Sunday, 16 December 2012


I finally bought an SSD, so I took the drive change as an excuse to try out some other nifty new technologies as well: UEFI and GPT. Getting them to work (along with a dual-boot operating systems - Gentoo + Windows 7) wasn't trivial so I'll describe what was required to get it all humming nicely.

The hardware part was easy. The laptop I have came with a 1TB 5.4k extra-slow hard drive plugged into it's only SATA-3.0 port, but that's not a problem. There's another SATA-2.0 port, dedicated to a DVD drive - why would anyone need that? I've replaced the main drive with a fast Intel SSD (450MBps write, 500MBps read, 22.5K IOPS - seriously, they've become so cheap that if you're not using one you must be some kind of a masochist that likes to stare blankly at the screen waiting for hard drive LEDs to blink), ordered a "Hard Driver Caddy" off eBay ($9 including postage, although it took 24 days to arrive from Hong Kong) and started system installation.

HDD and SSD on an open laptop

Non-chronologically, but sticking to the hardware topic: the optical drive replacement caddy comes in three different sizes (for slot drives/slim 9.5mm/standard 12.7mm) and that's pretty much the only thing you have to check before you order one. Connectors and even the masking plastic bits are standardised, so replacement operation is painless. A caddy itself weights about 35g (as much as a small candy bar), so your laptop will end a bit leaner than before.

DVD and an HDD in the caddy:

DVD and HDD in a replacement caddy

You'll want to remove the optical drive while it's ejected, as the release mechanism is electrical, and one of two hooks holding the bezel is only accessible when the drive is opened. I used a flat screwdriver to unhook it, but be careful, as the mask is quite flimsy and might break. Only a cosmetic problem, but still. Showing the hooks:

That's pretty much everything that's needed from the hardware side - now to the software. I was following a Superuser post Make UEFI, GPT, Bootloader, SSD, USB, Linux and Windows work together, which describes the dual boo installation procedure quite well. My first problem was that I couldn't get a UEFI boot to work from a DVD (when I still had it). Went for the easiest solution with Ubuntu Live USB that managed to start in the UEFI mode just fine.

There are quite a few "gotchas" here: you can't install a UEFI system if you're not already booted into UEFI mode (check dmesg output for EFI messages). The starting payload needs to be 64 bit and reside on a FAT32 partition on a GPT disk (oversimplifying a bit, but those are the requirements if you want to dual-boot with Windows). A side-note for inquiring minds: you'll also need a legal copy of Windows 7/8, as the pirate bootloaders require booting in BIOS mode. Oh, and your SATA controller needs to be set to AHCI mode, because otherwise TRIM commands won't reach your SSD drive and it will get slower and slower as it fills with unneeded (deleted, but not trimmed) data.

Once I had Ubuntu started, I proceeded with a mostly standard Gentoo installation procedure. Make sure you do your GPT partitioning properly (see the Superuser post, although the 100MB for EFI boot partition might be too much - I have 16MB used on it and that's unlikely to change) and remember to mount the "extra" partition in /boot/efi before you install Grub2. Additional kernel options needed are listed on Gentoo Wiki, Grub2 installation procedure for UEFI is documented there as well. Make sure that your Linux partitions are ext4 and have the discard option enabled.

All of this resulted in my machine starting - from pressing the power button to logging onto Xfce desktop - in 13 seconds. Now it was time to break it by getting Windows installed. Again, the main hurdle proved to be starting the damn installer in UEFI mode (and you won't find out in which mode it runs until you try to install to a GPT disk and it refuses to continue because of unspecified errors). Finally I got it to work by using the USB I had created for Ubuntu, replacing all of the files on the drive with Windows Installation DVD contents and extracting the Windows bootloader. That was the convoluted part, because a "normal" Windows USB key will only start in BIOS mode.

  • Using 7zip, open file sources/install.wim from the Windows installation DVD and extract \1\Windows\Boot\EFI\bootmgfw.efi from it.
  • On your bootable USB, copy the folder efi/microsoft/boot to efi/boot.
  • Now take the file you extracted and place it in efi/boot as bootx64.efi.

This gave me an USB key that starts Windows installer in UEFI mode. You might want to disconnect the second drive (or just disable it) for the installation, as sometimes Windows decides to put it's startup partition on the second drive.

Windows installation done, I went back to Ubuntu Live USB and restored Grub2. Last catch with the whole process is that, due to some bug, it won't auto-detect Windows, so you need an entry in /etc/grub.d/40_custom file:

menuentry "Windows 7 UEFI/GPT" {
 insmod part_gpt
 insmod search_fs_uuid
 insmod chain
 search --fs-uuid --no-floppy --set=root 6387-1BA8
 chainloader ($root)/EFI/Microsoft/Boot/bootmgfw.efi

The 6387-1BA8 identifier is the partitions UUID, you can easily find it by doing ls -l /dev/disk/by-uuid/.

Dual-booting is usually much more trouble than it's worth, but I did enjoy getting this all to work together. Still, probably not a thing for faint of heart ;-) I also have to admit that after two weeks I no longer notice how quick boot and application start-up are (Visual Studio 2012 takes less than a second to launch with a medium size solution, it's too fast to practically measure), it's just that every non-SSD computer feels glacially slow.

In summary: why are you still wasting your time using a hard drive instead of an SSD? Replace your optical drive with a large HDD for data and put your operating system and programs on a fast SSD. The hardware upgrade is really straightforward to do!