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.
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).
Optimizing Windows for your SSD
All SSDs have one notorious flaw that sets them behind magnetic hard drives: They are composed out of flash memory cells that can only endure so many writing cycles before becoming read-only. This in itself is no cause for concern, as life span estimates for SSD still easily number in several years, but you might want to eliminate any superfluous writing processes to increase its longevity and ensure optimal performance. As was mentioned before, if you have installed Windows on an SSD to begin with, all proper parameters should have been set automatically. Then again, it certainly won't hurt to check them manually to make sure.
Also take a look at: How to choose an SSD for your PC or Laptop
Attempting to defrag your SSD is not only an unnecessary, but also counterproductive endeavor. This is due to the technical nature of flash drives, which prevents them from becoming conventionally “fragmented” in the first place. It is therefore recommended to disable the automatic defragmentation routine of Windows. You can do so by pressing the Windows-key + R and entering “services.msc”. Look for the entry “Defragmentation” in the list and double-click it. Set the “Startup type” to “Disabled” and click on “OK”.
Alternatively, if your PC utilizes both a hard drive and an SSD, you can also discretely take the latter out of the equation and continue the defragmentation schedule for your hard drive only. Hit the Windows-Key + R and enter “dfrgui.exe”. Click on “Configure schedule...” and select “Select disks...”. Untick the boxes of all drives that are not supposed to be defragged and click on “OK”.
2. Superfetch and Prefetch
Superfetch and Prefetch are forms of cache management which are supposed to accelerate the access times of files and programs. While quite useful on older hard drives, they tend to be impractical on SSDs, as they needlessly strain the memory cells without offering a noticeable increase in speed. To deactivate both of them, summon the registry editor, again by holding down the Windows-key + R and enter “regedit”. Navigate along the path
„HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Memory Management\PrefetchParameters“
and set the values of both entries „Enable Prefetcher“ and „Enable Superfetch“ to „0“.
Usually, the hibernation mode is a great way to shut your PC down – both in terms of time and energy efficiency. If you are using an SSD however, it loses much of its usefulness, as Windows typically boots in a flash regardless of how your PC was put to rest beforehand. Additionally, deactivating hibernation mode can free up some unused space. Open up your command line tool by searching for “cmd” in the Windows search field, right click on it and select “Run as Administrator”. Enter the command “powercfg /h off” and hit enter to disable hibernation.
4. Windows Search
Windows 7 and 8 create a so-called „Search Index“ to collect information about the whereabouts of files and folders before the actual search. While this can significantly speed of searching and HDDs, it only causes unnecessary reading activity on SSDs. To switch it off, pop up “services.msc” again (see the paragraph “Defragmentation” above) and look for the entry “Windows Search”. Double-click it and select “Disabled” under “Startup Type”.
Tip: If you are using Windows 7, you can find plenty more useful system tweaks for SSDs in this How-To.
How to use an SSD as cache memory
Though it is recommended to use an SSD as your primary storage drive for Windows, this might not always be possible. If the capacity of the SSD is too small, if a migration is too bothersome or if you intend to dedicate it to a specific set of programs and files, Windows often remains stuck on the slower HDD. That doesn't mean you can't use your SSD to speed up your system, however. By using it as a supporting cache, you can often achieve similar boosts in performance, as if it were used as the real Windows medium.
HDD and SSD with software cache
Unfortunately, the software needed to activate caching on your SSD can't be bought on its own and is typically included in the box contents of specific models. Thus, if you wish to use your SSD as cache, you will need to plan ahead and choose an SSD based on this technology. For example, the OCZ Synapse Cache SSD includes the caching software Dataplex from Nvelo by default and is priced around £110-140. And though it technically offers 128 GB of storage, half of that will be reserved for “Overprovisioning” to extend its life span and optimize caching processes. The software Dataplex then monitors your activities and memorizes files that are used frequently during typical tasks, most notably concerning the boot-up of Windows. These files will subsequently be loaded from your SSD in the future to save some time.
However, there are also some drawbacks to the OCZ/Dataplex combination: The Software doesn't work in conjunction with HDDs exceeding two Terabytes, you can't use more than one OS with it and emergency software won't be able to gain access to the Windows partition.
Alternatively: The Intel Z68 chipset
If you were planning on buying or building a new PC anyway, it's worth taking a look at the Z68 chipset from Intel. Mainboards with this architecture can transform any SSD into a supplementary cache for your hard drive. Typically, this can grant a speed boost of up to 40 percent for reading and writing operations. Though restricted to Z68 chipsets, no specific hardware is technically required for the use of SRT (Smart Response Technology), as it is strictly based on software. Note that SRT also can't be used under Linux for the very same reason, unfortunately.
This article is based on a segment by our sister publication PCWELT.de.