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Whoa. I should have upgraded to an SSD last year

A solid-state drive nearly quintupled storage performance and breathed new life into Stephen Shankland's laptop. The storage capacity is small, but it's an upgrade you should consider, too.

The OCZ Vertex 4 SSD rejuvenated my Dell laptop.
The OCZ Vertex 4 SSD rejuvenated my Dell laptop. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Today I transformed my 2009 laptop into a machine that feels like it's from 2012.

All I did was rip out its 500GB spinning-rust hard drive from Seagate and popped in a 256GB Vertex 4 solid-state drive from OCZ. Now I'm kicking myself for not upgrading to an SSD a year ago.

If you're not up to speed on your PC components, here's the technical background on SSDs vs. HDs. For decades, hard drives handled storage chores by writing data as tiny magnetized patches on spinning platters. SSDs use flash memory chips instead, a design that can retrieve data much faster. The biggest drawback is the price: SSDs cost more and store less than hard drives.

My primary machine is a Retina-era MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD, so I'm used to SSDs overall. What I hadn't appreciated was how much life an SSD can breathe into an older machine, in particular since processor performance isn't improving at the rate it once was.

Of course, not everything gets faster with an SSD. But I use a lot of different software, and I greatly appreciate the blazing-fast launch times. Rebooting Windows no longer means moving over to my MacBook Pro for a spell.

I first caught a glimpse of how impressively SSDs boosts performance with my mother-in-law's new computer, a Windows 7 Sony Vaio laptop. Its performance was dismal, but it seemed to me to be constrained by hard-drive performance.

Judging by how often the hard-drive activity indicator LED was solidly lit, it seemed it was struggling as it launched programs and relied on the disk to augment its memory. CPU-intensive chores like editing photos in Lightroom performed reasonably, but when it came time to pull a new photo into memory from the hard drive, it would drag.

Over the holiday, when I was configuring her new Sony, I pulled out the Hitachi 750GB, 5400RPM drive and popped in a 120GB Samsung 840 SSD. She's not a power user, so she didn't need a lot of capacity, and the drive cost me $98 with shipping.

It was worth every penny. She's astounded how fast the machine fires up. And, speaking as the remote administrator who's continually installing software updates via LogMeIn, maintenance is a lot more pleasant, too.

4.6x benchmark boost
When I installed my SSD on my Dell Studio XPS 16, I decided to measure the improvement, testing it before and after with PassMark's suite of benchmarks. Of course, processor and graphics and memory performance didn't change, but the Disk Mark score jumped from 544 to 2,506 -- a 4.6x improvement

I didn't measure my boot time, in part because it's hard: Before, Windows would get to a usable interface from which I could start using software, but it would still be dragging in performance as it loaded this or that into memory. It was a long process though -- well over a minute and closer to two the last time I clocked it. It was slow enough that I'd turn it on, go away and do something productive, then come back when it was done.

After the SSD upgrade, I did clock it: 16 seconds to the Windows 8 log-in screen, and 22 seconds to usable, including me typing my password. Tremendous.

Of course SSDs aren't a miracle cure. They're still prohibitively expensive for many, including myself. And of course the power users who would most appreciate SSDs are the same people who have the most need for the capacity of traditional hard drives.

My SSD from OCZ set me back $160; with a 2.5-inch disk enclosure and a copy of Acronis True Image to clone the old drive, the total was $194.

To do the upgrade, I followed Dong Ngo's handy instructions. I had one surprise when I thought I had a malfunctioning USB enclosure; it turns out the problem was just that the new SSD wasn't initialized yet. I used the software included with the Samsung SSD to clone my mother-in-law's old hard drive, but used True Image for my own and the OCZ drive.

The Samsung software was much less of a bother in my experience. Do you really need a 64-character serial number, Acronis? Not including the dashes?

Why wait?
So why didn't I do this before? The cost.

SSD prices per gigabyte were just too high, and I need my gigabytes. I have a terabyte of data, mostly photos and videos. What liberated me was the arrival of Thunderbolt on my main machine, the MacBook Pro, which gives me access to my photo catalog at the same speed as an internal drive. Yes, it's still on a hard drive, but I often do my first round of editing on small and frequently purged short-term catalog stored on the SSD.

Through a fact of SSD life called overprovisioning, though, you get even less SSD than the already small number on the package. That's because flash memory cells wear out with use, and some of the drive's capacity is set aside to replace those that are fried.

Intel wants to persuade us all to buy ultrabooks, a marketing term that refers to skinny machines with SSDs. I can see why: moving to SSDs really can make a PC seem snappy, and without some kind of wow factor, there's not much reason to upgrade these days. I mean, sure, USB 3.0 is swell, and if you're a gamer you want the latest graphics chip, but most folks aren't going to appreciate a CPU upgrade they did a decade ago.

You'll pay a premium today for an ultrabook or indeed any machine with an SSD, but perhaps that premium will be diminishing. SSD shipments should increase from 39 million last year to 83 million in 2013, analyst firm IHS iSuppli predicts, and flash-memory prices are dropping.

I paid relatively low prices by snapping up a couple Black Friday deals during the holidays, but if IHS is right, more and more people will be able to afford SSDs.

For those of you who have a couple hundred bucks to throw around, it's worth it. It's certainly cheaper than a new computer.