Going small(er): Trading spinning disks for SSDs

Lincoln Spector

Solid-state drives can give a significant boost to system performance, but at the cost of storage space.

Here’s how to sort out the data on a big spinning-platter drive and fit what you can onto a smaller SSD.

Migrating down to a smaller system drive

Install a solid-state drive, and it’s love at first boot. The minutes it took to load Windows suddenly become seconds. Everything is faster; you’ll never want to go back.

There is, however, a cost to that extra speed. SSDs cost far more per gigabyte than hard drives and typically come in smaller sizes. As I write this, a 120GB SSD typically goes for U.S. $90 to $100; a 256GB drive will set you back about $200. A 512GB SSD from one of the well-known drive manufacturers could cost you $400. By comparison, you can buy a traditional 1TB hard drive for just $70.

So unless you’re rolling in cash or need only a small amount of storage space, trading your primary spinning-disk drive for an SSD requires making some hard decisions about which files you’ll keep on the new drive. Moreover, the simple task of cloning your old drive to a new one probably won’t work — you can’t clone 500GB worth of files onto a 120GB drive.

Bottom line: Migrating to an SSD will probably be more complex than you might at first assume. Along with those hard decisions, the process of transferring Windows and data to a new SSD will require a few more steps. I’ll discuss those steps below.

Using an SSD on desktops vs. laptops

In most cases, adding an SSD to a desktop system is considerably easier than upgrading a notebook. Technically speaking, the issue isn’t really desktop versus laptop; it’s whether the system has room for two internal drives. But practically speaking, the vast majority of desktop PCs have extra drive bays — and most laptops don’t.

With multiple drive bays, you can easily keep all files within the computer. Whatever doesn’t fit on the SSD stays on the old hard drive — which remains in the computer. The performance boost will be almost as good as having everything on an SSD.

With most laptops, the files that won’t fit on the new SSD will have to be kept on an external drive. This can be clumsy, especially when you’re on the road. And if your laptop doesn’t have a USB 3.0 port, you’re going to suffer a major performance hit when you access big files or large batches of files from the external (non-SSD) drive.

If you’re upgrading a laptop, keep in mind that the new SSD needs to fit completely within the hard-drive enclosure. Check the SSD retailer’s return policies so that you’re not stuck with the new drive if it doesn’t fit. Also, check out Fred Langa’s July 5, 2012, Top Story, “Some ugliness installing an after-market SSD.”

What goes to the SSD; what stays behind

Assuming you can’t fit all your data on the new SSD, what should you transfer and what should you leave behind on the old drive?

That decision could be based on several factors such as your work habits; the ease of separating current projects from older ones; and/or the size, number, and type of files. Documents associated with current projects, files you open regularly, recent photos, and possibly a few favorite songs are all good candidates for the SSD. Files rarely accessed should stay on the original hard-disk drive.

My work habits made this file reorganization fairly easy. I keep my current and recent projects within the Dropbox folder in My Documents. I also keep recent and favorite photos in Dropbox. It’s the only folder I really need to have with me at all times. Any file stored elsewhere is one I rarely need to access.

Once you’ve decided how to divide up your files, it’s time to get to work on your SSD upgrade.

The basics of transferring files to a new drive

So you’ve got a brand-new SSD; what else do you need?

  • A screwdriver is probably the only physical tool you’ll need.
  • If you’ve got a desktop, you might need an adapter bracket to fit the drive into a full-sized bay. (If you’re lucky, an adapter came packaged with the SSD.)
  • On laptops, you’ll need a SATA-to-USB enclosure (or docking station or connector kit) to set up the new SSD as a temporary external drive. (With an enclosure, you can turn the old hard-disk drive into a more or less permanent external drive.) You can buy an enclosure for as little as $10 to $20. Whether enclosure or connector kit, be sure it supports USB 3.0.
  • You might also need an external drive — but we’ll get to that later.

Your first step before anything gets transferred, of course, will be to make a full image backup of your current system. (It should go without saying, but I’m obligated to say it anyway.)

With that done, you’re ready to connect the SSD to your PC. On a desktop, install the SSD into a spare drive bay and connect the data and power cables. If you have a laptop, connect the new drive with your SATA-to-USB enclosure. (Use the laptop’s USB 3.0 port if it has one.)

Next, if the SSD came with cloning software, give it a try. But keep your expectations in check — the app included with my Samsung SSD 840 EVO (more info) was, for the most part, useless. It would not let me select specific folders — just file types, and only a limited number of those.

If the SSD’s bundled software proves inadequate to the task, try one or more of the following options.

The free method (with a spare external drive)

This process requires paring down your old hard drive so that what remains will fit on the new SSD. To do that, you’ll need an external hard drive with enough spare room to store all files removed from the primary drive. Plug in the drive and create folders with names such as Extra Documents, Extra Music, Extra Pictures, Extra Video, etc.

Now open your Windows library and move the extra files and folders (see Figure 1) to the folders you created on the external drive. Don’t move the library folders themselves (e.g., C:\Users\{user name}\My Documents, C:\Users\{user name}\My Pictures, and so on) — just move their contents (or, more precisely, the parts of their contents you don’t want on the SSD.

Folder and file selection

Figure 1. When moving extra files, select the contents of Windows libraries, not the library folders (e.g., My Documents) themselves.

On my system, for example, I would open My Documents, press Ctrl + A to select everything in the folder, then hold down Ctrl and click the Dropbox folder to deselect it. Next, I would drag the highlighted folders and files to the external drive’s Extra Documents folder. (You can also use Ctrl + X and Ctrl + V on smaller batches of files if you have difficulty with drag-and-drop.) Repeat the process with the other libraries.

Once the total data content on the primary drive is small enough, any decent cloning program should let you migrate Windows, apps, and data to the SSD. I recommend EaseUS Todo Backup Free (more info), which clones as well as backs up. (At this point, to be completely safe, you might want to make an image backup of the slimmed-down primary drive.)

Once the program is up, select Clone/Disk Clone. Select your old HDD as the source and the SSD as the target, as shown in Figure 2. At the bottom of the drive-selection window, check Optimize for SSD, but leave Sector by sector clone unchecked. If you click Next and get an error message, you need to move more files off the HDD and try again.

EaseUS Todo Backup Free

Figure 2. EaseUS Todo Backup Free is an easy-to-use cloning tool — and it's completely free.

Once the SSD becomes the system boot drive (more on that below), you can move the extra files back to the old hard drive.

A faster, simpler, and relatively cheap solution

With a smart drive-cloning program, you shouldn’t have to bother with moving your files to an external backup drive. I know of only one program adept enough to do this properly — Paragon Migrate OS to SSD ($20; more info).

The program’s wizard walks you through the steps. The really impressive options are found on the Change copy options page. There, you can select specific files and folders to transfer (see Figure 3) — or not to transfer.

Paragon Migrate OS to SSD

Figure 3. The inexpensive Paragon Migrate OS to SSD makes it easy to select which documents should be migrated to the new drive.

Note: Paragon Migrate OS to SSD isn’t perfect. When I booted the newly cloned SSD for the first time, Windows Explorer failed to launch, and Windows put up a “Server execution failed” error. It seems Windows was looking for the default library folders in now nonexistent locations. Fortunately, the fix was easy — as I’ll explain below. I can’t say whether this is a common problem.

Setting up the SSD as your new primary drive

With cloning over, it’s time to make the SSD your boot drive.

On a desktop, launch BIOS setup and change the boot order so that the SSD is higher on the list than the old HDD. I won’t tell you explicitly how to make the change because it varies with the brand and version of BIOS. If you need a refresher, the PC’s manual should have instructions.

With laptops, you’re going to have to perform a hard-drive transplant. Remove the old drive from the laptop and replace it with the SSD. Then put the old drive into the external enclosure that formerly housed the SSD. Assuming that goes well, the SSD should boot on powerup, and the old drive — with your excess files — will be available on the external drive.

Once you’re booted from the SSD (and recovered from the speed rush), make sure that your libraries are where they belong. Try opening Windows Explorer. If it opens, follow the instructions below. On the other hand, if you get the aforementioned “Server execution failed” error, open Notepad, press Ctrl + S, and follow those steps inside Notepad’s Save dialog box.

Click Libraries in the left panel. Right-click Documents and select Properties. The Documents folder on the SSD (which should be C:) should have a checkmark next to it (see Figure 4).

Library location

Figure 4. Use the Documents Property dialog box to set library locations.

If the new C: drive isn’t listed, click Include a folder and add it to the list. If it doesn’t have the checkmark, select that folder and click Set save location (which basically means “Make it the library’s default location”).

You might want to add your old Documents folder — now on the old hard drive — to the list. But don’t make it the checked “Save location” folder (the default Documents folder). You can add a folder on an external drive to a library, but you should never make it the default location.

Repeat with all of your libraries.

For the time being, you can keep your old hard drive as your secondary drive — either internal or external. You might one day want to remove Windows from it or even reformat it. But you can save that chore for another day.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-01-30:

Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.