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How to install an SSD – clone your boot drive without losing a thing

How to install a new SSD

If your PC is still languishing in the spinning platter age, using a hard drive as its main storage device, then one of the most important upgrades you can make is to replace it with a solid state drive. Don’t worry, it’s easy… this is how to install a new SSD.

After this you’ll know how to do it, but which one to choose? Check out our guide to the best SSDs around right now.

Installing a new SSD in your PC as your main system drive can be a pretty daunting task. As cathartic as it can be starting with a fresh, empty desktop and a clean Windows installation, it’s also a massive pain in the arse. Downloading all the updates, setting up your profiles, and re-downloading your ‘now playing’ Steam library all takes a huge amount of time and tedium, when you could just be gaming.

To save all that effort and ennui you can simply clone your existing machine’s boot drive onto your new SSD. It’s easy to do and means you can be up and running in a couple of hours with all your files, programs, and settings exactly as you left them.

You could always install a new SSD simply as data storage and use it as a new, speedy Steam drive. That will net you some performance gains as games might load a little quicker, but you’re still going to be bottlenecked by your ancient hard drive.

To get the full benefit of an SSD, to feel the increased responsiveness and usability of your PC, you need to use it as the main boot drive, as the place where your Windows installation lives. And this is how to do it.

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Step 1 – Size matters

Step 1 - WinDirStat

The biggest issue with SSDs is their price per GB. If you’re switching from a hard drive to a new SSD, the chances are that you’re going from something with a lot of space to a drive with often much less. The first thing to do is compare how much capacity you’re using in your current installation and see how that fits with your new SSD.

In this example we’re going from a 1TB HDD to a 750GB SSD. Right away that looks like we’re in trouble, but of that total hard drive capacity we’re only using around 340GB. We know that, with a little partition magic, we’ll be able to clone the entire installation as is without much effort.

But if we were shifting to a 250GB SSD, for example, we’d have to do some heavy housekeeping. It’s then a case of shifting any data files onto a backup device or uninstalling programs or games you no longer access. You can do this directly from within Windows, simply right-click the Windows logo in the bottom left of your screen and click Apps and Features.

If you’re struggling to track down deletable data then a storage analysis app, such as WinDirSat, can be invaluable. WinDirStat will check your storage drives and produce a pretty colour chart, grouping file types together to give you a clearer view of where capacity is being taken up.

Step 2 – Install your new drive

Step 2 - install the SSD

Once you’ve pruned your existing installation down so the used capacity will fit your new SSD then it’s time to get your new drive in place. You’ll need a spare SATA power cable and SATA data cable if you’re dropping in a standard 2.5-inch SSD. Unless you’re already rocking half a dozen hard drives then you will probably have a spare power cable coming from your PSU, but you may have to hunt around in your spares box for a new data cable – you kept all the extras that came with your PC/motherboard, right?

Then you just need to locate the SSD mounting points inside your case. Generally that will mean either screwing it into a specific place in your chassis or alongside your HDD in the hard drive bays.

Step 2 - install an M.2 SSD

If you’re being fancy and upgrading to a PCIe-powered M.2 SSD then installation is even easier. Well, so long as you have an M.2 socket on your motherboard, otherwise you’ll need a PCIe adapter to fit it in alongside your graphics card. Most modern boards from the last couple of years, however, will have at least one M.2 socket to screw your PCIe SSD into.

Step 3 – Cloning

Step 3 - Clone with Macrium Reflect

This is where the magic happens. But first you’ll need a little program called Macrium Reflect. This is the application I’ve used for all my previous clones and have had a 100% success rate so far; there’s about 50 Daves lurking around Bath now…

Download, install, and boot Macrium Reflect and it will analyse your system and identify all the attached drives and relevant partitions. Your boot drive should be obvious – it will be the one which contains the C: drive partition – but if you want to double check, right-click the Windows icon in the bottom left of your desktop and click Disk Management. This will also display the drives in your PC and you can match them up by right-clicking on a drive and checking its Properties.

You need to clone all the partitions on your Windows boot drive to make sure you get a complete copy, so select the drive you wish to clone and select Clone this disk. In the window that pops up you’ll need to click Select a disk to clone to… and choose your new SSD.

If there are already partitions on there, select each and click Delete Existing Partition to clear the drive. Then simply drag and drop all the partitions over from your boot drive to your SSD. If you’re switching to a smaller capacity SSD then this is when you may need to shrink a partition in order to fit everything on.

Step 3 - Resize partition

So long as there is empty space inside a partition you will be able to shrink it down. Select the partition you need to shrink down and click Cloned Partition Properties. The following dialogue will allow you to choose how much you want to shrink the partition down by (or, if you’re switching to a bigger drive, expand it). Figure out how much space you need to fit all the other partitions on and make sure you cut it down to fit.

Once all the partitions have been dropped on the new drive click Next a couple of times, double check that you’re going to copy the right drive to the correct destination, and click Finish. Now it’s time to play the waiting game. There’s no point watching the progress bar, the cloning process will take a couple of hours, at best.

Step 4 – Same, same, but different

Step 4 - Boot and enjoyOnce the cloning process has finished you can shut down your PC and reboot from your shiny new SSD. As your machine boots up, hit the Del key to enter the BIOS and change the boot priority to your new drive, so it no longer starts from your laggardly hard drive.

Hopefully, once you get into Windows, both everything and nothing will be different. Your PC should be more responsive, quicker to boot, and quicker to load games, but other than that it ought to be exactly as you left it.

I’d recommend leaving your old installation alone for a good few days, just to make sure your cloned drive is 100% reliable, but once you’re confident it’s trustworthy you can format your old drive and use it as valuable deep storage.

And that’s it. A little light screwdriver work, some housekeeping, and a little patience is all you need to make a perfect clone. Job done.

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