It’s becoming increasingly hard to find computers that have mechanical storage only. While traditional hard disks still have the advantage when it comes to gigabytes per pound, we’ve long since peaked in the performance stakes. The truth is that mechanical hard disks are really slow. The future of storage is flash, with SSDs an essential upgrade for all PC owners. SSDs are far speedier than their mechanical counterparts, making your computer boot faster and applications load quicker. The easiest way to swap a hard disk for an SSD is to install Windows 10 from scratch. There are free cloning tools to copy your hard disk to an SSD, such as EaseUS Todo Backup Free (easeus.com).

However, this assumes the space on your hard disk is the same as or less than the size of your new SSD. Our advice is to go for a clean install so you can start with a fresh new computer, without any legacy problems. The beauty of this method is that you can keep your old hard disk to one side in case you need to go back to your old Windows installation.

We recommend buying a 480GB SSD or larger. This will give you enough room for Windows 10, your apps and key files. You may need a second drive for games and large files, but you can use your old HDD for this. Before you start, make a backup of your important files. Next, make sure you have a 4GB or larger flash drive, then put the Windows 10 installation files on it by running the Windows Media Creation Tool (tinyurl.com/ Win10MediaCreationTool) and selecting the option to create installation media.

What to choose M.2 or SATA?

There are two types of SSD. The traditional style is 2.5in SATA SSDs, which look like laptop hard disks and are installed in a drive bay in your computer’s case. They work best with SATA3 ports, although they’ll work with SATA2 ports at slower speeds. Traditional SSDs should work with all computers. Newer motherboards (up to three years old) should have an M.2 port.

M.2 drives (top) are a lot smaller than the 2.5in variety
M.2 drives (top) are a lot smaller than the 2.5in variety

These let you install a tiny SSD on your motherboard. The benefit is that you get power and data in one connector, so you don’t need to run any additional cables inside your computer. M.2 describes the form factor, not the interface type, and there are two standards: mSATA and NVMe. The older mSATA protocol is basically the same as the standard SATA interface you use for existing hard disks, with no speed benefits. The newer NVMe standard transfers data much faster. You’ll need to check your computer’s manual to see which standard your motherboard’s M.2 slot supports. If you have two slots (it’s not uncommon to have one on top and one under the motherboard), you may find that one supports NVMe and SATA and one is NVMe only. The price of NVMe drives is coming down, so buy this standard if you can: our Best Buy Adata XPG SX8200 Pro is just £129 for a 1TB drive. Be careful if you buy an mSATA drive, as installing one will most likely prevent one or two existing SATA ports from working. Check your motherboard’s manual for details; if you have anything plugged into the SATA ports that will be disabled, relocate the cables to alternative ports. Finally, if you have a 7th generation or higher Intel PC, you can buy an Intel Optane Memory M.2 SSD cache. This works with your existing storage, acting as a super-fast cache to accelerate your PC. With the 32GB model costing around £55, it’s a cheap upgrade for compatible computers. See tinyurl.com/inteloptaneinfo for more information and specific installation guides.

How to install an M.2 SSD

M.2 SSDs can be different lengths, and your motherboard has a range of mounting holes to accommodate them. One will have a standoff that holds the SSD parallel without touching the motherboard; a retaining screw on the standoff holds the SSD in place. Insert the M.2 SSD into the slot: it will only fit one way, lining the connector on the flash drive up with the motherboard’s slot. Make sure the standoff is fitted to the right hole: it should be under the half-moon cutout on the SSD. If not, make a note of which hole you need, then remove the SSD. Next, undo the standoff by unscrewing it. You should be able to do this by hand, but if not, use a pair of pliers to loosen it very carefully. Screw the standoff into the right hole and tighten by hand so that it feels secure. You’re now ready to fit the M.2 SSD. Insert it back into the socket and you’ll see the drive sticks up in the air slightly. Gently push down at the back, and insert a screw through the half-moon and into the standoff fitted into the motherboard. Tighten the screw gently (do not overtighten) so that the SSD sits correctly, and you’re done.

How to install a 2.5in SSD in a PC

 

Switch off and unplug your PC and detach both sides of the case. Slide the SSD into a drive bay. Cases vary: some have mounting points for small 2.5in drives but others don’t. Most SSDs ship with a 3.5in caddy, which you can fit into a regular drive bay, and they always come with screws.

Plug in the power and data connectors for your SSD. If your motherboard has SATA3 ports, make sure the SSD is plugged into one of these. They’ll either be labelled on the board or in the manual. Make sure the cables are neatly routed through the case so it will be easy to identify them if you ever need to perform maintenance on your PC. If your case is designed in this way, slide the disk tray back into the disk mounts and secure it before reattaching the case panels.

Installing Windows

Now turn on your computer, go into the BIOS and make sure that your new SSD is set to be the primary boot disk. Plug your Windows 10 installation media into your computer and restart your PC or laptop. Look out for the option to boot from Windows 10; if you don’t see this, go back into your BIOS and make sure you’ve ticked the option to boot from USB, or that you’ve selected the USB drive as the primary boot device (options differ by motherboard and USB flash drive). Now reinstall Windows 10 from scratch. When completed, remember to download and install the latest drivers for your motherboard, graphics card and any other peripherals that you have. You’ll need to reinstall your applications and also copy back your documents. If you left your old hard disk in place, you can copy the files that you want from this to your new SSD. When you’re happy that everything is working, you can reformat your old hard disk and use it as extra storage. If you no longer need it, power down your computer and remove the disk.