Over the years, we've upgraded every nook and cranny of our rigs, from major parts like GPUs and CPUs, to minor things like trying different thermal pastes and swapping out case fans in an attempt to squeeze a few more degrees out of a rig's ambient air temperature. It's a bit OCD, we admit, but the point is, we've tried everything, and usually we're only able to see a small gain from our investment of time and elbow grease. That is not the case with SSDs, which deliver an eye-popping, profanity-inducing speed increase for relatively little cash outlay. If you've heard the hype about SSDs, we're here to tell you two things: First, the hype is real, and second, you need one in your system.
For the uninitiated, SSDs are solid-state drives, and they are like hard drives in that they store data, but instead of using slow, spinning platters, they are made from small slabs of quiet, fast memory. Adding an SSD to your rig can cut your boot time down to less than 10 seconds, and programs will open almost before you click the icon—they're that fast. In this feature, we'll tell you what you need to know to buy an SSD, how to upgrade, and how to take care of your new drive. An SSD will rock your rig's world, so let's jump right into it.
What to look for before pulling the trigger
The chip in the center is the controller, and it’s responsible for a drive’s performance
What truly differentiates every SSD is its controller, which is silicon with custom logic and firmware tailored by the manufacturer to meet specific performance and durability goals. Some manufacturers, like Samsung and OCZ, create their own controllers, while others, such as Seagate, Intel, Crucial, and Corsair (to name just a few), use a third-party controller along with their own custom firmware. We can't say that one approach is better than the other, but generally speaking, if a company’s controller is designed in-house, it’s not a stretch to imagine it would be able to more finely tune its firmware.
SSDs are available in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB, for the most part, and as a rule, performance increases with capacity. The reason why is that an SSD's controller has to erase a block before it can write to it, so if it already has data on it, the operation takes longer than just writing to an empty block. So, larger-capacity drives give the SSD controller a lot more “empty” blocks to work with, thereby increasing overall performance. It’s always nice to have some room to grow, too, so in general we recommend at least a 256GB drive, or a 512GB if you can swing it.
Over-provisioning is unique to SSDs, and is basically "missing capacity," for lack of a better phrase, that’s used to improve drive performance and endurance. When you see a drive listed as 240GB or 480GB instead of 256GB or 512GB, that’s because the extra space that is "missing" is being set aside. You cannot get this space back, nor can you ever access it. Instead, it's reserved so the SSD has a large block of relatively unused flash that it can use as a swap file, or for wear leveling. This is important since NAND flash has a finite number of program/erase cycles. In general, having an extra 16GB–32GB of NAND just for file management allows the SSD to better maintain its overall performance over time.
When you delete a file on an SSD, it doesn't really get deleted. Instead, the drive's controller marks the block as "garbage" and will delete it when it has time to do so, typically when the drive is sitting idle. If you have too many undeleted blocks of data on your drive, performance suffers, since each block has to be deleted before it can be written to. "Garbage collection" helps prevent this. It's supported on all SSDs natively that we are aware of, and runs on its own schedule. In addition, Windows will also periodically send the Trim command to the drive, which basically tells the drive to discard any deleted data. Windows 8 will let you manually Trim an SSD (right-click the drive and go to Properties > Tools > Optimize) but Windows 7 users just have to assume it's occurring. However, we'll tell you how to make sure it's working below.
It’s a little-known fact that some SSDs include extremely useful software that lets you monitor the drive’s health and optimize it. Granted, there aren’t a lot of times when you want to check in on your SSD, just like the hard drive before it. You just want it to work, basically, and not be bothered with the details. However, it can be useful from a performance perspective to be able to ensure the drive is operating in tip-top shape. Right now, the only SSDs with top-tier software are from Intel and Samsung, though Corsair and OCZ do have rudimentary software packages.
For the past year or so, all the fastest SSDs have been bottlenecked by the SATA 6Gb/s interface, so when you see a drive hitting 520MB/s or so in read speeds, that means it's saturating the interface. You can get around this by running a few drives in RAID 0, or by using an SSD that caches data to your system's DRAM, but generally speaking, we're all waiting for the next-gen interface to arrive. That interface is named SATA Express, and it's due to arrive sometime in late 2014 or early 2015 with Intel's next-generation 9-series chipset. Until then, we all have to hold tight, but we don't recommend waiting to upgrade until then.
Samsung and Intel offer excellent drive-monitoring software.
Click the next page to read what you need to know before you upgrade to an SSD.
Like any major PC overhaul, planning and preparation is required
This is the first big question: Do you want to clone your existing OS installation to your new SSD (if you are even able to do so), or start fresh with a clean installation? There's no "right" answer here, and we'll walk you through both choices on the next pages, but here are some things to keep in mind. First, if your existing OS installation is larger than the SSD you have acquired, that’s a problem for obvious reasons. Second, cloning an existing installation typically requires the use of third-party software (not a huge deal, but still something to consider), and if you have an OEM-built partition from Dell, HP, Toshiba, or other PC manufacturer, there are many steps to cloning the partition.
Due to the somewhat complex nature of cloning an OS to a new volume and having it be bootable, we recommend simply starting fresh and reinstalling your OS. Besides, since the ultimate goal of this whole operation is a performance boost, nothing is faster than a fresh install of Windows, and on a brand-new SSD it'll be astonishingly fast.
Since SSDs have no moving parts and don't emit any heat or noise, you can pretty much stick them anywhere inside your PC case and they'll be fine. We're not proud of it, but we have let a few dangle on the floor of our PC case in the past and nothing bad happened. To mount it properly though, you'll want to attach the drive to a 3.5-inch hard drive bay—in most newer cases there will be holes for 2.5-inch drives. In an older case, you are likely to need an adapter. Some SSDs even include 3.5-inch drive bay adapters, though it's not terribly common. Cooling is not a concern, as SSDs rarely get more than slightly warm to the touch, even after prolonged use.
Cloning your existing OS to a new SSD is the fastest way to get up and running, but it may not be easy, or possible.
You might not have paid attention to which drives were connected to which ports on your motherboard previously, but you will definitely need to do so if you want to extract maximum performance from your SSD. On modern Intel chipsets only specific ports are able to perform at SATA 6Gb/s speeds; typically they are a different color than the slower SATA 3Gb/s ports. There might also be two Marvell-based SATA 6Gb/s ports. We recommend you consult your manual to figure out which ones are the native Intel ports, and use those for best results. All the ports are SATA 6Gb/s on AMD's FX boards, so you can plug away without hesitation.
SATA 6Gb/s ports are distinctly colored on your mobo.
We’ve been upgrading PCs since just after the Proterozoic era, and in all that time we have only witnessed two truly quantum leaps in PC performance. The first was the leap from software to hardware rendering for 3D games, and the second was when we went from dial-up modems to broadband. Both of those “upgrades” made us say to ourselves, “Holy sh*t,” while we stood there with our mouths agape. We got the same feeling the first time we booted a PC with an SSD. Granted, the first wave of 3.5-inch SSDs weren't the fastest, and they were outrageously priced, but the experience of seeing the Windows log-in screen within just a few seconds, and then seeing programs load almost instantly, brought tears of joy to our eyes. To give you some numbers, a typical 7,200rpm drive takes 10ms to find a file; an SSD takes .01ms. An SSD boots Windows in 10 seconds versus 60 seconds on a hard drive. You can install Windows 7 to an SSD in 10 minutes. Yes, it's ridiculously fast, and the first time you see an SSD in action, you will never, ever go back to a spinning hard drive for your OS.
Click the next page to see how to perform a fresh install of your OS on to the SSD.
A clean install of Windows will guarantee maximum performance
Before you begin your OS install, disconnect all other drives and volumes from your system, leaving only your optical drive attached. This helps eliminate confusion and reduces the possibility of you accidentally formatting a drive that is full of data. Windows also freaks out sometimes during installation if there are other drives attached, and by freaks out we mean it acts really weird, and might prevent you from installing your OS to the SSD. We've Lab-verified this "weird" behavior, too, so always fly SSD commando when installing your OS. We also recommend leaving the door off your PC case during the installation, so you can easily reconnect everything once it's finished.
Once your SSD is installed in a drive bay (or stuffed somewhere inside the case) using the previously discussed methods, attach the SATA cable to a SATA 6Gb/s port, and a power cable to the PSU. With your SSD secure, power on the system and head into the BIOS by mashing the Delete key as soon as the system comes to life. Next, navigate to the section that gives you the option to change the behavior of the SATA controller. You are going to need to switch it from IDE to AHCI. You must do this before installing the OS to the SSD, as it becomes a bit difficult to do it after the fact.
With your SATA controller set to AHCI mode, reboot with just the SSD and optical drive attached. Next, hit F11 or F12 (consult your manual) to select your boot volume, and choose the drive with the Windows installation files on it (i.e., the optical drive). Just follow the prompts from there. Once installation is finished, reconnect your old hard drive and any other drives. When you're back in Windows you should have a fresh installation of Windows on your SSD and your old installation of Windows and all your data on your old hard drive. We'll show you how to properly navigate this new operating environment with respect to your "user" files below.
One "issue" with Windows is that it puts all your data files (music, documents, etc.) into a folder named Users. This is great for a single, large drive, but can create problems in multi-drive systems like the one you have now—but more on that later. For now, you will want to go and grab your desktop files by opening your old drive and navigating to Drive/users/username/desktop. You can also grab your browser's bookmarks too, so hit up Google to find the location used by your specific browser. Install any drivers and programs you need but hold off on Steam for now.
Click the next page to learn how to clean your existing OS on to an SSD.
If you can squeeze your old OS onto your new SSD, go for it
To begin, connect only the SSD and the cloning source drive to simplify the procedure. Once just the two drives are connected it’s a simple matter of following the prompts provided by your program of choice, but to demonstrate, we'll be using a free program (for home users) named XXClone that we've used in the past with great success. Once you fire up the program it’ll scan your partitions and let you choose the cloning source and target. If you want to make the clone bootable you’ll need to check a box under Cool Tools labeled "Make Bootable," which copies the MBR, BOOT.ini file and the boot sector to the target volume.
Once you’ve confirmed your source and target, feel free to proceed with the cloning. It’ll show you a “this is your last chance to stop” warning, so for the love of Pete, please make sure you have selected the proper target and source. The program we are using encourages users to use volume labels on the drives instead of just C:\ and D:\, so please, please, please use them. We have inadvertently wiped out entire OS installations with cloning mistakes, so please be cautious. The cloning operation will typically take about 15–30 minutes, so go grab some coffee.
Folks who have a pre-built system may want to clone their factory-fresh OS installation, but a lot of times systems do not come with Windows on a disc. Also, some OEMs take measures to protect their factory restores and keep them hidden from view. Other systems allow you to see the recovery partition, but you can’t clone it using software. Here’s a workaround. Use the built-in Recovery software to create a recovery disc. Next, just replace your hard drive with the SSD and run the recovery program. It should restore your OS in factory condition with all drivers intact, and you’ll be good to go.
When moving an image from a hard drive to an SSD, you need to make sure both are “4K aligned” or performance can suffer. If you do a fresh install of the OS you never have to worry about this, but it can be a problem when transferring an install to a disk with partitions. You can check your drive’s alignment by opening a command prompt and typing wmic partition get Name, StartingOffset. Take the number it gives you and divide by 4,096; if that results in an even number, you are aligned. If you’re not, most SSD manufacturers provide software alignment tools that can help.
Tips on getting your new drive to work with your old drive
We recommend keeping your user data on the large hard drive, and just linking to it from your new OS installation.
All installations of Windows have a Users folder that stores all your music, movies, documents, and pictures. As you can imagine, this folder can get quite large over time, so it's best to keep it off the SSD, as your SSD might not be large enough to hold all that data. Plus, in this scenario, all of this data already exists on your older hard drive, so we're going to keep it where it resides (on the hard drive) and just change the links to it within the OS. We'll show you how for one folder, then let you repeat it for the rest of the folders. On Windows 7, you can start by clicking the Start button, hovering over any of the user data links (music, movies, documents, or pictures), right-click, and select Properties. Next, click the button labeled “Include a folder...” and navigate to the folder on your old hard drive, which will typically be D:\Users\username\music, etc. Select that older folder, then highlight it in the window and click "Set save location." You can then select the Music folder on the C drive and click "remove." Click OK to save and you're done. Repeat these steps for the other links. Now when you click any of the links within the OS to user data, it'll open the folders on the hard drive.
If you're like us, your Steam folder is Xbox huge, so we want to keep it on the old hard drive so that it doesn't saturate our shiny new SSD. This is rather simple actually, as you can just install Steam and when it prompts you for the installation location you can point to the hard drive and it should be able to "discover" the files that are already there and transition to that drive. If you already have Steam installed on your C drive and want to move it to the D drive, just do the following. Exit Steam, then open your Steam folder (C:\program files\Steam) and delete everything in the folder except the \steamapps folder, which is where all your games are stored. Copy and paste the folder into the new location (D:\games\Steam, for example), and rename the old folder but don’t delete it, just in case. When you launch Steam it should find the new location, update itself, and all new games will be installed to this location going forward.
Once you are up and running you're going to want to check to make sure the Trim command is working. We can't say definitely that things would be bad if it wasn't, as the drive's built-in garbage collection routine should be able to accomplish the same goal, but it's good housekeeping to have it enabled. To do that, type cmd in the Start box in Windows, then right-click and select “Run as administrator.” Next, type fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify and see what value is returned. A "0" means it's working, a "1" means it's not. If the value is 1, type fsutil behavior set DisableDeleteNotify 0 to turn it on, then run the original query again to make sure it's enabled. Now you're Trimming!
Checking to see if Trim is enabled requires a simple DOS query (hell yeah, old school).
All the top SSDs benchmarked and compared
If you have the patience to comb through the chart below, you'll notice a few patterns. First, all the drives with five-year warranties are the top performers in every benchmark, and there's a reason for that. A five-year warranty is pretty much the calling card of the premium drives, so those drives are the best of the best. In addition to a super-long warranty, these drives also offer highly tuned controllers and high-quality NAND flash, hence the premium performance across the board. Our Best of the Best drive in the top tier is the Samsung 840 Pro, as it has class-leading performance, is priced competitively, and features a software package that’s head-and-shoulders above anything the competition offers. Also, we have to add a note here about OCZ drives, because as we went to press the company was in the process of being sold to Toshiba. It obviously doesn't affect the Vector's smokin' performance, but warranty support is somewhat of a question mark, so we'd steer clear of that drive until the matter is settled.
At the end of the day, the truth is that any modern SSD will feel extremely fast, especially if you've never used one before. You honestly won’t be able to feel the difference between 500MB/s and 429MB/s on a day-to-day basis, so choose a drive you can afford that you think will be reliable, and as always, back up any data you have that is crucial, because any drive can fail at any time. The fact is, SSDs are just as prone to failure as spinning drives. In our experience, they have become more reliable as their technology matures, but as always, do your research before you buy.
Samsung 840 Pro
||Corsair Neutron GTX||SanDisk Extreme II||Plextor M5 Pro||OCZ Vector||Samsung 840 Evo (Rapid Mode)||Samsung 840 Evo (Normal Mode)||Crucial M500||Seagate 600||Intel 335|
||MDX||LAMD||Marvell 88SS9187||Marvell 88SS9187||Barefoot 3||MEX||MEX||Marvell 88SS9187||LAMD||SF-2281|
||5 years||5 years||5 years||5 years||5 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years*||3 years|
|Avg. Sustained Read (MB/s)||534||441||521||534||502||594||519||480||515||470|
|Avg. Sustained Write (MB/s)||514||478||484||451||499||591||500||422||462||240|
|AS SSD - Compressed Data|
|Avg. Sustained Read (MB/s)||513||507||511||510||507||855||506||493||510||510|
|Avg. Sustained Write (MB/s)||495||475||425||443||494||1,002||496||408||435||214|
|64KB File Read (MB/s)||524||345||525||479||511||519||494||502||526||430|
|64KB File Write (MB/s, 4QD)||497||485||493||371||480||659||510||422||465||502|
4KB Random Write 32QD
|PCMark Vantage x64||75,205||67,426||38,093||78,218||75,863||100,797||57,306||71,619||58,145||47,571|
|Sony Vegas Pro 9 Write (sec)||294||286||275||340||314||272||277||485||322||634|
Best scores are bolded. All tests conducted on our hard drive test bench, which consists of a Gigabyte Z77X-UP4 motherboard, Intel Core i5-3470 3.2GHz CPU, 8GB of RAM, Intel 520 Series SSD, and a Cooler Master 450W power supply.
*Seagate covers the drive for 73TB of writes or 3 years, whichever comes first.