Laptops are difficult to upgrade in a meaningful way. The processors, motherboard, and video card usually can’t be replaced. Even if they can, the cost and difficulty of replacement is extreme.
That leaves just one choice for laptop owners who want to improve performance: a solid-state drive. While an SSD doesn’t change how quickly software runs, it can improve the speed in which it loads, and that makes a PC feel much faster.
Better still, a solid-state drive isn’t difficult to install. Most laptops can be upgraded on a kitchen table with a screwdriver. You already have those? Good. Let’s get started.
Pick the right solid-state drive
Since this is not a buying guide, we’re not going to sit here recommending specific SSDs. You can find more information about buying one in our SSD buying guide and our comparison between SSDs and traditional hard disks.
Still, you’ll need to make sure you grab a drive that fits in your laptop. There are two common formats: 2.5-inch and 1.8-inch.
Of this pair, the 2.5-inch drive is by far the most popular. Smaller 1.8-inch drives are found in some new laptops that offer an SSD as standard equip. But this is an upgrade guide, so that’s presumably not what you have. A 2.5-inch drive is what you’ll need.
Some Ultrabooks have extremely thin drive bays that won’t fit standard drives. You’ll instead need a drive that’s just 7-millimeters thick or less. Be prepared to hunt for slim drives because retailers do a poor job of advertising them. You may need to call the retailer or look up specifications on manufacturer websites.
Most other laptops will have no problem with a standard 2.5-inch drive.
Prepare for installation
There are two ways to handle the data on your existing hard drive. First, you can back up important files and start over with a new operating system install (make sure you have an install disc!). This is an easy approach, but it can be time-consuming.
Another option is to clone your drive. This transfers all the data on your existing drive to the new one. It’s quick but requires more technical knowledge, and it will only work if the new drive has equal or more capacity than the old one.
To clone, you’ll need a SATA to USB adapter. Connect your new solid-state drive to the SATA/USB adapter, then plug the adapter into a USB port on your laptop. Your laptop should detect your new SSD as an external hard drive.
Cloning is not as simple as dragging and dropping. Everything, including the portions of the drive that allow Windows to use it as a boot device, must be copied. A growing number of SSD manufacturers are bundling software with their devices, but, if you’re left on your own, check out Norton Ghost, Arconis True Image, and Paragon Drive Copy. Don’t want to pay? Try ShadowCopy, XXClone, or MiniTool. Just remember that free software doesn’t have a customer support line to call if you are confused about the software or how it works.
Even if you clone your drive, back up important data anyway. Cloning is not 100 percent reliable.
Find a level surface with good lighting that you can work on. Place your laptop upside-down with the power unplugged and battery out (if possible). You should see a plastic cut-out panel in the bottom which is covered by multiple screws. Some laptops will have two panels, in which case you should remove the one marked by the hard drive symbol, an engraving that looks like three stacked discs.
A few laptops have no cut-out. This means you’ll have to take the entire bottom off, which involves far more screws. Make sure you keep track of them. A Ziploc bag works best because it keeps the screws secure and can’t be tipped over.
Once you remove the screws, pry the cut-out panel off with a sharp object. You’re up a creek without a paddle if that panel breaks, so please, don’t Hulk out on it – just lift it gently. If one section seems stubborn, try loosening another instead.
With the panel off, the hard drive will be exposed. In a modern laptop, the drive is usually covered by a metal bracket or metallic wrap with a tab attached to it. Pull the tab gently out and up to remove the drive. Some laptops will have a loose connector, in which case the cable and SATA connector will begin to go with the drive. Detach it.
If your laptop uses a bracket, you’ll notice the drive is secured to the bracket by screws (usually four). Remove them to detach the drive, then place your new SSD into the bracket and use the same screws you removed to secure it. If your laptop doesn’t use a bracket, simply discard any wrap used by the previous drive.
Now slide the drive back into the bay and plug it in the SATA connector used by the old drive. Remember, SATA connectors have an L-shaped pattern, which makes them impossible to incorrectly install. You shouldn’t need to use much force if you’re installing the new drive correctly.
And that’s it. Replace the panel, replace the screws, and you’re done.
Using your new hard drive
If you opted for re-installing your operating system, the next step is simple: pop in your installation disk or recovery disk and re-install it. There’s nothing special to do. Just follow the steps suggested by the installation wizard.
Those who cloned their drive should insert their cloning software disc instead. Your laptop should boot from the disc and provide an interface that lets you finalize the new hard drive, making it bootable for your laptop.
What if you don’t have an optical drive? You can usually install from a thumb drive instead. Microsoft provides Windows 7 users with a utility that can create a copy of your Windows disc on an external drive.
If you have a different version of Windows you can instead use BurnAware Free to make a boot disc from your existing Windows disk. You can use the same software to turn a drive cloning software disc into a bootable thumb drive file.
Your new hard drive doesn’t need an additional driver installation to function, but it may come with a disc of software tools that can help manage the drive. If no disc was shipped, as might be the case if you purchased a bare drive, you can download the software from the manufacturer’s support page.
And that’s it. Your new solid-state drive is installed and can provide you with lightning-quick software load times. Enjoy!
[Top image via JIPEN/Shutterstock]