Interesting Notebook Upgrade Shenanigans

I’m in the process of upgrading my 14-month-old Dell D620 Latitude notebook. As shipped from the factory, it included 1.0 GB of RAM (2 x 512 MB DDR2-667 SO-DIMMs), a 40 GB HD, and a T2300E 1.66 GHz Mobile Core Duo CPU. This was adequate for running Windows XP, but I quickly upgraded the SO-DIMM slot underneath the machine to 1.0 GB, increasing memory to a more workable 1.5 GB total.

Recently, however, I’ve been running Adobe PhotoShop on this machine, primarily to crop and tweak product photos I shoot, and screenshots I capture, for the Tom’s Hardware and Tom’s Guide product reviews  I write. PhotoShop is a pretty demanding application, and puts significant stress on the processor (PhotoShop is quite math intensive), the hard disk (when I installed Vista Business on this machine, the installer asked me to free up at least 4 GB of disk space, and removing PhotoShop proved to be the easiest way to grant that request), and the memory (PhotoShop will cheerfully grab as much memory as it can under either Vista or XP).

After I upgraded the D620 to Vista a couple of weeks ago, it became crystal clear to me that this notebook needed more of everything: a faster processor, more memory, and a bigger hard disk. Fortunately, I was able to scrounge an Intel T7200 thanks to a project last year we did on desktop PCs built around mobile processor motherboards (that said, I see them for sale online for around $300). With its 2.0 GHz clock, a spacious 4 MB L2 cache, and frequent appearance in D620 models selling recently (the 620 has since been replaced by the 630), I figured it would make an excellent upgrade from my 1.66 GHz T2300 with its 2 MB L2 cache. I purchased a couple of 2 GB SuperTalent DDR2-667 SO-DIMMs for about $80 that would more than double my memory allotment. I also purchased a 160 GB Seagate 7200.2 SATA 300 (aka SATA II) drive direct from Dell for about $100; it would nearly quadruple my disk storage space.

Because I live in Dell country, I enlisted the help of a high-level notebook support specialist to aid me in the upgrade process. So far, I’ve been able to swap out the memory and the disk drive, but having now removed the keyboard and seen the obstructions that stand in the way of the CPU socket underneath its keys, I’m glad I will have a real professional to turn to when the time comes to remove the T2300 and replace it with the T7200. The other parts of the task, except for a mistakenly popped keytop on the F4 function key while prying up the keyboard latch cover to expose the screws that hold down the keyboard, were pretty easy given the exercise of proper care and as little force as possible. For more information, please see the excellent Dell Latitude D620 User’s Guide for photos and step-by-step instructions on how to perform these tasks. If its “Adding and Replacing Parts” section had also included instructions on how to clear all obstructions and access the CPU socket, I probably would have tried to do that myself. As it was, I decided to get expert help with that one aspect of the job.

One interesting thing I observed when swapping memory modules on the D620 is that you must wait a couple of minutes when the machine boots for it to recognize new memory. After the BIOS POSTs, you get a screen message that informs you the amount of RAM installed has changed, and asking you to make sure the memory is properly seated in its slots. At first, I thought this meant I had done something wrong and immediately started fiddling with the machine, to no avail. Later, I got interrupted by a fortunate phone call that kept me away from the notebook for about three minutes. That was all the time it took for the D620 to recognize and validate the memory (I’m guessing it may have been running the MS Memtest routine, or some Dell variant thereof, in the background) after which boot-up commenced and completed successfully. So if you add memory to a Dell notebook, give it some time to savor its new working space before worrying if something is wrong. That process will eventually complete, and in the vast majority of cases recognize exactly how much memory is present in the machine (it’s very hard to install SO-DIMMs incorrectly, thank goodness).

Replacing the hard drive posed an interesting problem, however. The replacement HD that Dell sent from its factory was bare, and had never even been formatted. To start the drive migration process, I imaged the old drive to an external USB drive (a nice little Seagate 160 GB FreeAgent Go that uses two USB connectors to grab sufficient voltage from the notebook to avoid having to use an AC power supply). I had originally thought that I would simply pop in the Vista install DVD, then do a repair install to restore the image from the old 40 GB drive to its new 160 GB replacement. But alas, that was not to be: Windows Vista install media doesn’t know what to do with an unformatted drive, or so it seems.

Fortunately, I had an extra Antec MX-1 external drive enclosure at my disposal. I have been using it to test solid state drives (aka SSDs) for Tom’s lately, because access from the top makes it absurdly easy to pop SATA drives in and out of its drive mount. It took me all of two minutes to get the new drive seated into this box, hooked up to a USB port on the notebook, and open the Disk Management utility in Administrative Tools to format it as NTFS and to mark the partition as Active (necessary if I wanted to boot from it later).

Next, I wanted to copy the image of the old 40 GB C: drive I’d just made to the new 160 GB drive. Though Windows Vista Backup and Restore does a great job of capturing drive images, it wouldn’t let me restore that image to another drive (or at least, a drive bearing a different drive letter) when initiating a repair install. I could have repeated my earlier attempt to swap the drives, and run the install from the Vista DVD, but I elected to use Acronis True Image Home to image the drive (again) to the Seagate FreeAgent. After that process completed in about 10 minutes, Acronis was happy to let me restore that image to the new drive simply by making the right source and target selections for the restore operation. About 20 minutes later, I swapped the D620’s drives again by removing a couple of machine screws, then sliding the old drive out, and sliding the new one in.

This time, the D620 booted like a charm, with no apparent changes to my operating environment despite a much appreciated increase in free disk space from a paltry 3 GB to a whopping 119 GB. Now, I’ve got enough room to install the rest of Adobe Premiere on this machine (which rotates among three users, to explain why I installed it on a notebook PC in the first place) with plenty of disk space left over for the graphics files and photographs we’ll use that suite to tweak and clean up. Right now, all that’s left is to open the keyboard deck again to replace the T2300E with the T7200. But I’m going to wait until I can secure a little expert assistance with that task, because of all the other pieces and parts that must be properly disconnected, unseated, and moved out of the way to secure unobstructed access to the CPU socket. Please stay tuned for the next thrilling D620 upgrade installment, which will hopefully appear here pretty darn soon.  I can already tell a difference in the performance and behavior of my half-way upgraded D620: I’m hopeful that the processor upgrade will really  make it zing!

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