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Will it remain possible to upgrade laptops with SSD?

Last year, I upgraded my sister’s Thinkpad G500 with a SSD, which greatly increased its performance. The laptop also suffered from hardware issues because of its faulty DVD drive; removing the drive surprisingly cured it.

After this success, I was thinking about improving her boyfriend’s laptop, an HP machine that happened to be slower than the older Thinkpad. The presence of a McAfee virus scan, possibly running on top of Windows Defender, wasn’t helping much, but the 5200 RPM hard drive was definitely making startup slow.

Figure out if we can install the SSD

Since Apple started to make it harder and harder to upgrade their laptops, to the point it is now nearly impossible with their most recent MacBook, possibly other laptop makers can follow so it is important to verify if and how we can upgrade the hard drive before purchasing a drive!

The best way to figure this out is to search for hard drive replacement for the laptop model, on Google. The model was HP 15-bw028ca. However, this time, all I could find was the specifications of the laptop, and some YouTube videos showing how to disassemble other similar laptops but not that one! I searched for more than an hour to find out the maintenance manual of that laptop, and then I was able to get the information I needed.

The hard drive was installed behind a bottom cover that can be removed. However, according to the manual, only the battery and optical drive should be removed by the user. Everything under the bottom cover should be serviced only by an HP-authorized technician. Quite bad! But since that laptop wasn’t under warranty anymore, it was less of an issue. But this makes it more important to carefully evaluate if I can reliably remove that cover and put it back, without breaking it. Without the cover, the laptop may at best look ugly, at worst not hold together anymore so not work!

Besides assessing the risk of disassembling the laptop to reach the hard drive without making it ugly or non-working, I needed to figure out the type of drive to install. The machine supports SATA 2.5″ drives, but it also accepts M2 ones. HP used SATA hard drives but M2 SSD. However, M2 requires the replacement of the connector, which is specific to HP. Getting the M2 connector is likely to be problematic, so I decided to try with a SATA SSD, since both hard drives and SSDs can be SATA. I got a 500Gb SSD on Amazon.ca and ordered it.

Replacing the hard drive

When I got the laptop and the SSD, I first examined the laptop a bit and figured out it looked like the one referred to by the manual I found. There was a small difference, though: no optical drive, so the laptop wasn’t the same as the one in the manual.

First I put the laptop upside down and removed the battery, using the latches. That operation was easy as expected. Only MacBook and ultrabooks have soldered batteries that cannot be removed.

The HP laptop upside down
Latches holding the battery

After that, I had to find and remove all the screws holding the cover in place. There were screws pretty much everywhere, even under the four rubber pads and under the battery. Trying to pry the cover starting from the back near the battery slot without removing the screws was a risk of breaking the cover or the chassis, making the reassembly impossible. I was thus quite worried, and more and more concerned the cover couldn’t be removed without a special tool.

Screws can be anywhere, including center and sides

Some attempts at removing that cover caused concerning cracking sounds. I was seriously concerned about the possibility of breaking that laptop altogether. But at some point, the cover unclipped completely, showing up the inside of the machine.

Removed cover
Inside the machine

The hard drive is at the upper left corner of the above picture. It is held in place by a bracket screwed to the chassis, similar to the Thinkpad. I removed the screw and was able to disconnect the drive. Then I transferred the bracket on the SSD and put the SSD in there. Nice, it seemed to work. I was so sure it worked that I put back the bottom cover and the screws.

Unfortunately, when I turned on the laptop, I found out it didn’t detect the SSD at all. I first started Ubuntu from a USB key: that worked but couldn’t find the SSD. I booted up without the USB key and was told to install an OS or press F2 for diagnostic. I pressed F2, tried to start a test of the hard drive, and got a message telling there was no installed hard drive. Could it be that only HP-approved drives can be installed?

I thus had to remove the cover a second time. Before putting back the old hard drive and call it a day (my sister’s boyfriend would have to contact HP that would check his warranty, then advise him to buy a new laptop), I removed the SSD and checked the connection. First time, it was a bit too easy to connect the drive; the drive wasn’t aligned into the SATA connector! The second attempt, I felt a slight resistance showing that the drive engaged into the connector. I screwed it back in and tested, with the cover but not the screws yet. After I checked it worked and passed the auto-test from the HP diagnostic, I put back the screws; the drive was installed and detected!

If I had just put back the old drive, without investigating the connection further, maybe it would have failed again, and I would have been stuck, not able to get the SSD working but also unable to put the laptop back into its original state. Every hardware modification causes such a risk; this must be carefully considered before attempting this. This is why I decided not to try my luck on my Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13, which contains a too small SSD; that one is trickier to access.

Another activation concern

Then comes the time to install Windows 10. My plan was to use my USB-based installation medium as I did on other laptops. However, will activation work? It was possible that it would not, asking me for a product key. I could not get the product key unless I put back the old hard drive and log in to the old Windows installation, which would either require the password of my sister’s boyfriend or a way to hack the installation in order to turn on the local administrator account. Even with that product key, activation could fail anyway, requiring me to call Microsoft and try by phone. This could have gone as far as requiring HP’s custom recovery partition, or the purchase of a new product key.

Fortunately, the simple installation worked like a charm. The installer didn’t ask me for any product key and after that, Windows was activated!

Some testing and post-installation steps

After that successful installation, I installed the drivers and tested the machine a bit. It was working and not crashing. I added Firefox and LibreOffice and I created the user account for my sister’s boyfriend, making sure it was set to Administrator and not Standard account.

Restoring Enigmail

My sister’s boyfriend is using Thunderbird and Enigmail to send encrypted messages to some of his friends. If we don’t fully restore his configuration, that means he will have to generate a new private key, notify all his friends about that new key and get back all their public keys. That is kind of annoying and inefficient, both for him and his friends. I thus wanted to restore this configuration but we didn’t know where it was stored.

I had to install Enigmail on my machine to test and figured out it’s using the GnuPG’s keyring. That keyring is located inside the Application Data folder under the gnupg directory. I wasn’t sure he found and backed up that directory, so I plugged his hard drive on a SATA to USB adapter and got the directory back. He would thus be able to copy it at the right location, after he installed Thunderbird and Enigmail.

Why couldn’t have I set this back up completely? Because that would require logging in to his account, which would have required his password. Then to set up his GMail account, I would need his GMail password. It is important that passwords remain secret, even if both of us knew I would not misuse the password afterwards.