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KELLNER: DIY hard-drive replacement

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

One of the interesting things about many desktop computers is that a number of their parts are user-accessible. With a good set of instructions, you can open a "standard" desktop computer and add a part or replace one.

When it comes to laptop computers, especially today's sleek and stylish models, it can be a little trickier. When all the power and function of a desktop machine are condensed into a laptop, things are made to fit precisely. Disturb the setup, and you've got problems.

So it was with a degree of trepidation that I sat down at my desk last week and started removing screws from the half-inch-high casing of my 2007 vintage Apple MacBook Pro. May the mother ship in Cupertino, Calif., forgive me, but the unit's 160-gigabyte hard drive, which has served me faithfully for about two years, was just too small. It needed to be replaced, and I was told this was a job I could do myself.

Hard-drive space matters because having a good margin lets the computer work better. I know, because when things got as "tight" as only 6 GB or so of free space, the system wasn't as speedy as it was otherwise.

So, where to go? I could have shipped off the computer and had a new drive installed, but a lot of propaganda from Other World Computing, a mail-order firm in Woodstock, Ill., convinced me otherwise. We'll sell you a compatible hard drive and the gear you need to make the swap, the company said.

The drive I selected, a 500 GB Hitachi; the external case for data transfer; a tool kit; and some drive-enhancing software came to around $220, which isn't bad. I could have skipped the software, but it was a good value, and having tools with which to manage a hard drive isn't a bad thing. The real tools for opening the computer were, as I later discovered, invaluable, as was the external case.

My first challenge was getting the items. OWC promised quick shipment, but it the tool kits were out of stock. The order arrived about 10 days later than I had expected and wanted, which was a bit disappointing.

Second was finding out how to do the swap. OWC, it turns out, provides nice equipment but is a tad short on providing the necessary information. The data sheet that came with the external drive housing lacked instructions, such as how to open the case. I had to find this and other details in a manual on the firm's Web site. In my view, that manual should have been in the box.

Here's why having the external housing is important. Put the new drive in it, and that drive becomes "live," meaning you can connect it to the portable, format the drive, and you have a "clone" of your original that should boot up and perform normally when installed in the machine. Then, the old drive can find a new home in the external case to serve as a portable backup drive or as a way to transfer really huge data files between computers. The unit draws power from the computer connection, by the way, a nice feature that eliminates the need for a separate power adapter.

I got the new drive in place in the external case; so now what? There weren't any good instructions, but a call to OWC revealed that a shareware program called Carbon Copy Cloner (www.bombich.com/software/ccc.html) would do what was needed, create that exact duplicate. It did, in about an hour. (On the Windows side, the $50 Acronis True Image, www.acronis.com, would be my choice.)

OWC did not provide instructions for getting inside the MacBook Pro - not its practice, a tech support rep told me on the phone. Through a Google search, I found the Apple support manual online; I downloaded a copy, printed out the 199 pages of text and got to work.

A large number of screws - nearly 30 - hold the MacBook Pro case together. Once they were removed, I could remove the keyboard and access the hard-drive area. Two more screws, and the holding bracket came out. I also had to remove the side screws and rubber cushioning from the old drive.

Put the "bumpers" on the new drive, carefully attach to the connector, put the drive in place, affix the bracket, return the keyboard to its position (attaching the keyboard cable to the "motherboard," of course) and start returning the screws to their places. It's about an hour's work the first time; a second stab at getting inside and back out took half the time.

Then came the moment of truth: powering up the unit. When first reassembled, the Mac seems to "know" something has happened, and it takes an extra minute to run internal checks. After that, the usual one-minute power-up time for my MacBook Pro returned.

What's different is that I have about 340 GB of "free" hard-disk space where once I had about 20 GB, not to mention the extra backup drive. Overall, a good experience, but I wish OWC had shipped things faster and provided more information specific to my model.

Should you do this? It depends on how comfortable you are noodling around, but you'll likely save time and money if you're willing to take a chance.

• E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.