Intro: Installing an SSD in Your Laptop (and Cloning Windows)
Solid State Drives, or SSDs for short, are slowly but certainly taking over the hard disk drives role as the primary storage medium. There are many good reasons to swap your hard drive for an SSD; one is that a new solid state drive is about five times as fast as a hard drive, meaning that your operating system, applications and games will start much faster and your system will feel really snappy in general. Another reason is that it has no moving parts that might break if you happen to drop your laptop.
The only thing that's currently holding the SSD back from becoming widely adopted in all new computers is the hefty price tag. Compared in cost per gigabyte of storage space, the SSD is far more expensive. For the average geek the choice is easy, but the average user is probably not that eager to pay hundreds of dollars more to get that performance boost in their new laptop in exchange for less storage space
On the other hand, an increasing amount of laptops ship with SSDs by default already (such as the MacBook Air) and as the prices continue to drop many more will follow.
Step 1: Prerequisites and Drive Cloning
The stuff you will need to upgrade the hard drive in your laptop to a speedy SSD while keeping your Windows 7 installation intact are (besides the obvious SSD and laptop) a small screwdriver and an app for cloning your hard drive's contents onto the new drive. If you are looking at a large SSD, this part may ironically be more expensive than the laptop itself.
To get your existing data over to the new drive you also need an external USB hard drive case. Some would say that you also need an anti-static wrist strap, but during the 15 years or so that I've tinkered with computers I have never used one. I'll throw in a disclaimer anyway just in case:
Perform the following steps at your own risk. In some rare cases, swapping out the drive on your own voids the warranty, so check up on that also.
Cloning Your Hard Drive
That said, let's move on to the practical details. If you want to transfer an identical copy of your existing drive with the operating system and all your files to the new drive (without reinstalling Windows), the first thing you need to do is clone the hard drive (if you'd rather perform a clean install you can skip to the next step right away).
This could be a problem. If your hard drive has a larger capacity than the SSD and the data on it exceeds what the SSD can store you will have to backup parts of the drive's contents before you clone the drive.
When this potential problem has been solved you need to insert your new SSD into an external USB hard drive enclosure. These are available in just about every store that sells computer peripherals for about $20. Inserting the drive in the enclosure is very easy using the aforementioned screwdriver. A simple manual on how to do this should also be provided with the enclosure.
Once the drive is hooked up to your computer you will need special software to make an exact copy of your hard drive to the SSD.
NOTE: This guide previously used (and suggested) a free trial version of Acronis True Image, which worked at the time of writing. However, as indicated by readers (thank you) this feature is no longer available in the trial version so I removed the link.
As an alternative, EaseUS Todo Backup still offers drive cloning as part of the free version. It can be downloaded here.
Once installed, click the "Clone" link in the application, which brings up a handy wizard for drive cloning. After selecting the source drive, remember to tick the box "Optimize for SSD".
Step 2: Swapping the Drives
Once the drive cloning procedure has been taken care of, it's time to supercharge your laptop with your new SSD (I hate this kind of superlatives as much as the next guy, but in this case it's actually true, as you are about to find out).
All laptops have a slightly different layout, and the screws for unfastening the cover to reveal the hard drive--and if applicable the hard drive cage--will differ between laptop models and brands. In this demonstration I'm using my 11-inch Lenovo ThinkPad Edge, which has a fairly simple layout with just three screws to access the hard drive and memory modules. It also has a hard drive cage (as shown in the picture), but this is just an extra couple of screws that keep the drive in position.
I'll be swapping the existing 320GB hard drive for a more modest (but considerably faster) 64GB A-DATA S599 SSD. SandForce-based SSDs like this A-DATA variety are roughly 4 to 5 times as fast as the laptop hard drive it replaces.
This is the original position of the hard drive minus the cage, which is already mounted on the SSD in the picture. Again, all laptops are slightly different in the internal layout. In this case it's a small 11-inch laptop, so the drives look large relative to the computer, but they are regular 2.5" laptop form-factor drives.
In the second picture, the SSD has been slid into place and by now you should be ready to put the screws back into place and boot up your new and improved laptop.
Step 4: The Final Test
The first thing you'll notice is that the computer boots up much faster than before, and as soon as you hit the Windows desktop you will also notice that all of your applications and games take a fraction of the time to load.
A quick look at the otherwise useless Windows Experience Index will also reveal that your drive is now rated much higher than before--in this case 7.4 instead of (probably) 5.9, which is what Windows 7 thinks is the top score for a hard drive regardless of actual performance. If you are looking for the fastest possible SSD at any given time, pay a visit to FastestSSD.com for a ranking of the current top 10.
In case you cloned your hard drive to your new SSD, there's another thing you should pay attention to, and that is the fact that defragmentation must be turned off when you are using a solid state drive. Fragmentation is a phenomenon that applies to hard drives, but an SSD is an entirely different creature that is actually damaged by defragmentation.
Normally, Windows 7 can handle this all by itself after a clean installation procedure, but when you clone a hard drive to an SSD it's a good idea to check that it's really disabled. You can do so by pressing the start button in Windows 7 and use the search feature. Type in "task scheduler" and click on the icon that appears in the menu. With the scheduler open, select the Microsoft --> Windows menu and click on the "defrag" folder". If it is still enabled, change it to disabled to prevent automatic defragmentation, which is a standard feature for hard drives.
That's it. By now you should have a considerably faster and more responsive system. If anything is remotely unclear in this tutorial, don't hesitate to point it out in the comments.