Installing a SSD (Solid-State Drive) in an IBM ThinkPad X31 (or any older computer providing only IDE ports) - IT tutorials, reviews and articles
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INSTALLING A SSD (SOLID-STATE DRIVE) IN AN IBM THINKPAD X31 (OR ANY OLDER COMPUTER PROVIDING ONLY IDE PORTS)
Bring back some youth to your old gear
By Maxime Abbey - First published on 05-19-2013 on TT-Hardware Forums, updated on 12-04-2013
Here is some feedback about my setup of a SSD disk in an old laptop, an IBM ThinkPad X31, more than 6 months after the initial setup.
Although I wrote this article with a precise computer brand and model in mind, you should be able to apply it to other computer models, as the basis should remain the same.
I'm the owner of a small ThinkPad X31, an old professional laptop from IBM, released in 2004. You'll find some archived reviews of this machine on some websites such as TrustedReviews or DevHardware Computer Systems Articles.
This computer is still in excellent condition as of today, but was indeed painfully slow to use because of its factory hard disk drive, spinning at 4200 rpm, suffering from constant I/O operations.
Being a spare laptop I only use in the kitchen to read recipes or watch TV, I didn't want to replace it with a netbook or tablet. Besides the price tag of these devices in mid-2013 (around 200 € for a good tablet with its dock, or 320 € for a newer netbook like the Acer Aspire 756), I was concerned about losing its rock-solid building quality for a cheaper-built device.
Replacing an IDE hard drive is a complete headache
So, I decided to replace the slow factory hard disk drive.
The only problem being that the X31 only came with a single, 44-pin Parallel ATA (PATA/IDE) port, which was still common as of 2004 - the SATA standard was just entering the market back then, not to mention laptops.
It was thus extremely complicated, back in 2013, to find a good IDE laptop drive at a reasonable price, even more if you consider that I actually needed a fast drive to gain a real change from the old factory drive.
Choosing the computer parts
Being unable to find good and fast 2,5" IDE drives back in 2013, I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed some alternative solutions:
- either a Compact Flash to IDE adapter, quite cheap (thanks to the small amount of conversion electronics required) but with a disk type not suited for a "standard" operating system (constant writing cycles)
- either a SATA to IDE adapter, to put a SSD right into it, and avoid any problem related to a classic Windows OS; despite the higher price tag.
I chose the second option, more reliable and future-proof.
I still had to find the most suitable adapter type:
Don't be confused by many websites which keep confusing mSATA and microSATA! They come with different connectors, pictured by the following product. Be careful when buying your adapter!
I chose mSATA, the most widespread mini-SSD format, after checking that both size and thickness of the SSD adapter with disk would fit into the IBM ThinkPad X31.
I compared several adapters, and I chose this one from Micro SATA Cables, which has the exact same size than a conventional 2.5" IDE disk: http://www.microsatacables.com/ide-to-sata-adapter-with-2-point-5-inch-aluminum-housing/
I picked up a mSATA Crucial m4 128 GB (CT128M4SSD3) SSD drive, this one having the best performance/price/reliability ratio among all mSATA drives as of early 2013 (99 € back in February with free shipping).
Hardware setup - Mounting the adapter
The adapter is bundled with all necessary screws and operating manual.
Mounting both SSD and adapter was rather simple, even if I had to mount them in reverse order compared to what's said in the manual, so that the adapter would sit flush in the X31's disk drive slot. Strange!
Software setup - Copying partitions from HDD to SSD
More than installing the disk itself, I actually spent most of my time to find out how to copy the IBM Hidden Protected Area partition from the original drive to the SSD; it was the most tricky part.
Copying this 5 GB partition was mandatory, as it holds all the maintenance tools offered by the blue "Access IBM" button, including the ability to restore Windows XP in a factory state (which may be handy).
I first made a backup of the whole disk with the excellent Paragon Backup & Restore Free (which can backup all partitions from a single disk, boot sector included, to restore them on another disk, even with different size).
The downside being that this software can't backup the hidden partition of IBM computers from this era.
The way to go
After several retries, I ultimately succeeded in copying the hidden partition on the SSD by following the instructions given on this topic: http://forum.thinkpads.com/viewtopic.php?t=13814,, also available on the IBM HPA operating manual (hpa_aibm.pdf)
You have to use two utilities provided by IBM (fwbackup.exe and fwrestor.exe) to backup and restore the hidden partition from the factory drive.
I could then restore the Windows partition from the original drive to the SSD thanks to the backup I made with Paragon Backup & Restore Free.
Important notes about partitioning afterwards
I first wanted to split the contents of the new SSD in two separate partitions: 48 GB for the operating system, and 80 GB dedicated to data or software.
But it seems that the hidden partition area of the IBM ThinkPad does not support partition split or resize with third-party tools such as EaseUS Partition Master.
Each time I attempted to recreate an additional partition after the factory Windows partition (thanks to the additional 80 GB offered by the SSD), the hidden partition became corrupted, and I had to reformat the disk each time to restore it once more.
I ended up with having a single 128 GB partition, instead of the initial 48 + 80 GB setup I targeted.
Several months after installing this SSD, this little IBM became a rocket: less than 30 seconds between pushing the Power button, and the complete availability of the Windows XP desktop, compared to several minutes before. All applications appear instantly after being launched.
The videos you'll find on YouTube are totally realistic.
You must be aware of the fact that the ThinkPad X31 is indeed limited to Ultra-DMA/100 or ATA-6, which allows up to 100 MB/second transfer rate.
HD Tune shows transfer rates above 75 MB/sec, six months after installing the SSD into the laptop.
We're indeed far away from the transfer rates we could hit thanks to the disk's SATA III compliance, but these transfer rates remain fully satisfactory, and without any possible comparison with a 7200 rpm mechanical drive, even among the very latest models released in 2008, like the Samsung HM160HC which was rated up to 68 MB/sec.
Total costs and overall benefits from the operation?
All the necessary parts, shipping costs included, asked me to spend around 130 € back in February 2013:
- 25 € for the mSATA to IDE adapter from Micro SATA Cables with 5 € shipping
- 100 € for the mSATA Crucial m4 128 GB SSD (CT128M4SSD3), with free shipping
Thanks to this solution, you'll benefit from all the SATA features compared to IDE:
- performance (even through being limited by the IDE interface throughput, the SSD remains faster than any PATA/IDE mechanical drive, moreover with reduced access times)
- price per GB (a SATA drive, even in SSD flavour, remains cheaper per GB compared to an IDE which isn't available in wide quantities anymore)
- evolutive (the disk being a SATA III drive, it will be reusable in other machines)
- low power consumption (a somewhat important fact to save your laptop's battery life)
- silent operation (a SSD being made without any moving mechanical part = no vibrations at all)
- reduced weight compared to a standard mechanical drive
Remember that installing a SSD drive into an older PC remains some kind of investment, that you should only consider if the machine is worth the expense, compared to a new device with equivalent features (weight, size, durability...)
I decided to go on with this operation, because my IBM ThinkPad X31 still brings interesting features compared to what's being available on today's market:
- 5.5 lbs (1.6 kg) weight
- reduced footprint (4:3 12" screen)
- an excellent keyboard (complies with the IBM ThinkPad reputation)
- an extended connectivity that can't be beat by today's slimmer ultrabooks: docking station port, extension card port, 3 audio I/O jacks, VGA video output, 2 USB, RJ45 and modem ports...
If you're still taking care of an old laptop for the same reasons, I can only recommend you to do such an upgrade, which will significantly boost it.