Two SSD kits make disk upgrades easy

With solid-state disk (SSD) drives becoming more popular for laptops, users may find themselves in the position of upgrading the hard disk drive (HDD) in an older machine to get the reliability and speed that comes with flash memory technology. Most people probably don't want to start from scratch by installing a fresh version of an operating system -- along with all the additional applications and drivers -- so upgrade kits can come in handy.

I've reviewed a variety of hard drives and SSDs in recent years, so when Imation Corp. suggested I use one of its kits to install its SSD, I figured it would make the change-out a bit easier. It did -- vastly. The whole process took about 15 minutes and transferred an exact image of my existing HDD onto the SSD drive that worked perfectly.

Note: These instructions are mainly for Windows-based machines, although there's information for Mac users below.

Normally, when I get an SSD, I format it and download a fresh copy of Windows XP or Vista onto it, and then add any files and device drivers I may need before beginning benchmark tests. By using imaging software, I don't have to wait on the lengthy Windows download and then use a separate flash key to add drivers -- not to mention my benchmark software and the other files that I use to test I/O.

There are a few of these drive upgrade kits on the market. None are specific to SSDs or traditional HDDs; the only differentiator is whether the kit comes with one or the other type of drive.

Tested: Imation, Kingston kits

Imation's upgrade SSD kit starts at $238 and comes with a 2.5-in M-Class (M stands for mobile) 64GB drive. The 128GB SSD upgrade kit goes for about $372. That's the one I tested.

By comparison, you can purchase Kingston's SSDNow V-Series Notebook Upgrade Kit with a 128GB SSD drive on Amazon.com for $249.

Upgrade kits come with some pretty standard items: a USB to serial ATA (SATA) converter cable, a power supply, a CD containing imaging software and, of course, an SSD drive. Imation's kit comes with Acronis' True Image HD software, which took approximately 14 minutes to image my existing hard disk drive with 37.5GB of data on it to Imation's SSD. The process is utterly painless, and I highly recommend using Acronis' imaging software. It's very intuitive and easy to use.

Be forewarned: The Acronis software is for Windows only. If you're using a Mac, the best way to do the upgrade is to make a backup of your hard drive with Time Machine -- Apple's built-in backup app. Then swap out the old hard drive for the new SSD. You'll need to start up the computer using your OS installation disk. (Just hold down the C key while restarting your Mac after you put in the DVD.) Once you've started up from the DVD, use Disk Utility to format the SSD, reinstall the OS, and when asked whether you want to restore data from a Time Machine backup, do so.

You can create your own upgrade kit a la cart by purchasing a USB-to-SATA cable separately for about $25 and then either purchasing imaging software or downloading a freeware version. Acronis' True Image software can be had for about $40. That method affords flexibility in which type of SSD you choose. However, if you're the type of person who likes pancake mix in a box, an SSD upgrade kit is a good way to go.

How to make the swap

To start the process of swapping out your old HDD for a shiny, new SSD, you need to boot your computer with the Acronis imaging CD in the drive. This brings up a main menu, allowing you to either continue on to Acronis' True Copy application or boot into your OS. Once you choose Acronis, you get a menu of items that includes Backup, Recovery, Clone Disk or "pick another tool" such as validating a backup or adding a new disk to your system.

Next, plug in the USB-to-SATA adapter cable into your computer's USB port, and attach the SATA end to the SSD drive. Then plug in the power cable and attach that to the SSD as well. (The computer's USB connection will not power the SSD; it only the powers converter on the cable.)

Using the Acronis application, I had to choose to "add another disk" to my system because I found all my drive letters were already in use when I booted my system. The process of adding that additional drive is painless; the app will take care of the task with a single mouse click. If your system has spare drive letters, you won't need to worry about it.

Next, choose "Clone Disk" from the menu. The software automatically discovers your C: drive and the SSD drive connected to the USB port. It will then ask you to choose the source drive and the target drive -- choose the C: drive as the source.

The application then shows the two drives that will be active in the cloning and asks if you want to "proceed." You do. The process of cloning is not the same as a "copying," and it will take a relatively short time to occur, depending on the amount of data on your source drive. The more data, the longer it will take. The computer will automatically shut down once the cloning is completed.

Next, you'll want to power up your computer. You can either remove the CD as the system is booting, or just choose the "Windows" option when the menu comes up and remove the disk after that.

I reboot my computer only to check that the C: drive is still functioning properly and to remove the CD. Otherwise, you can begin the physical change-out of the drives right away.

Installing the SSD

To do that, you'll need to shut down your computer and unplug it from the power source. Follow the instructions from the computer's manufacturer for taking out the drive, then swap in the SSD. With some laptops you'll need to actually plug a SATA and power cable back into the drive, but with most there's a fixed housing the drive plugs into. Boot up. You should notice no difference in your machine's configuration. It should look exactly as it did before you changed drives, but it should be faster.

Imation makes an SSD M-Class upgrade kit for laptops with 2.5-in. drives and an S-Class kit for desktop PCs with 3.5-in. drives. The M-Class SSD has a sequential read rate of 150MB/sec. and a sequential write rate of 90MB/sec., while the S-Class has a read rate of 130MB/sec. and sequential write rate of 120MB/sec.

The M-Class SSD can sustain 9,500 sequential write I/Os per second (IOPS) and the S-Class, 51,000; the M-Class can sustain 71,000 sequential read IOPS and the S-Class 83,000.

Perhaps more important is the random write IOPS. That's because most operating systems and file systems are not able to write sequentially to a drive once it begins to fill with data. The M-Class drive has a write performance of 380 IOPS, and the S-Class 130. The M-Class has a read performance rate of 6,000 IOPS and the S-Class 19,000.

Regardless of the drive, I like these kits for two reasons: They offer an all-inclusive way to upgrade your computer quickly, using pretested tools. And if you ever want to upgrade the same machine again or upgrade another machine, all you need to do is buy the new drive and you can reuse the converter cable and software.

This story, "Two SSD kits make disk upgrades easy" was originally published by Computerworld.

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