SSD Tips, Tricks & Choosing the right SSD

Most people get put off by the high cost of SSDs without realising that they don’t actually need a large SSD to store all their data.  A small SSD coupled with a large capacity HDD would suit most user’s needs.  This guide covers choosing an SSD, preparing for the OS installation/cloning, choosing what data to put on the SSD and maintaining peak performance.

Desktop PC Compatibility

Pretty much all recent 2.5” SSDs have an SATA, although if you happen to spot a bargain such as on eBay or at a clearance sale, it may be an early IDE model.  Like 2.5” SATA hard disks, the same SATA power and data cables for a 3.5” hard disk will fit the 2.5” drive, so there is no need to obtain an adapter, unless of course there are no spare SATA power cables.

2.5” IDE based SSDs do require an adapter to fit a desktop PC.  Their IDE interface is the same as that used with 2.5” IDE hard disks and thus requires a 2.5” to 3.5” IDE & power adapter.

Choose the size carefully!

Bear in mind that you only need an SSD large enough to hold your OS, frequently used applications and some spare space for future application installations.  Most bulky data such as music, video, photographs and documents get minimal benefit from an SSD and thus should be stored on a separate hard disk.

Unlike hard disks were 1TB drive is affordable, SSDs pricing is almost proportional to the capacity.  For example a 128GB SSD is nearly twice the price of a 64GB for the same model.

To get an idea of the size you need, go into your OS drive and get the sizes of the Windows and Program Files folders (right-click a folder and click “properties” for the size.)  Get the sum of these.  Add double your RAM capacity to cover swap & hibernation, 5GB for the user profile and 10GB for spare.  If you use Windows XP mode in Windows 7, add another 20GB.

For most desktop users with 4GB of RAM, they will get away with a 30GB-40GB for Windows XP and 7 32-bit and 60GB to 80GB for Windows Vista and Windows 7 64-bit.  For a laptop, double these figures.

Deciding on the controller

Most SSDs use either a JMicron, Indilinix SandForce controller, each with their own features and advantages.  Some manufacturers even have multiple generations.  For an in-depth article comparing the different controllers and features, check out this article on MyCE.

Deciding on TRIM support

Most modern SSDs now feature trim natively, while some other models can get TRIM support with a firmware update.  Windows 7 supports TRIM natively, while Windows XP and Vista need a 3rd party utility to send the TRIM commands.

However, as some shops are performing clearance sales on early SSDs such as Kingston’s first generation SSDNow drive; this is a good time to decide whether to buy an SSD at a bargain without TRIM or whether it’s worth paying the premium for TRIM.

With a significant difference between laptop and desktop HDDs, even an SSD without TRIM will provide a very noticeable improvement for laptops.  For desktop PCs however, the lack of TRIM may start to become a problem after a few months, unless preparation is made to minimise the effect.

As SSDs need free space to effectively perform wear-levelling, one workaround for non-TRIM enabled drives is to leave a few gigabytes of non-partitioned space.  For example, for a 128GB SSD, 8GB of non-partitioned space would leave plenty of room for wear-levelling.  It may even prevent the drive from slowing down as much over time.

3.5” mounting bracket for desktop PCs

Unlike traditional hard disks that require mounting to prevent vibrations and potential damage to the drive as a result, an SSD can easily rest at the bottom of the case or on top of an existing hard disk, since they do not vibrate, are not affected by external vibrations and most don’t have exposed electronics.

Despite this, a 3.5” mount is strongly recommended for a permanent installation or where the PC may be moved or opened occasionally, since a loose SSD could easily move about and potentially affect cooling, block a vent or even cause a dangerous short if it ends in a bad place.

SSD desktop kit vs. laptop kit

Both kits for the same SSD feature the same SSD, however, the difference between them is the included accessories.  With a laptop kit, it may come with a USB cable (if the SSD has a built-in USB connection) or HDD enclosure for the original 2.5” HDD.  A desktop kit will typically come with a 3.5” mount to fit the SSD in a standard 3.5” bay.

Even if the wrong kit is purchased, an SSD from a desktop kit will fit a laptop and vice versa, although the laptop kit will obviously lack the 3.5” mounting.  When I got an SSD for my laptop, I bought the desktop kit, as it let me properly mount my existing desktop SSD and I used the SSD from the kit in the laptop.

Before installing the OS

Ensure that both AHCI and SATA Native mode are enabled in the BIOS, especially for a Windows XP installation.  Like modern hard disks, an SSD makes use of the native command queuing (NCQ) to improve IO performance.

Windows XP partition alignment

While Windows Vista and 7 both align the clusters up with the physical flash block boundaries, this is not the case with Windows 7.  Dee’s guide on MyCE goes goes into detail on how to do this.

Check for firmware updates

Unlike hard disks where manufacturers don’t provide firmware updates, most SSD manufacturers regularly release firmware updates to provide performance and reliability updates.

Like with any other device, there is always a small risk of a firmware update going wrong, which could result in the drive’s content being lost or the drive failing altogether.  So by applying a firmware update when new (if available), this eliminates the data loss risk, since the drive obviously has nothing to lose.  Also, in the unlikely event that the drive fails, it could be returned as DOA.

Move your Windows profile paths to a separate hard disk

Photographs, music and video can quickly fill up an SSD, yet they get little benefit with an SSD since unlike system files where Windows can access several hundred random parts per second, generally one only accesses a single photograph, song or video at a time apart from when first copied to the drive.  These are read sequentially, which an HDD can easily handle without affecting performance.

These paths should be carried out immediately after the OS installing and before installing software such as iTunes, Picasa and so on.  Otherwise, if this process is carried out later on or with an existing OS installation, it will likely break existing paths.

To do this, create the folders on your hard disk, giving them names like “Desktop”, “Documents”, “Photos”, etc. for where the new paths will point to, such as the examples shown below for a hard disk with a drive letter ‘D’.  Move any existing content to the new paths before carrying out the following steps.  These steps apply to Windows XP, Vista and 7, both 32-bit and 64-bit editions.

  • Click Start, type in “Regedit”, press enter and click ‘Yes’.
  • Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER -> Software -> Microsoft -> Windows  -> CurrentVersion -> Explorer -> User Shell Folders.
  • Modify the following:
    • Desktop  – Desktop path, e.g. “D:\Desktop”
    • My Music – Music path, e.g. “D:\Music”
    • My Pictures – Pictures path, e.g. “D:\Photos”
    • My Video -> Video files path, e.g. “D:\Video”
    • Personal -> Documents path, e.g. “D:\Documents”
  • Exit out of the registry editor and reboot the PC.

Consider disabling hibernation

Most PCs, especially laptops, boot in 1/3 the time with an SSD compared with an HDD and many applications load near-instantly with an SSD.  So unless you really need to hibernate the PC, consider powering it off completely or use the sleep mode for the times you need to head away for a short period.  Most laptops will sleep for several days on battery.

The catch with using hibernation on an SSD is that it uses the same amount of space as the RAM in the system.  For example, if computer has 4GB of RAM, 4GB of SSD would be permanently reserved for hibernation, which is a lot, especially with a low capacity SSD.

To disable hibernation on Windows 7, click start, run type in “powercfg -h off” (without the quotes) and press Shift + Ctrl + Enter.  Click ‘Yes’ for the User Account Control prompt.  To enable hibernation, just repeat these steps, but type in “powercfg -h on” instead.

Cloning the existing OS

Once the SSD is attached, do not boot the existing OS!  If the existing OS sees the SSD, it will give it a new drive letter, which may prevent the OS booting once cloned to the SSD.  Instead, only attach the SSD when you are ready to clone the hard disk.

If the existing OS partition is small enough, it can be copied over to the new SSD with almost any partition cloning tool or with dd_rescue in Linux (for experienced users).  Alternatively for Windows 7, make a backup of the OS partition to a hard disk or external drive, create a recovery CD with the Windows 7 backup utility, install the new SSD and then boot the recovery CD to perform a restore.

If the OS partition is over-sized, it’s worth seeing how much content is in the documents and pictures folders to move out as much as possible and creating shortcuts to the new paths.  For example, if there’s a huge folder called “2009 photos” in the Pictures folder, move this folder to the hard disk and create a shortcut in the Pictures folder to it called “2009 photos”.  This way it can still be accessed easily without taking up space on the OS partition.  Both Windows 7 and Vista allow the OS partition to be shrunk in Disk management, which can be accessed by clicking start, right-clicking “Computer” and clicking “Manage”.

Use the Microsoft SATA drivers with Windows 7

When Windows Vista or 7 is installed, by default it will use its own SATA drivers, which support TRIM natively.  Unfortunately, some third party drivers don’t pass the TRIM, which may end up with the SSD performing much like a non-TRIM enabled SSD over time.

The simplest way to do this is to uninstall the SATA driver and reboot the PC.  Windows will automatically install its own driver once the OS boots back up.  If an SATA driver was required to install Windows, do not uninstall it, as to do so may prevent Windows from being able to boot.

Note that if two or more SSDs are set up in RAID, most RAID cards do not support passing the TRIM command.

Do not defrag!

Unlike hard disks, SSDs don’t need defragging to maintain its performance.  In fact running defragmentation will potentially have a negative effect, since defragging causes a great number of write operations, causing extra wear & tear on the SSD without actually providing any benefit!  With a hard disk, seeking requires the head to be repositioned on to the correct cylinder to read the required data, which takes time.

With an SSD, there are no moving parts, so they have instant access to data located on different parts of the flash memory.  In fact, even if a file may not appear to be fragmented, parts of it could be stored on different areas of the flash memory due to the wear-levelling process.  For example a file is overwritten on a HDD multiple times, the same physical sectors on the hard disk are overwritten each time, but with an SSD, it will store the data on different blocks with each overwrite process to reduce level out the wear across the physical flash NAND.   So even if a defragmentation results in a neat looking graph, the data will still be physically scattered across the physical NAND.

Leave adequate free space

Modern TRIM enabled SSDs work at their best when there is plenty of free space available, as this lets them carry out garbage collection and wear-levelling more efficiently.

A simple way to do this is to regularly empty the recycle bin, remove temporary internet files and so on.  The freeware utility CCleaner will help free up additional space such as from old log files.

Make a periodic backup

The Windows 7 backup can be easily set up to schedule a weekly backup to the PC’s HDD or to an external HDD.  Due to the speed of SSDs, the performance impact is usually negligible, apart from when accessing files on the hard disk as it takes place.

Should the SSD ever need to be replaced, such as for a larger model, it is just a matter of booting the Windows recovery DVD (which can be created with its backup tool) and performing a restore.  The restore operation will pick up the existing hard disk as the backup source and perform the restore.  Once restored, it’ll be in the exact state as when the backup operation took place.

Restoring performance on a non-TRIM enabled drive

For a non-TRIM enabled drive, some SSDs that don’t support TRIM can have a sanitary erase operation performed.  This will restore the performance to a like-new drive.  The best way to perform this is to make a backup, perform the sanitary erase and then then restore the backup afterwards.   With Windows 7, its backup utility works very well for backing up and restoring the OS partition.  To restore the backup, you need the recovery boot CD to perform the restore, which can be easily created with the Windows 7 Backup utility.

Check for firmware updates

Most SSD manufacturers release firmware updates, which may improve performance and reliability of the SSD or fix any known bugs.  Most firmware updates require burning to CD, e.g. using Imgburn.  If the firmware update does not detect the SSD, try disabling AHCI and SATA native mode in the BIOS and re-enable these after the firmware update completes.

Always carry out the backup process before applying a firmware update.  This way should the drive need to be erased after the firmware update, no data is lost and it is just a matter of performing a restore.

SSD FAQ, Utilities and Technical info

Dee on MyCE has a technical SSD FAQ covering in-depth info on how SSDs work and utilities available for SSDs.