How to install an SSD in your laptop without losing your data

Gaining one of the largest performance improvements you can get for your laptop

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It’s a shame that such a large percentage of laptops still come with slow, 5400 RPM, mechanical hard drives. A solid state hard drive not only boosts performance substantially, but also improves battery life and the longevity of the system.

You probably already know the benefits of an SSD by now, they’re not exactly new after all. A mechanical hard drive is usually the first bottleneck in a modern system so swapping it for an SSD is the quickest way to boost the performance of your computer. In desktops this procedure is pretty straight forward as you have extra internal bays that you can connect additional drives to. In a laptop it gets a little more tricky.

The process i’ll describe here has the following goals:

  • Retain the data and software from the original drive

  • Make a “factory” copy of the drive, including any and all partitions (recovery etc.)

  • Ability to drop down to a smaller drive size if necessary

Achieving those goals means that the end result will be a factory drive image on a new disk. That means that your operating system will still be installed, activated, and genuine. You’ll still be able to restore your machine back to its factory condition (if that option existed in the first place). All of your software and licenses will transfer as well. It will be like it never happened aside from your new found blazing speed. Basically the best possible outcome for a drive transfer.

The Setup

There are 3 things you’ll need to accomplish this.

  1. An SSD of sufficient size (at least the size of the used space on your existing drive)

  2. An external hard drive enclosure or dock

  3. Bootable disk imaging software

        3a. A flash drive to boot from if your laptop is missing a CD drive

1. SSD

In my opinion, you can keep the capacity down (128 - 256 GB) on the SSD and buy a quality model rather than getting a large one (500GB+) and compromising on quality. You can then leverage cloud storage or external disks to hold your large files, photos, or backups.

My current favorite consumer drives are the Samsung 840 EVO-Series. They offer the best price/performance out there (500MB+ read/write wat!?), I personally have several of them.

On the commercial side, I really like the Corsair Neutron GTX. I run these in our servers and they're fantastic.

Just make sure the capacity of the drive will hold the amount of space used on your existing drive plus room to grow into plus 15GB or so for hidden partitions you will be transferring.

2. External Drive Enclosure


You need a way to attach another drive to your laptop to perform the disk cloning. I use a cheap, exposed dock like this one from Plugable Technologies. It makes it easy to connect drives to any computer without using tools or opening cases. There are a ton of options for this so have a look around but expect to pay around $25.

3. Bootable disk imaging software

Disk imaging software ranges from excellent to utterly dangerous. It also goes from free to pricey. If you want a complete, bootable drive clone like we’re setting out to do, you’ll need software that has bootable tools. For free software, take a look at AOMEI Partition Assistant. It offers bootable media and a wide array of disk partition, cloning, and migration functions.

Update: A comment on Google+ pointed me to EaseUS as another good free option.

For me though, I use Acronis True Image Premium. It’s a little expensive at $78 but if you do this kind of thing more than once every couple years, it’s well worth it. I can’t speak to how it performs on normal system backup/restores, but for disk cloning and partition operations it’s been the least painful and most accurate system I’ve found.

You’ll see reviews for just about every disk imaging software are poor, but that’s largely due to the wide variety of scenarios the software encounters and the high technical background needed to perform some of the more advanced functions. Of course some are legitimately garbage.

3 a. Flash Drive

Many laptops omit the CD drive to cut down on weight and size. If yours has no CD drive, you’ll need a flash drive to boot from like you would a CD.

The Clone

Warning

This process may void your warranty. Proceed at your own risk.

With all of the above in hand, it’s get busy time. I can’t cover the step by step of each laptop or the disk imaging software you’re using, but here is the basic process.

  1. Install your disk imaging software, either on your laptop or another computer, and create the bootable media (flash drive or CD).

  2. Use the disk imaging software to make a full backup of your system and save it somewhere in case of disaster (not on the original or new drive)

  3. Ensure that you can boot to that media on your laptop, but do nothing.

  4. Open up your laptop and locate the existing hard drive.

  5. Replace the hard drive with your SSD and reassemble.

  6. Insert the original hard drive into your External Drive Enclosure and connect the USB cable

  7. Boot your laptop to the disk imaging software bootable media

  8. Clone the External (original) drive to your new Internal (new SSD) drive

  9. When complete, remove both the External USB and the bootable media

  10. Boot your laptop as normal

  11. Rejoice

IMPORTANT: Note that steps 5 - 6 may seem counter intuitive but are required for your new drive to become bootable.

If anything goes wrong, simply reinstall your original hard drive and your laptop should return to normal until you can sort out the issues.

Wrapping Up

For potentially very little money, a bit of time, and a bit of nerve, you can gain one of the largest performance improvements you can get for your laptop. This is an above average technical effort no doubt, but if you’ve got it in you, you can reap the rewards. Take your time and be careful and there shouldn’t be any lasting damage should anything go astray. Remember that a backup can be your best friend, it’s worth taking the time to secure a full backup of your entire system before getting started.

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