Upgrade to an SSD: The best way to make your computer feel like new

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 originally published on March 13, 2012, and is periodically updated.

If your new Windows 10 computer takes a long time to boot up, that's likely because it runs on a regular hard drive. This is also the case of most older computers. Do you know that replacing that hard drive with a solid-state drive (SSD) will make the machine run much faster? It's true, a 5-year-old computer with an SSD boots much faster than even a brand new rig running on a regular hard drive. The good news is that swapping out the drives is quite easy to do and not too expensive either, thanks to the fact that SSDs are now much more affordable than they were a few years ago.

(A standard SSD looks like a traditional 2.5-inch laptop hard drive, but it's much faster. You can find out more about the differences between traditional hard drives and SSDs 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 software, data and settings exactly the same. The computer needs to be running Windows 7, 8 or 10. Previous versions of Windows don't support SSDs very well. The steps on this post are done with Windows 10, which you should upgrade to soon, since the free upgrade offer ends July 29. Mac owners should check out this guide.

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With a new Samsung SSD, this old Dell Laptop will soon be much faster than it has ever been.

Dong Ngo/CNET

General direction: The replacement process basically involves cloning the entire 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. It's a similar process for both desktop and laptops computers though 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.

A. Getting ready

There are a few things you need for this job.

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 the SSDs themselves are insignificant to someone moving up from a hard drive. That said, you should get a drive that offers the most capacity for the least money. 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 up about 200GB, then you just need an SSD that's 240GB. It never hurts to get a large SSD of the same or even larger capacity as the existing hard drive, though, if you can afford it.

The second thing you need is cloning software. There are many of them on the market and most of them work well (some SSDs come with this software installed) but my favorite for the job is the free version of Macrium Reflect. This software allows you to clone the existing drive to a new one without even restarting the computer. It also supports all types of hard drive formats.

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 (a portable or desktop version), you can use the adapter part of the drive for the job. Note that for a desktop, as an option, you can skip this adapter and install the SSD as a secondary internal drive for the cloning process, 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.

Extra preparation

This step is only necessary if you want to use a hand-me-down SSD (one that's been formatted before) to replace your existing hard drive on your computer. If you're using a brand new SSD, you can skip this step and move straight to the cloning process.

There are two types of drive formats, including Master Boot Record (MBR), which is used in Windows 7 and earlier, and GUID Partition Table (GPT), adopted by Windows 8 and later. (Note that Windows 8 and Windows 10 work with MBR, too.) If you want to use a pre-used SSD for your computer, you need to first make its drive format type the same as that of the existing hard drive, prior to the cloning process. If not, the system won't boot at the end.

If you upgrade the hard drive of a relatively new computer, one that comes with Windows 8 or 10 factory installed, it's highly likely that GPT is used.

Dong Ngo/CNET

It's quite easy to find out if your computer's existing 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. (Answer affirmatively to the User Account Control question if prompted.)

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.

It's easy to convert a drive from MBR to GPT and vice versa.

Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

And here's how to make sure the SSD has the same drive format type:

1. Run the command prompt.

2. At the command prompt window, type in diskmgmt then press Enter. This will open up Disk Management.

3. In Disk Management window, find the SSD which will be shown as Disk 1 (or Disk 2 etc. depending on the amount of drives you have on the machine.) Right click on the SSD then choose "Convert to GPT" (if it's currently uses MBR), or "Convert to MBR" (if it's currently uses GPT.) Just make sure it shares the same drive format type as the existing hard drive.

B. Cloning the drive

Now that you have everything you need, let's get the process started. Plug the SSD into a USB port of the computer using the USB-to-SATA cable.

(Note that the steps given below are for Macrium Reflect. 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.)

Macrium Reflect allows for cloning a drive without having to include all of the source drive's partitions.

Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

1. Download and install Macrium Refelct Free.

2. Once the installation is done, double click on the Reflect icon on the Desktop of the computer.

3. Under the graphic of the existing computer, click on Clone this disk... This will open up Clone window.

4. In Clone window, click on Select a disk to clone to... then pick the SSD, which is connected to the computer via an USB port.

Extra note: Here you can verify to make sure both drives share the same drive format type (GPT or MBR.) Also, if the existing hard drive has many small partitions and you use an SSD that's of smaller capacity, you might run into an error saying not all partitions can fit on the SSD. In this case, you can uncheck the partitions on the right of the main partition, which always contain (C:) in its name. This is the partition that holds the operating system.

5. Click on Next and follow with the rest of the wizard to initiate the cloning process. After that, sit back and wait for the cloning process to complete.

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Certain laptops make it very easy to replace their internal drive.

Dong Ngo/CNET

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 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.

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 permanent backup. Or you can also use it with the USB-to-SATA adapter as an on-going 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.

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.

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