Adding an SSD to your laptop is the most effective upgrade you can perform.
By Gordon Mah Ung
PCWorldMay 29, 2018 5:20 am PDT
Image: Gordon Mah Ung
There is one upgrade that will universally improve a laptop’s performance: adding an SSD. This is a particularly attractive upgrade for budget laptops, which typically come with a hard drive. That’s the case with the extremely popular Acer Aspire E 15.
This laptop has been the top seller on Amazon for months and months. It’s easy to see why: for $350 (and below $300 during the holidays), you get a 7th-gen Core i3 processor, 4GB of DDR4 RAM, a 1TB hard drive, and a 15-inch 1080p screen. It’s a killer deal for those on a budget—but not exactly fast.
Here’s how we can do something about that. The good news is that just about any budget laptop today should offer a path to an SSD. On the Aspire E 15, there are two paths: via an M.2 slot for a tiny card-style drive or by replacing the hard drive with a SATA SSD. We’ll cover both paths, starting with how to add an M.2 SSD to your laptop. (Or jump ahead to our section on replacing your hard drive with an SSD.)
One caveat: While we’re sure your laptop would benefit from an SSD upgrade, it may not actually be possible with your particular model. We recommend searching YouTube for videos on how to open up and upgrade your laptop before you buy anything.
How to choose an M.2 SSD: SATA vs. PCIe
Before you get all excited and run out to buy an M.2 drive, you should know that not all M.2 SSDs are the same. In fact, they vary so much so that it’s possible the drive you buy might not work at all without making changes to the BIOS.
Even though they use the same connector, M.2 drives can support either the older SATA interface or newer PCIe interface. PCIe can be far faster and is preferred, while SATA is more compatible with older machines.
For our Aspire E 15, we intentionally picked the WD Blue 1TB SATA SSD for its compatibility. The M.2 slot in the Aspire E 15 does support PCIe drives as well as SATA drives but it will not boot to a PCIe device without changing from UEFI to legacy BIOS support.
The difference is that UEFI is modern and features Secure Boot, which theoretically guards against malicious attacks by requiring signed drivers and a signed OS.
Another reason you may choose a SATA M.2 over a PCIe drive is price. SATA M.2 drives tend to be far more affordable than PCIe drives.The 500GB version of the WD Blue drive we used was going for $110 when we wrote this. A 512GB WD Black M.2 PCIe SSD was going for $173.
Finally, while PCIe drives can offer 1.5x to 3x the performance of a SATA drive, a lot of people would be hard pressed to tell the difference in most applications.
2. Next, access your laptop’s innards. On the Aspire E 15, there is an obvious access door on the underside that’s held in place with just a few screws. If you are uncertain how to access your laptop’s parts (or even if you can), refer to the manufacturer website or manual or Youtube.
3. Now, get a small magnetic Philips-head screwdriver and carefully remove the screw in the stand-off. This stand-off is needed to hold the drive in place. Exercise caution because if you drop that screw and it rolls into your laptop’s innards, you’re in big, big trouble.
Tools of the trade
Vastar 58-in-1 Precision Screwdriver Set
Our laptop came with the mount and screw in place, and most should, but we have heard of a laptop missing the mount and screw. If your unit doesn’t have one, you can get one on Amazon for less than $10. The mounts are usually universal. That’s a crazy amount of money for one screw, but unless you’re willing to A-Team it with Duct tape and a more generic machine screw, this might be the easiest way.
4. The SSD slots into a roughly 1-inch wide opening. Note the notches on the SSD and the corresponding nub/s in the slot. Certain M.2 drives have a single notch on either the right side or left side of the module, which indicates a B- or M-key drive, respectively. A B key means it can operate at up to x2 PCIe or in SATA; an M key means it can operate at up to x4 PCIe or SATA. The WD Blue SATA SSD we used actually has both M- and B-key notches. These days, two notches usually indicate the drive is SATA, but you should still verify before making a purchase. The Acer notebook we are upgrading has a single plastic nub on the right, meaning it can accept faster x4 PCIe drives (which we verified) as well as SATA drives.
5. As with RAM, insert the M.2 card into the slot (usually at a very slight angle) and then tilt it flat. Now with a magnetic screwdriver (so you don’t lose the screw) install the screw back into the mount while holding the drive flat.
6. With the drive installed, you’re now ready to restore the backup of Windows that you created in the first step onto the new drive—again, refer to our guide. We recommend unplugging the hard drive and removing it so you don’t inadvertently wipe out your original drive.
7. With the image restored, boot into Windows and prepare to be amazed at the responsiveness of your laptop.
Our first test is Crystal Disk Mark 5.2, a pure storage benchmark that shows just how much more performance you get from even a moderate SSD.
It’s not just in that test either. Unlike a memory upgrade, which doesn’t give you performance boosts across the board, an SSD is pretty much fast everywhere. Below are the results from PCMark 8’s storage bandwidth test, which puts the SSD about 30 times faster than the hard drive.
PCMark 8 also measures such things as how long it would take to launch and log in to World of Warcraft. You can see the practical upshot is, well, wow.
How to replace your laptop’s hard drive with a 2.5-inch SSD
If you’re now convinced that an SSD is the answer but you want something a little cheaper or you don’t want to deal with an M.2 drive, the best option is to outright replace the hard drive with a standard 2.5-inch SSD.
Which SSD should you buy?
If you go shopping for an SSD your head is likely going to explode from the options available. Since we already know we’re going with a SATA drive, the job is a little easier. If you’re wondering about the advantage between an M.2 SATA SSD and a hard-drive-sized 2.5-inch SATA SSD, there isn’t much for regular folks.
Most budget SSDs today use TLC technology, which can offer anywhere from
very decent performance to plain dog performance. So we recommend that you start with our SSD buyer’s guide. It’ll let you know what our best pick is currently.
Even if you don’t go by our list and you end up with an SSD that’s only mediocre in performance, it’ll still feel miles better than a hard drive. That’s because the actions on a hard drive that make it feel slow—called random reads—will still be infinitely better on a medicore SSD.
In other words, you’re probably okay buying on price and capacity. You determine that based on your needs. If it’s your sole computer, we recommend planning for additional space—for many people a 500GB drive will the job. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t horde photos and videos, a 250GB drive will likely last a long time.
Okay, let’s do this. On the Aspire E 15 it’s a snap.
1. Assuming you’ve made an image of your OS, all you have to do is open the access door, and slide the hard drive away from the connector about half an inch. Once it is clear of the connector, gently lift the drive from the bay. (Again, the means of access will vary by laptop model. If it’s not clear from looking at the bottom of your laptop how you can access its parts, refer to the manufacturer website or manual.)
2. With the hard drive out of the computer, remove the four screws on the sides of the drive and take the drive out of the plastic tray.
3. Now put your SSD into the tray, replace the screws, and slide it into the drive bay.
4. Restore your OS to the SSD and rock on. We didn’t test this configuration, but expect similar performance results as the M.2 SATA SSD drive.
There’s one last upgrade trick we want to leave with you with: How to replace your optical drive with an SSD or hard drive. Besides needing an SSD, you’ll also need a caddy. We bought this caddy on Amazon for just $9, which is typical. It fits both 7mm- and 9.5mm-thick drives, but it’s a tight fit in most computers with 9.5mm so we recommend you stick with a 7mm drive.
1. To Install the drive into the caddy, simply put it in the tray and slide it onto the SATA connector. Then use the provided four screws and screwdriver to mount the drive.
2. To remove the optical drive from the laptop, turn the laptop over, and on the side where the optical drive is, look for a single screw near the center of the optical drive and about six inches from the edge. There may be a mark to indicate this is the captive screw for the ODD. Remove the screw.
3. Use your fingernail to pull the drive out by wedging it between the laptop body and optical drive.
4. With the drive out, you’ll need to transfer two things. The first thing is the metal bracket on the back end of the optical drive. This is what the screw that you removed earlier attaches to. Just remove two small Philips screws and then relocate the bracket to your new caddy.
5. The most difficult part in all of this may be removing the bezel from the optical drive to place on your SSD. It’s not mandatory, but foregoing the bezel will look ugly and will make it a little more work when you want to pull the SSD from the laptop.
Almost every laptop optical drive follows an industry spec—with a different plastic bezel attached to it. To remove the bezel, take a paper clip or screwdriver and carefully—carefully (they’re delicate)—bend the plastic retention arm on the inside and pop off one side of the bezel. There’s a second mount on the other side that doesn’t require any tools—all you have to do is gently angle the bezel so it comes off.
6. Now just transplant the bezel to your drive caddy by gently pressing it into place. On our drive caddy, this was nearly a permanent decision. Yes, we could remove the bezel, but it took a partial disassembly of the caddy to do so.
That’s it. You can now take the caddy and slide it back into the bay on the laptop. This should give you all the auxiliary you want. This trick, by the way, is nearly universal from what we’ve seen on laptops with optical drive bays.
Upgrades aren’t done in a vacuum. You prioritize them based on their returns. The greatest return with a budget laptop is to move from the stock hard drive to an SSD. The performance benefit in bootup and overall responsiveness puts it at the very top of any upgrade list.
There’s one more wildcard we should mention here and that’s Intel’s Optane Memory Technology—an SSD caching drive that enables your regular hard drive to perform as fast as an SSD. We’ve tested it and found that it does indeed offer tangible performance on the cheap. In fact, for $36 on Amazon, you could get truly “SSD-like performance” from your 1TB hard drive.
The problem: The Aspire E 15 in our test case doesn’t have the BIOS/UEFI support for Optane Memory. That’s really a shame because the laptop is the perfect candidate for Intel’s Optane Memory.