Poor man’s SSD

I hope your fingers are limber and ready for some exercise, because this next post is either going to infuriate you and trigger all kinds of keyboard action, or get you so wired to reply that you’ll fall into spasms from trying to punch at the “Leave a comment” button.

First, a question: What’s this?

If you said, “An 8Gb CF memory card,” you’re right. Now here’s another one for you:

If you said, “A CF-to-2.5-inch-IDE adapter,” you’re right again. Give yourself a cookie.

Now if you can imagine where this is going, then you’re probably already seconds away from those spasms I just mentioned. But a little history first.

Way back in October, when I went on a short vacation and gallivanted all around the world with a Pentium laptop, I suffered a rather noisy and very unfortunate hard drive crash. In the time that I had remaining away from home, I thought about investing in a solid state drive, but there are two big shortcomings for me: size and price.

Price, because I don’t like dumping US$200 into a 14-year-old computer. I would be spending almost 20 times the value of the machine on a fairly-new technology that hasn’t really settled into a stable price bracket to start with. Pecuniary prudence prevented it. 😉

And size, because to be honest, I don’t need anything in the 200Gb range in a console-based laptop that I only use for writing, scheduling, surfing, e-mail, note-taking, chatting, gaming, troubleshooting, experimenting, blogging, organizing, planning, making presentations, calculating, reviewing and more experimenting, and a few other small things. 😈 In fact, there’s nothing that I do that would require 20Gb, let alone 200.

So paying a lot of money for a giant sized drive that probably wouldn’t even boot in a BIOS this old would be throwing bad money after good. I’d do just as well with a teensy 10Gb drive, provided it was reasonably fast. And cheap. And light. And didn’t eat a lot of power. And wasn’t hot. And wasn’t noisy.

Well hey, SSDs aren’t much different from giant memory cards. And CF cards are two or three generations removed from state-of-the-art, so they’re pretty cheap. Heck, I can get an 8Gb card off amazon.co.jp for around US$20, and the connector is only US$14. …

“And that is how I got to where I find myself today.”

I’m US$34 poorer now, and just about everyone who heard about my plan pooh-poohed it as a ridiculous idea, that CF cards would degrade over time, that the IO drag would be a nightmare, that bad luck would follow me like the plague … pretty much everything short of biblical catastrophe would ensue.

But even Wikipedia mentions this combination as an alternative to SSDs. And the XO-1 shipped with NAND flash as standard, although what you see there is just your common ordinary garden-variety CF card, intended for cameras and whatnot.

And really, I think the pros far outweigh the cons. Weight is negligible. Noise level is absolute zero. Speed is on par with the 40Gb 5400rpm drive I usually use in the Pentium. Heat is nil. Power draw is next to nil. And mechanical issues, which drove me to this end in the first place, are next to nil.

Moreover, I consider this an experiment: If it falls to pieces after a few hours, so be it. I lost roughly US$30 and learned something about the way these things work. I would much rather that, than lose US$200 to a drive that didn’t like my BIOS and collected dust in the closet. I’m willing to take a chance.

In the mean time, I’m going to sit back, relax, count and recount the US$175 or so I saved on a full size SSD plus shipping, and imagine how I shall waste that money. 😈


57 thoughts on “Poor man’s SSD

  1. Evaryont

    Ah, for shame! Alas, if you did go with the SSD, and it failed, you could’ve given it to me. 😀

    Interesting, though. I’d like to pick your brain: How do you manage to keep your “small things” in sync between your computers?

  2. JP Senior

    I hope you don’t get slaughtered by 8,000 writer cycles or some other bizarre doom and gloom. Some of that old stuff was only intended to hold static data-as a cheap replacement for 3V battery based flash on embedded systems.

    I recall reading some articles in which cf was loaded as an mtd device, and for appropriate formatting required such an IDE adapter for the correct boot sector and whatnot, your application here is inspiring.

  3. imgx64

    I’ve done something similar before, I ran Ubuntu from an SD card plugged into the laptop’s built-in card reader. I didn’t notice much improvement in performance, and boot-up time was actually slower. I’m guessing that’s because the card reader is connected internally using USB and not IDE, but I’m not sure.

  4. William

    fstab relatime blah blah.

    This sounds like a great idea. I’d love to know how much life you get out of it.

  5. Joseph George

    Inspiring article, Mr Mandla!

    I have been using a 256M usb key, loaded with damnsmalllinux, for the best part of 4yrs now. I have a citrix client on it for work purposes. I converted to tinycorelinux last year.

    I use this to boot where ever I can, despite concerns voiced by fellow experts about the doom-and-gloom for continuous writes to flash devices. Till date, I have not had any data issues.

    Perhaps, I’m just lucky with this drive, but I had no data issues with any of my usb keys yet. And I have a dozen plus, used for different purposes. And btw, before you ask, mine is one of those cheap usb keys. I think it was the cheapest I could find at that time.

    So, I have my PC on a key, which just needs some hardware to boot. How cheap can you get? I don’t care what I hardware I am working on, as long as it can boot from usb. I travel around fairly frequently, and I find this very useful, along with your plop boot floppy. Thanks for that article too!

  6. cthulhu

    I have the exact same solution on my Thinkpad 600X. But from ebay.co.uk I bought mine for 0.99 GBP + free shipping world wide from Hong Kong. There’s even 2CFtoIDE connectors out there.

    I’m curious as to how much wear and tear this device will see. Are you using this computer/drive with rtorrent around the clock?

    Have you noticed any increase in boot up time?

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      No, this machine is the one I use day-to-day, as a work machine. These days the torrent slave as a 120Gb drive in it, to give it a little more breathing room. Eight gigabytes in total is more than enough to hold my music collection, but I might as well use a larger drive, to give it more space.

      Boot times are about the same. I’m guessing that even in a worst-case scenario, the read-write times on a 133x CF card are still faster than the IO channels in a 14-year-old computer. So it’s not the speed of the card that’s holding back the computer, it’s the speed of the computer holding back the card. 😉

  7. bonico

    this remembers me an advertisement from Samsung about his SSD

    I think you realy had a great idea and the only lack I see is you can’t make partitions on the disk

    Good work

      1. bonico

        Not at all, it’s just I have an XO and reading how to install an alternative SO in a SSD they advice not to partition the disk due to the SSD way reads/writes, but now I’m looking for further information and not finding anything so I think it is my mistake.

        1. Cowardly Coward

          It is usually not a problem to partition drives. Do you have any links/information to show what your problem might be?

          1. bonico

            It was all a misunderstanding
            I actually never had any error
            A while ago I read an instructions to install Ubuntu in the XO using a raw image from QEmu. They adviced to use an only large partition in the QEmu image (without swap) so you don’t eat all the space in the SD when you download the image to it. So I understand you couldn’t make partitions on a SD.
            Now I’ve re read all again and realiced I was wrong, so sorry to all for the confusion and thanks for the concern

  8. lo0m

    yeah, i’m using similar adapter with 4GB CF card in my old Compaq Armada 1530 to run console-based Debian… but I have home mounted from other machine to not write on CF too much..

  9. bgbraithwaite

    Really cool idea! Bravo for coming up with a SSD on the cheap that actually works! I contemplated doing something similar with Ubuntu on my tablet PC, only leaving the original HDD in place and putting the CF card in a PCMCIA adaptor. Eventually I ended up dual-booting on the hard drive and using the CF card for user data because the CF card was so slow. I think your idea would probably speed things up, though. I will have to try it sometime!

  10. Luca

    Great idea! I have a feeling embedded systems (e.g. supermarket checkouts) did exactly the same thing in the 90s – they typically used a version of Windows NT though… 😈 It would be interesting to see some performance benchmarks compared to the hard disk.

  11. Pingback: A New Project! « Becoming A Glider

  12. mulenmar

    Great idea! I was going to try the same thing, but decided against it because I read about the extremely slow write speeds (even with noatime and a kernel from before the ext4 speed regressions).

    Good luck with your experiment!

  13. Cowardly Coward

    I actually have a 16GB 400x card from Transcend in use with such an adapter. I guess I win. Oh, about the price… 😉

  14. Random

    I’ve done this a couple times, the first time about 6-7 years ago 🙂

    To me SSDs of now are nothing but glorified CF cards. They have the same writing/tear problems.

  15. kgas

    two 8 gb SD cards got fried when I tried to use it as /var with reiserfs. I read somewhere log file system is much suitable for such cards. yet to try this file system.

  16. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: One week later « Motho ke motho ka botho

  17. Dieter_be

    > I hope your fingers are limber and ready for some exercise, because this next post is either going to infuriate you and trigger all kinds of keyboard action

    You bet! You got your units wrong. That’s not 8Gb stuff, it’s 8GB


  18. Pingback: A reasonable investment or two « Motho ke motho ka botho

  19. Pingback: Favorite computer myths « Motho ke motho ka botho

  20. aa

    Any CF card will do the job?

    I have an 1GB one for my digital camera.

    Could it work If I found the adaptor?

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      That will depend on the PC. If the drive in your machine fits through a narrow slot, then it will be a trick to get it connected. As you can see in the pictures, the card can insert into the adapter first, but then the entire business would have to drop into the slot and brace the connectors.

      On the other hand, if your drive is accessible from a side bay or if it rides in a removable tray, it would probably be easier.

      Last time I checked, Debian would fit comfortably on a 1Gb drive. Some of the self-compile distros require a lot more space.

  21. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: Of course, you know, this means war … « Motho ke motho ka botho

  22. Pingback: One more anniversary « Motho ke motho ka botho

    1. cthulhu

      Isn’t PATA the same as IDE?
      I think it should work with CF to IDE on a thinkpad of that model. Like 10-12 years old right?

      1. Tim

        For the Thinkpad, I used a CF to IDE adapter, and then an adapter that converted from IDE to PATA, which I got off the (crashed) hard drive (I think…I’m a bit shaky with my HD terminology).

        But I have another laptop–a Gateway Solo 2150–for which I bought a CF to IDE adapter…but I cannot for the life of me find a second IDE->PATA adapter for it.

        If you want, I could upload a picture.

        1. imgx64


          PATA is simply the new name for IDE (or EIDE), see this Wikipedia article. The name ‘PATA’ was created after SATA became popular to differentiate them.

          However, laptops use a different PATA interface than desktops. PATA-for-laptops(I have no idea what’s its official name) has 4 extra pins that are used for power, instead of using a separate power connector.

          1. Tim

            Sorry, I said the wrong thing.

            I have an adapter that goes from CF to 44 (IIRC)-pin IDE/PATA. The two laptops do not have 44 holes in them, but rather have a ~1.8″ slot. With the original hard drive, I received an adapter that goes from female IDE, to a 1.8″ flat male connector, which goes into the slot on the laptop.

            I can’t seem to find any of these adapters for sale.

            I think the above would be better illustrated with a picture. I’ll post one once I get back home.

            1. icesnakefrostfyre

              Tim, look on eBay for parts; once a laptop dies, it’s either a doorstop or a parts cache. The smarter guys can make enough selling the parts to pay for a netbook.

  23. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: Test results « Motho ke motho ka botho

  24. Pingback: Piggybacker Lives! Or, The Virtues Of A CF Card Put To Unconventional Use « Becoming A Glider

  25. Pingback: More updates: The weather clock project « Motho ke motho ka botho

  26. Valchius

    Hi, are there any reasons (speed, reliability, price) of getting CF instead of SD?
    I am thinking of buying adapter and I have some spare SD cards.

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      Not that I am aware of. For a machine this old, I have serious doubts that either SD or CF would necessarily work better. The intervening hardware is so old that the bottleneck is really the entire machine around the card. … 😉

  27. Pingback: A finished product: The weather clock project « Motho ke motho ka botho

  28. Merula

    One of the massive benefits to using CF over SD is that CF was designed to operate over PCMCIA, an already-old system. As KMandla has said before, go with older tech; give the geeks a chance to write drivers for it.

    SD cards, by comparison, have drastically higher capacities, but their specifications keep changing. Not only that, CF has higher write speeds than SD. (http://www.tested.com/news/sd-vs-cf-vs-memory-stick-flash-memory-showdown/195/)

    @KMandla – I’ve got an ALIX board that runs entirely on CF. Yes, it’s an embedded box designed for that, but it’s remarkable how well it work. Not only that, it’s cheap to replace a 2- or 4-GB CF card. SD is still approximately half the price of CF, but until the *nix geeks figure out how to really make SD/SDHC/XD/? work well as primary storage, I don’t mind paying $12 USD for a replacement.

  29. Anton Eliasson

    Now, half a year later: would you still recommend replacing a ~10 year old laptop’s HDD with a decent CF card, in regard to the possible speed improvement?

    1. Chubby Checker

      I certainly would. In fact, just yesterday I revived an old laptop this way. Works like a charme…

    2. K.Mandla Post author

      Most definitely. Best US$30 I ever spent, and so much so that I keep an extra one as a spare, for the next unwanted machine that comes my way. 🙂

      1. Ozzy

        Yay, saw this post just after you did it, came back today to see that there has been no doom and gloom 🙂

        I have a few old Thinkpad 760’s (XL, XD, EL etc) and i snagged a few dual ide–>cf cards from dealextreme, a pile of 4gb 133x transcend cf’s from newegg… and when they get in… WHEE 🙂

        Oh, the guy up there that is confusing PATA with IDE… i think he means the adapter that is on the caddy… my Thinkpads have that strange ibm connector on the motherboard, and uses a right angle adapter on the hard drive caddy… will plug right into the cf adapter (make sure you get one with male pins and not the direct plug type).

        1. Anton

          So, I finally got around to purchasing one of these adapters. Too bad it won’t fit in my Thinkpad T23. The IDE connector on the bottom of the PCB shorts against some metal foil in the HDD bay. Sooner or later though, I’ll probably come across a laptop that I can use it with.

  30. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: No news is no news « Motho ke motho ka botho

  31. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: Confusion and disappointment « Motho ke motho ka botho

  32. Pingback: Poor man’s SSD: A cryptic twist | Motho ke motho ka botho

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s