If you intent to simply swap your hard drive with a solid state disk: This procedure would be similar for replacing your hard disk with an SSD drive straight up but note some details might be different, like needed to buy a SATA-USB cable to mirror the drive versus having both already connected.
Step 1: Preparation
1. Laptop with an mSATA port. I have a Lenovo Y500 which has one and it came loaded with a 16 gig “cache” drive. Most Lenovo’s I hear have them; some other brands do as well. Do some searching online to confirm you have one. This requirement isn’t applicable if you are simply swapping your hard drive for a SSD.
2. Full backup of all of your documents, music, videos, etc. I recommend using external hardrives such as the Western Digital Passport or similar. The costs aren’t so bad now, and if you don’t already have something like this you probably should. Don’t rely on a cloud backup service even if you have one. It’s better safe than sorry with this. Treat this situation as if worst case scenario: you need to wipe the hard drive. Certainly do not let these words of caution discourage you. (I am just warning you up front since in my adventures I mucked up the boot record and needed to pull out my laptop hardrive and back it up with a SATA-USB cable.)
3. mSATA solid state drive of at least 128 gig size. I went 256 gig, which I recommend. Make sure to buy one with the 6 gb/sec speed maximum capability. I recommend New Egg or Amazon, the mSATA solid state disks can be tricky to find. This requirement isn’t applicable if you are simply swapping your hard drive for a SSD. In that case you would simply buy a 2.5” SSD hard drive (more common).
Step 2: Full Procedure
1. I assume your files are all safely backed up. Don’t worry too much about programs since you can reinstall them later, most are available from the web as downloads, or in the case of MS Office or similar you can use your CD it came on.
2. If you have windows 8, I recommend buying “Start8” for about five bucks. The addition of a start button will make your life much easier for this. My instructions below assume you can use a conventional style start menu. Save the installer for start8 on your external drive.
3. If you have Windows 8, make a recovery thumb drive (you can easily use a 1 gig thumb drive for this). Search for the program “recovery” and you should get a link to do this. (Background: I didn’t do this and had to drive to a friend’s house to make one – embarrassing!)
4. Unplug your external hard drive with your backups on it and set it aside so you don’t risk harming it somehow.
5. Make sure you have a way to restore your laptop to factory settings. On most modern laptops this is through a hidden partition on the hard drive and a special key combo or something at startup. Some computers like Acer’s and HP’s might require you to burn recovery “media” or “disks” using a utility on the computer.
6. Power down your laptop, unplug and remove battery, discharge all static electricity on your body by reaching and touching various metal objects nearby. If you have a wrist strap, use it, if you don’t know what a wrist strap is, don’t worry about it. Don’t walk around on carpet during this part, stay seated so you don’t build back up static. You risk zapping your new solid state disk or computer innards.
7. For an mSATA physical install, take the laptop apart (search google for how to remove your back cover if you don’t know) and install the mSATA drive in the port. Remove existing low capacity mSATA cache drive if you have one (my Lenovo did). If you are reading this for help doing a like-for-like HDD/SSD 2.5” drive swap, you don’t need to open your computer now. Instead use a SATA to USB cable to connect your drive when required for mirroring, then swap it at the very end. (Fun Fact: Best Buy actually has SATA to USB cables in the store!)
8. Restore your laptop to as it came from the factory. Note this will erase your entire computer back to how you received it and will delete all of your files. (But that’s OK because you backed them up!) Use either “One Key Recovery” if you have an IBM or Lenovo, or the restore disks you made yourself or which came from the manufacturer. Trust me on this. (Technical background: I tried to continue without doing this and I could not shrink my partitions to the size where I could mirror them to fit on the SSD due to the location of immovable files due to windows features, etc. Yes I did turn those features such as page file and system restore off, but I could never get the size down to what I needed. A fresh restore fixed this.)
9. Install “Start8” if you have Windows 8 in order to give you a conventional start menu. It will make your life easier.
10. Un-install as much of the junk software that comes preloaded as you feel comfortable using the control panel “Add/Remove Programs” or “Programs”.
11. In the start menu go to “All Programs, Administrative Tools, Computer Management”
12. Click on “Disk Management” on the left side of the screen. The available hard disks show on the screen as horizontal bars in the middle of the screen, with the partitions on each disk as rectangles taking up a certain amount of space. Don’t worry about partitions you don’t recognize, they might be hidden by your computer manufacturer such as for the restoration you just did on the laptop.
13. Be careful with this: Right click on your C: drive, it’s likely titled “windows”. Choose “shrink volume”. Accept the default shrink amount and click OK. Let your laptop sit, after a minute it should refresh showing some new “unallocated space” and a new smaller C: partition size. If it says “You don’t have enough disk space to perform this action”, then reduce how much you want to shrink by a couple thousand megabytes (1k meg ~ 1 gig).
14. Be careful: Now to use your simple arithmetic skills for a real life application! You should see your SSD on the screen in the disk management window. You should see the available space (which will NOT equal the size you bought, it will be less) on the left side of the horizontal line for that disk. This is your goal size for all of your partitions total maximum size to sum to less than this from your conventional hard drive. Now add up the sizes of all partitions (not “unallocated space”, if you see that) on the hard drive. This number will be less than the size of your SSD if you bought a 128 gig SSD or larger. If it’s more than this than you need a bigger SSD. The sizes may be, for example: 20 gig (hidden partition) + 20 gig (hidden partition) + 90 gig (C: windows partition).
15. Take the total sizes of your partitions, let’s call it 130gig, and subtract it from your available total space on the SSD, let’s call that 210 gig. So you have 80 gig difference. Now subtract 2 gig for a “fudge factor” since if you use exact numbers the process might fail. So now that special difference would be 78 gig in our example. Remember this number whatever it is.
16. Be careful: Right click on your C: partition you just shrank, and increase it in size by the final number from above, 78 gig in our example. You might have to do this in “thousands of megs”, so would then be 78,000 megs in our example.
17. Now all of your partition sizes on the hard disk should sum to 2 gig less than then SSD available size. (Technical Background: I initially mirrored the partitions as-is when the C: partition was smaller, however if you do that, and then try to increase its size once on the SSD, it will render the SSD partition as a “dynamic” partition and it won’t be bootable. See? I’m saving you time!)
18. Download and install “Macrium Reflect” free edition. It’s free for your use. Google it.
19. Open Macrium Reflect. This program will show you a similar screen to the “Disk Management” screen you saw before with horizontal rows representing disks, and blocks of rectangle representing partitions. You should see your normal hard disk partitions, and then another row all empty for your new SSD you bought. (Note: If you are simply doing a swap to an SSD as your main disk, connect it with the SATA to USB cable to the laptop before opening Macrium Reflect, and it should show up.
20. Now if you have made it this far, it’s time for some real action! Click and drag all partitions from your C: drive down into the SSD row. Then once they are all in the same order on that row as they are above, click “Clone this disk” which is a hyperlink looking piece of text in between those rows. Click “next” until the cloning starts. This shouldn’t take too long.
21. Go get a fresh beer, you have earned it if you made it this far.
22. Once the cloning is complete, shut down the computer. (Note: If you are simply swapping out your drive for an SSD and not doing the mSATA configuration, replace your old hard drive with this new one now. If you are using a new mSATA drive as I was, you don’t have to do anything since it’s already in your computer. If you simply did the SSD swap, you can also ignore my steps about boot order below since you simply replaced the existing drive.)
23. Now when you restart, you need to enter the bios right away. On my Lenovo this means pressing F2 as soon as you see the Lenovo logo. On other computers it can be the Escape button, or something else. Google it from another device if you aren’t sure how to do it.
24. Once in the bios go to the “Boot” configuration page or similar.
25. You need to change the boot order so the SSD boots before the conventional hard disk. In order to show all off the boot options and to modify the order, I had to do the following with my Lenovo: Change boot method to legacy support, exit saving changes so it restarts, enter the bios immediately again, change the boot order to promote the SSD above the HDD, then change back to “UEFI” (I think? Might be different), and exit saving changes. (Technical Background: Leaving it in UEFI will not give you the option to change the boot order, and leaving it in legacy support mode will not let you boot, so you need to make the changes, go right back into the bios and change it back to UEFI mode.)
26. Restart the computer, you should now be running windows off of your SSD or mSATA! Startup should be very fast.
27. Note: My computer reassigned drive letters automatically to make the windows partition on the SSD as the C: drive. If your computer does not automatically reassign drive letters, there is some tweaking needed. There are some posts about this issue if you have it; google it.
28. Other how-to’s said it was OK to reformat the main hard drive now to remove the windows partition HOWEVER I disagree. I say leave the windows and recovery partitions on both drives. This way if you ever have a serious problem or can’t boot into windows, you can go back into the bios and change the boot order back to the HDD drive first, and you will have a functioning computer (running off of your windows partition you mirrored from originally!). I say leaving these behind is the safest bet.
29. You should have some unallocated space on your conventional HDD from when you shrank the C: partition before mirroring it. In the Disk Management tool you used earlier, you can right click this rectangle of space and choose “New Simple Partition” and give it a name. For example, let’s name this space “Bulk Storage”. Now you can use this space for larger files, movies, music, etc.
30. Make sure your windows “Libraries” for music, documents, and videos point to folders in your Bulk Storage partition as well so they show up when you are browsing for files. You can check this by right clicking on the “Music” “Documents” or “Videos (or is it Movies?)” libraries in a windows explorer window and choosing properties. Then you can add folder locations. Add the some folder locations from Bulk Storage where you will save these files.
31. You should have enough space on your SSD C: partition for installing programs and such. If you start running out of space ensure you are saving all of your media to Bulk Storage and you can install large programs, such as modern games, to this drive as well. I suggest making a “Steam Games” folder in Bulk Storage if you use Steam.
32. You are good to go! Don’t mess with your partitions you left behind on the conventional HDD so you can use them as a safety net in the future if needed. Enjoy your speeeeeeeeeeeed!