Migrating to SSD: Get yourself a new computer without getting one

CNET editor Dong Ngo shows how you can replace your computer's hard drive with a solid-state drive and be significantly happier with your life.

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Editors' note: This post was updated on July 5, 2013, to add more information on GPT formatted internal drives.

If you've had your computer for a few years or just got a budget one that's kind of slow, I have a quick and relatively affordable way to add a new life (speed, that is) to it: replace the machine's internal drive, the one that hosts the operating system, with a solid-state drive (SSD).

(A standard SSD looks very much like a traditional 2.5-inch laptop hard drive, but it's much faster. You can find out more about the difference between these two types of storage devices here .)

In this post, I'll walk you through how to replace a Windows computer's internal hard drive with an SSD while keeping the system, data, and settings exactly the same. (Check back later for another How To for older Macs though the process is largely similar.) The computer needs to be running Windows XP, Vista, 7, or 8. Generally, Windows 7 and 8 support SSDs better than the old operating systems, so before this you might want to upgrade Windows first, though that's not necessary.

Note that even the fastest hard drive (one that spins at 7,200rpm) has a Windows Experience Index of 5.9. This is what our demo computer starts with.
Note that even the fastest hard drive (one that spins at 7,200rpm) has a Windows Experience Index subscore of 5.9. This is what our demo computer starts with. Dong Ngo/CNET

The replacement process basically involves cloning the existing hard drive's content to an SSD, then physically taking the hard drive out of the computer and putting the SSD in its place. While the photos and video demo show me doing this to a laptop, it's a similar process for a desktop computer. In fact, it's much easier to work with a desktop, thanks to its larger chassis.

Depending on how much data you have on the computer's main hard drive, this project will take from 20 minutes to a couple of hours. You won't need to be actively involved most of this time, however.

These are what you need to do the job: an SSD, a USB-to-SATA adapter (for laptop), cloning software, and a screwdriver.
These are what you need to do the job: an SSD, a USB-to-SATA adapter (required for upgrading a laptop), cloning software, and a screwdriver. Dong Ngo/CNET

A. Getting ready

There are a few things you need for this job.

Make sure you get an SSD that has more than enough storage space to hold your existing data. To find out how much data you have on the current hard drive, right-click on the hard drive, then choose Properties.
Make sure you get an SSD that has more than enough storage space to hold your existing data. To find out how much data you have on the current hard drive, right-click on the hard drive, then choose Properties. Dong Ngo/CNET

First, you'll obviously need an SSD. While not all SSDs are created equal, all SSDs are so much faster than any regular hard drive that the differences between them are insignificant to someone who's moving up from a hard drive. That said, you should get a drive that offers the most capacity for the least money. It's preferable to get one that supports the SATA 3 standard (most SSDs do), since it's the fastest and most future-proof, but you can get one that supports SATA 2, which is the most popular standard used by existing computers. To quickly find out the best options, check out my current list of best SSDs.

One important thing to keep in mind: make sure you get an SSD with a higher capacity than the total amount of data you currently have on the hard drive you're replacing. That means, for example, if your computer's main hard drive's capacity is 1TB but you have just used about 100GB, then you just need an SSD that's 120GB or larger. For a notebook, get a decent size SSD since it's the only internal storage the machine has. On a desktop, you just need a small SSD to hold the operating system and programs and can keep the old hard drive as a secondary drive for storage. It never hurts to get a large SSD, though, if you can afford it.

Here we have the new SSD being used as an external drive of the computer, ready for the cloning process.
Here we have the new SSD being used as an external drive of the computer, ready for the cloning process. (Step 2, below) Dong Ngo/CNET

If you use a high-capacity desktop hard drive as the main drive of a computer and put lots of data on it, you can first move the data to a secondary internal hard drive or an external drive to reduce the amount of data prior to cloning. This helps speed up the upgrade process and allows you to get a smaller SSD.

The second thing you need is cloning software. There are many of them on the market and some are actually free, such as Easeus Disk Copy. Personally, I'd recommend Acronis True Image Home, because in addition to its cloning function, it's also one of the best backup programs for home users.

Acronis True Image Home's drive-cloning function, show here in the Tools menu. (Step 3)
Acronis True Image Home's drive-cloning function, show here in the Tools menu. (Step 3, below) Dong Ngo/CNET

On top of that it's very easy to use, since you can perform the cloning right from within Windows. (Other cloning software might require you to create a boot disk and you'd have to know how to make a computer boot from a CD or a USB thumbdrive, which could be tricky, depending on the computer.)

There are many versions of True Image Home and you don't need to use the latest one. Personally, I prefer the older versions since they tend not to come bloated with functions you don't need. Older versions are also much cheaper and can be found online for just around $10. But don't go too old -- as long as you get a version released in 2007 (version 11) or later, you'll be fine.

Note that this version only works with hard drives formatted using Master Boot Record (MBR) standard, which is the case of most computers running Windows 7 or earlier. Starting with Windows 8, many computers use hard drive formatted in GUID Partition Table (GPT) standard. In this case make sure you get the cloning software that support GPT hard drives. For Acronis, that mean you need to get the Plus Back.

If you upgrade the hard drive of a relatively new computer, especially one that runs Windows 8, make sure you use cloning software that supports GPT. Dong Ngo/CNET

It's quite easy to find out if your computer's hard drive uses GPT or MBR. Here's how.

1. Run the command prompt. (Search for it on the Start menu. In Windows 8, just type "cmd" directly into the Metro Start interface).

2. At the command prompt window, type in "diskpart," then press Enter. (If prompted by User Account Control, click Yes.)

3. At the DiskPart prompt, type in "list disk," then press Enter.

You will see a list of drives currently installed in the system. If a drive is listed with an asterisk (*) under the GPT column, then it's using GPT. Otherwise, it's an MBR drive.

You'll want to use the automatic mode for cloning, unless you're very comfortable with partitioning. (Step 4, below) Dong Ngo/CNET

Regardless of which version you use, all of them share the same drive-cloning function.

The third thing you need is a USB-to-SATA adapter. These adapters can be found online for around $15 or so. If you have a Seagate GoFlex external hard drive (be it a portable or desktop version), you can use the adapter part of the drive for the job. You can also buy the GoFlex adapter separately for about $20. Note that for a desktop, as an option, you can skip this adapter and install the SSD as a secondary internal drive, which works much faster than connecting via USB.

And finally, you'll need a small screwdriver. Pick one that works with the screws on your computer. Generally, a standard small Phillips-head one will do.

B. Cloning the drive

Now that you have everything you need, let's get the process started.

(Note that the steps given below are for Acronis True Image Home 11. With other versions or other cloning software, the steps will be slightly different, so follow the software's instructions, but it should be easy enough to understand. The idea is that you clone the existing hard drive into the SSD, retaining all settings, but automatically re-sizing the partition to fit on the SSD in case the two drives are of different capacities.)

Make sure you pick the C: drive as the source hard disk.
Make sure you pick the C: drive as the source hard disk. (Step 5) Dong Ngo/CNET
  • 1. Acronis True Image installation: this takes about a minute. The installation might ask you to restart the computer; do it.

  • 2. Turn the SSD into the computer's external drive: this is easy, just connect the SATA end of the USB-to-SATA adapter to the SSD, then plug the other end into one of the computer's USB ports.

    The computer will take just a few seconds to recognize the new drive. After that, if Windows prompts you via a pop-up message to do anything further with the newly connected drive, just ignore that.

  • 3. From Windows, run Acronis True Image Home, then select Tools > Clone Disk. The Clone Disk wizard will start; click Next to move to Clone Mode window.

  • 4. There are two clone modes, Automatic and Manual. You want to use the Automatic mode (default), so choose that and click Next.

  • 5. On the next screen, choose the source hard disk as the main hard drive of the computer. To make sure you pick the right one, check to see if it's the hard drive that has the C: partition that hosts the operating system. Click Next.

    Choose to delete the partition on the destination drive, in case the new SSD is not empty. (Step 6b) Dong Ngo/CNET
  • 6a. On this screen, pick the Destination Hard Disk as the SSD. If you have done all the steps correctly, the drive shown should be the USB-connected drive. Click on Next.

    6b. You will only see this screen if the SSD is not empty, which it might not be, since new SSDs sometimes come preformatted. In this case you want to choose to delete the partition on the destination drive, then click Next. This will erase all the content (if any) on the SSD.

  • 7. Acronis True Image Home will then delete the partition on the SSD and show a preview of the result after the cloning process is finished. The review should show that the two drives have the same format, though they might be of different capacities.

    Click on Next; the software will ask to reboot the computer so the cloning process can start.

  • You'll be able to preview the cloning process before going forward with it. (Steps 7 and 8). Dong Ngo/CNET
  • 8. Click on Reboot. The computer will boot up and start the cloning process. You can check on this via the status on the screen or go run errands. This process will take a while.

When the cloning process is finished, you will be greeted with a message to press any key to turn the computer off. So press any key on the keyboard, and the computer will shut down.

C. Replacing the hard drive with the SSD

This last step involves removing the existing hard drive. Most laptops make it easy for you to do this by putting the hard-drive bay by the edge of the computer and making it so you can pull it out after undoing some screws on its bottom. Sometimes hard drives are placed under the battery.

It's generally easier with desktops, where hard drives (3.5-inch versions) are easily spotted once the cover of the chassis is opened. You should consult the user manual or the Internet on how to remove your computer's hard drive. Note that for desktops, some SSDs (such as the Samsung SSD 830 Series, the Intel Solid-State Drive 520 Series, or the Plextor M3) come with a 3.5-inch hard-drive bay adapter to make them fit in the computer easily. However, if your SSD doesn't, you can get away with leaving the SSD hanging inside the computer. Since SSDs have no moving parts and a desktop computer is generally stationary, there's virtually no harm in leaving an SSD loose inside the chassis.

Acronis shows this message when the cloning process is done. At this time, press any key to shut down the system and replace the hard drive with the SSD.
Acronis shows this message when the cloning process is done. At this time, press any key to shut down the system and replace the hard drive with the SSD. Dong Ngo/CNET

Once the old hard drive has been pulled out, you'll want to reverse the process with the SSD. Make sure you use all the screws when installing the SSD. In my experience, if you have a screw or two left over, you've done something wrong.

Now, once the SSD has been installed, keep the hard drive in a safe place as a backup. Or you can also use it with the USB-to-SATA adapter as a backup drive. For a desktop, you actually can still use the old hard drive as a secondary drive if there's a place for it inside the computer's chassis.

Notice now how the SSD increases the Windows Experience Index subscore of the storage device.
Notice now how the SSD increases the Windows Experience Index subscore of the storage device. Dong Ngo/CNET

You'll want to restart the computer a few times so the operating system can get used to the new SSD. Don't worry, the computer will take a very short time to boot up now.

And that's it! Enjoy its newfound performance! If you have still questions, use the comment section below or feel free to send them my way via Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus.

About the author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

 

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