Revisiting the ASUS U30Jc with an SSD

Our standard laptop reviews always look at the systems as they come from the manufacturer. However, we know many people will perform some upgrades at home to improve certain performance aspects. One of the easiest to perform is an upgrade to the hard drive, specifically removing the old style conventional hard drive and replacing it with a state-of-the-art SSD. We already had a good laptop with the ASUS U30Jc, but what happens when we perform just such an upgrade? That's what we're looking at today.

We've had plenty of coverage of SSDs, so we won't dwell too much on why you might want one or which models are the fastest here. The short story is that hard drives are very slow compared to other modern components. That's why we have lots of main memory in modern systems, and even memory isn't all that fast which is why we have L1, L2, and L3 caches. Where modern processors can theoretically consume several hundred gigabytes of data each second, keeping the engines fed is quite a challenge. Unfortunately, hard drive performance hasn't been keeping pace with the rest of the computer ecosystem, and when you're stuck waiting for a hard drive to load your OS or applications your shiny new computer can end up feeling like a dog.

A good desktop hard drive might be able to deliver 100MB of data per second (several orders of magnitude less data than what a CPU can process). The SATA interface is now able to move up to 600MB/s, but actually saturating even a 300MB/s SATA bus is quite a challenge with conventional hard drives. Where things get particularly ugly is when a drive has to perform seek operations to find the data you're after; with each seek taking 12 to 20ms on average (depending on the drive and rotational speed), random access patterns are the bane of the hard drive. Instead of pushing 100MB/s, with random data hard drives will often drop to under 1MB/s. Ouch.

Of course, SSDs aren't without their drawbacks. The chief complaints are price and capacity. Where you can find a 500GB 7200RPM 2.5" laptop hard drive for as little as $85, and 1TB 5200RPM drives are now available for $170, even the smallest SSDs—at least the ones worth buying—start at $80 for 32GB. In terms of price per GB, SSDs generally cost around 15X—or more!—as much as conventional hard drives. The catch, of course, is that they can be an order of magnitude (or two) faster, depending on what you're doing. Another complaint involves reliability, both short-term and long-term. Some SSDs have been around long enough that we're fairly comfortable recommending them, but there are still far more instances of bricked (re: broken) SSDs, particularly with some of the latest models. Staying on top of firmware updates can be critical, and having a good backup strategy is highly recommended—but then we'd recommend backing up data for HDDs as well.

For this particular test, we didn't have a huge selection of SSDs available. Anand has plenty of SSD reviews in the works, but we turned to an older, well-regarded model: the OCZ Vertex 120GB. If you're wondering about pricing, this particular model will set you back around $325. Sporting an Indilinx Barefoot controller, the Vertex was the first SSD that was a reasonable alternative to the Intel SSDs—it was a bit slower in random read/write performance, but it provided faster sequential transfer rates and an at the time lower price per GB. There are faster SSDs, but the OCZ Vertex is still a reasonable choice. Here's a recap of our test laptop, this time with the 120GB Vertex.

ASUS U30Jc-A1 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i3-350M
(32nm, 2x2.26GHz + Hyper-Threading, 3MB L3, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM55
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1066
Max 2x4GB DDR3-1066
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce 310M Optimus
Intel HD Graphics
Display 13.3" LED Backlit Color-Shine WXGA (1366x768)
Hard Drive 320GB 5400RPM 8MB cache
(Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B HTS545032B9A300)

120GB Indilinx Barefoot w/TRIM
OCZ Vertex OCZSSD2-1VTX120G, 1.4 firmware
Optical Drive 8x DVDRW Super Multi
(Matshita DVD-RAM UJ890AS)
Battery 8-cell 5600mAh, 84Wh
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 13.12" x 9.52" x 0.80-1.20" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.80 lbs (with 8-cell battery)
Pricing Online starting at ~$900

With the SSD, the total cost of our test laptop is now up to $1225, and there's the rub: we increased the price by around 33% and there are situations where the faster SSD won't make a noticeable difference. Gaming performance? Not to spoil the benchmarks, but the vast majority of games only load slightly faster and frame rates are essentially unchanged. CPU intensive tasks like 3D rendering and video encoding also show little to no benefit, as expected. However, in terms of overall responsiveness, a good SSD can make your laptop feel much faster—especially if you're going from a slow 5400RPM laptop drive. We'll look at some tests where the SSD definitely helps, along with battery life, gaming, and our other standard application benchmarks.

The Good News: General OS and Application Performance
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  • ImSpartacus - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Jarred! Stop writing such good reviews! Now I want to throw away my Win7-bootcamp MBP13 (June 09) and get a U30Jc. Battery life is paramount, but I still need to be able to run games like TF2 and L4D in a pinch. Getting an upgrade to Arrandale wouldn't be bad either...

    The only thing I would miss is my trackpad. I just love this thing!
    Reply
  • mfenn - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Instead of throwing it away, send it to me please. I'll even pay shipping! Reply
  • Souka - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    I'll pay shipping plus a $1 :)

    Wife's T30 Thinkpad (P4m CPU) is showng its age.....
    Reply
  • ViperV990 - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Has anyone considered (or maybe even tried) replacing the internal optical drive with an HDD? Reply
  • altarity - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Just remove the DVD from my U30Jc. The connector is mini SATA. I have a Vertex 30GB, but no SATA to mini ATA adapter. We just need to find somebody who sells a HD caddy the same size as the DVD drive with a SATA to mini- SATA adapter. Reply
  • altarity - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Ok I just found a 12.7 mm SATA HD caddy on Ebay for $11. I'm going to give it a shot. Reply
  • icrf - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Seen the HyDrive? It does both optical and SSD.

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/05/31/hitachi-lg-goes...
    Reply
  • Nomgle - Friday, June 04, 2010 - link

    Absolutely - grab a caddy from http://www.newmodeus.com/ and away you go. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Jarred,

    Thank you for the great article. I know you have taken a lot of heat the last year or so with your (somewhat justified IMO) stance against SSD's, but you take a very critical look at both sides of the coin in this article. Personally, having now used an 80gig Intel G2 since Jan of this year I could never go back. I constantly turn my computer on and off (check email before going to work, come home check email, maybe game surf the net again at night) so I fit the perfect model of SSD use. I also mutli-task load everything when the computer comes on so no more 30second waiting for firefox to boot up while all my startup programs are slowly loading.

    I migrated my 250gig mechanical HDD to serve as a secondary slave for storing anything I don't currently need quick access too. I think most of us (heavy Steam users are one of the few the exceptions) probably only have a handful of games installed at any given time (I tend to have 2-3 max). I just checked and my 80gig G2 drive has ~50gigs free right now. That includes 2 games, Win7 64-bit, OS programs and OpenOffice, a handful of short home movies and some music. Again only things you really need/want to have quick access too. Everything else goes on the secondary.

    As you mentioned in the review though, most laptops are limited to a single drive and the need to conserve power relegates them to being powered up/down more frequently then a desktop. You didn't mention in this article but the damage aspect is a SIGNIFICANT boon for SSD-based laptops as I've worked on a handful of dropped systems that ruined the HDD. This is especially important for the business sector where laptops are typically moved around very frequently due to meetings and presentations (and most corporate buildings have tile/hard floors and tables which are very unforgiving with even a little drop).

    Other than that though, you did a great job at weighing the pros/cons of an SSD upgrade, especially in light of the high cost in relationship to the laptop itself. But I'll never again own a system without one...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - link

    Honestly, I'm not against SSDs. I just want them to get down to a more affordable price point. I wasn't a big proponent of the Raptor line either (loud and only marginally faster in most usage scenarios--and this comes from someone with a RAID 0 150GB Raptor setup).

    When I can get a high quality SSD for under $1 per GB (preferably closer to $0.50/GB), I'll be far happier. I don't like spending more than $200 on any single component if I can help it ($300 for the GPU), and I like a decent amount of storage, so 250GB SSD for under $200 will be the inflection point for me. But then, I'm not as high-end as other users, so if you're okay with $500 CPUs and GPUs, $300 mobos, etc. SSDs are a perfect complement to such systems.
    Reply

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