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Speed up your PC with an SSD – and the right tweaks

Install SSDs properly and prepare Windows accordingly

If you are still using a conventional hard drive, there has never been a better time to upgrade. Prices for SSDs have finally dropped to under £1 per Gigabyte, making them one of the best hardware investments at your disposal. In this How-To, we'll tell you how to prepare and what to keep in mind for the upgrade to an SSD.

Be it a better CPU, more memory or even a new graphics card – if you want to improve the performance of your PC, there's certainly a lot of hardware to go on. If you haven't been sleeping under a rock in the last two years however, you have probably heard that few other PC upgrades are quite as rewarding as the jump from a classical hard drive to an SSD. This due to multiple reasons: Not only is this new generation of hard drives built entirely out of semiconductors, thus eliminating all moving parts and audible noise, they are also many times faster than their older, magnetic counterparts for the very same reason, accelerating both Windows and everything that runs on it. And while the only disadvantage in the form of the price has long since dwindled into affordability, the benefits over older hard drives continue to stand tall.

See also: Group test of the best SSDs in early 2013

Before rushing off into the sunset to buy your new and shiny SSD however, you might want to have a final look at how you can best prepare your PC. After all, using the wrong hardware and Windows configuration can gravely affect the life span of your SSD and be detrimental to its overall performance. Here's some tips on how to make the most our of your new drive.

Updating the BIOS and firmware

In a nutshell, the firmware of your SSD determines the way it works on a software level. It is responsible for the coordination of data transfer and storage functions and well as the interaction with other hardware and the OS. Unfortunately, like most other software, it can also be plagued by bugs and compatibility issues. It is therefore advisable to check for regular updates that address these issues to smooth your experience - and in the best case even improve the performance of your SSD. To check for an upgrade, simply take a look at your manufacturer's website. You will typically find an ISO image for a bootable DVD or USB stick freely available to download. If you are unsure whether or not you even need an update, you can check your firmware version with dedicated hard drive tools, such as Crystaldiskinfo.

Tip: Because firmware updates are typically applied via a bootable medium, you don't strictly need Windows for them. Installing the update on a blank SSD before cluttering the drive with files by installing Windows is therefore quite possible.

A reasonably up-to-date BIOS version is also fairly important for the compatibility of many SSDs, as it can resolve issues with the SATA-controller and provide additional options for their configuration. Because of the risky nature of a BIOS update, it should be noted that it is only recommended for absolute PC enthusiasts or in case of compatibility conflicts with newer SSDs.

Choosing the right operating system

Both Windows 7 and 8 (as well as Linux) are well-suited for SSDs and perfectly capable of handling all their benefits. Unfortunately, Windows XP and Vista lack some of this hardware support. For example, they are missing the so-called TRIM algorithm which tells SSDs which data blocks are no longer required by the OS and can be internally wiped, thus keeping your SSD clean and ensuring top-notch writing speed. 

If you are bent on using XP or Vista regardless, it is recommended to to trigger the data wiping process manually from time to time. The option to do so can typically be found in your manufacturer's support tools, such as the Intel SSD Toolbox, the OCZ SSD Tools or the Samsung Magician.

This might also be of interest: What difference will a SSD make to my Laptop?

Connecting the SSD to the correct port

If you are swamped by the amount of SATA ports to choose from, look for a SATA-600 label on your mainboard, as most modern SSDs easily outperform the maximum data transfer speed of conventional SATA-300 ports. If there aren't any obvious marking on your mainboard itself, try consulting the user manual to see if there is any mention of “SATA 6G” or “SATA 3.0”. Additionally, try to avoid Jmicron or Marvell ports as these tend to operate rather slowly. For more information on how to install SSDs, take a look at our detailed guide devoted to the topic.

Note: If your mainboard lacks SATA-600 ports completely, you still have the option of using a controller card that can be plugged into your PCI slot (which itself allows 500 MB/s in transfer speed in comparison to SATA-600's 600 MB/s and SATA-300's 300 MB/s). Those typically range from £ 10-40, depending on the quality and number of SATA ports. Be advised however, that the difference between SATA-300 and SATA-600 transfer rates are not as noticeable as they might seem on paper, as much of the usefulness of SSDs typically stems from their fast access times rather than their transfer rates. Therefore, SATA controllers could be considered a luxury investment rather than a must-have retrofit.

Also, if you are planning on installing an operating system on your SSD, make sure to pay your BIOS a visit before doing so and activate the “AHCI mode”. If this option isn't enabled, your SSD won't be able to operate on its maximum performance and can't make use of the previously-mentioned TRIM algorithm.

Windows: Clean installation or migration?

From a technical standpoint, a clean installation of Windows 7 and 8 is always preferable as either OS will notice being installed on an SSD and set the appropriate parameters automatically (with the installation process being identical to the one on conventional hard drives).

In practice however, it might not always be so simple. If a clean installation is out of the question for whichever reason, you will need to clone your hard drive. To do so, first make sure that the content of the latter do not exceed the size of your new SSD and delete redundant programs. If everything is set to go, just follow the instruction in our guide on cloning hard drives. The downside of this method is that Windows won't know that it has moved to an SSD, so that you might need to adjust its hard drive configuration manually (See following page).

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