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Windows 7 and SSDs: 3 things to look out for

Solid State hard drives (SSDs) are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They provide a huge performance boost. Ask anyone who has converted a computer from a spinning platter hard drive to an SSD. Once you go solid state, there is no going back.

But, as with any new technology, there are gotchas. Here are three. 

1. NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS 

In their very early days, SSDs were slower than spinning hard drives. Take it from someone who, way back when, bought a netbook that included the lowest of low-end SSD. It was agonizingly s-l-o-w, something that was not entirely the fault of the low end processor. Upgrading to faster SSD made a big difference in performance. 

There are still large speed differences between SSDs. I mention this because of a recent blog by Michael Prospero, the Reviews Editor at Laptop magazine. Prospero was annoyed that the major laptop manufacturers refuse to divulge specifics about the SSDs in their computers. He calls it the "SSD Shell Game."

Prospero warns that manufacturers "sometimes use completely different drives in different production runs of the same PC."  

I'm typing this on an SSD equipped T410s ThinkPad that I purchased new. Lenovo clearly felt it was none of my business which SSD they included. Today, I went to the websites of Dell, Lenovo and Samsung to configure a new laptop with an SSD. None of them said anything about the SSD they would use, other than its capacity. 

What prompted Prospero's gripe was an ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A and a Samsung Series 9 laptop. He wrote   

In the past few weeks, we’ve received two Ultrabooks ... that both came with SanDisk SSDs that woefully underperformed. How bad? In the case of the Series 9, on our transfer test ... the 128GB SSD was slower than most 7,200-rpm mechanical hard drives ... That’s hardly the performance I expect out of a $1,400 notebook. It’s even crazier when you consider that Samsung makes one of the best SSDs on the market in the 830 Series. Even SanDisk makes a decent SSD in its Extreme series ... Buying a notebook shouldn't be like a box of chocolates. 

His only solution is to purchase from a small boutique shop. Specifically, he praised AVADirect, Eurocom, and Maingear for being "transparent". 

2. CHECKING UP ON WINDOWS 7 

A new Windows 7 machine that ships from the factory with an SSD should be using a feature called TRIM. TRIM is an outgrowth of the fact that SSDs are, internally, very different from spinning platter hard drives.

Although the operating system talks to the SSD using the same interface as a spinning disk, under the covers things are as different as night and day. One difference has to do with deleted data. To get the best performance, the SSD needs new information from the operating system regarding deleted data. Information that spinning disks did not need. Information provided by the TRIM command. 

Windows XP and Vista do not support TRIM. If you convert a computer running these versions of Windows to an SSD, then you also need to install software from the SSD manufacturer that will issue the TRIM commands.  

Being into Defensive Computing, I wanted to verify that Windows 7 is indeed using the TRIM command. It turns out that a simple command tells you whether TRIM is enabled. If it's not, then another command can turn it on. 

Back in September 2010, Martin Brinkmann blogged about this at his ghacks.net website (see Verify That TRIM Is Enabled In Windows 7). Thinking it was an interesting topic, Whitson Gordon picked up on it at LifeHacker (Make Sure TRIM Is Enabled for Your Solid State Drive in Windows 7 for Better Performance) that same month.  

However, both authors provided the wrong command to enable TRIM. Brinkmann made a typo and Gordon copied it.

The command to test for TRIM is 

fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify    

The command to enable TRIM is 

fsutil behavior set DisableDeleteNotify 0 

The command Brinkmann and Gordon offered to enable TRIM is 

fsutil behavior set disablenotify 0   

Laid out like this, the typo becomes fairly evident. 

The first query command returns either zero or one. Zero means TRIM is being used, one means it is not. Thus, when you "set" the behavior, the value specified is zero. All these commands need to run in a command window with Administrative privileges. 

My information comes from the Fsutil behavior page at Microsoft.com.   

There are two trust issues here. First, we don't have to trust that a laptop vendor enabled TRIM, since it's so easy to verify. And, when it comes to the behavior of the fsutil command, trust Microsoft. 

3. SIZE MATTERS 

Our last gotcha has to do with the size of 2.5 inch SSDs. Not the capacity, the physical size.    

Back in July, Fred Langa wrote about his experience with an Acer laptop and a Crucial SSD. It was ugly.

To paraphrase the immortal Alice Kramden, putting the SSD in the laptop was like fitting two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag. Langa had to resort to surgery to get the drive into his laptop. 

Earlier I quoted Michael Prospero of Laptop Magazine saying that the Samsung 830 series is "one of the best SSDs on the market." The Samsung specs state that it's a "7mm (Ultraslim)" design. 

Ultraslim? Good enough for me, I ordered one. 

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