Breathing new life into an old laptop for under $100

A few years ago I spent close to $600 on an Asus UL20A notebook. In 2009 it represented a good mix of features I was looking for: It had a larger screen and keyboard than a netbook, offered similar battery life, and much better performance.

Asus UL20A

The Asus UL20A has been out of production for a while, and its Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 5400 RPM SATA II hard drive are starting to feel a bit dated.

But I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger and replace a laptop that still works reasonably well with a new ultrabook. While I could probably find a decent model for $600, I’m holding out for a reasonably priced thin and light laptop with a solid state disk, a high resolution display, and long battery life.

So I’ve decided to make a few simple upgrades to my Asus UL20A and see if I can breathe enough new life into it to last me another year or two.

More RAM, faster storage

The first upgrade is a no-brainer. The Asus UL20A shipped with 2GB of RAM, but it supports up to 4GB. So I bought a 2GB stick of RAM.

For the second upgrade, I decided to replace the 250GB 5400RPM hard drive with a 128GB solid state disk. I don’t really need more space than that on a computer that I primarily use for working on the go (and around the house).

The total cost of those components? $89.15 after rebate.

The extra RAM should help with multitasking and general performance, although it won’t make the computer any faster per se. The solid state disk has much higher read and write speeds than a typical hard drive, which will help the notebook boot more quickly, launch apps faster, and perform some tasks requiring disk transfers better.

Fun with older tech

Since this is an older laptop, it uses DDR2 memory and a SATA II disk interface. So any performance gains might not be quite as significant as they would be on the move from a hard drive to a SSD in a system that supports SATA III.

But SATA III disks are backwards compatible, so I picked up a 128GB OCZ Agility 4 SSD recently for $75. There was a $20 rebate at the time, bringing the price to just $55 plus tax.

Technically, the OCZ Agility 4 disk should be able to handle read speeds as high as 420 MB/s and write speeds of up to 300 MB/s. Since I’m using the disk with a SATA II interface, my top speeds fall pretty far short — but the SSD is still much faster than the hard drive I’d been using for the last 3 years.

If I decide to move to a new computer that doesn’t have an SSD, I can bring the Agility 4 with me, and hopefully it will perform even better.

Installing the new hardware

The Asus UL20A has an access panel on the bottom of the laptop which makes replacing the memory and storage a snap. Just remove three screws, pop open the panel, and you can upgrade the RAM easily.

Asus UL20A upgrade

There are a few more screws holding the 2.5 inch hard drive in place, but once you remove them you can slide out the HDD, remove it from its tray, pop in the SSD, and slot it back into the laptop.

If you have the proper hardware and software, you can create a disk image and copy everything from the hard drive to your new SSD. But I decided to take a different approach and just slot the unformatted SSD into my new PC and close it up.

Then I plugged in a USB disc drive and brought out the system restore DVDs that came with my computer. While the SSD is much faster than the hard drive, the DVD drive isn’t particularly speedy and the process took a while.

Using Windows Update to install Windows 7 Service Pack 1 and all the other necessary updates took even longer… but about 24 hours after I started the process, I had my UL20A up to date and running most of the same software that had been installed previously.

Performance gains

So how does the system run after the upgrades?

Well, first, I’ll point out that it’s not a completely fair test to compare a brand new SSD with a 3-year-old hard drive that’s been in use constantly. It’s also not entirely fair to compare a fresh install of Windows with one that’s been running for a few months (I did a full system restore on my computer earlier this year).

That said, CrystalDiskMark reports that read speeds are almost 4 times as fast as they were, and write speeds are nearly 8 times faster than before.

HDD test

HDD test

SSD test

SSD test

The laptop used to take about 1 minute and 15 seconds to boot to a usable desktop. Now it takes around 30 seconds.

And the Windows Experience Index has been boosted. I expected the RAM and Primary hard disk scores to go up, and they did. But oddly the processor and graphics scores are also a tiny bit higher than they were before I made the changes.

Windows Experience Index before upgrade

Windows Experience Index before upgrade

Windows Experience Index after upgrade

Windows Experience Index after upgrade

After the upgrade process the Asus UL20A is certainly no speed demon. But it certainly feels more responsive than it did before I spend $90 to upgrade the hardware.

Theoretically the solid state disk could offer other improvements. It has no moving parts, uses less power, and generates less heat than a hard drive. This should allow the laptop to get slightly longer battery life and run more quietly since the fan won’t have to work as hard to keep the system cool.

In practice, the fan still seems to run much of the time and I haven’t noticed any major impact on battery life — but I haven’t been using the upgraded laptop for very long yet.

All told, I’m pretty happy with the upgrades, especially given how much cheaper it was to upgrade my existing laptop than it would be to buy a new model.

  • dd

    install ubuntu or another flavor of linux

    • Penn Taylor

      …and watch your battery life be cut by about a third.

      I’ve been using one flavor of GNU/Linux or another as my primary operating system since 1993. At no point has GNU/Linux been able to match the laptop power management of MS Windows. That doesn’t matter to me because I’m not on the go all the time, but if I were (like Brad is), I’d have to think very seriously about swallowing the bitter pill of Windows to get better battery life.

      • http://www.liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

        I also picked up a spare battery for this model before CES this year. When the laptop was new it got around 5 hours of run time. Now it gets closer to 4.

        That’s why I’d really like a user replaceable battery on my next notebook. I don’t want to have to buy a new PC every year or two just because of dead batteries. I might be willing to put up with a built in battery if it starts at 8 hours or more. Because over time as it loses capacity it will still hopefully provide more run time than I get today from my UL20A.

  • James

    How are OCZ SSDs nowadays? Are their failure rates and issues still the worst when compared to other brands?

    I have an old Acer 1410 with 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB Samsung 830 SSD running Ubuntu 10.04. Still runs pretty well. I get 5-6 hours of battery life on the original battery. I get the same battery life with Windows 7. The main bottleneck is the CPU now (I run VMs and compress/decompress files often).

    I’ll replace this when I find a new 11.6″ ultraportable with even longer battery life and runs on a non-Atom or equivalent CPU.

    • http://www.liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

      Ask me again in a few months, but for the price this deal was too good for me to pass up. :)

  • ML

    I ended up with a UL80vt, based largely on your review of the UL20a btw. I wanted a bit more video card, and this thing has really delivered. I only get about 8 hours on balanced on battery now instead of almost 12 hours like it did when it was new. Last year rather than replace it I got a 160gb Intel 320 and upped the memory to 8GB, and it’s held up well with similar performance gains. All in all the upgrades made the computer livable, although I had to pay $189 back before Christmas and the SSD prices really began to free fall.

  • http://twitter.com/V_U vēer

    Hey, Brad, what about new batteries that some laptop makes are bragging about, that they will have 1000 cycles, that should elliminate concerns regarding batteries wearing out prematurely like they are now.

  • HeDanny

    I’l do this for my “old” laptop as well. Only problem is it has DDR RAM, and PATA HDD. It is already running 2gb of RAM, which according to manuals, and other google-type sauces is the max it can run. I’m pretty sure they don’t make PATA SSDs.

    Frustratingly (yet also amazingly), the old mule still does everything I need it to, but it just does it slooow. Just not QUITE slow enough to justify replacing it.

    The battery died years ago. I never bothered replacing it. This HAS been an issue quite a few times over the years. Nothing I could not work around with the old phone, or an actual pad and pencil! ;)

    I also think my Laptop looks fantastic. I don’t like the styling of modern laptops. Any replacement will fell like a downgrade in this area. :(

    Finally, my old Mule has fantastic sound. Any replacement would feel like a downgrade in this area as well. :(

    • Somebody

      Best upgrade you can do is get a lightweight linux. Unless you need some Windows specific programs.
      You can try a live cd or usb and then imagine how much faster it would be if loaded off the harddrive instead.

    • Googlist

      I’m pretty sure that typing PATA SSD into google would return a lot of drives in less time it took you to write that you’re sure they (whoever ‘they’ are) don’t make PATA SSDs.

      Anyhow, the prices are about the same, but use older SSD tech. If anything, get a PATA to Compact Flash adapter, etc. Just do research before making claims like that.

      Later, when someone googles PATA SSD, they’ll come here and read your statement as fact and they’ll give up…of course, they did well just by googing first.

      Search and research, all the information is at your fingertips.

  • blueazgirl

    Hey Brad, I just killed my UL20a by spilling water over it, got to replace it. Looking for advice on what to look for out there – choices are overwhelming. I had been super happy with this machine once i added the 2gb of memory to it. Love the fast start up, never heated up, no fan noise, super portable, long battery life, great ‘chicklet’ keyboard.. Looked at the new ASUSs but the new big trackpads are awful for someone like me who is primarily typing in word for hours. As I have to get something new now – do you have any advice? on what to look for to best replace this baby?
    thanks.

  • Flip

    Be aware of the dreaded BIOS whitelist. Implimented by seedy types like HP to make DIY hardware upgrades difficult or impossible.