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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Dusting off the Dell

My computer is a Dell Inspiron 6400, and it turned five years old last month. It’s been good to me. I replaced the battery once, about two years ago, and the keyboard twice, once under warranty because I broke a key—er, it snapped off—and once because the space bar was getting worn out. Sometime in the past few year years, the left corner of the white trim on the palm rest cracked. Otherwise, this computer has served me well, and it has never let me down.

But it was getting a little old. And slow. And loud. Despite having a cooling mat, the fan was on full blast pretty constantly—especially in Ubuntu, which is a shame considering I use it as my primary operating system these days. After five years, I suspected that a lot of dust had accumulated inside the laptop. Since I’m not a hardware person, I was worried about opening it up—but if I plan to keep it for at least another two or three years, which I would love to do, I want it running at its best.

Last week I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and went down to Northern Computers to demand their best anti-static wrist band. So armoured, and armed with a Phillips screwdriver, the Dell service manual, and a disassembly blog post, I proceeded to tear about my precious laptop. I was terrified that at any moment I would slip, jostle, or otherwise damage something integral to the machine—the motherboard, the display cable, a blinky light, etc. I am so unbelievably bad at doing things with tools that I was frightened this would be a disaster and end with me spending money on a brand new computer.

I’m silly. Everything went fine. It was a little terrifying to be sitting there, blowing an air duster on my fan and speakers (wow were those caked in dust). But after I had removed as much of the dust as I could and gone through the almost-as-terrifying process of reassembling the laptop … it booted without problems. It sounded better, quieter. And it runs so much cooler now. Before, even with the cooling mat, the parts of the keyboard above the fan and the hard drive would both get extremely warm. Now, after having my laptop on for 5 hours, I can tell those spots are warmer, but not much warmer than the rest of the computer.

Since it seemed like the week for do-it-yourself hardware upgrades, I also decided to replace my internal hard drive. It was 160 GB, which seemed so big back when I first bought the computer. Unlike some people, I don’t have a vast collection of media, so it’s taken me this long to running up against that space limitation. I had about 40 GB of storage space left, but because of the way I had partitioned the drive, Ubuntu’s root partition was routinely running into its space limits when I had to download large upgrades, like kernel upgrades. Since I was going to have to re-partition and re-install, this seemed like a good time to get a new hard drive before I move to England and start the school year.

I bought a 320 GB, 7200 RPM drive. It wasn’t too expensive, and as I said above, I don’t need anything on the order of 500 GB to 1 TB yet. Assuming it doesn’t die mysteriously after a year, this drive will hopefully last me until I buy a new computer. By that time, hopefully, 1 TB SSD drives will be standard (and inexpensive)!

Installing the hard drive was easy, especially compared to diassembling the rest of the computer. Prior to removing the old hard drive, I created a system image of my Windows 7 installation. I figured that would be an easier way to restore Windows than to do a clean install an re-install all of my useful programs. I backed up the system image, as well as my home partition from Ubuntu, to my external hard drive. Then I replaced the internal hard drives, restored Windows 7, and did a clean install of Ubuntu 12.04. The entire restoration process only took a few hours—the longest part, by far, was me fooling around with the best way to get all my previous packages installed.

I would go so far as to characterize the reinstallation process as painless. Thanks to the home partition backup, all my settings were still there. As I had hoped, the clean install seems to have made Unity less prone to freezing when I do graphics-intensive operations (we’ll see if that lasts). My only mistake was that I didn’t back up my Apache configuration or the local MySQL databases I use for my development projects. (I only thought to backup /home, and those are stored in /etc and /var, respectively.) Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything important there, so it’s just a minor inconvenience. I ordered an enclosure online so I can keep the old hard drive as another backup drive, and once that arrives I’ll be able to retrieve anything else I discover I left behind.

My tablet is definitely shiny and useful for a lot of things, but it is no replacement for a proper laptop or desktop. I’m very happy with my Inspiron 6400, and I hope to keep using it for many years to come.