An Insider’s Guide to Upgrading to a SSD (Solid State Drive)

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SSD's are sweeping the computer industry. No one device can boost your computer's performance more than switching to one.  Only the most expensive desktops and laptops above $1000 include an SSD, what a shame.  BuyVia regular lists great deals on SSDs, we now give you help installing them.

Make your old computer usable again.  Boot your machine in 20 seconds.

What is a solid state drive?

A solid-state hard drive (SSD) is an upgrade from traditional hard drives. A traditional hard drive utilizes spinning metal platters and needles (termed the “head”) - in essence, a mechanical device. A solid state hard drive, on the other hand, doesn’t move at all. It is similar in operation to a USB stick, although they are capable of storing far more data. The data is stored in blocks and managed by software, making the drives far faster and more reliable than traditional drives.

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A solid state drive upgrade is most likely the best possible upgrade for your PC if you are looking to boost performance. For example:

  • Software launches instantly
  • Boot times are shortened dramatically. From minutes to 30 seconds or less
  • Even large documents and spreadsheets will be responsive and not lag
  • Overall, your PC will feel much snappier

There are some disadvantages to SSD’s, however. For example, an SSD can’t hold as much data for the buck, as a traditional HDD. Plop down a $100 bill on the counter of your local computer store and you can walk away with a 250GB SSD or a whopping 2000GB (2TB) HDD. That is a massive size difference, and the gap only grows wider as you look at larger drives.

Still, in the days of cloud storage and streaming media, you may not need as much local storage as you did back in the day. Or you can use an SSD for your operating system and applications, and a hard drive for your media; music, videos, pictures. Whichever way you pick, an SSD will greatly improve your computer’s performance.

In the following section, we will walk you through everything you need to know about selecting and installing an SSD. For your inner geek, we will also cover a few advanced SSD ninja techniques to supercharge your system even further.

How to choose a solid state drive (SSD)

Although choosing the right SSD is not all that difficult, the process can be mind numbing with so many brands and performance claims. In this section, we will show you how to cut through the clutter and what to look for when shopping for an SSD drive.

In the end, all SSDs are fast, and will feel much snappier than an HDD, but when you are spending a lot of money on a smaller drive you want it to be fast and reliable. Here are the key ingredients to look for in an SSD:

  •  Great Real-World Speeds: While most manufacturers will not post real-world speeds on their website or packaging, there are many 3rd party review services that do. If you like to shop on Amazon, for example, you will find many reviewers that will post screen shots of their test results. Do not be too discouraged by the real world speeds - invariably, they will be significantly slower than the manufacturer’s real world speeds. A good rule of thumb is to look for real-world speeds that are 2/3 of maximum or higher.
  • Mind Blowing Maximum Speeds: Look for max read speeds around 400MegaBytes (MB)/second. Write speeds should be at least 300MB/sec.
  • SATA III Support: Also known as SATA 6Gb/s. While the majority of SSDs utilize the serial ATA (SATA) interface, not all use the latest iteration, and this can put a choke hold on your SSD. SATA I, for example, transfers data at only 1.5 Gbps. SATA II does a little better at 3.0 Gbps, but the clear performance choice is SATA III, which transfers data at a spiffy 6.0 Gbps. In the next couple years NVMe will likely be the interface of choice.

To make certain your SSD has sufficient bandwidth, you will want to make sure it is compatible with SATA III. Of course, you will want to check your computer to ensure it is also compatible with SATA III.

Multi-Level Cell (MLC) Vs Single Level Cell (SLC) memory:

You will not be shopping for SSDs for long before you run into drives with MLC or SLC memory. The difference boils down to cost - MLC can store more information per cell and is less expensive to produce. The downside? MLC has a higher error rate, but an SSD with error-correcting code can mitigate this problem. MLC will give you a slight edge, but we think less expensive SLC based SSDs are good enough for most people.

ECC Memory:

It’s refreshing to run across a tech acronym that is easy to understand. ECC, or error correcting code, simply does what its name implies: it enables your SSD to detect and correct data corruption, so you do not end up with unreadable trash on your drive. In other words, an SSD with ECC memory is just more dependable.

A Proven Track Record:

Reliability in the memory and storage arena can be a very difficult thing to gauge, but here are a few tips you can use to make the process easier. Start by looking for manufacturers who have been in business for a while (We am a fans of Crucial, Intel, and Samsung). SSD technology is still in its infancy, and you do not want to sink your money into a company which has just released its first SS. Look at the online reviews especially at sites like newegg - a reliable drive will garner an average of 4/5 stars or better. Even proven, reliable companies will sometimes produce a lemon, so keep an eye on recent reviews to protect yourself.

So, which SSDs are up to snuff? We have good success with:

  • Intel SSDs
  • Samsung 840 Series
  • Samsung 850 Series

New models are released almost daily, so we are going to defer to our friends over at Tom’s Hardware.

A critical accessory is a USB to SATA external enclosure.  It allows you to mount a drive and use it externally via the USB interface. We need to use it during the upgrade process. Apricorn makes an EZ-Upgrade SATA Notebook hard drive upgrade kit.

How to install a solid state drive

Every computer is different, so each SSD installation is also unique - we strongly recommend checking your computer manufacturer’s website for an upgrade guide for your specific model. The following section will provide a solid overview of installing an SSD in a typical desktop.

The first step is to determine where your data should go. Today, people are used to having between 500GB and 750GB of storage, although power users may need upwards of 2TB os hard drive space. Managing everything on a much smaller SSD can be a daunting prospect - but still very doable. Consider installing your operating system and applications on the SSD and your files on an HDD – you will get all the performance benefits of an SSD and still have ample storage for all your pics, movies, and music.

Most desktop computers have the space and cabling necessary for two or three drives, but notebooks are a different animal altogether. If you are switching to SSD in your notebook, buy a large enough SSD or consider an external drive for your data if you have a lot of data, especially if it is not needed all the time.

Your Operating System Matters

All modern operating systems, including Windows 7 and 8 and Linux, are capable of operating from an SSD drive and are configured to utilize all of their performance benefits. This is not true of Windows XP and Vista, however - for example, both of these versions of Windows are missing the TRIM support. TRIM, in a nutshell, tracks which data blocks on the SSD are no longer needed by the operating system and allows the SSD to wipe them, keeping your SSD operating at full speed. Newer drives from 2014 onwards do not need to use TRIM to clean up unused blocks.

Still, we know there are a lot of XP purists out there, and the good news is you can manually wipe your data blocks using tools supplied by your manufacturer. Check out your manufacturer’s website - for instance, Intel offers the SSD Toolbox and Samsung has the Samsung Magician.

Once you have a plan in place, it is time to make the switch to SSD. There are two options available:

Option #1: Install a Fresh Operating System and Copy Your Data

If you have gone to the trouble of researching SSD drives and bought one, why not install a fresh copy of your operating system at the same time? This will, of course, take more time - but when you are done, you will have everything configured exactly the way you want it. All the junk that has built up over the years will be gone.

Here are the steps:

Start by making a list of applications you use on your old drive. Make a list, including installation media / method (CD/DVD/Download).

  1. Disconnect your current drive, install your SSD
  2. Install a fresh copy of your operating system on your new SSD.
  3. Install the SSD’s utility software – It can update your drive, control TRIM, etc
  4. Install applications you need on your SSD.
  5. Run all system and application updates.
  6. Shutdown, connect your old hard drive that has been installed in an external USB case
  7. Copy your data files from your old hard drive to your new SSD. You may find you do not have enough space for everything; try starting with essential files and settings and then transfer the files you have room for.
  8. Finally, keep the old drive handy for a few months. No matter how meticulous you were in the previous step, you will be surprised at how much you forgot about - and having your old files and applications, a simple click away, will prove to be very convenient.

This method is the more tedious of the two, but it offers the benefit of cleaning up your system at the same time.

Option #2: Migrate Everything from Your HDD

If time is an issue, or if you have a relatively clean installation already, you may want to skip the time intensive OS reinstallation. To do so, you simply migrate your OS and files to your new SSD.

As stated earlier, chances are you will not be able to fit all of your files and applications on your SSD. Your best bet is to make a copy of your entire HDD and store it in the cloud or on an external drive. Next, begin deleting files and applications on your original HDD until your data footprint is small enough to fit on your new SSD.

Although there are a number of techniques for migrating your OS and data from an HDD to an SSD, we believe the most efficient and reliable method is to clone your existing drive to your new SSD. To do so, you will need to make use of cloning software, such as  Norton Ghost, Acronis True Image, and the free DriveImage XML. All three of these titles have been around for years and are dependable solutions. For the purpose of this tutorial and from our personal experience, we chose Acronis True Image.

There are 2 ways to use any drive cloning tool:

  • True Image comes on a bootable CD. Boot from it to start the process
  • Install the cloning software on your PC and run the software from it

For the purposes of this article, we used the latter method. We assume you are running Windows 7 or newer.

Before doing anything, backup your current system. You never know what can happen.

The first step was to pop our SSD into an external USB drive enclosure and attach it to our PC via a USB cable. We next booted the PC and made certain the SSD was recognized.

Install the SSD’s utility software – It can update your drive, control TRIM, etc

The next step is to make note of our drive layout (click Start, Run, and type diskmgmt.msc). Our drive had three partitions - recovery, system reserved, and our main partition - which contained the operating system, programs, and data.  Our recovery partition was 12GB, and the system reserved partition was 122MB. The main partition was only 121GB, which was small enough to fit on our 240GB SSD.

We next launched Acronis True Image and clicked on the Clone Disk icon. We chose manual mode because we wanted to make certain the partitions are cloned correctly. From there we selected the source drive - a trusty little 250GB Western Digital. Since our SSD was the only other drive connected, True Image automatically choses it as our target drive.

A word of caution - it pays to double and triple check your source and target drives. If you make a mistake here, you will overwrite all of your programs and files, effectively erasing them permanently.

The next step is to select the ‘Move Method’. As we wanted mirror our source partitions, we selected the ‘As Is’ option.

That’s it! True Image next checked the source and target drive integrity, rebooted the system and cloned the source to the target drive.

Connecting your SSD

The next step is to open the PC case and replace your HDD with your newly cloned SSD. Most modern PC’s sport a plethora of SATA ports to park your new SSD in, but look for SATA-600 labels to ensure peak performance. If your board lacks labels, check your user manual for “SATA 6G” or “SATA 3.0”. Avoid Marvell and JMicron SATA port when possible, these are not preferred over native motherboard SATA ports.

Note: If you cannot locate a SATA-600 port, you can purchase and install a PCI controller card for this purpose.

Pop the old hard drive into an external USB drive enclosure for future access. You can also hook it up internally, if you have ports available.

The final step in the process is to ensure your BIOS is up to date and “AHCI” mode is enabled. If this option is not active, your shiny new SSD will not be able to use TRIM algorithm and will not be able to reach peak performance. To check for BIOS updates, visit your manufacturer’s website and visit their support section. You may find an ISO image for a bootable USB stick or DVD available for download and installation of a new BIOS. If you are not certain if you need an update, we recommend checking with Crystaldiskinfo.

Select the new SSD as the startup drive, from your BIOS.

After your SSD boot, you should install the software that came with your SSD - for instance, Intel offers the SSD Toolbox and Samsung has the Samsung Magician. These tools help adjust Windows settings, so you need not manually do this.

Enjoy the new found speed!

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