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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  • Amazing Sathu - Monday, January 21, 2013 - link

    Hi Jarred - I just posted my experience of upgrading UJ30C. Used a Seagate Hybrid SSD+HDD drive. Call it a poor man's upgrade, but the results are worth it IMO.

    Is it possible you can do a review of this laptop with Hybrid SSD and Win8 Upgrade?
    Reply
  • bmgoodman - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    Would love to see a test done on a low-end netbook, comparing the OEM hard drive to one of the new Seagate hybrid hard drives!! Reply
  • harshaflibbertigibbet - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    An excellent article Jarred, keep the good work up.

    I am personally of the opinion that a CULV with Intel HD graphics/NVIDA Optimus and a cheap SSD (Indilinx or Intel V-series) would represent an excellent balance between performance (except gaming), battery life and price. Hence, a similar test on on of the ASUS UL series of CULV laptops might provide us with some useful insights.

    I also find that most laptop makers do not seem very progressive in integrating SSDs. While I understand that for the average user it is expensive, there are enough premium laptops out there with price tags that justify using SSDs. Also those who do (eg. Dell, Apple) do not tell you anything about the SSD, merely stating blandly - 128GB SSD.

    However, with the impending 25nm refresh, the Seagate Momentus Hybrid Drive, and the recent LG HyDrive one thing's for certain... SSDs are sure to arrive on laptops with a bang withing the next two years.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    Let's just put it this way... I am seriously contemplating removing 1GB of RAM so that it resumes faster from hibernation. This is the most important factor. I cant use sleep because I dont trust M$. (Windows notebooks tend to wake up whenever they want, no matter what you disable.) Hibernate is a great feature that is not really practical without an SSD. Reply
  • strikeback03 - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    Go ahead and try it, but most tests I have seen only show a difference of a second or two from this change. If this means a shift from 2GB to 1, there is no way I would personally consider that reduction in resume time worthwhile. Reply
  • adonn78 - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    An SSD will not give you faster frame rates in games. this is common knowledge. However AN SSD will cut level load times in half! And you should have tested level load times in popular games. overall good review. As you can see an SSD will cut loading times for the OS, games, and applications in half and will make your system more responsive. If you want more frames get a faster video card. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    It depends on the game and how fragmented your hard drive happens to be. There's still a lot of internal processing (decompressing levels, textures, etc.) that happens on the CPU. My experience with testing is that the majority of games didn't load twice as fast... perhaps 25 to 33% faster at most. Of course, I don't have real-time virus scanning enabled, which would make a bigger difference. Reply
  • Chloiber - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    I agree.
    It really depends on the game. Some games don't benefit at all, others load 2x as fast. I'd say 30% don't benefit, 40% benefit noticeably and 30% cut loading times in ~half.
    But yes - really depends....there is also a "cap" after you don't benefit from an even faster SSD anymore. Crysis, for example, takes about the same time to load with a single X25-E as with 3x X25-E in RAID0 on a high performance controller.

    OT:

    I'm using an SSD in my laptop since over a year now (UltraDrive GX/ME 32GB). The difference in real time performance is huge (Laptop is ~2.5 years old (HP 6910p 2.2Ghz DualCore). I just don't have to wait for applications anymore (well, ofc there is still some loading time).
    IMHO it was the best investment in years. It makes my laptop MUCH faster. I bought the SSD for ~150€ and my laptop is - in "standard" tasks - faster than the newest notebooks. Hell, I even downclocked my CPU to 800Mhz because I don't need the extra performance....
    Reply
  • GullLars - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    Jarred,

    I see you took my suggestion to do a re-test with SSD from the original article on this laptop. Cudos.

    I generally liked how you did the article, but i have a couple of points i'll give critique on:
    General points:
    1. You did not specify if you used IDE or AHCI mode, wich will make a noticable difference.
    2. You did not mention that most new SSDs, like x25-M, SF-1200, and C300 will be faster, and at some tasks/usage patterns notably faster.
    3. You did not mention the "hurry up and go idle" power savings effect from the SSD and increased productivity on one battery lifespan. Sure the battery life under load and idleing will be about the same since both the HDD and SSD only use 0,1-2W and about 1-5% of total machine power draw.
    and for gaming:
    4. You tested _average_ FPS and not minimum FPS. I would have been OK with doing both, but leaving out minimum FPS means you don't see a big difference when textures are loaded real-time. FPS drops are much more noticable than +- a few average FPS.
    5. You did not mention map loading time. wich will get a notable boost in some games.

    I'll also note, for Stalker and Empire: Total War, the FPS range meassured will mean a minor difference in average FPS will note be noticable or relevant.
    I'd also love to see timed World Of Warcraft or Age of Conan load into a major city (f.ex. auction house for WoW) and time to all textures are loaded. But this is a minor thing.

    Don't take this critique as "not approved" from me, i would give you a B- for this article ;)
    That's actually very good compared to a lot of reviews and articles out there, there's still a lot of people doing big mistakes when testing SSD in 2010.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - link

    AHCI was enabled, naturally. The other faster SSDs is sort of a given--I mentioned with the Vertex that it's an older SSD and that there are faster models. I figure most people interested in the subject will simply click on our "SSD/HDD" link and find the relevant information. :-)

    Regarding power, "hurry up and go idle" should have been more prevalent in the Internet test at least, and yet I got worse battery life there. The idle power was actually the largest difference. But naturally we're just looking at one particular SSD here, and you'd need to look at battery life with a variety of units to see where they do better/worse. (I'd like to try an Intel G2 personally, along with the C300 and SandForce stuff.)

    Minimum frame rates were largely the same, mostly because a lot of games will precache the level. Level load times, like game load times, depend a lot on how fragmented the hard drive is. With a defragged hard drive I generally don't notice a huge improvement -- and in multiplayer games it just means you get in the game and sit around waiting for others to show up. LOL. I'm sure titles like WoW and AoC could show a larger benefit -- anything with large areas where data has to be loaded on the fly should do better. But then, we're talking about a G310M here and if you want decent gaming that will be the first thing to upgrade.

    Obviously, with a sample size of one SSD on one laptop, there's a lot I didn't/couldn't cover. For general use outside of gaming, though, an SSD is a great upgrade to any system. It costs as much as a good GPU, but then I know lots of people who don't game at all and they would be far better served by putting the money towards an SSD. (You'll note that the original Midrange Guide you disliked so much specifically states that it has a gaming slant, which is why we went with the GPU as opposed to SSD. The Blu-ray is still a case of adding a feature some might want, but it's easy to leave that out.)
    Reply

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