Poor man’s SSD: One week later

It’s been a week now since I held my breath and punched the power button on my 14-year-old laptop, and watched it come to life with a CF card for a heart, instead of a traditional hard drive. And despite conventional wisdom warning against the viability of an experiment like this, the longer I use it, the more I am prepared to set up a similar drive in other old systems.

First I can tell you that in the short space of a week I have seen no loss of available space or performance — in fact, I have a small correction to make. I mentioned earlier that boot times for the card compare to the 40Gb 5400rpm Samsung drive that was in this machine, but they’re quite a bit faster. I don’t hold that out as a for-sure endorsement of a speed boost from CF cards, mostly because I reconfigured the kernel from scratch when I did this, and that might be part of the reason.

But to see a 6-9 second drop in boot times from switching from a mechanical drive to a CF card … it’s inspiring. I couldn’t possibly guarantee that sort of boost in every machine, but at US$30, it’s certainly worth a try.

But speed isn’t the only bonus. Two days ago I turned off every fan in my house, every household appliance that made any noise, put my ear against the palmrest and the only sound I could hear coming from this computer was the weak buzz of the electric current through the speakers. The machine is completely, utterly, totally silent from boot to powerdown, with the only exception being the grunt of the floppy drive when it probes for a boot disk.

It’s almost ironic: People search high and low and pay premium prices to put together a machine that masks its own noise. And for roughly US$40, I have a computer that, if I close my eyes, I don’t know if it’s on or off. It’s not exactly a hot commodity, I’ll admit. But given the choice to spend US$40 for a silent machine or US$4000 for a machine that suffers to control its own racket … well, I think you know what I’d choose.

On top of that, the temperature these days in my part of Japan is cresting 30 degrees on a daily basis, with a considerable uptick in humidity. At the same time, there is a very distinct difference between the surface temperature under my left hand as there was with the mechanical drive.

I wrote a long time ago about environmental effects on this machine’s cousin, and I can’t help but wonder if this drive-swap wouldn’t have alleviated a couple of those issues. A day late, 100 yen short.

I should mention weight too, since a 2Gb hard drive is rather heavy and its replacement is rather light. To be honest though, the entire computer is quite hefty, so yes, there is a difference between before and after, but not so much as to be a huge selling point. In a lighter machine it might be a better option though.

Two things have definitely come about, in the early days of this little experiment: First, I really want to find another CF card, either new or secondhand, and drive it into the ground. I won’t call the CF-card-vulnerability mantra a myth yet, but I have yet to see exact numbers — in terms of either lifespan or writes or total data — that I can expect, which means I really want to break one. Purely in the interest of science, of course. I try to dispel as many myths as I can.

Second, I want to get another one and put it in this machine and see how it affects battery life. As it stands that computer will run for almost two hours before the BIOS alarm triggers, and that was with a power-sucking 2Gb hard drive in it. 🙄 I have a feeling less would be more, in terms of power consumption over time. 😉

And as a final note, just for the record, I set up this card with ext2 partitions only, with the noatime flag set everywhere. I also have 128Mb of swap space, but if htop is to be believed, it’s never touching it. And I set my swappiness to zero to encourage that behavior.

In the mean time, I shall continue to use it, and see if there really is an expiration date. Or if I will outlast it. 😈

P.S.: You can’t accuse me of not doing my homework on this issue. Just as a cursory investigation on the life of CF disks, here is (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5).


10 thoughts on “Poor man’s SSD: One week later

  1. crazybilly

    Very cool. I’ve thought about doing something similar, but ran into all the problems you’ve mentioned, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes!

  2. Calvin

    Desktops also are pretty quiet: I have a quiet Pentium 3-using PC from the late 90s (unsure of year and how it’s cooling itself) – only noise is from storage mediums. HD is loud, especially on startup, but CD is surprisingly quiet.

    My other PC, a 2.4 Ghz Celeron box (2004, Pentium 4 generation, pretty use it has a fan) is also nearly quiet for all but a faint hum, even when accessing the disk.

  3. vespas

    I have found that telling the kernel to use elevator=noop at the grub prompt to avoid scheduling reads according to the requirements of rotating media dropped 6s from the boot time of my EEE pc.

  4. inknoir

    Hi, I am using a sd-card instead of my harddrive in my t101mt, which is running archlinux. Powerconsumption lowered from 7 W to 5 W (and even less without wlan). Its 100 % quiet and cool. Only drawback is problems with waking from card after sleeping, the whole system gets mounted readonly, probably my fault.
    I would prefer to have a few more cardslots instead of a hdd or even sdd, seems cheaper and way more flexible.

  5. Kyle

    CF cards are fine for reliability. I have had two laptops running with the same setup, for several years. One failure ever, and was able to recover all the data (http://kmkeen.com/flash-recovery/).

    In fact, I recommended CF-IDE to you almost a year ago, when you griped about 400MB drives. 🙂

    Though IDE laptops are getting rare, and CF-SATA adapters are pricey, so the third machine is running from a micro SDHC card.

      1. technologyunit

        Great Post. I had though about the idea of booting from a CF card ever since I saw a 32GB Compact Flash Card available in a Popular Photography Magazine. I said to my brother that I could replace my then 4 year old laptop’s harddrive with the thing through the express card slot. At the time I didn’t have the time or the money to do that kind of upgrade and since then I have had the fortune of getting a new Computer. I am glad that you have had such luck with the Idea. It was really infact your idea because you did it. I think that I will give this a try and post a video tutorial On my blog for people trying to install Ubuntu on netbooks or something.

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

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

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