Some ugliness installing an after-market SSD

Fred Langa

Ever look inside a solid-state drive? Neither had I — until I bought one and had to disassemble it to make it fit into my notebook.

This story ultimately has a happy ending, but unexpected trouble along the way made the process far more difficult than it needed to be.

First, let me say up front: I love my new solid-state drive. That sucker is fast!

I can click on a large application such as Microsoft Word, and it pops open almost instantly. My favorite image-processing software, GIMP, used to take whole minutes to load; now it takes just seconds. My PC starts up and shuts down much faster. Data-saves happen in an eyeblink. It’s great!

I got the SSD to augment the performance of a brand-new, 64-bit notebook. Equipped with a traditional, spinning-platter hard drive, the new system was reasonably zippy right out of the box. But I wanted to see what an SSD could do to unlock the full potential of the new hardware.

And man — unlock it, it did. Running benchmark tests on both the new SSD and the stock drive, I found the SSD on average three times faster writing data and twice as fast reading. That was for long, sustained operations; peak performance was even better.

The SSD even pegged Windows’ built-in, disk-drive Experience Index, posting a perfect 7.9. (The scale doesn’t go any higher; Microsoft explanation.)

Yes, the SSD is fast, but installing it in my notebook revealed risks with after-market hardware — even when that hardware is “guaranteed to fit” or comes with other promises of suitability.

Win7′s comprehensive, built-in support for SSD

SSDs for personal PCs are relatively new, so I expected some glitches during the setup process. But I wasn’t worried about the software side of things — the new notebook came with Windows 7, the most SSD-friendly commercial operating system currently on the market.

For example, you’re not supposed to defrag SSDs — it’s pointless. Defragging is mainly meant to overcome the read/write lag caused by the moving mechanical parts in spinning-platter hard drives. But SSDs have no moving parts, just banks of flash RAM.

In fact, the tiny memory cells that store ones and zeros in an SSD can wear out if overused, so defragging would cause needless wear with no offsetting benefit.

Windows 7 knows all this. The OS will recognize most current-generation SSDs and not include them in its automatic, background defragging activities. You don’t have to do anything.

Then there’s the SSD-specific TRIM command, which helps to clear left-behind data and file fragments. Without this software garbage collection, SSDs actually slow down over time — an effect that plagued many of the first-generation SSD devices until engineers figured out what was going on. (Wikipedia explanation of TRIM.)

Win7 was the first major OS to support TRIM natively. (See the Jan. 7, 2010, LangaList article, “Windows, solid-state disks, and ‘trim.’”) Again, you don’t have to do anything — Win7 just does it right, on its own.

In short, Win7 is fully equipped with SSD support and is the best OS choice for getting the most out of the current crop of SSDs.

My plan for adding an SSD seemed quite reasonable

Before ordering my new notebook — an Acer, a brand I’ve relied on a lot over the years — I made sure it would come with the stock, 750GB, spinning-platter drive installed plus an empty drive bay for the SSD I planned to add.

I ordered an after-market SSD from Crucial.com — another vendor I’ve found to be very reliable over the years. I used its guaranteed-compatible product selector to choose a 128GB SSD that would fit my specific brand and model notebook. (Crucial offers your money back if you buy a product through its product-selection system and it doesn’t fit or work.)

I also ordered a Crucial-recommended USB-to-SATA data-transfer kit to facilitate getting data from the OEM drive onto the new SSD.

The first snag: transferring the data

With the new notebook and SSD in hand, I configured and tested the notebook to make sure everything was working OK, then set about installing the SSD.

I started by partitioning the notebook’s original 750GB drive into a 100GB C: drive and a 650GB D: drive. I planned to move the C: drive’s contents to the SSD. Then I’d delete the original C: partition and resize the D: partition to the drive’s full 750GB capacity. Simple, right? Ha!

The physical data-transfer cable worked fine, but the included software did not. That brain-dead program offered no way to select a single partition. It insistently selected the OEM drive as a whole and tried to move that — both partitions, comprising 750GB — to the 128GB SSD. Sigh. Thanks, Crucial!

OK, I’ve done manual data transfers before. I fired up my copy of BootIt Bare Metal (free trial, U.S. $39 thereafter; site), an outstanding boot-manager/partition-manager/backup-and-restore tool.

BootIt is a little geeky; it’s not intended for beginners, but if you know your way around hard drives, it’s robust and reliable. Using the USB data-transfer cable and BootIt, I quickly moved the C: partition contents to the SSD. I then made the SSD active and bootable. I also moved the normally hidden 100MB System Reserved partition that Window7 wants to have available. Next, I installed BootIt Bare Metal on the SSD as the system’s boot manager. I then cleaned up the OEM drive, giving all its space to the D: partition.

Up to this point, the SSD had been on my desk, tethered to the notebook with the USB data-transfer cable. With the SSD ready to take on its role as the system’s C: drive, it was time to install it in the notebook’s empty drive bay.

Some plastic is just meant to be broken

To install the SSD, I had to remove the notebook’s bottom cover, then drop the drive into the open drive bay. No problem — it fit perfectly.

Or so I thought!

When I tried to put the bottom cover back on, the SSD was too tall. Instead of fitting flush, the drive-bay cover gapped open and couldn’t be secured in place. (See Figures 1 and 2.)

SSD drive too big for bay

Figure 1. (Side view) The SSD housing (yellow arrow) was too tall to allow the drive-bay cover to go back to its normal, flush position. The resulting gap is shown by the yellow bracket.

Bay door won't close

Figure 2. (Rear view) There was no way this was going to work. Again, the too-tall SSD housing is shown by the yellow arrow; the gap is highlighted by the yellow bracket.

I poked and prodded. I scratched my head. I said some bad words.

On close examination, I discovered some differences between the two drive bays. The original, #1 drive bay was slightly deeper than the formerly empty #2 bay. Why is a mystery known only to Acer.

With the drives swapped, the SSD fit just fine in the #1 bay and allowed the cover to close. So, Crucial’s “guaranteed to fit” promise was technically valid. But when I placed the spinning-platter drive into #2 bay, it caused the same problem as the SSD. The #2 bay was just too shallow to accept a drive of normal height. So this was a purely physical problem — it had nothing to do with SSD technology. Sigh. Thanks, Acer!

Not only was the #2 bay a bit shallower than #1, but Acer had also molded plastic fins onto the bottom of the drive-bay cover. These fins extended somewhat into the empty drive bay, making the fit even worse. (See Figure 3.)

Drive-bay cover fins

Figure 3. Thin plastic fins on the bottom of the drive-bay cover took up still more space in the already too-small #2 drive bay.

If you’re squeamish, this might be a good time to look away.

I could see no critical purpose for the fins other than to take up some empty space in the drive bay. So I kissed my warranty goodbye and used side cutters and linesman’s pliers to snip the fins away. Figure 4 shows the drive-bay cover as I was nearing the end of my fin-ectomy. The appearance didn’t worry me — none of this would be visible from the outside.

Fins removed

Figure 4. The drive-bay cover's inward-pointing fins served no apparent purpose, so I removed them. Yes, it's ugly but won't show from the outside.

I then tried putting the newly finless cover back on.

Heck! The SSD still didn’t fit. (I said some more bad words.)

Since there was no further way to invisibly alter the notebook, maybe it was time to alter the SSD!

The SSD case appeared to have three parts: a top, a bottom, and a spacer. It was held together with four ordinary Phillips screws, and a sticker warning me of dire consequences if I opened the case.

In for a penny, in for a pound! I kissed the drive’s warranty goodbye, too, and disassembled its case. Figure 5 shows the results.

SSD drive disassembled

Figure 5. The SSD is mechanically quite simple — just a robust circuit board inside a three-part case.

After some fussing and fitting, I found the trick: by omitting the spacer and the top part of the SSD’s case, the rest — the case bottom and the all-important circuitry — fit into the bay. See Figure 6.

SSD Drive installed

Figure 6. Omitting the spacer and case top allowed the SSD to fit nicely into the #2 bay.

Ta-dah! As you can see in Figure 7, I was able to snap the drive-bay cover in place and secure it with its original screws. Finally, everything was tight, flush, and square — and with none of my user modifications visible.

It finally fits

Figure 7. After the modifications, I could finally button up the notebook properly, with none of my homebrew customizations visible.

The SSD booted Windows and worked great!

Postscript: After-market–product rewards and risks

SSD technology is superb, as is Win7′s software support for SSD. The new notebook is awesomely fast and is now my primary PC. (I’m using it to write this article.) I’m one happy camper.

All’s well that ends well. But it could easily have been a different, darker story. Between Crucial’s brain-dead, data-transfer software and Acer’s too-small #2 drive bay, this installation was certainly messier and far more difficult than I had anticipated — or than it needed to be.

If you’re venturing into after-market SSDs, go in with your eyes fully open. Although the technology is solid, the mundane aspects of your particular installation might generate some major speed bumps along the way.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-07-05:

Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.