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Technology Untangled: Don't be intimidated by hard drive upgrade

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Screwdriver: Check. $47 hard drive cloning device: Check. That's the complete list of tools needed to EASILY upgrade your computer's hard drive.

You might be under the impression that replacing and upgrading a hard drive is well beyond the skill level of the non-computer geek. In truth, it is not much more difficult than changing the batteries in a child's toy. The process is simple, and the performance benefits are substantial. Read on, and you may soon find yourself inspired to pick up a screwdriver and make your own computer better.

Here is the story of how I learned to replace a laptop hard drive. My primary laptop computer was beginning to display odd quirks that I identified as drive-related. The most obvious symptom was that it was automatically running through the diagnostic check disk protocol (Chkdsk) upon every reboot.

At this point in a computer's life people consider simply buying a new one. But that choice comes with its own long list of troubles. One obvious consideration is that you are forced to move to the new Microsoft Windows 7 operating system. Too bad if you liked Windows XP, Windows 7 is your only choice. In addition, it takes a lot of effort to reload software and transfer important files to the new computer.

I thought a hard drive replacement for my laptop would involve similar hassle because new drives arrive in a raw and empty state. But, because I liked this computer and I wanted to keep my current operating system, I thought it would be worth investigating. I thought that an exact replacement drive was required, so I called Sony tech support to order one and was shocked to learn their price was more than $300! It seems pretty clear that Sony would rather steer you toward buying a new computer.

Next, I did some Internet research and learned that this exact drive could be purchased elsewhere for $60. With prices like that, perhaps I could consider installing a larger drive. My research revealed that I did not in fact have to install an exact replacement. Many other larger-capacity, higher-performance drives would work in my laptop.

The Web site that provided this revelation is www.DriveSolutions.com. I simply typed in my exact computer model number and the site provided a list of compatible replacement drives. I chose a 500GB 7200 rpm drive for $150. This quadrupled my capacity and provided a 33 percent improvement in performance. The old 120GB drive ran at a slower and less efficient 5400 rpm speed. My advice: Buy the largest and fastest hard drive on the list. As long as you are going through the effort, you might as well get the most benefit possible.

The next important revelation was that I could simply clone all the information from the old drive directly over to the new one. No laborious reloading of software and settings was required. One tool that DriveSolutions offers for this procedure is the DriveWire USB data transfer kit / universal hard drive adapter by Apricorn (www.Apricorn.com), $47.

Could it really be that simple to swap out the drive? Yes. Here's what's involved. First you load the cloning software onto your computer. Next, you attach the new drive to the connector on the Drivewire device. Connect the AC power cord, then connect the USB cable. Launch the cloning software and follow the instructions. A few mouse clicks later, your computer reboots and the cloning process automatically begins.

The hardest part? Waiting. The cloning process can take several hours. When the process completes, turn off your computer and disconnect the DriveWire device.

The next hardest part? The tiny screws. Unscrew the drive access panel from the bottom of your laptop. Remove the screws securing the hard drive assembly and disconnect it from the computer. Remove the old drive from its mounting bracket. Reverse the procedure to install your new drive.

Power up the computer. Once the cloning is complete, the replacement drive behaves exactly like the old one. You wouldn't know the difference except for the higher capacity and the improved performance. Immediately I noticed a substantial decrease in the time it took my computer to initialize. All my programs were launching and running faster.

One thing you can do with your old hard drive is install it in an external USB drive housing and use it as a portable drive. One of the other available cloning kits includes this housing.

If you have any other concerns or questions, the DriveSolutions.com site offers many answers and provides a comprehensive FAQ section.

Now that I own the cloning device, I have already upgraded two of my computers and plan to upgrade others. I hope you can set aside your apprehensions and upgrade your hard drive. It truly is as simple as I have described.

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