Editor’s note: Since it was published in 2019, this post has been updated in 2021 and 2023 with the latest information to help you take advantage of SSDs.
Solid-state drives (SSDs) have become the norm for most laptops and desktops, replacing the older hard disk drives (HDDs) that had been in use for decades previously. If your computer still relies on an HDD, it might be time to consider upgrading to an SSD for improved performance.
Upgrading to an SSD can give your computer a significant speed and responsiveness boost, especially if your machine is more than a few years old. However, before taking the plunge, it’s essential to weigh practical considerations. Let’s take a closer look at SSDs and the factors you should consider.
What Is an SSD?
An SSD is a type of data storage device used in computers and other electronic devices. Unlike traditional HDDs, which use spinning disks and mechanical read/write heads to store and retrieve data, SSDs rely on NAND-based flash memory to store information. This flash memory is similar to the kind used in USB drives and memory cards, but it’s optimized for higher performance and reliability.
Refresher: What Is NAND?
NAND stands for “Not And.” It’s a type of logic gate used in digital circuits, specifically in memory and storage devices. In the context of NAND-based flash memory used in SSDs, the term NAND refers to the electronic structure of the memory cells that store data. The name NAND comes from its logical operation, which is the complement of the AND operation. NAND flash memory is a type of non-volatile storage, meaning it retains data even when the power is turned off, which makes it well-suited for use with things like SSDs and other data storage devices. That’s different from the regular RAM in your computer, which is reset when you turn off or restart the computer.
Compared to HDDs, SSDs are more shock resistant (due to their lack of moving parts) and are less likely to be affected by magnetic fields. They also offer faster data access times, quicker boot-up and application load times, and better overall responsiveness.
Because of their speed and efficiency, SSDs have become the preferred choice for many computing applications, ranging from laptops and desktops to servers and data centers. They are especially useful in situations where speed and reliability are crucial, such as in gaming, content creation, and tasks involving large data transfers. Despite typically offering less storage capacity compared to HDDs of similar cost, SSD performance benefits often outweigh the storage trade-off, making them a popular choice.
Depending on the task at hand, SSDs can be up to 10 times faster than their HDD counterparts. Replacing your hard drive with an SSD is one of the best things you can do to dramatically improve the performance of your older computer.
Without any moving parts, SSDs operate more quietly, more efficiently, and with fewer breakable things than hard drives that have spinning platters. Read and write speeds for SSDs are much better than hard drives, resulting in noticeably faster operations.
For you, that means less time waiting for stuff to happen. An SSD is worth looking into if you’re frequently seeing a spinning wheel cursor on your computer screen. Modern operating systems rely more on virtual memory management, utilizing temporary swap files that are written to the disk. A faster SSD minimizes the performance impact caused by this process.
If you have just one drive in your laptop or desktop, you could replace an HDD or small SSD with a 1TB SSD for less than $40. For those dealing with substantial amounts of data, concentrating on replacing the drive that houses your operating system and applications can yield a significant speed boost. Put your working data on additional internal or external hard drives, and you’re ready to tackle a mountain of photos, videos, or supersized databases. Just be sure to implement a backup plan to make sure you keep a copy of that data safe on additional local drives, network attached drives, or in the cloud.
Are There Any Reasons Not to Upgrade to an SSD?
If SSDs are so much better than hard drives, why aren’t all drives SSDs? The two biggest reasons are cost and capacity. SSDs are more expensive than hard drives. A 1TB SSD or HDD now cost about the same, $30–$50, with HDDs being slightly less, maybe around $25.
That’s not much of a difference, but as drive capacity gets larger, the cost differential gets increasingly larger. For example, an 8TB HDD drive runs $120–$180, while 8TB SSDs start at around $350. In short, while upgrading the 1TB internal hard drive on your computer to an SSD is cost effective, the same may not be true for replacing larger capacity drives, like those used in external drives, unless the increased speed is worth the increased cost.
Whether your computer can use an SSD is another question. It all depends on the computer’s age and how it was designed. Let’s take a look at that question next.
How Do You Upgrade to an SSD?
Does your computer use a regular off-the-shelf SATA HDD? If so, you can upgrade it with an SSD.
SSDs are compatible with both Macs and PCs. All current Mac laptops come with SSDs. Both iMacs and Mac Pros come with SSDs as well. Around 2010, Apple started moving to only SSD storage on most of its devices. That said, some Mac desktop computers continued to offer the option of both SSD and HDD storage until 2020, a setup they called a Fusion Drive.
Note that as of November 2021, Apple does not offer any Macs with a Fusion Drive. Basically, if you bought your device before 2010 or you have a desktop computer from 2021 or earlier, there’s a chance you may be using an HDD.
Determine Your Disk Type in a Mac
To determine what kind of drive your Mac uses, click on the Apple menu and select About This Mac.
Avoid the pitfall of selecting the Storage tab in the top menu. What you’ll find is that the default name of your drive is “Macintosh HD” which is confusing, given that they’re referring to the internal storage of the computer as a hard drive when (in most cases), your drive is an SSD. While you can find information about your drive on this screen, we prefer the method that provides maximum clarity.
So, on the Overview screen, click System Report. Bonus: You’ll also see what type of processor you have and your macOS version (which will be useful later).
Once there, select the Storage tab, then the volume name you want to identify. You should see a line called Medium Type, which will tell you what kind of drive you have.
Determine Your Disk Type in a PC
To determine your disk type in a Windows PC, first open the Task Manager in Windows:
Right-click the Start button and click Run. In the Run Command window, type dfrgui and click OK.
On the next screen, the type of drive will be listed under the Media Type column.
Can I Upgrade to a Better SSD?
Even if your computer already has an SSD, you may be able to upgrade it with a larger, faster SSD model. Besides SATA-based hard drive replacements, some later model PCs can be upgraded with M.2 SSDs, which look more like RAM chips than hard drives.
Some Apple laptops made before 2016 that already shipped with SSDs can be upgraded with larger ones. However, you will need to upgrade to a Mac-specific SSD. Check Other World Computing and Transcend to find ones designed to work. Apple laptop models made after 2016 have SSDs soldered to the motherboard, so you’re stuck with what you have.
How to Install an SSD
If you’re comfortable tinkering with your computer’s guts, upgrading it with an SSD is a pretty common do-it-yourself project. Many companies offer hassle-free plug-and-play SSD replacements. Check out Amazon or NewEgg and you’ll have an embarrassment of riches. The choice is yours: Samsung, SanDisk, Crucial, and Toshiba are all popular SSD makers. There are many others, too.
However, if computer hardware isn’t your forte, it might not be worth the effort to learn from scratch. SSD upgrades are such a common aftermarket improvement most independent computer repair and service specialists will take on the task if you’re willing to pay them. Some throw in a data transfer if you’re lucky, or a skilled negotiator. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations. You can also hit up services like Angi to find someone.
If you are DIY inclined, YouTube has tons of walkthroughs like this one for desktop PCs, this one for laptops, and this one aimed at Mac users.
Many SSDs replace 2.5 inch HDDs. Those are the same drives you find in laptop computers and even small desktop models. Have a desktop computer that uses a 3.5 inch hard drive? You may need to use a 2.5 inch to 3.5 inch mounting adapter.
A Word on SSD Compatibility
Beyond the drive size, it’s a good idea to check to see if the SSD you want to buy is compatible with your laptop or desktop, especially if your system is older than a couple of years. Here are articles from Tom’s Hardware and ShareUs which can help with that.
How to Migrate to an SSD
Buying a replacement SSD is the first step. Moving your data onto the SSD is the next step. To achieve this, you need two essential components: cloning software and an external drive case, sled, or enclosure. These tools enable you to connect your SSD to your computer through its USB port or another data transfer interface.
Cloning software creates an exact replica of your internal hard drive’s data. Once this data is successfully migrated to the SSD, you can then insert the new drive into your computer. I prefer to clone a hard drive onto an SSD whenever possible. When executed correctly, a cloned SSD retains its bootable capabilities, providing a true plug-and-play experience. Just copying files between the two drives instead may not copy all the data you need to get the computer to boot with the new drive.
How to Clone a Hard Drive to an SSD
When you buy a new SSD or even a fresh hard drive, it’s unlikely that the operating system you need will be pre-installed. Cloning your existing hard drive fixes that. However, there are instances where this may not be feasible. For example, maybe you’ve installed the SSD in a computer that previously had a bad hard drive. If so, you can do what’s called a clean install and start fresh. Different operating system providers offer distinct guidelines for this procedure. Here’s a link to Microsoft’s clean install procedure, and Apple’s clean install instructions.
As we said at the outset, SSDs tend to come at a higher cost per gigabyte compared to traditional hard drives. You may not be able to afford as large an SSD as your current drive, so make sure your data will fit on your new drive. If it won’t, you might have to pare down first. Additionally, it’s wise to leave some room for expansion. The last thing you want to do is immediately max out your new, fast drive.
Now that you’ve successfully cloned your drive and integrated the SSD into your system, what do you do with the old drive? If it’s still functional, repurposing the external drive chassis utilized during migration is a practical option. It can continue to serve as a standalone external drive or become part of a disk array, such as a network attached storage (NAS) device. You can use it for local back up—something we strongly recommend doing—in addition to using cloud back up like Backblaze. Or, just use it for extra storage needs, like for your photos or music.
Make Sure to Back Up
SSD upgrades are commonplace, but that doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong that can stop you dead in your tracks. If your computer is working fine before the SSD upgrade, make sure you have a complete backup of your computer to restore from in the event something goes wrong.
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