SSD 101: How to Upgrade Your Computer With an SSD

By | January 8th, 2019

SanDisk Solid State Drive

Adding or upgrading an SSD is, along with adding memory, the most popular DIY computer upgrade. SSDs are changing rapidly, however, so we updated this post by Peter Cohen from December of 2016 with the latest information to help you take advantage of SSDs. We hope you enjoy it.

— Editor

Is your computer performing slower than you like, or are you looking for a way to boost performance? If your computer is more than a couple of years old, replacing the hard drive with an solid-state drive (SSD) is one of the most cost-effective changes you can make. It will completely change your computing experience. That said, there are some practical challenges you’ll need to consider before you do, so let’s look further into SSD drives.

What Is an SSD?

Historically, most computers have used spinning hard disk drives for permanent data storage. Conceptually, hard drives work a bit like old-fashioned record players. They contain spinning platters. A part called the actuator moves a tiny arm that floats a miniscule distance above the surface of the disk platters. The read/write head on that arm magnetically reads and writes binary data concentrically on the disk.

HDD internals

Those disks spin at high rates of speed (thousands of revolutions per minute), so there are a lot of moving parts inside a hard disk drive. They’re built to last, but they do eventually wear down and wear out. Hard drives can also be noisy and use a fair amount of power — reasons to consider switching to an SSD especially if you’re a laptop user. Spinning hard drives are also more delicate and prone to failure if they’re dropped too hard.

By comparison, SSDs contain a form of non-volatile computer memory. In other words, the information stays put on memory chips once it’s been written. That’s different than the regular RAM in your computer, which is reset when you turn off or restart the computer. Compared to HDDs, SSDs are more shock resistant and are not affected by magnetic fields.

SSD internals

For more about the difference between hard disk drives and SSDs, check out Hard Disk Drive vs. Solid State Drive: What’s the Diff? or our two-part series, HDD vs SSD: What Does the Future for Storage Hold?

Why Upgrade to an SSD?

The biggest difference is performance for most people between HDDs and SSD is performance. Replacing a hard drive with an SSD is one of the best things you can do to dramatically improve the performance of your older computer.

Samsung SSD

Samsung 850 SSD

Without any moving parts, SSDs operate more quietly, more efficiently, and with fewer parts to break than hard drives that have spinning platters. Read and write speeds for SSDs are much better than hard drives.

For you that means less time waiting for stuff to happen. An SSD is worth looking into if you’re frequently seeing a spinning wheel cursor on your computer screen. Modern operating systems increasingly depend on virtual memory management, which pages out temporary swap files to disk. The faster your drive, the less performance impact you’ll experience from this overhead.

If you have just one drive in your laptop or desktop, you could replace an HDD or small SSD with a one terabyte SSD for less than $150. If you’re a computer user with a great deal of data, replacing just the drive that holds your operating system and applications could provide a significant speed boost. Put your working data on additional internal or external hard drives, and you’re ready to tackle a mountain of photos, videos, or supersized databases. Just be sure to implement a backup plan to make sure you keep a copy of that data safe on additional local drives, network-attached drives, or the cloud.

Any Reasons Not to Upgrade to an SSD?

If SSDs are so much better than hard drives, why aren’t all drives SSDs? The two biggest reasons are cost and capacity. SSDs are more expensive than hard drives. A good 1 TB SSD might cost you $135. A comparable hard disk drive with twice the capacity will cost you about half that. SSDs aren’t yet available with the capacity of the largest hard disk drives, though they are getting bigger all the time. To store a great deal of data, hard drives are still the best solution.

Having said that, prices on SSDs have fallen sharply in the past few years and will continue to do so. But hard drive makers aren’t sitting still. They improve their technology every year. Basically, there’s an arms race going on that benefits you.

Whether your computer can use an SSD is another question. It all depends on the computer’s age and how it was designed. Let’s take a look at that question next.

How Do You Upgrade To An SSD?

Does your computer uses a regular off the shelf SATA (Serial ATA) hard disk drive? If so, you can upgrade it with an SSD. SSDs are compatible with both Macs and PCs. All current Mac laptops come with SSDs. Both iMac and Mac Pro come with SSD, as well. The iMacs are available with HDDs, SSDs, or Apple’s Fusion Drive, which combines an SSD with a hard disk drive.

Even if your computer already has an SSD, you may be able to upgrade it with a larger, faster SSD model. Besides SATA-based hard drive replacements, some later model PCs can be upgraded with M.2 SSDs, which look more like RAM chips than hard drives. Some Apple laptops made before 2016 that already shipped with SSDs can be upgraded with larger ones. However you will need to upgrade to a Mac specific SSD. Check Other World Computing and Transcend to find ones designed to work. The latest Mac laptop models have SSDs soldered to the motherboard, so you’re stuck with what you have.

M.2 SSD

M.2 SSD

Comfortable taking your computer apart? Upgrading it with an SSD is a pretty common do-it-yourself operation. Many companies now make plug-and-play SSD replacements for hard disk drives. Open up a new browser tab to Amazon.com or Newegg.com and you’ll have an embarrassment of riches. The choice is yours: Samsung, SanDisk, Crucial, and Toshiba are all popular SSD makers. There are many others too.

That said, if you don’t know what you’re doing it may not make sense to learn how. SSD upgrades are such a common aftermarket improvement most independent computer repair and service specialists will take on the task if you’re willing to pay them. Some throw in a data transfer if you’re lucky or a skilled negotiator. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendation. You can also hit up services like, Angie’s List or Amazon.com to find someone.

If you are DIY inclined, YouTube has tons of walkthroughs like this one for desktop PCs, this one for laptops, and this one aimed at Mac users.

SSD Drive Adapter

HDD/SSD to 3.5″ Drive Bay Adapter

Many SSDs replace 2.5-inch hard disk drives. Those are the same drives you find in laptop computers and even small desktop models. Have a desktop computer that uses a 3.5-inch hard drive? You may need to use a 2.5 inch-to-3.5 inch mounting adapter.

How to Migrate to an SSD

Buying a replacement SSD is the first step. Moving your data onto the SSD is the next step. To that end, you need two things: cloning software and an external drive case or drive sled or enclosure, which lets you connect the SSD to your computer through its USB port or another data transfer interface. The videos I pointed you to in the previous section go into some detail there.

Cloning software makes a bit-for-bit copy of your internal hard drive’s data. Once the data is transferred to the SSD, transplant the new drive into your computer and you should be good to go. I prefer to clone a hard drive onto an SSD whenever possible. If it’s done right, a cloned SSD is bootable, so it’s literally a plug-and-play experience. Just copying files between the two drives instead may not copy all the data you need to get the computer to boot with the new drive.

A new SSD, or even a new hard drive, is unlikely to come pre-populated with the operating system your computer needs. Cloning your existing hard drive fixes that. That may not be possible all the time, however. For example, maybe you’ve installed the SSD in a computer that previously had a bad hard drive. If so, you can do what’s called a clean install and start fresh. Each OS maker has different instructions. Here’s a link to Microsoft’s clean install procedure, and Apple’s Mac clean install instructions.

As we said at the outset, SSDs cost more per gigabyte than hard drives. You may not be able to afford as large an SSD as your current drive, so make sure your data will fit on your new drive. If it won’t, you might have to pare down first. Give yourself some wiggle room, too. The last thing you want to do is immediately max out your new, fast drive.

You’ve cloned your drive and moved the SSD into your computer. What do you do with the old drive? If it’s still working okay, consider reusing that external drive chassis that you bought to do the migration. Keep it as an external drive by itself or in a disk array such as a NAS. You can use it for local backup — something we strongly recommend doing in addition to using cloud backup like Backblaze. Or just use it for additional storage, like for your photos or music. We have detailed tips in blog posts for both Windows and Macintosh.

Make Sure To Back Up!

SSD upgrades are commonplace, but that doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong that can stop you dead in your tracks. If your computer is working fine before the SSD upgrade, make sure you have a complete backup of your computer to restore from in the event something goes wrong. Visit our Backup Guide for more help and info.

SSD can add pep to a computer that’s been gathering dust because it’s too slow and make it feel like brand new machine. Install an SSD and a fresh copy of the operating system, then download or order a restore from us, and you’ll feel a world of difference. Too bad they don’t make rejuvenators for people that work as well as SSDs!

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You might enjoy reading other posts in our SSD 101 series.

Roderick Bauer

Roderick Bauer

Content Director at Backblaze

Roderick has held marketing, engineering, and product management positions with Adobe, Microsoft, Autodesk, and several startups. He's consulted to Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Stanford University, Dell, the Pentagon, and the White House. He was a Ford-Mozilla Fellow in Media and Democracy with Common Cause in Washington, D.C., where he advocated for a free, open, and accessible internet for all, reducing media consolidation, and transparency in politics and the media.

He is Content Director for Backblaze.

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