Replace your computer's main hard drive with an SSD
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).
(An 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. 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. For more on SSDs, check out this post.
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.
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 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 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.
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 faster 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.
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 actually 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 drive 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.
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.
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.)
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 on 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 on Next.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.