This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential guide to desktop and laptop solid-state drives

SSD for laptops and desktop computers: What type and how to install it

Adding SSD to laptop and desktop computers: What form factor, MLC or SLC, SATA or AHCI, and what are the key stages of installation? We answer your questions in this podcast.

Adding SSD to a laptop or desktop computer can be a cost-effective way of really boosting performance. But what type of solid-state drives will fit in your machine, and what are the key steps in installing one?

In this interview, Bureau Chief Antony Adshead speaks with Chris Evans, an independent consultant with Langton Blue, about SSD for laptops or desktop computers, covering issues such as SSD form factors, MLC vs SLC, interface types, and the key stages to go through in installing the new drive.

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Adding SSD to laptop and desktop computers

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Evans: It’ll be good to set a little bit of background here, and understand what normally goes into a desktop or laptop, and then we can talk about how we would apply that to adding SSD.

If you think about the traditional devices you put in, say, a desktop, that’s typically a 3.5-inch drive. You may be using a 2.5-inch drive, but usually 3.5-inch drives. Typically, [they’ll be 7,200 rpm] devices -- domestic drives, if you like.

[What you normally put in a laptop] is a smaller disk, usually 2.5-inch, and so obviously a different form factor.

Now, solid-state disks come in both form factors, so clearly you have to choose the form factor that suits you, and we’re starting to see a lot of 2.5-inch form-factor SSDs coming out. If you buy those … they often come with a kit that has an adapter that allows you to put it in a 3.5-inch drive bay. So, essentially, you can fit anything by form factor depending on what device you’re putting it into.

Whether you go down the route of SLC or MLC is your choice, but as we’ve discussed in the past, SLC are single-level-cell devices and they are more expensive. They [are typically] found in servers, although you could put one in a desktop or laptop. More likely, you would put in an MLC, the multi-level-cell, cheaper device.

They both come with SAS or SATA interfaces. You usually see the SAS on SLC, while MLC has SATA. Typically, PCs and desktops come with a SATA interface so you’re more likely to go for a SATA MLC device [for] your laptop. You can put pretty much any of these devices in, but there’s a tradeoff between cost vs features offered, performance, and so on. And chances are that your MLC device with SATA will still be performant for a desktop or laptop. What are the key steps in installing SSD for laptops or desktop computers?

Evans: So, let’s just think about the physicality of this, first of all. Clearly, in a desktop, [things] are a lot easier because you can take the casing off and mount the device into the desktop. And as I just mentioned, if it’s a 2.5-inch drive, you buy a kit with the SSD rather than the bare drive, [that] allows you to put it in the spare [often 3.5-inch] bay in the machine.

Depending on your laptop, of course, you may have to do some taking apart of the device to work out where the drive is. Hopefully, it’s in a nice, easy-to-locate place underneath and you can take it apart. Usually they’re in mounting brackets, and you’d want to undo those and be very careful about taking the connectors off, and so on.

So, the physical aspect of putting the new drive into your laptop or desktop should be quite straightforward. What is more complicated is deciding in what fashion you intend to do that. So, if you already have an operating system on your desktop or laptop today, you may … choose to do a full installation again and replace everything you already have on there.

And one of the reasons for doing that is that SSDs -- and let’s pick SATA ones as an example -- will support SATA as an interface, but they will also support a newer feature called AHCI, which is the Advanced Host Controller Interface. This is a new interface that allows you to use advanced features such as command tag queueing on your SATA drive, and you need to make sure your operating system supports that when you enable it. By default Windows 7 supports it; Windows XP doesn’t, so you’d want to make sure you’ve deployed the drivers for that before you went to do the installation.

The next thing to think about is [whether you are] going to use this drive for the full machine or [whether it is] going to be the OS. Now, I would prefer if it was going to be for the OS area to reinstall from scratch, simply because it means I’ve got a nice, clean installation and I’ll know my operating system is nice and straightforward.

If I was adding this device as a secondary device, then clearly I don’t have to reinstall; I could just add it as an additional drive into my PC. That’s probably not so simple with a laptop since most laptops don’t take a second drive.

So, once you’ve got past that, you should find the installation is relatively straightforward. There aren’t really any other technical tasks to do other than reinstall the operating system.

There are a couple of things to look out for though. First of all, make sure, if your operating system allows it, that you are using features like TRIM. [This] allows the OS to tell the drive when blocks of data have been deleted and not have to write them, so that reduces write wear on the device.

Secondly, you should remember you have an SSD in your PC or laptop. SSDs do wear out. They have a finite lifetime, not [practically] infinite like a hard drive would be. They will wear out at some time, so you need to make sure you’re doing backups and that you can get your data back should that drive fail.

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