Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Windows computing for photographers: part 3, the boot drive

This will actually be quite a lot less photography and quite a lot more general Windows computing. Non-computer nerds can probably look away now. Real experts should look away now, lest the horror of my mistakes proves too much. You have been warned...

In previous episodes I talked about memory upgrade & RAMDisk (easy) (part 1) and (part 2) a bunch of hardware purchases. This third installment will be about my adventures in boot disk land.

Life should have been so simple - install the new SSD, clone the old boot drive across, change boot sequence & then clone my application spaces. Then technology and user ignorance intervened. I made a lot of mistakes. Learn from my errors & my figuring out what I should have done.

Step 1: the failed clone

Somewhere along the way the cloning software messed up, ruining the Master Boot Record (I think). That put the computer out of action for a while as I figured out how to get things back. I forget exactly what i did but it was relatively easy after a bit of googling.

Step 2: the complete clone and failed reassignment

I tried again. this time I successfully cloned the boot drive to the new drive. Hooray! And then I got clever (ha, ha, ha) and tried to reassign the boot drive letter (C:) to the drive. Suddenly the computer wouldn't boot at all. And I managed to make te old drive "Inactive" (i.e. make it unbootable) so I couldn't even recover to the old situation. And, of course, I'd not cloned all the other logical drives off the old system before I got into this mess.

Step 3: recovering the mess

So there i was, computer a giant paperweight. Every online source effectively stopped at this point (with words along the line of "you're in real trouble if you get here") with no help on getting out of the hole. Fortunately I had my netbook to do some surfing. I also had a pile of disk drives and external enclosures for the final part of the upgrade (wait for part 4). Turns out I also had a disk copy of Norton Ghost that boots from CD. Hooray!

So I cloned all the old stuff using Ghost to one of the new drives and used the external enlosure via USB to the netbook to verify the copy.

Much searching for solutions later, I decided the only way out was to reinstall the OS on the SSD. Fortunately all my data and applications were on separate partitions and now cloned onto a different drive.

Step 4: now we're rocking

Windows install was easy, moving all the old data to the new drive was easy and I've ben rebuilding things over the past couple of weeks.

What I should have done:

Well at least started with the data transfer, then applications and finally boot drive. Instead I went in the reverse order. I should also have verified the boot clone before doing anything fancy. By working that way, I would have made myself independent of the old disks.

In conclusion:

Cloning boot drives can be quite simple, if you get a good step-by-step guide and follow it to the letter. If not, expect some (up to a lot of) fiddling. If all your stuff is on one disk in a single partition, you'll be in a world of trouble. Getting the new one to work, while the old one is in place is trickier. Finding out what to do when it fails is even harder. In the end, it might just be easier to reinstall the operating system - it's what I've done and it's going nicely.

As to the hardware: SSDs rock. Fast, quiet, low energy. Not cheap for the capacity but I'm not looking back now. Everything is faster, even with the previous improvements I'd done. Software installs take seconds, not mintues.

What would I do different?

Well, I think I should have looked to a more extensive upgrade. Maybe 2 SSDs, one small one for boot only and the larger one for the rest. The whole Windows cloning process seems designed for removing or reformating the old drive after the change.

Now I've gone through this all, my whole idea of an ideal computer set-up has changed. I can well imagine running a mirrored pair of boot disks in the future for security and speed.

In part 4, I'll cover changes to my main data storage, general comments on how it's all working and some subjective stuff on how this helps photographers (and ways to save cash while improving performance).

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