Hard swap for a hard drive

Running out of disk space is a bummer, especially on a laptop, where you can’t just add in a second drive. I always seem to be on the edge of filling up the 6GB disk on my 2-year-old Dell Latitude as I test-drive new software. The only good answer to more space is to replace the existing notebook hard drive with a bigger one.

Unfortunately, this is a daunting task for most users. You have to back up everything on your current drive, install the new one, set up partitions with the Windows fdisk program, format the hard drive, and install the operating system and all your applications it’s easy to spend two or three full days just getting your data and working environment back to where you started from. Special migration software can help, but this becomes an IT-only procedure.

Several products aim to make this process simpler. Basically, they all consist of a new hard drive, a special cable connecting the drive to a PC Card and software that copies everything from your old drive onto the new one. Considering that 60GB laptop drives are now available, this road was clearly worth exploring.

During the past several months, I have tried three such upgrade kits on my Dell laptop. How well did they work? I’d have to say that the operation was a success but the patient died.

Dead on Arrival

The first attempt involved a 30GB StrataDrive kit from Fountain Valley, Calif.-based Kingston Technology Co. (Kingston has since stopped selling this product, but it was actually made by and is still available from CMS Peripherals Inc. in Costa Mesa, Calif.) The drive is packaged in an antistatic mylar envelope whose edges are die-cut in a serpentine fashion to form a long, antistatic strap ending in an alligator clip that you attach to a metal screw or fitting on the laptop.

I followed the instructions to set up the drive, started the process and left it running, since it would take some time. Unfortunately, when I got back to check on it more than 40 hours later, it was still at the very same spot.

I double-checked with Kingston tech support that it wasn’t supposed to behave like that, downloaded some newer software and tried again. And again. After the fourth attempt, involving the third software version, I gave up.

Yes! No.

Attempt No. 2 involved a US$298 20GB EZ-Gig kit from Apricorn Inc. in Poway, Calif. This was similar to Kingston’s CMS unit, though without the cute antistatic strap. I installed software on the machine, then shut it off and rebooted from a supplied floppy disk. When the system asked me to plug in the PC Card, I did so, and the transfer was off and running.

In under two hours, the transfer was finished. I shut down the machine, removed the hard drive and installed the new 20GB unit. When I turned it on, it ran perfectly. In fact, this was one of the simplest and most trouble-free installations of any combination hardware/software product I’ve tried in a long time.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. After a week, the system refused to boot. It would get partway along and hang. It wouldn’t even boot into Windows’ safe mode. Booting from a CD and using several diagnostic tools confirmed that the drive had developed a bad spot in a critical area. Attempts to repartition and reformat the drive were unsuccessful.

This wasn’t Apricorn’s fault, and a paying customer would certainly be entitled to get the drive replaced.

Third Time’s the Charm?

A couple of months later, I tried again. This time, I used a US$289 CMS Peripherals 20GB EasyBundle kit. The upgrade process was familiar from attempt No. 1, but this time, it went smoothly. However, the software decided that my computer couldn’t handle a 20GB drive without help, and it required me to install preboot software (Disk Manager from Ontrack Data International Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn.). After this, the process was finished, and I swapped the new drive into my laptop.

Now, when the system booted, I got a preboot message on the screen, and the system stopped. Windows’ ScanDisk diagnostic program said it couldn’t find the end of the disk and gave me the choice of continuing or stopping. I continued, and after another “Are you sure?” prompt, Windows 98 came up just fine.

This pattern repeated every time I booted up, and I couldn’t run the computer for more than an hour without running out of resources and having to reboot. I can’t be positive that the problem was caused by the new disk installation or the Disk Manager software, but alas, the system was considerably less stable than it had been.

In the end, I went back to the 6GB drive. It was smaller but more stable, and it didn’t natter at me every reboot.

Another Route

Three tries, no new hard drive. Was my experience representative, or just a string of bad luck? Given my experiences, I can’t exactly recommend this procedure for upgrading a laptop’s hard drive. I’ve had much better luck doing it the harder, old-fashioned way. However, there’s a new process available that I haven’t had a chance to try.

CMS has a hard-drive backup unit, ABS Plus, that plugs into a PC Card slot. In the latest version, the resulting backup disk is fully bootable. A CMS engineer said this is probably a better upgrade route today: Get the ABS Plus, make the backups, then just remove three screws and swap the two drives. No fuss, no muss.

I’m waiting to get a unit to test, because I’m still filling up that 6GB drive on my Dell.