Way back in July 2004, before the era of $300 netbooks, I saw a deal (via DealNews.com, if I remember correctly) that was almost too good to be true: a new Dell laptop for around $800. It was no speed demon, but it seemed like it would be a solid machine for those occasions when I needed to run Windows software at home. My Inspiron 1000 shipped with a 2.2 GHz Mobile Celeron Intel cpu, a 30 GB hard drive running at 4200 RPM, a 24X CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive, 256 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard, a 14.1 inch screen, Windows XP Home Edition, and the WordPerfect Office Suite. The deal also included a Dell TrueMobile 1300 802.11b/g wireless PCMCIA card.
I admit to having a love/hate relationship with this machine. While it was inexpensive and built like a tank, it was also disappointingly slow, even for a "budget" laptop, particularly after installing anti-virus and anti-malware software. Also on the negative side of the ledger, its battery was anemic, at best.
However, the Inspiron 1000 does have one very important characteristic: it is very easy to open the machine to upgrade things like RAM or hard drives. Within four months of buying the laptop, I spent $50 to add another 256 MB to the machine, bringing it to the maximum 512 MB of RAM officially supported by Dell in this model. This upgrade had a noticeable impact on the machine's performance, yielding a much snappier user experience.
Unfortunately, over time, system performance seemed gradually started to feel slower and slower, something not unheard of with Windows XP. I did try some alternative operating systems, including flavors of Linux like Ubuntu, CentOS, SUSE, and Knoppix, and I also gave OpenBSD a try. Each of the alternatives had something I liked, usually having to do with web performance or the absence of a constantly running virus scan, but none worked as well as XP with some of my peripherals, so I kept going back to XP.
Fast forward to November 2007. I was upgrading the RAM and the hard drive on my workhorse machine, a 12" 1.5 GHz Apple PowerBook G4, when I noticed that it used the same type of RAM (200 pin PC2700 DDR SO-DIMM) and hard drive (2.5" ATA) that the old Inspiron 1000 used. I decided to see if the 100 GB hard drive (running at 5400 RPM) and the 512 MB RAM module that I pulled out of the PowerBook might give the Inspiron a new lease on life.
First I upgraded the RAM, even though 512 MB modules were not officially supported by Dell. I had to remove the 256 MB module I bought in 2007 in order to add the 512 MB module, but the machine recognized all of the new memory, yielding a total of 704 MB usable memory (256 MB soldered RAM + 512 MB upgrade - 64 MB RAM allocated to the video subsystem). The system was paging to disk less often and felt subjectively faster, so this upgrade was a "win," even if it wasn't as dramatic an improvement as was obtained from the original November 2004 RAM upgrade.
The big win came when I upgraded the drive. Replacing the original 4200 RPM drive with a 5400 RPM drive (a Seagate ST9100823A) gave a dramatic performance improvement. The Inspiron felt like a whole new machine!
There is only one other "upgrade" that I've made that has had as dramatic an impact as moving past 256 MB of RAM or adding a fast hard drive. Suppose that it would be possible to improve system performance by at least 10%, sometimes many times more than that, without spending a dime? Maybe it's not the greatest idea to advertise this, but, for the last two years, I've been running the Inspiron without anti-virus and anti-malware software, and I haven't had a single infection. (I do run the free Norton Security Scan from time to time, just to make sure.)
I generally only use my Inspiron as the front-end to my scanner, to run OCR software, and to update the software on devices like my GPS system. Since the rest of my network is fairly secure, and I generally don't do much web browsing on the Inspiron, skipping the anti-virus/anti-malware software and running the computer as a non-administrative user has been working well, while allowing me to devote cpu cycles to my work, rather than to security software. I don't recommend this approach for everyone, particularly if the computer is used by others, particularly children, or if "risky" web browsing is a common pursuit, but it may be worth investigating further.
In my next post, I'll talk about adding a 1 GB RAM module to my Inspiron 1000, taking it a full 768 MB beyond its official RAM limit. That will also set the stage for the craziest thing I've tried to do to this machine yet: install Windows 7 Professional on it.
Until then, here is my summary of how to get a few more years of surprisingly peppy life from a 2004-vintage Dell Inspiron 1000:
- VERY STRONGLY RECOMMENDED: If the machine doesn't already have at least 512 MB of RAM (which would show up as 448 MB under system properties, since 64 MB of the 512 MB is devoted to shared video RAM), ignore the official Dell specs and the various online configuration tools at places like Crucial.com, and immediately add either a 512 MB or 1 GB RAM module to your Inspiron. As of this writing, 512 MB 200 pin PC2700 333 MHz DDR SO-DIMMS are selling for $15-30 from reputable online sources, and 1 GB modules are selling for $30-60.
- HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: If the machine has a low capacity, 4200 RPM hard drive, consider upgrading to a faster, larger, 5400 RPM drive, or even a 7200 RPM drive. As of this writing, new, 5400 RPM 2.5 " IDE/ATA drives with over 100 GB in capacity can be purchased from reputable, online sources starting around $70. (Be sure that you are buying an IDE/parallel ATA drive -- not a SATA/serial ATA drive -- for your Inspiron.)
- CONSIDER: Avoiding the overuse of anti-virus/anti-malware software if your computing habits and environment are relatively safe and secure.