Breathing Life Into Old Hardware

Hello friends, it’s been a little bit since I posted anything. As usual, I have been very busy with life. My new job has placed me in a rocket ship and is blasting me into outer space with all the things that I need to do. Couple that with raising kids, doing my Professional Development training for my teaching position and I have been very busy. However, I wanted to take a moment to update you on a fun little project that I started.

You might recall one of my very early posts discussed my frustration with updating the RAM in my AlienWare laptop. For several years (4 it seems based on the date of that post), I just lived with my laptop only having 8GB of RAM. By and large, this was not a major problem for a bit as I did buy a laptop in the higher register to make it last longer. Well, several years of updates to some of my favorite games to play on said laptop (namely World of Warcraft and The Sims 3), have caused my laptop to struggle a bit in the speed department. I usually run my games at maximum graphics level because I figure my laptop can handle it (well, that was NOT a good idea in Skyrim). Well, it finally got to the point where i have had to dial back some settings to make the games playable. Not cool Robert Frost! Not cool!

So I had a decision to make… I could either drop the $2K plus to buy a newer gaming laptop (my wife threatened to divorce me if I buy any more computers without getting rid of some) or I could live with what I had. After some research, I determined that my laptop could actually handle up to 32GB of RAM (4x8GB sticks). When I first looked at the cost of RAM back in 2011 on this laptop, the cost for 32GB of RAM made it a significant investment. Now, 8GB of RAM is commonplace and much cheaper so I went ahead and bought 4 8GB sticks (Crucial if you are wondering). I had previously updated the RAM in the laptop’s bottom compartment but I had not added RAM to the two extra slots because they required removing the keyboard which is always a pain in the crack on laptops. This time, I didn’t care. I disassembled the bottom section of my laptop and dropped the two 8GB stick there (doubling my current RAM). I also noticed that my laptop actually has a second drive bay that I was not aware of (this comes into play later). I moved on and finally removed the keyboard and got to the RAM and dropped the two new stick in there too… total RAM 32GB! WIN! I was also pleased to learn that even though I have not worked inside a laptop in over 4 years, I can still do it. Other than needing my wife to hold a flashlight so I could locate a tiny screw that escaped my screwdriver, I had no issues getting this computer back together.¬†Boot up and SURE ENOUGH… 32GB of RAM.

However, this was not enough to bring the old beast up to modern(ish) standards. If you read my blog regularly, you will know that I purchased a massive Apple iMac to replace my studio rig about a year or so ago. That machine is definitely a monster but it is somewhat impractical for daily gaming because… well.. I can’t play it in the comfort of my armchair. The RAM increase to my Alienware has made it equal in RAM to the Mac but it has one other speed-limiting hardware – a standard SATA hard drive. The Studio Mac has a 1TB Fusion Drive which is a cool hybrid of SSD and standard platter drives (it stores the most frequently accessed files in your system to the SSD and then archives the less used files to the platter section of the drive. SSD has long been the standard for ridiculously fast hard drives and a must-have for gamers. But once again, the cost for SSD of any capacity has been crazy expensive for several years. A quick Amazon search revealed that although 2 and 3 TB HDs are available, they will set you back $300+. So, after doing some research, I found three different sites that spoke highly of the SanDisk PRO series SSD drives. I found a 250GB version for only $125. Sure, 250GB may seem small by your standards, but my plan is to simply ADD it to my Alienware. That means that I will keep the existing 500GB HDD (which I am only using about 10% of by last check) and just add 250GB of SSD goodness to it. My plan is to swap the hard drives such that the primary boot drive is the SSD one and I will install Windows 8.1 on there (hate on me all you want but I use it at work and it’s really fast and not that hard to navigate). Then, I can simply install the games that need speed on the SSD and leave the other drive as my ‘data’ drive. Besides, I have been letting Carbonite back up my system for years so its not like I would lose anything big IF the drive fails.

All this is to say that by only investing about $450 (as opposed to $2K) I have easily boosted my old Alienware laptop into the new digital age. The only thing I haven’t done is replace the ATI video card it has. I COULD do that but the hardware will only work with a certain range of cards and it’s a pain in the crack to figure out which ones. I MIGHT try updating to the latest drivers for it. I have been putting this off because the past several iterations of drivers have caused the video to fail when waking from standby. I was so frustrated by this that I completely wiped and reloaded the computer a few months ago because I had made the mistake of trying an update. If the Win 8.1 drivers still cause this behavior, I can always reload Win7 and the old drivers that DO work. After all, if I reload only a short while after the first reload, I didn’t really lose anything but time, do I?

I think that’s all for this ramble. Happy April!

My First Complaint About my Alienware 17xR3

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was very excited about my first AlienWare laptop and I was counting down the days as until it arrived. It finally arrived on Wednesday so I took a slightly longer lunch and went back to the house to pick it up (I certainly didn’t want to leave it sitting on the front porch in case a ne’er-do-well decided it looked like it was worth some money).

The device is every bit as powerful as I expected it would be, even with only 8GB of RAM. Yet this brings me to my first gripe about the device. Okay… let’s consider the market for an Alienware laptop… usually a gamer who is all about squeezing as much power out of their laptop as they could possibly accomplish. Odds are, one of those things would be additional RAM. Goodness knows that is one of the things that I wanted to do. If that’s the case… why on earth did Dell make such a dumb choice in RAM placement.

You see… there are two banks of two SODIMM RAM slots on this device. The EASY ones to get to are simply done by taking out the battery, unscrewing the two little screws in the bay and then sliding the back plate off. The OTHER RAM slots require you to do the steps mentioned above as well as remove an additional series of about 8 screws to get the keyboard off, lift it up and disconnect the ZIF connector and slide the keyboard out.

Here’s your pop quiz… WHERE would you install the stock RAM on a device like this? Knowing full well that the tech buying it would likely add more RAM? Of course it is extremely logical to put the stock RAM in the EASY area so that when a gamer with a penchant for upgrading hardware wanted to add more he could… Okay. That’s right it’s NOT logical! Why on earth would you do something so ridiculous? I have no idea why but that is EXACTLY what Dell did on my device. I was expecting that I could simply add the extra RAM in the easy to reach section of the computer and all would be well. Looks like I was wrong.

Other than this obvious logical misstep in placement, I am relatively pleased with the laptop so far. Now if I can just finish this 10-12 page paper for my cyber-security class, I might actually be able to play some games on my laptop!