SSD 101: How to Upgrade Your Computer With An SSD

By | December 20th, 2016

SanDisk Solid State Drive

Is your computer performing slowly, 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 SSD (Solid-State Drive) is one of the most cost-effective changes you can make. It’ll totally change your computing experience. That said there are some practical challenges you’ll need to consider before you do, so let’s answer some questions about SSDs.

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.

Those disks spin on central motors, and those motors 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 – additional reasons to consider an SSD switch 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.

For more about the difference between hard disk drives and SSDs, check out Hard Disk Drive vs. Solid State Drive: What’s the Diff?

Why upgrade to an SSD?

The biggest difference 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

Without any moving parts, SSDs operate more quietly, more efficiently and with fewer parts to break than old-fashioned spinning hard drives. 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 from this sort of activity.

Why Wouldn’t I Use An SSD?

If SSDs are so much better than hard drives, why aren’t they everywhere, and why aren’t more people using them? The biggest reason is price. The cost per gigabyte, more specifically. SSDs are a lot more expensive than hard drives. A good 500 GB SSD might cost you $180. A comparable hard disk drive with twice the capacity will cost you less than half that. SSDs also don’t have the same maximium capacity as hard disk drives. If you need to store a lot of data, hard drives may be the only solution right for you.

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. Later-model Macs, especially the laptops, already have SSDs built in. If you’re using a Retina MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air or a 2015 or later MacBook, you’re already rockin’ SSD inside. The 2013 and later Mac Pro also comes with its own SSD. Some Mac minis and iMacs also have 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

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 replacements 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 are willing to 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 Hire A Computer Tech 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

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. 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.

Make Sure To Back Up!

If you have a computer that’s been gathering dust because of a blown hard drive, or just one that’s gotten too slow to use, SSDs can make them pep up like brand new machines. Install an SSD and a fresh copy of the operating system, then order a restore from us if you’d like to populate it with your backup data.

SSD upgrades are commonplace, but that doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong that can’t 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.

Peter Cohen
Peter will never give you up, never let you down, never run around or desert you. He also manages the Backblaze blog.

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