Just before you decide to throw out that old laptop and upgrade to a new one you might be surprised to find how a very quick and easy hardware swap could actually change everything.
The hard drive inside the old laptop I use while on the road recently died which gave me the good excuse to upgrade things a little. The machine in question is an HP Probook which I predominantly use for my Fstoppers writing duties, tethering while on location, and some Photoshop work. Even though this laptop is a good few years old now, it still manages to keep up with most things I throw at it. The drive which died was a 320GB 3Gb/s 5200RMP drive which by today's standards is crippling slow. I instead opt for a 500GB 6GB/s 7200RMP drive which still isn't amazingly fast, but the difference experienced after installing the new drive and restoring all my old files back onto it was still noticeably faster.
This is where the story could have ended but after the performance improvements, I wondered what it would be like to add a second drive in place of the old optical drive which never gets used. This particular hardware swap was something that I had been meaning to do for a while and as I had a few spare hard drives lay around doing nothing special, now was as good a time than ever to make the switch.
For those who don't know, the optical drive is the name used for the CD, DVD, or Blu-ray drive inside older desktop and laptop machines. Most optical drives and hard drives share the same computer bus interface of SATA which makes the task of swapping an optical drive for a hard drive a very easy one to do.
The things you will need to add an extra hard drive into your laptop:
1. Removing the Existing Optical Drive
Before we start removing anything you will find it much easier to take the optical drive out if the tray of the drive is in the open position. While the laptop is still powered on hit the eject button and then shut down your machine. Resist the habit of a lifetime to shut the tray while your machine is shutting down.
2. Release the Screw Holding the Drive
More often than not the optical drive will be held in place by a single screw. Obviously, the placement of this screw will vary from computer to computer so please refer to your laptop manual if you have trouble finding it. On some laptops, the screw will be accessible from the underside, while in other cases you may need to remove the bottom cover of the laptop first. It is at this point that you should consider wearing an antistatic wristband as you are coming into contact with delicate computer components. Some may say this is unnecessary but it's always better to be safe than sorry.
3. Remove the Optical Drive
After unscrewing the release screw its time to remove the drive. If you haven't already, this might be when you need to remove the bottom cover of the laptop so you can see how the drive is being held in position. This next step will vary from machine to machine, but all drives will be held in place with the help of one or two plastic tabs. To release the drive from the laptop you just need to lift these tabs away from the laptop case so the drive is free to move a little. Then it's just a matter of carefully pushing the drive out with the help of a screwdriver. This is where the open tray from step one will come in handy as you can gently pull on the tray to help encourage the drive to come out. If you are finding removal tricky it might be worth turning the laptop until gravity is on your side.
Once the drive is out you will see a small bracket on the back of the drive. This is actually what the screw you removed from earlier was connected to. Remove this bracket and keep it safe as we will be using it on our new hard drive caddy later.
4. The Hard Drive Caddy
The hard drive caddy is a very similar shape to the optical drive that is being removed and is what will house your additional hard drive. Once your hard drive is seated inside a SATA connector on the outside of the caddy will connect it to the SATA port on the inside of the laptop. There is a wide range of caddies for sale out there so please do your homework to make sure you buy one which actually fits. I found the best way to guarantee you buy the correct one is to remove the optical drive and measure it. You can also visually compare the shape of the drive you have just taken out to the caddy you hope to purchase to make sure they are close in appearance. It is also worth noting that these caddies tend to house the 2.5 inch hard drive so make sure the drive you plan to use will fit the caddy you buy.
Place the drive inside the caddy and follow the instructions which came with it. There will be four screws which will hold the hard drive in place on the underside of the caddy. You need to screw these four screws in as well as applying the bracket you removed from step three before you slot everything back into the laptop.
5. Slot in the New Hard Drive Caddy
Now it's just a matter of slotting the caddy into the laptop. If you look carefully into the slot where your optical drive once was you will see the SATA connector inside the laptop which your caddy will be connecting to. In my case, I found that the height of the caddy and the position of the SATA port didn't quite match up as the caddy is slightly too thin. To make sure the connectors lined up I turned the laptop upside down which let gravity allow everything to line up. After that, all that is left to do is tighten up the screw you removed in step one and reapply the bottom laptop cover.
6. Adding a Faceplate
Most hard drive caddies come with a standard looking faceplate which resembles the face of the optical drive you have just removed. If the stock one provided works for you then go ahead and install that. I found on my machine that due to the curved lines of the laptop body it didn't come close to being either ergonomically or aesthetically pleasing. For this reason, I removed the original faceplate from my optical drive and after trimming the back slightly was able to superglue it onto the caddy for a seamless finish.
Benefits of Having a Second Internal Drive for Photographers
There are many ways you could benefit from having a second drive installed inside your laptop, here are four ways I can see photographers taking advantage of the additional hardware.
Cloning Your Main Drive
I find the idea of having a clone of the main hard drive inside my laptop at all times a very appealing one. For Mac users, you could set up Time Machine* to copy over all files at regular intervals. If you wanted to have more control than Time Machine offers, look at using something like Carbon Copier or if you are on a Windows machine try using Easeus Backup Software.
If you have enough backup strategies in place or like me, you only use this older laptop occasionally, then maybe just having all that extra storage would be a good way to use the drive. Keeping most of your files on this second drive and your operating system on the original one can only help improve the performance of the machine.
If you do any kind of editing on your laptop then having the luxury of placing your scratch disk onto a separate drive will help to keep everything running smoothly. Nothing beats additional Ram in a laptop but having a generous scratch disk is a close second.
Create a Second Bootable Drive
Similar to the clone technique mentioned above you could also include your operating system onto this second drive. I am leaning toward this option for my own laptop as I like the idea of having a nice clean install of my operating system ready to be used if my main drive was to die while on the road or on a shoot. Some of you might like the idea of installing a different operating system on the second drive altogether.
So there you have it, how to breathe new life into an old laptop that you thought was beyond use. The hardware used for this demonstration is incredibly modest when it comes to speed but you should still feel both the performance and practical benefits of doing it. If this was my main machine I may have thought about using a few solid state drives instead and if your budget will allow it, I would advise that you use the fastest hard drives you can afford. The main reason for this article was to suggest a solution for those who have a laptop with an optical drive they never use. For such a small investment of time and money (my caddy only cost $8!) the addition of a second drive really does open up a world of options.
Inspired to give this a try? I'd love to hear how you'd best take advantage of a second drive in the comments below.