How to Upgrade Your Laptop's Hard Drive to an SSD

Solid-state drives are all the rage. Since SSDs have no moving parts, they're more rugged and shock-resistant than standard hard drives--which makes them perfect for laptops that get bumped around a bit. They offer fabulous read performance, too, though their write performance varies; random small writes can be very fast, but long writes of large block data (as you might have with continuous video recording) can be slower than on traditional hard drives.

Intel SSD
However, upgrading to a solid-state drive isn't as easy as buying a drive and throwing it in your PC. Here are a few tips for picking out the right model, making sure that it will work with your setup, carefully cloning your old drive, and keeping the install process clean and painless. (Don't forget to read "How to Switch to a Solid-State Drive" for more advice.)

SSD Basics

Opening up an SSD
The main drawback of a solid-state drive is the cost: Per gigabyte, SSDs are much more expensive than standard hard drives, which have come down dramatically in price in the past several years. While it's easy to find an inexpensive laptop with a 160GB, 250GB, or even 320GB hard drive, a high-quality 256GB SSD would likely set you back over $700. That's a high price to pay, particularly if your current laptop or netbook is a fairly low-cost unit.

SSDs come in two major types: SLC (single-level cell) and MLC (multi-level cell). An SLC SSD stores data as one bit per flash memory cell, while an MLC drive stores two or more bits per cell. As a result, MLCs are less expensive than SLCs at the same capacity point, since you need fewer physical flash memory components for greater capacity.

The downside is that MLC drives are slower than SLC units, though usually still much faster than regular hard drives. You'll typically find SLC drives in data centers and workstation-class environments, where the greater cost is mitigated by gains in productivity and reliability.

Even MLC drives can be expensive, especially at capacities of 200GB or more. Somewhere in the middle are MLC drives with a capacity of 80GB to 120GB; these tend to run from $200 at the 80GB point to $400 at the high end of 120GB MLCs. You can find lower capacities--as small as 30GB--but for the upgrade described in the following pages, we chose a 120GB MLC drive. Drives at the 120GB or 128GB capacity point (depending on the flash supplier) deliver the best blend of price, performance, and capacity.

Is Your Laptop Ready?

Before jumping in and swapping drives willy-nilly, consider whether your laptop is well suited for a solid-state drive. Here are a few concerns to keep in mind.

  • Does your laptop run Windows XP? If you have an older portable that shipped with Windows XP several years ago, dropping in an SSD is not a good idea. While SSDs can work with Windows XP, that OS isn't as well optimized for SSDs as Vista--and, more particularly, Windows 7. The newest Windows supports the TRIM command, which helps keep SSD performance optimized. We recommend not replacing your XP laptop's hard drive with an SSD.
  • Does your laptop's BIOS support SSDs? The BIOS of some older laptops won't work properly with solid-state drives. Unfortunately, there's no easy rule of thumb to follow in this regard, so before you buy, try doing a Web search for your PC model and "SSD compatible" to see if other users have had upgrade issues.
  • Can your laptop be physically upgraded? Some older laptops don't allow for easy upgrading of the hard drives. This is especially true for certain Macbook and Macbook Pro models. Make sure that upgrading won't void your warranty or require you to perform serious surgery on your laptop.

If you have any doubts, be cautious and check online forums and other resources before attempting a swap to a solid-state drive. The technology is still new enough that the kinks and the potential backward-compatibility issues haven't been completely ironed out.

You have a wide array of SSDs from which to choose, since more companies offer SSDs than standard drives today. Of those companies, however, many are simply rebadging drives manufactured by others as their own.

We recommend sticking with a manufacturer that makes the flash drive itself, or that has its own engineering team behind the drive's components. If you're looking for suggestions, consult PCW's Top 5 Solid-State Drives chart to see which models came out ahead.

In the following pages you'll see how we upgraded an ultralight notebook from a 250GB hard drive to an OCZ Apex 120GB solid-state drive. The OCZ drive is a midrange, MLC SSD that lacks TRIM support, but we've seen it speed up our test laptop in everyday use.

Next: Prepping for an SSD

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