload… kinda.

One of my other devices has a Core i7 CPU that is much newer, and while it only has 16-gigabytes of RAM, I do not really need the full 32-gigabytes. It also only has the single internal hard drive, and the only way to expand that is with external drives. Yes, I can do that… but I am then reliant on all manner of bottlenecks, including port replicators and USB ports.

I made the decision. For the first time ever, I decided to upgrade a 10-year-old computer. I should mention that as I typed that, it is the first time I have ever owned a 10-year-old computer… laptop or otherwise. For me to have one is unprecedented; for me to be investing in maintaining it is absolutely new.

Before you buy, remember that the parts you buy for an older computer may not be the same ones as for a newer one. For example, you cannot buy DDR3 RAM and hope they will work in a system that only supports DDR2. With hard drives, there have been fewer changes like that over the last few years, but it never hurts to make sure that what you are buying will be compatible with what you have.

Knowing what I needed, I went to and compared prices and specs. While the drive that I chose was not the newest, fastest, bestest on the market, I also knew that my requirements were not for the newest, fastest and bestest… and that on my older hardware the differences would have been negligible if any. I picked a brand name that I have known and trusted for years (Western Digital) over brands that I was not familiar with. I might have saved $10, but if the manufacturer might not be around until the end of the warranty period then what good was it?

Speaking of warranties, I am happy with WD’s 3-year limited warranty. If you were going to take the time to read it, you would find that the ‘limited’ means that they will repair or replace the drive, but will not be held responsible for lost data or downtime. I can live with that… especially knowing that I back up my systems on a regular basis.

Before I picked up a screwdriver, I did a complete backup of the drive to an external hard drive. If it was a system drive, I would have to have used different tools and techniques, but as the drive I was replacing was a data drive, a straight file copy was sufficient. I knew that there were virtual machine files (read: possibly live and open files) on the drive, I made sure to shut down the virtual machines before beginning the file copy.

If you are not trained in these things, I would recommend that before you crack open your computer, consult with someone who knows what they are doing. It can be a very costly mistake to open up your computer incorrectly and then improperly install the new device. I shut down the operating system, and then removed the computer from its docking station. I grounded myself, then turned the computer onto its back so that I could go to work. Before going any further, I removed the battery. This might not be possible on all laptop models, and I know that many batteries are now embedded and not removeable. I diligently removed the computer cover, and then the hard drive tray, and then the drive from the tray… paying careful attention to see how it came out, so that I could carefully put the new drive in.

When all was said and done, it was anti-climactic. I put the computer back together with the new drive, replaced the battery, placed the computer back on the dock, and booted it up. The only drama was a scary moment when the boot screen told me of a non-system disk, which it turns out was caused by a USB key that I had plugged into a port on the dock last week. Removing that, the computer booted normally. From within Windows, I brought the new drive on-line, initiated and formatted it, and made sure it had the same drive letter as the drive it replaced. I then initiated the file copy from the external drive back to the internal drive.

There is an old saying that fortune favours the prepared. I went into this upgrade with a clear plan, knew what tools I needed (including what size screwdrivers), and knew exactly what steps I would need to make this upgrade a success. There was no drama because I was prepared. I also had a backout plan in the event that anything went wrong, but nothing did (Owing to not having been opened in many years, there was a tightness to removing the drive… but that was not drama). There were no surprises, and when the file copy was complete, I made sure that everything (including my virtual machines) was there and working.

I have been using the HP EliteBook to deliver training for several years. That was its original purpose back in 2012 when I purchased it, and it has logged a lot of miles (both figuratively, measured in course hours) and literally (having been to Japan twice and Australia once, and having traversed Canada several times, not to mention moving with me from Oakville to Burlington to Ottawa to California and back).  While its original mission was for a single course (From Virtualization to the Private Cloud, which I wrote during my original contract with Microsoft Canada), it has since delivered training including dozens of Microsoft classes, as well as several CompTIA classes, a VMware class, and my Technical Writing for Engineers. With this upgrade, I look forward to continuing to use it for training for at least a couple more years. I strongly suspect that it will come with me on my next move as well.

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