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

Prepping for an SSD

After you've determined that your laptop is capable of handling a solid-state drive, you need to take a few steps prior to making the move.

  • If your laptop runs Windows Vista, make sure you've updated it to Service Pack 1. This will improve Vista's performance when running on the SSD. Note that Windows 7 is still a better OS for SSDs, but Vista should work fine.
  • Update your system BIOS. This is particularly important if your Windows installation is running in Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) mode. AHCI implements native command queuing (NCQ), which enables greater efficiency in the way that standard hard-drive heads move around the platter. Since SSDs have neither platters nor heads, NCQ can adversely affect performance on SSDs. Newer AHCI BIOS support and drivers mitigate this somewhat; read "How to Update Your BIOS" for more tips.
  • If your system is running in AHCI mode, try changing the BIOS storage access mode to IDE instead. This doesn't always work--you may end up with a blue screen if Windows isn't set up to boot from standard IDE mode. If this tweak does work, then keep your system in IDE mode.
  • Check your drive layout. You can do so by clicking Start, selecting Run, and typing diskmgmt.msc to bring up the storage management control panel. Most laptops running Windows Vista or Windows 7 will have an extra, invisible partition that contains system recovery information; this partition often substitutes for a recovery DVD or CD. Windows 7 systems will also likely have a System Reserved partition, which contains various Windows boot loader information plus additional data if you use Windows 7 Ultimate's BitLocker encryption scheme. It's only 100MB, so it doesn't consume much space.The key issue is that you need to leave the System Reserved and hidden restore partitions at their exact size--otherwise, the laptop might not boot properly. I'll discuss how to do that in the next section.

  • Back up your data! There are two types of PC users: those who have lost data and those who will lose data. This upgrade process is safe, but whenever you make a dramatic change in your storage situation, you should first back up the system.
  • Check the drive capacities. You may be moving from a higher-capacity hard disk drive to a lower-capacity SSD. If your current drive exceeds what the SSD can hold, you'll need to ditch some of your data. Back the files up to an external drive or burn them to CD or DVD if you need the information.

Installing the SSD, Step by Step

For this article, we upgraded a fairly recent Windows 7 system, an Acer Ferrari One ultraportable laptop. Despite its name, the Ferrari One is just a slight cut above most netbooks in terms of performance. It has an 11-inch screen, and its small size and light weight make it easy to toss into a bag or tote to a coffee shop.

Since it is so portable, it may get banged up a little more than bulkier laptops, so we decided to swap out the existing 250GB Toshiba hard drive with an OCZ Apex 120GB SSD. This particular drive runs about $340 to $350 currently.

Swapping out a laptop hard drive means that you somehow need to get the data off the old drive and onto the new one. You have several methods to choose from.

  • Get a small external hard-drive case with a USB interface. Install the new drive in the case, and then clone the old drive onto the new drive via USB. (I'll talk about software for doing this in a moment.) After installing the new drive into the laptop, you can take the old drive and pop it into the USB case, which allows you to use your old drive for backups or additional storage.
  • Using a third, external drive, make an exact copy of the disk image on the old drive and copy it as a file to the external drive. Install the new drive and then reverse the process, copying the disk-image file from the external drive to the new drive.
  • Use an external device, such as the Thermaltake BlackX hard-drive dock shown in the photo above, to make the drive clone; then, after the cloning process is complete, swap in the new drive.

The Clean Windows Install

In addition to hardware considerations, you need to think about what software will help make the swap process as easy as possible.

You can simply install Windows onto the new drive, and then restore to it all of the data you backed up previously. (You did back up your data, right?) This approach makes sense if you're thinking about upgrading from Windows Vista to Windows 7, for example.

Keep in mind that newer laptops rarely ship with driver or accessory CDs, and often have drivers hidden on a restore partition. Obviously, that restore partition isn't useful any longer if you've changed the operating system.

So you'll need not only your data but also new drivers. Though Windows 7 offers a substantial number of drivers of its own for older hardware, you'll likely have some piece of hardware on your laptop that still requires an updated driver. If you decide to do a clean Windows install on your drive, make sure you download all the drivers first--especially the networking drivers! After all, if your plan is to update the operating system and then download the rest of the drivers afterward, you should be certain that your network hardware--wired or wireless--is working.

If you do take this approach, use a migration tool to move your data and applications. You can use Windows' own Windows Easy Transfer, or consider a more streamlined, third-party tool such as Laplink PC Mover.

Next: Drive-Cloning Software

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