Inspiron 1521 – Total makeover!

Please read the Update 2 at the bottom for how this finally turned out (poorly). The guidance I give is good, I think, in general, but for this platform, not so much. The hard drive issues continue to this day, no matter which drive I use. I have decided to abandon the laptop entirely and just buy a Mac Mini Server, because I got tired of troubleshooting the problem and just want to move on.

I’ve been upgrading the Dell Inspiron 1521 that I traded an iPad 1 to Dad for last month. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a performance laptop even in its fully upgraded state, but it’s pretty good, so I figured I should post about the hardware and software (and especially drivers) that I used to get it where it is today.

I often post about this kind of stuff not out of attention seeking but partly because there are friends who are interested in this kind of thing and partly because I didn’t find an easily digestible central source of the information – I figure I give back to the Internet as a whole by centralizing it for the next person who might want to do this.

I should probably mention, now I think of it, that this will void the crap out of your warranty. So wait until it expires!

To start, the Inspiron I inherited had:

  • Dual core, 64 bit AMD Athlon (AMDTK55HAX4DC)
  • 1 GB RAM (2 512MB Modules from Dell)
  • 220 GB Western Digital Hard Drive
  • Various hardware bits and bobs that didn’t matter to me so much (integrated video card, integrated sound system, modem, wireless LAN card, etc. – if they work, they work, and it’s hard to make a case for replacing them – if anything I would have replaced the video card but if it’s motherboard-integrated, the hacking would have been truly epic if it had worked at all, including hack saws, soldering irons and cursing and swearing. So no, that horse already left the barn.)
  • Windows Vista Home Premium, 32-bit

Looking at this, I wanted to replace the following replaceable components:
(Note: The computer has no Bluetooth card, but has space for one – I’m considering buying that aftermarket from Dell and installing it)

  1. The RAM. This is usually pretty easy. The laptop/computer manufacturer makes the physical replacement easy with removable panels and easy-remove, easy-install clips and the operating system just deals (Oh, look! You bought me more RAM! You really do love me!)
  2. The Hard Drive. This involves, if you want to keep your current files and operating system, both copying your files and operating system to the new drive as well as what’s usually a pretty easy physical swap. Boot on the new drive with nothing else connected to make sure it’s working and you’re golden. I use Acronis TrueImage for the disk cloning operation when I do this. It’s pretty easy. If you don’t want to keep your current files and operating system, it’s even easier. Swap the new drive in, insert new operating system disk and install a new operating system. This is easier to do now that we keep a lot of our data in the cloud or on servers – a lot of folks have all their working files on Google or Picasa or Flickr or on a home media server or a blog server or whatever. This is what I ultimately did.
    UPDATE: Turns out I bought an incompatible drive for my motherboard. I had literally no idea this was possible. Ever since we went up to ATA technologies (IDE/PATA and/or SATA), it has never crossed my mind that it was possible. But it turns out that that’s what I did. My motherboard supports SATA-I (aka SATA-150 aka SATA 1.5Gbps), and I bought a SATA-II (aka SATA-300 aka SATA 3.0Gbps). Manufacturers will tell you that the SATA drives are backwards compatible but this seems to be by no means assured.
    Symptoms: On hard boot (from being off) drive doesn’t spin up fast enough to load operating system. Operating system, convinced it is corrupt, loads repair, finds nothing. Soft boot (from reset) generally loads fine. I also get blue screens if the OS lets the hard drive turn itself off to save power. Apparently on spin up again the OS needs a vital file and the drive can’t deliver it. But drive diagnostics from BIOS or diagnostic disk or against the S.M.A.R.T. metrics for drives show no problems at all. More details below.
  3. The CPU. This is by far the most fraught from a physical standpoint. You take the whole laptop or desktop apart to get to the CPU. There’s easily 20 or 30 screws to keep track of and 100 or more steps in the official manuals. If you are organized and you keep your screws organized and minimize distractions, though, it’s totally doable. So I did it. Also see my previous post on unbending bent pins. In contrast to the physical aspect, as long as the BIOS was able to cope, the rest of the computer including the Operating System just deals with having more computing power. No problem.
  4. The Operating System. There’s no reason, especially for the adventurous, not to install a 64-bit operating system on a 64-bit CPU. The biggest challenge here is the new operating system’s support of the system components (which is part of the reason for my post). The vendor can, for various reasons, decide not to support a 64-bit operating system on 64-bit hardware. That’s the case for the Inspiron 1521, probably primarily because the 1521’s release date was prior to when Vista 64-bit stabilized and was reliable. Anyway, since then, Dell’s supported lots of 64-bit Vista and Windows 7 laptops and desktops so it was possible to find drivers for the 1521’s devices that work with Windows 7, 64-bit.

Note that all of these replacements are full replacements. They kick out the older model that sits in those slots. You could keep them around, recycle them into other computers that are compatible that you might have, sell them on craig’s list or eBay or whatever you like. There will not be room, generally, for some or all of the components you are replacing in your Inspiron 1521, though. So plan for that.

I took the old hard drive, cleaned it up and put it in a laptop I’m going to give to a friend. No idea what to do with the CPU or the old memory, though.

So here are the details for the aspiring Inspiron 1521 upgrader:

Hardware Purchased and installed:

RAM:
Corsair(note1) 4 GB (2 x 2GB) RAM 200-Pin DDR2 SO-DIMM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400)
Model Number: VS4GSDSKIT800D2
Links:

Hard Drive (HDD):
500 GB 7200 RPM 16 MB(note2) buffer Toshiba(note3) Hard Drive
Model Number: MK5056GSY
Links:

UPDATE:

This turned out not to be a good idea. I’ve RMAed (replaced it with Newegg) this drive once with no help. See the update above under Hard Drive comments for some details on the problem and the symptoms/diagnosis. Instead I ordered (also from Newegg) the:

Western Digital Scorpio Blue  250GB 5400 RPM 8MB Cache 2.5″ SATA 1.5Gb/s Internal Notebook Hard Drive
Model Number: WDBABB2500ANC-NRSN

(Primarily for the SATA 1.5 Gbps rating and for the capacity)

I also ordered a hard drive enclosure that’s SATA-II (SATA-300) friendly. I plan to swap out the 500 GB monstrosity into that so I have some extra storage externally if I need it.

Since I can never apparently settle on a single kind of external enclosure, this time I bought this one from Newegg, which doesn’t need a second cable for power and stashes it into the handle. Here’s a link to the enclosure I chose.

Central Processing Unit (CPU):
Refurbished AMD 2.2GHZ(note4) Processor (AMD TURION 64 X2 TL-64)
Model Number: TMDTL64HAX5DC
Links:

Potential Additional Hardware:
Bluetooth Card:
Dell Bluetooth Wireless 355 module
Model Number: 355
Links:

So now that the hardware is taken care of, how about the Operating System and the Drivers?

Google is your friend here because Dell isn’t. If you have a normal non-corporate, non-premier account on Dell, you can’t search for drivers by device and just specify a bitness (32 or 64?) and an operating system. You only really get to search on Dell Support for the hardware you have and the device drivers and operating systems they’ll support. The reason the corporate premier customers get easier access is that the corporate premier customers largely have in-house employees who are certified Dell technicians, whereas if a home customer does this kind of stuff, it voids the warranty and they don’t support it. And part of how they drive sales, of course, is to phase out support of products over time.

BUT! Generally you can get away with (especially with Windows 7 and only if it actually ends up working – so experiment! Especially if you’ve backed up and taken a system restore checkpoint recently) using a 64-bit driver designed for an older operating system (Vista) or a 32-bit driver designed for an even older operating system (Vista or XP). This will also void your warranty of course, but if you’re working with older hardware your warranty’s probably already expired.

In general I ended up installing Windows 7, seeing what drivers it had already installed and then Googled drivers for other devices that seemed like edge cases.

I installed Windows 7 Enterprise Edition, 64-bit with Service Pack 1 slipstreamed (already installed). I also installed the other pending Windows 7 updates after installing the basic Operating System. This took care of all but one of the drivers. Compatible, functional drivers were already installed by the operating system. For example, when Windows 7’s install was done, my video display was displaying at the highest resolution (1280 x 800) that the laptop display could support. There was one base system component that displayed with a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark in it in the Device Manager tool in Windows 7 (How do you get to the Device Manager? Right-click “Computer” in the Start menu. Choose “Manage…”. Click affirmative (yes or ok) in the dialog box confirming that you want to do an Administrative operation. Wait for the Computer Management console to pop up, then left-click “Device Manager” and explore.). Googling revealed that the problem was caused by a driver problem with the Ricoh media card reader.

I did want the enhanced control panel drivers provided by the device vendors with their drivers (primarily the video card, but also the touchpad reader), so I installed the following additional drivers(note6):

If I do get the Bluetooth module, I will update this post with information about its driver here.

Finally, I want to also plug Google Chrome. I am a pretty loyal user because I know Google actually has Security Researchers vet the product and this is pretty much the only way to assure as much software security as possible. Canned tests and tests by untrained (in security) Quality Control or Quality Assurance testers is not so good. The best security tests are done by folks with training and experience in Computer Security testing and hacking and Google is confident enough in their product and interested enough in their customers’/users’ security to do that kind of testing. Anyway, after I got the operating system and drivers installed, as well as Microsoft Security Essentials, I installed Google Chrome and just started using that as my primary browser on the system.

NOTES:

  1. I have always preferred Corsair memory since I upgraded some old Macs of Hanne’s. They’re about the same cost as Crucial memory and the modders seem to really prefer it over other brands. So that’s the one I use. That said, I do still use Crucial’s memory advisor (at http://www.crucial.com/) to make sure I’m ordering the right kind of memory. I usually find out the PC number (in my case, PC-6400) from Crucial, make sure it’s the fastest (in Hz, KHz, MHz, GHz, whatever) of that kind of memory, then go see what Corsair competes at. Sometimes do buy from Crucial too. Depends on the market.
  2. When buying hard drives, the faster (higher) the RPM, potentially the faster your hard drive performance will be. Notebook hard drives (1.8″ or 2.5″ in diameter) generally top out at 7200 RPM, though I’ve seen some insanely expensive ones listed at 10000 RPM. Desktop hard drives (typically 3.5″ in diameter) can top out at 15000 RPM. I say potentially because hard drive performance relies not just on pure spin speed but also what kind of data the hard drive holds, how fragmented the data storage is on the magentic platter, how dense the data is, physically, on the platter, where the data sits on the platter, what kinds of caching is implemented in the operating system and on the drive, and lots of other factors I probably know nothing about. Still, doesn’t hurt to get an edge.
  3. Speaking of performance, a large cache or buffer on the hard drive itself (16MB is largeish) can help smooth out and speed up performance on a drive. If you can afford it and are going for overall performance upgrades, pick a larger buffer over a smaller one. When I bought, the caches were around 8 MB or 16 MB, so I went for 16 MB.
  4. This line of processors goes faster. The TL-68, for instance, clocks in at 2.4 GHz instead of 2.2 GHz. The product documentation for the Inspiron 1521, however, tops out at the TL-64 (2.2 GHz), and my budget just made it easier not to take the risk and go outside of the Dell product line. The TL-64 was about $120, but I would have been looking at about $250 – $300 plus the risk that it might not work to try the TL-68, so I took the TL-64. It’s a tricky proposition to go completely outside of the lines. I think it would have probably worked but I don’t necessarily have
  5. Impact Computers does not list the processor as compatible with the Dell Inspiron 1521, probably because the heat sink isn’t included with the thermal sheet that Dell specifies. Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet.
  6. After you install the OS, you also probably want to install an Antivirus/Antimalware package. I use Microsoft Security Essentials because (a) it’s free (assuming you have a “Genuine” copy of Windows) (b) it’s updated by Microsoft, so even if that product team doesn’t talk with whatever other product team might have a software-based conflict with Microsoft Security Essentials, they work for the same company so there’s less pointing at the other guy going on in any future support situations.
  7. This installs pretty cleanly and integrates the ATI Catalyst control panel into your system dialogs.
  8. This also installs cleanly and integrates the Synaptics touchpad control panel into your system dialogs. It also apparently enables pad gestures for particular applications (gestural shortcuts for these applications), but I haven’t gotten it to work in the 5 minutes I worked on it.
  9. When you install this driver, Windows complains that a better driver already exists. Ignore Windows. In this case it’s wrong. Let the Ricoh driver package install all of its modules on top of what Windows already has. I haven’t tested the functionality here, but the folks talking about it on posts accessible through Google say it works and it makes the Device Manager error go away.

Update 2:
I need to make a shameful confession here. I quit trying with this thing. There’s some low level problem with the hard drive, I’m thinking possibly a bad motherboard, but both the 1521 and my Mom’s old 1520 have the same problem. Half the time when I boot, the thing goes into repair mode. If it’s still warm and I power cycle, the boot is normal. I’ve never seen the like. The only thing I can think of is the CMOS battery.

Anyway, after months of struggling and worrying about data reliability and dealing with random storage-related BSODs, I broke down and bought an apple Mac Mini Lion Server (it’s on order now).

Sometimes I really hate computers.