Best way to upgrade to a Solid State Drive?
July 30, 2012 1:18 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to go about installing a solid state drive in a new laptop? (And is this even a good idea?)

After six years of solid service from my workhorse Dell Latitude, the combination of wonky ports, depleted battery, slowing performance, and an intermittent Disk Click of Doom has convinced me it's time to finally upgrade. Luckily, I found a great deal on a snazzy new IdeaPad Y580. According to this exhaustive review, it's got everything I'm looking for: decent screen, powerful CPU and GPU, similar form factor, and priced hundreds less than comparable machines elsewhere.

The only real flaw is storage. I've heard phenomenal things about SSDs -- lightning speed, low heat/noise emissions, shockproof, etc. -- and definitely wanted to make one the centerpiece of any new laptop purchase. But the Y580 only ships with a standard mechanical drive, which the review identifies as a significant performance bottleneck in an otherwise speedy package.

One potential solution is to go for the premium model, which includes a 32GB "caching" SSD as a supplement to a whopping 1TB mechanical drive. But I get the impression that such a set-up isn't nearly as responsive as an all-SSD environment -- faster boot-up, maybe, but not a "Best. Upgrade. Ever." system-wide turbo boost. I'd also like to avoid, in light of aforementioned Disk Click of Doom, returning to the relative frailty of physical drives for storing all my files. (And frankly, I don't fully understand how one manages a hybrid set-up. Installing the OS in one drive and media files in another? Where do programs go? It sounds awkward.)

Given these misgivings, what I'd really like to do is just buy a lower-tier Y580 with a small HDD, use the savings to acquire a full SSD separately (256GB sounds good), and swap it in when the new laptop arrives. But this has complications of its own. So here are my core questions:

- What's the most reliable ~256GB drive available today? Not necessarily the fastest -- the difference between SSD models is peanuts compared to the step up from HDDs -- but the one most likely to last at least a few years, given reports of perilously high failure rates in earlier years. Intel is the most respected name and offers a five-year warranty, but they're relatively pricey at well over $1 per GB, so I'd be interested in hearing about other brands with respectable track records (as well as those with high failure rates to steer clear of)

- What's the best way to install a new SSD in a new laptop? Should I clone the stock hard disk to the SSD with a migration tool, or would it be better to just install Windows 7 on it fresh? What about transferring files from my old laptop? What's the process for swapping out the drives themselves? Also, are there any tweaks I should do to the SSD that would normally be done by Lenovo pre-shipment in order to optimize it and prolong its lifespan?

- Is there any reason I shouldn't prefer a large SSD over the hybrid HDD+caching SSD? Apart from sheer cost, obvs. I'm really trying to "future proof" this purchase and get the biggest possible performance leap that will last a good number of years, but if a hybrid drive offers ~90% of the speed of an SSD or avoids some major pitfall, then I might be willing to settle. I'd really like to shockproof my data and reduce noise/heat/power consumption, though, so it would have to be a pretty big pitfall.
posted by Rhaomi to Technology (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Should I clone the stock hard disk to the SSD with a migration tool, or would it be better to just install Windows 7 on it fresh?

The first thing I do any time I buy a new laptop is to pop in the system install disk, wipe the drive, and start fresh. All that crapware that comes with the thing? Do Not Want. You can get files from your old laptop over the network once you're up and running, but I see approximately zero reason to keep what's on there to start. If you're comfortable enough to talk about installing your own hardware in a laptop, you can do this.

So pop out the old drive, pop in the new one, and start from scratch. Of course, I'd familiarize yourself with the BIOS before you did this...
posted by valkyryn at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

- What's the most reliable ~256GB drive available today?
Don't have a direct answer on this one, but check reviews at sites like Anandtech and TomsHardware. User reviews at places like Newegg are generally helpful, taking into account that people with bad experiences are much more likely to leave a review (so don't let a handful of 1-egg reviews spoil the brand for you).
One thing I do recommend is to verify the connection type in the laptop - SATA II or SATA III - and get a matching SSD. No reason to pay extra for a speedier SSD if the laptop will bottleneck that at SATA II speed limits.

- What's the best way to install a new SSD in a new laptop? Should I clone the stock hard disk to the SSD with a migration tool, or would it be better to just install Windows 7 on it fresh?
It's probably best to go with a fresh install, to avoid bloatware and strange settings on the OEM image. You should try to download the hardware drivers from the manufacturer's website in advance, if possible. If you can't get all the drivers in advance, Windows will probably find the correct specific driver after boot - Windows 7 is so much better at this than previous versions. If you are so inclined, you can boot off the OEM image when you first get the laptop and use a program to backup those drivers.

What about transferring files from my old laptop?
You can connect over the network to transfer files once the new laptop is up and running, or if you opt to use an external drive for some of your media and/or as a local backup, you can backup your files now before your current machine dies, and copy them over from the external at your leisure.

Also, are there any tweaks I should do to the SSD
Probably not any tweaks to be made to the SSD itself, but there are several settings within Windows you can/should change to both increase performance on a SSD as well as extend its life. Search "Windows 7 SSD tweaks" and you'll get some good resources on this.

- Is there any reason I shouldn't prefer a large SSD over the hybrid HDD+caching SSD?
The only reason to prefer a hybrid approach is for storage space. If you don't have hundreds of GBs of music, videos, etc, then you should be fine with the SSD. My rule of thumb is that your fresh install, including all your media, documents, and programs (office, photoshop, games, etc) should still leave at least 30% of the new drive free. If less, you should either look into a larger SSD, go the hybrid route, or offload media to an external drive.
posted by trivia genius at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2012

I've been using SSDs with laptops now for many, many years, and am very satisfied with them overall - although I've never actually installed any of them myself as they came with the computers. The biggest drawback in my opinion is that when they fail, in my experience, this failure tends to be immediate and total - a HDD may give you a little bit of time to pull data before it fails. I've had two or three of these failures.

I wouldn't bother trying to copy your existing install to the new drive - I'd just install Windows from scratch. In the worst case, you can put the old drive back in temporarily if you need to download a driver you absolutely need, I guess.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:32 PM on July 30, 2012

Make sure that the new machine you're buying can use an SSD with the OEM cable, or that you can purchase the correct cable from the SSD vendor. Usually, these guys have a configurator you can use to determine such things. Also, verify that the SSD will slot in to the form factor the old drive occupies. Again, SSD vendors sometimes have little cages that you can use to fill in extra space. I've done an SSD swap with a couple of aging notebooks and managed to get a couple of years of additional use out of them.
posted by Izzy at 2:49 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: WindowsSecrets has a very good description of installing an after-market SSD in a portable computer, including fixes for some unxepected problems.
posted by KRS at 3:59 PM on July 30, 2012

What's the most reliable ~256GB drive available today?

Prices across the board have been falling. Mushkin seems to be leading the price wars - they have good customer service, they're based in Colorado, and iirc, they do some of the manufacturing there instead of overseas.

What's the best way to install a new SSD in a new laptop?

So you already bought the IdeaPad? If you buy directly from Lenovo, they can pre-install it for you.

If you're installing a new copy of Win7, it'll automatically detect the drive and you won't have to do anything to it. if you're re-imaging from a recovery disc, I don't know if it'll autodetect the SSD. If you're cloning a drive, you'll want to align the SSD before imaging your new drive.

Defraggler and Puran Defrag are free - and you might need them to make all your data on your original drive contiguous to fit into the new SSD.

Is there any reason I shouldn't prefer a large SSD over the hybrid HDD+caching SSD?

For the IdeaPad, you can get HDD caddies that fit into the bay that normally houses the optical drive. The SSD goes where the HDD normally goes. I bought a optical drive caddy from eBay and have it as an external USB. Best of all worlds (although you won't get the battery life boost from only having an SSD, but you can turn off the caddied HDD in windows).
posted by porpoise at 4:12 PM on July 30, 2012

Just to address one potential misunderstanding / thing you hadn't thought of, there is such a thing as a hybrid SSD / mechanical hard drive seamlessly integrated into one package, for example the Seagate Momentus XT. This is specifically in response to your comment that "I don't fully understand how one manages a hybrid set-up" - with these hybrid drives, you just pop it in and go, because the SSD caching is entirely handled by logic on the drive. There is no special configuration or file selection, etc.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:24 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: - What's the most reliable ~256GB drive available today?
Samsung 830, Crucial m4, and Intel 520's are all considered pretty reliable these days. My understanding is that Samsung, while a newer player, has been very stable - their previous series, the 470's, was the OEM drive for many Dell/Lenovo/Apples IIRC and had pretty great reliability. I've heard nothing to contradict that track record on the 830's. (They also have a sale on some of them on newegg ending today btw, and I think the m4's are on sale also through's ebay page. I've been, uh, contemplating one of these drives myself) Tom's hardware, as previously mentioned, does a 'Best SSD for the Money' review monthly, here's July's. They do tend to prioritize speed over reliability, however.

- What's the best way to install a new SSD in a new laptop?
So their's easy and there's best. Easy, honestly, is this: Use your system restore utility to write the Lenovo restore partition to a couple of DVD's through the built in system restore utility. Then, swap hard drives, double check that your bios settings are properly set up for the SSD (google this with your bios/SSD type to double check that there is nothing specific against the general recommendations ...), and throw in the restore DVD's, 'restoring your drive to factory condition' or some such. This will essentially reinstall lenovo's OEM windows instillation onto your new SSD. Then, run through one of the many Windows SSD tweak guides available through google, and uninstall everything that lenovo installs. They are actually pretty good about bloatware crap compared to dell & hp, although they still do it.

Best practice as people said above is similar, but you'll need the windows 7 key on the bottom of your computer and a windows 7 image to install it from instead of the lenovo restore disks. You'll also want to burn a disc full of hardware drivers downloaded from the lenovo website (plus graphics drivers and intel chipset drivers at least , and probably a virus scanner) before you do this.

- Is there any reason I shouldn't prefer a large SSD over the hybrid HDD+caching SSD? No, the hybrid caching solution (you are talking about the Mechanical HD with built in SSD for caching, right?) generally speaking isn't preferable - especially on a laptop where mechanical failure is an issue. The primary gains there are boot times, popping out of sleep, and situations where you tend to operate with the same files or a sequence of files. Useful, but not as much as a SSD and not generally worth the price over a mechanical HD vs SSD imo.
posted by McSwaggers at 4:33 PM on July 30, 2012

Oh, also, I know that you said that a SSD + HD sounds awkward, but I'de urge you to consider it anyways. Because essentially, unless you're one to keep a regular complete backup image a 2 HD system looks a lot like a 1 HD system with a windows + data partition (although keep backups, still, please); which is a common way to keep your HD set up so that you can easily completely wipe and reinstall windows without necessarily losing all of your data. So the way it works is you put Windows plus all of your programs on the SSD, and your personal files on the HD. Basically configure your browser of choice to download there, store any music/video/photos there, and save files there. You can optionally put your windows user directory there as well with a little bit of registry trickery. But basically what this does is give you the speed boost of the SSD, plus not let you worry about filling it up with large media files. You can reinstall windows without worrying about losing data, and you also probably only need a ~128 gb SSD in this case.

And, with that laptop you would have two ways of doing that. You may swap your optical drive out with an aftermarket bay that lets you put a HD in that spot instead - you would basically put the new SSD where your current HD is, and your mechanical HD in the new caddy in your optical bay. These are pretty cheap, although I have no specific recommendations. You can also find enclosures to turn your now removed optical drive into an external optical drive. If you want to get real fancy you might even be able to do a RAID configuration of SSD's (2 SSDs, configured to work in tandem for either faster access speed and additive storage or extra reliability where one SSD mirrors the other) although I havent tried this so do some research first.

Alternatively, lenovo is fairly rare for large laptops in that they have a fully functional (and empty!) msata port in the y-series. It's also a 6 GB/s one, so the same speed as your other SATA ports. What this means is that you can put a mSATA SSD inside your laptop while keeping your HD in it's current spot and your optical drive. The downside of these is that they are smaller (physically, I mean - they are what are used in many ultrabooks) so they are a bit more expensie per gb, and you can't really find them with storage greater than ~256 GB. But you can have it all that way, so it is kind of neat - SSD recommendations will vary for this configuration.
posted by McSwaggers at 5:08 PM on July 30, 2012

- What's the most reliable ~256GB drive available today?

Intel 520-series, probably. The Intel SSDs are incredibly reliably compared to much of the competition, including OCZ, Corsair and a bunch of smaller brands. Source: RMA data from a major online retailer.
posted by thewalrus at 5:47 PM on July 30, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtful and cogent answers, everybody. Bonus points to McSwaggers for pointing out the Samsung 830 SSD, which sounds ideal:
Samsung is a dangerous competitor in the SSD space. Not only does it make its own controller, DRAM and NAND, but it also has an incredible track record in terms of reliability. Samsung SSDs were among the first I reviewed and while they weren't anywhere near the fastest back then, every last one of those drives is still working without issue in my lab today. It's also worth pointing out that Samsung SSDs are also one of the two options Apple rebrands and delivers in its Mac lineup. To continue to hold on to Apple's business for this long is an impressive feat on Samsung's part.
I've gone ahead and placed an order for a Y580 with the minimum 500GB hard drive, and am shopping around for a 256GB Samsung SSD to replace it. Figuring in the money saved via Lenovo's weekly sale, my employer's discount program, free shipping, and getting a new SSD on the cheap from eBay, the finished product comes out better spec'd than Vizio's fizzled notebook and $500 cheaper than Dell's new XPS 15 (the two machines I was looking at originally). And I figure the new hard drive I swap out can act as a free external drive for big media storage and the occasional back-up, though the suggestion to install an SDD in place of the optical drive rather than the hard drive sounds intriguing.

Also, a little off-topic, but regarding this:
If you want to get real fancy you might even be able to do a RAID configuration of SSD's (2 SSDs, configured to work in tandem for either faster access speed and additive storage or extra reliability where one SSD mirrors the other) although I havent tried this so do some research first.
I urge everybody to check out this staggering 24-SSD RAID set-up. Come for the 53 programs launching in 18 seconds, stay for the 700MB movie ripping to storage faster than one can throw the physical DVD out the window.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:53 PM on July 31, 2012


The laptop and SSD came in yesterday -- installation was a little harrowing, but no major issues there.

I used a USB stick to backup the drivers (via DriverMax) over to my old computer, then used this official Windows 7 ISO image and this tool to create a bootable installation of the OS on the USB stick. Installation went OK, save for a minor heart attack moment when I forgot to change the boot order to USB first and the laptop started BEEPBEEPBEEPing as it tried to load an OS that wasn't there.

Afterwards, Drivermax installed and updated the necessary drivers, and I used Ninite to install most of the programs I needed.

As for tweaks, the Samsung SSD came with a link to free Samsung SSD Magician software that did all the tweaks like disabling defragmentation that would help extend the life of the drive.

Anyway, everything runs buttery smooth. Now I just need to get all my programs set up again!
posted by Rhaomi at 2:00 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

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