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

You've had your computer for a few years. Recently things have started to get slow, and you're thinking of getting a new one. I have nothing against a new computer, but what if you could greatly improve your current machine's performance without much hassle?

Note that even the fastest hard drive (one that spins at 7200rpm) has a Windows Experience Index sub-score of 5.9. This is what our demo computer starts with.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

You actually can with a standard SATA 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, we'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 or 7.

The 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.

Depending on how much data you currently 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, cloning software and a small screwdriver.
(Credit: Dong Ngo/CNET)

1. 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.
(Screenshot by 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 on 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 6Gbps standard, since it's the fastest and most future-proof, but you can get one that supports SATA 3Gbps, which is the most popular standard used by existing computers.

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 holds 512GB but you've only used 40GB, you need an SSD of 64GB. To leave room for future usage, it's better to get an SSD of 120GB or 240GB.

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

Also, if you use a high-capacity desktop hard drive as the main drive of a computer and put lots of data on it, it would be very expensive to buy an SSD large enough to hold the data, so in that case we recommend moving the data to a secondary internal hard drive or an external drive instead. You can then install a smaller SSD as the main drive and it will still improve the computer's performance.

Acronis True Image Home's drive-cloning function is accessed via the Tools menu.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

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. We recommend Acronis True Image Home, because in addition to the 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 thumb drive, 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. We 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 significantly cheaper. But don't go too old — as long as you get a version released in 2007 (version 11) or later, you'll be fine.

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

Regardless of what version you use, all of them share the same drive-cloning function that can be accessed from the Tools menu.

The third thing you need is a USB-to-SATA adapter or a hard drive dock. These can be found online for around AU$20-$AU50, depending on features. 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 USB adapter separately for about AU$35.

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

2. Cloning the drive

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

Note that the steps given below are for Acronis True Image Home. With other cloning software, the steps will be slightly different, so follow the software's instructions, but it should be easy enough to understand.

  • Make sure you pick the C: drive as the source disk.
    (Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

    Acronis True Image installation: this takes about a minute. The installation might ask you to restart the computer; do it.
  • 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 recognise the new drive. After that, if Windows prompts you via a pop-up message to do any further action with the newly connected drive, just ignore that.
  • From Windows, run Acronis True Image Home, then select Tools > Clone Disk. The Clone Disk wizard will start, and you click Next to move to Clone Mode window.
  • There are two clone modes, Automatic and Manual. You want to use the Automatic mode (default), so pick it and click on Next.
  • Choose to delete the partition on the destination drive, in case the new SSD is not empty.
    (Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

    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.
  • 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.
  • You will only see this screen if the SSD is not empty, which it might not be since sometimes new SSDs 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.
  • You'll be able to preview the cloning process before going forward with it.
    (Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

    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.
  • 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.

3. 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.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

Once the old hard drive has been pulled out, you want to reverse the process with the SSD. Make sure you use all the screws when installing the SSD. In our 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.

Enjoy its newfound performance!

Notice now how the SSD increases the Windows Experience Index sub-score of the storage device.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)


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StephenJ6 posted a comment   

Probably wont work with OEM Windows ( windows that work with only original hardware ) um but you could do this with Linux ( but the Acronis software wont work so you need something else there )


anphong posted a comment   

When we clone the hard drive to the SSD this way, are the files written as "new", or is it fragmented with lost files and errors etc, as it originally is on the old hard drive?
Does anyone know???

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