How to upgrade your laptop hard drive

So there you are with your kick ass laptop and you’ve become totally addicted to it. You and your laptop are inseparable. You’ve used it for everything from browsing the web to downloading and listening to music. But the hard drive is full – what to do now? Don’t delete your favorite Aerosmith tracks, upgrade your hard drive!

Manufacturers are cramming more and more space into the bite sized 2.5″ space used for hard drives in today’s laptops. While the growth in capacity hasn’t necessarily matched that of the desktop hard drive, it’s not unusual to see 100+ GB hard drives installed in laptops these days. Over the past few years, these little hulks of space have become much more affordable. I saw an ad for Best Buy today quoting an 80GB laptop hard drive at $90 and of course better deals can be had at sites like NewEgg (Western Digital 80GB @ $65 with $5 shipping) and ZipZoomFly (Hitachi Travelstar 100GB @ $79 with free shipping).

Seagate 120GB Hard Drive

One of my co-workers recently bit the bullet and bought a 120GB Seagate hard drive for her Toshiba laptop and asked me if I could perform the upgrade. Of course, being the gentleman I am I agreed to do it (in exchange for a VHS VCR of hers so I could record the old VHS tapes I have to DVD-R). So I brought the laptop home this weekend and took some photos of the process so I could post them here to prove the upgrade process really is pretty simple.

Decisions – Want to keep your existing files or start fresh?

Before you begin, you’ll need to decide if you want a nice fresh installation of Windows XP (Home, Media Center Edition or Pro) and based on that decision, you can jump right in to removing your old hard drive, installing the new drive and re-installing your OS and applications. If you want to keep your existing OS installation you’ll need a few extra tools.

For preserving the existing OS and data, you’ll need to invest in drive imaging software such as Symantec’s Ghost ($69.99) or Acronis’ True Image ($49.99). Your drive may also come with free utilities like Western Digital’s Data LifeGuard Tools or Maxtor’s MaxBlast software. I also recently heard of a free utility called DriveImage XML. Any of these tools should be sufficient to get your data copied, and even in the worst case you still have your old drive as a backup in case anything goes wrong during the copy.

CompUSA Laptop Drive Adapter Kit

You’ll probably also want to have a desktop computer handy with enough free space to store a drive image, and an adapter to connect your desktop system to the smaller laptop drive connections. I picked up a 2.5″ laptop drive adapter kit from CompUSA for about $10, which includes the adapter and mounting rails. The adapters are extremely easy to use and require no additional software to install.

Get to the upgrade already!

Without further ado, let’s dig into the process of removing and upgrading your hard drive.

Step 1 – Locate the hard drive bay on your laptop

Depending on who made your laptop, you’re likely to find a removable panel on the bottom of your unit or a removable bay on the side of the unit. For this demonstration I used my co-worker’s Toshiba laptop and the drive bay is accessible from the bottom of the unit. Many Dell and perhaps other laptops hold the drive in a removable bay on the side of the unit with two screws used to secure the bay from the bottom. As you can see the Toshiba has a single screw holding the panel on.

Toshiba Bottom View - Drive Bay Circled

Step 2 – Remove the hard drive and tray

Locate the screws holding the panel or bay and remove them. After this is done you can should be able to easily remove the panel or bay using your fingers and a little lifting and/or pulling movement. I used a small flat-blade screw driver to pry up the access panel on the Toshiba. On Dell laptops, you can just pull the drive tray away from the unit to remove it. With the drive tray in the Toshiba, get ahold of the unit where it connects to the laptop (towards the rear) and pull towards the front of the laptop to disconnect the drive from the system.

At this point you can skip to Step 7 if you are just replacing the drive and plan to re-install your OS and applications on a clean drive.

Toshiba Drive Bay Removed

Pulling the Drive Out

Step 3 – Create a disk image of your old drive

This is likely the most complex part of the process. With the drive removed, open up your laptop adapter kit and remove the adapter from the package. Install the adapter onto the drive, using the pins as your guide. As you can see in the photo below, one pin is missing from the two rows of pins on the drive, and the adapter will also have not slot for a pin in the same location. Use care when installing the adapter, as bent pins can spell certain doom for your old notebook hard drive.

Drive Interface with Pin Arrangement

Step 4 – Connect the drive to your handy dandy desktop computer

With the adapter installed, it’s time to break open your desktop computer. If you already have a drive and CD-ROM or multiples of each installed, it’s quite likely you will need to “borrow” a cable from your CD-ROM in order to plug the laptop drive into the system. If you have a free IDE/ATA port (usually black, 40-pin connector on the motherboard) you can use a spare IDE/ATA cable leftover from a desktop drive replacement or you can buy one for $10 or so at your favorite computer shop. If you plan to borrow an existing cable be sure it’s not already attached to the system’s boot drive, otherwise you will have problems booting the desktop into the OS installed on it. Also be sure your imaging software is installed prior to disconnecting your CD-ROM drive.

Plug one end of the cable into the laptop drive adapter, and plug the other end into the motherboard in the available slot. Take an available 4-pin power connector (Red, Yellow and two black wires) and it into the 4-pin socket that came with the adapter. Now boot up your desktop system.

Drive Connected to Desktop

Step 5 – Image the old drive

Imaging your drive is relatively easy using the software mentioned above. I used Ghost to create an image of the laptop drive and stored it on my desktop system for use later. Just remember where you put the image. This process takes anywhere from 5-30 minutes depending on the size and speed of the old drive and your desktop system. When the process is complete, you can shutdown the computer and remove the adapter from the old laptop drive. Keep everything else connected.

Step 6 – Image the new drive

With imaging of your old drive complete you can safely set the old drive aside. Plug the new drive into the laptop adapter and restart your desktop machine. Startup your imaging software and reverse the process you used to image the old drive. You want to copy the data from the image to the new drive. This step will hopefully be faster than the previous step, because you got a faster drive (right?) however expect it to take a similar amount of time.

When the process completes, disconnect the drive from the adapter and remove the spare IDE/ATA cable from your computer (or re-connect it to the drives it was previously connected to). You can button up your desktop computer at this point.

Step 7 – Remove the old drive from the tray assembly and attach the tray to the new drive

In the next shot you’ll see the screws you need to remove in order to separate the drive from the tray. The Toshiba had four screws installed to hold the drive in the tray. Remove the screws and detach the drive from the tray, paying attention to the orientation of the drive and the pins as you do so. If the drive is covered with any anti-static or other “wrapping” remove that as well. You can reuse the shielding on your new drive if desired (as long as it doesn’t completely cover any “breather holes” marked on the new drive). Using the screws you removed, attach the new drive to the tray in the same orientation as the old drive.

Drive Tray and Screws

Drive Removed from Tray and Shielding

Step 8 – Reinstall the new drive and tray in your laptop and button ‘er up!

Slide the tray back into your laptop being careful to ensure it slides back in smoothly. In the Toshiba I had to insert the tab first towards the front of the system, lay down the drive, then push back towards the rear of the unit to reconnect. With the drive appropriately positioned, replace the panel you removed and/or screw the assembly back together.

Startup the laptop, and if you did everything correctly your OS will startup. When the boot is complete, checkout your massive hard drive and its gobs of free space.

Congratulations – you just upgraded your laptop!

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