A breath of SSD air for a 10-year-old (Linux) laptop

Updated: June 21, 2024

Back in 2014, that would be 10 years ago, I bought myself a bargain. A beefy laptop that did not cost an arm and a leg, just a leg, and it delivered in turn an i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, an Nvidia card (GTX 860M, equivalent to GTX 580 back then), plus a 4K display. The only downside? It had a mechanical disk, a 5,400rpm 1TB HDD, albeit with an 8GB hybrid, cache-like SSD add-on. The machine performs diligently over the years, and eventually, I made it into a Linux-only system. The only downside? Ultra-long boot times.

What I find a bit sad is that it would seem most mainstream distro developers nowadays simply assume their users run the same gear as they do, namely powerful rigs with ultra-fast storage. They seem to forget the mechanical hard disks. This is a bit of an irony, because Linux is supposed to be the savior of old hardware, due to its frugal requirements. Well, not so when the boot times are 2-3 minutes. So I thought, let's "revive" this machine. I splurged 70 dollars and got me a 500GB Samsung EVO 870 SATA SSD. Can this make the Y50-70 sprightly again? Let's check.

Teaser

Hard disk replacement

Similar to what I did with my Slimbook Pro2 when its battery needed a change, I unscrewed the laptop backcover, and commenced to fiddle. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the innards were clean, with only a tiny, tiny bit of dust. Not bad considering this laptop has worked for a decade in all sorts of climates, including hot and dusty regions, and has traveled through many an airport. I can pleasantly say that the internal components are mostly replaceable - battery and hard disk included. Perhaps this was a norm in 2014, but you can take it for granted in 2024.

Case, bottom, covered

Case open

I removed the disk tray screws (four), unplugged the cable, removed the disk bracket screws (four), put the SSD in, and repeated the entire procedure in reverse. It took me roughly six minutes. Easy peasy, no bad news, no stubborns screws that wouldn't budge, no sticky bits, no broken plastics. Smooth sailing. Awesome. An auspicious start. But now we have a blank disk, and it needs an operating system.

SSD, in a box

SSD, unboxed

SSD changed

Choice? Kubuntu 24.04 (as a gamble)

I decided not to try KDE neon (which resided on the WD Black HDD previously), as it felt too rough the last time I tried it. While I'd like to use Plasma 6, it's too soon for that (6.1 review coming soon). So, Kubuntu, because Plasma is the best desktop, cor. I had a choice of using 22.04, as I do on my two Slimbooks - Executive and Titan, or I could try the new LTS, which I haven't really tested yet (only briefly in a virtual machine, with a lukewarm initial impression). Then again, I have nothing to lose, and if the experiment goes bad, we can always try the older LTS. Thus, 24.04 it is, even though it ain't the dot release just yet. In a way, this will also be a mini-review of the latest Kubuntu. Proceed, we shall.

Boot? Will it? Barely.

In the end, the system setup turned out to be the weakest link of this entire ordeal. So much, in fact, that I will have to write a complete review. But let me give you the abridged version. Kubuntu 24.04 gave me a lot of grief, for a variety of reasons. Non-intuitive installer, Nouveau issues, loss of network and truncated display after running the "recommended" Ubuntu drivers autoinstall script, and then some. Annoying.

It took me roughly two hours to get things in order. Two unnecessary hours. If you look at the Linux desktop, it's in a curious state. Stagnant, demoralized, without vision, and certainly no testing. While the hardware support has improved, the software quality in most distros, even the big ones, is much lower than it was roughly a decade ago. We have this zero-QA self-entitled self-perpetuating cycle of almost-good-enough, and you can never quite be sure what will break come the next release - and something definitely will. This casual, totally avoidable mediocrity is so maddening, especially when you consider what lives on the far end of the desktop spectrum, the low-IQ Windows 11.

Truncated display

This is what the display looks like after installing the "recommended" drivers (from command line, as there is no GUI utility, another sweet regression). Even after you remove the Nvidia drivers, with Nouveau, it's still the same story. Only reverting to an older kernel helped. Amazing work for 2024. This is the true progress of open source.

Performance, speed and such

Well, has the SSD redeemed the device? The installation took roughly four minutes, nice. The boot sequence takes about 5-6 seconds to show the disk decryption prompt, about 15 seconds to reach the login screen, and then another 3-4 seconds to a fully working desktop. This is with Nvidia drivers, as Nouveau is even slower. I didn't bother with Wayland testing, as even KDE neon hasn't managed that nicely. Overall, these are not remarkable results. Not at all.

The boot is but one aspect of how regressed the Linux desktop state is. In the era of init and Upstart, I was booting distros in 10 seconds on relatively old hardware. For example, Xubuntu Pangolin would boot in mere 8 seconds roughly 12 years back. You can check what init mechanism that distro used. Today, if you want these results, even with Nvme, the results aren't guaranteed. It's a professional travesty. Then again, you can also read my distro comparison article, (also) from back then, telling a story of degradation and discrepancies even among the flavors of the same Ubuntu family. Has anything changed? No, not really, sadly. Actually yes, the quality of the software is lower than it used to be. The complexity is unnecessarily higher. Systemd doesn't help in this regard, at all.

Overall, the desktop usability is good, but then, it wasn't too bad with HDD, either. The major difference is in the responsiveness (a little bit) and sustained I/O operations. HDparm gives the EVO its 500 MB/s advertised speed, but then again, I've not zeroed the disk, so the results can be a bit misleading.

Kubuntu 24.04

The Plasma System Monitor is awful. Remember the artifacts and jerky mouse movement ONLY within this particular program in my Plasma 6 review? A similar behavior can be observed here. The performance of the system monitor is so bad that even your keyboard typing return slows down, with a huge delay between key inputs and what shows on the screen. No such issue occurs in any other application. And of course, the stacked graphs nonsense remains, telling a story of horrible visualization and improbable mathematics.

Conclusion

Two fold, if you will. The hard disk replacement went well, fast and true. No worries there. The fresh breath of speed that I expected arrived, sort of. Turns out, part of the modern bloat isn't just I/O speed, it's also the simple lack of efficiency. Now, Plasma is the leanest (major) desktop out there, so imagine how bad things are with the other environments. There's definitely room for improvement, for coding frugality, for making things simpler. Then again, paradoxically, while Linux distros are advertised as friendly and lean, they are also seemingly exclusively developed on modern systems, which explains the disconnect between expectation and end result on old hardware. Is 10 years too much? Shouldn't be. Things haven't really changed computing-wise in the last decade.

When I retired my previous desktop come its eight year of service with Windows 7/10, it was still as fast as day one. Can't say I'm seeing the same results here. When this box ran Windows 8, it was faster than what I have today with Linux. Three minutes to boot is ridiculous. SSD fixes that, but in session, things aren't lighting fast. They are just somewhat more responsive. This irks me. I have improved things considerably, with the new disk, just not quite as much as I hoped, believed and expected. All in all, an okay exercise, but the operating system problems really soured my good mood. Well, there you. A Kubuntu 24.04 coming soon.

Cheers.