Hard drives and optical drives are the most failure-prone items on a laptop. They're also among the easiest to swap out, upgrade or, in some cases, live without. Here are the best fixes for saving, replacing and speeding up your storage.
Photo by half_empty.
Save Your Data
You'll know when your hard drive goes dead — the computer will boot up, but the operating system won't, or boots up but loses access to files very frequently. Presumably, you've been backing up, both to an external device and on the internet, on a regular basis, just like every respectable tech site and slightly geeky friend has been telling you.
But we know how these things go. If your drive seems completely dead and inaccessible, try saving it in your freezer. If you've got a drive that's hit and miss, try grabbing a thumb drive or external USB drive, booting up, and recovering the files you need with free software, placing them on the USB drive as soon as you can find them.
If your drive won't let you boot into your main operating system at all, a bootable Linux system like Ubuntu is the way to go. I've written up a thorough how-to on saving a Windows system with a thumb drive, while the How-To Geek explored some deeper, forensic-style file extraction tools in a guide to data recovery with an Ubuntu CD (or thumb drive, if you prefer). Do what you can, and if you can't get everything back you need, we imagine you'll be more apt to pick up an online backup package soon.
But, wait—what if your system is just fine, but you need some more space? You've got two options. You can either take the time to back up everything and start from scratch with your new hard drive, giving you a squeaky-clean OS to work from. Or you can image your entire drive and transfer it to the new one. If you lack a USB drive or other storage to back up everything on your system, you may have to invest in a SATA-to-USB hard drive enclosure, so you can transfer your laptop's files between drives through the computer. They go for as little as $US15, though.
Replace Your Hard Drive
When you're all done with your last drive, it's time to grab a new one. Buying through your laptop maker will likely cost you a huge markup, and moreso than any other component, it's usually very easy for a home user to replace their own hard drive. Look for a "laptop," "notebook" or "SATA" hard drive with more space than your last drive.
As for the actual process:
• Windows/PC laptops: Different on every machine, as is the case with most standard laptop repairs. If you Google around with your manufacturer name and model number, you'll likely find a tutorial, YouTube video, or even official support documents from your manufacturer, explaining the process. It's also worth keeping in mind that, while it's a different kind of drive, our tips for installing a hard drive remain the same in practice: ground yourself, go slowly, and know where your cables are attached.
Here, for instance, is a tutorial on upgrading an HP business-style laptop's internal hard drive:
• MacBooks: Dwight Silverman at the Houston Chronicle has written up a good walkthrough of MacBook hard drive replacement. Just a bit further down, you'll find some tips on adding a solid-state drive on top of your hard drive, if you're thinking along those lines.
For the video guide on MacBook hard drive replacement, we like this time-lapsed look at removing the hard drive bracket and sliding in a new drive:
If you're looking for a faster experience, you might consider upgrading to a hard drive with nothing but RAM-like memory and no moving parts—a solid-state drive (SSD). Our own Whitson Gordon has been on a solid-state kick after upgrading his own MacBook, and he detailed whether SSDs are worth the money, as well as how to install an SSD in a MacBook and take full advantage of it, whether it's a Mac or PC laptop you're working with.
Busted CD/DVD Drives
These days, you probably don't need an optical drive for anything other than installing an operating system or watching a movie from your shelves. But it's not bad to have a backup plan for when the digital-only world fails you.
• Cheap external drive: Don't buy another overpriced internal drive for your laptop, especially if it's not a spring chicken. Pick out a reliable but cheap USB drive, and keep it somewhere out of the way but accessible. Most semi-modern systems can boot from a USB-attached drive, and you'll be able to burn the occasional movie or backup disc while keeping your laptop lean and focused.
• Use virtual drives: Mac users have a built-in Disk Utility app that can mount an ISO image as if it were a regular disc, and also take those discs you need to have handy and turn them into ISO images for regular access, using that cheap external drive you bought or borrowed
Windows users have their pick of many apps to create the same kinds of virtual disc drives, including Daemon Tools Lite, Elby's CloneDrive ISO mounter, and, for those with a whole bunch of disc images to work through, Gizmo Drive.
• Live a disk-free life: I feel bad about all the installation and driver CDs that have shipped with nearly every piece of hardware I've obtained. That's because any hardware manufacturer worth buying from keeps an updated copy of their drivers and operation software on their web site. What's more, with Windows Update and Mac's Software Updater, your system often takes care of driver updates itself.
You may have a few key DVDs you like to watch on your system, but it's not too hard to use a good ripping tool to keep a hard drive copy of your most-watched stuff. Adam even made his own one-click DVD rip tool for Windows that's pretty handy.
If you're a CD swapper, well, that's understandable. If you can be talked into digitizing and ditching your discs, so be it, but otherwise, you may need to replace your busted drive with a new internal model, or keep a good external drive handy. Search around to find a cheaper model of the drive that came with your system, and installing it should be a snap—most newer drives simply slide out of their laptops after a certain catch or lever is pulled.
Done your own hard drive upgrade and care to share your tips? Found a good way to make do without an internal disc drive? We welcome your advice in the comments.