How to install a solid state drive

With a little effort, you too can join the SSD phenom

Before you buy your replacement SSD, you'll need to figure out if your laptop uses a drive with a SATA (Serial ATA) or PATA (Parallel ATA) interface. While a general rule of thumb is that 2006 marks the year when PATA was replaced by SATA. It's easier, and less embarrassing, if you check the specifications for your portable before you buy the SSD.

Vista-powered portables should not be problematic, especially if you've kept it up to date. XP, on the other hand, may present a problem. Vista will roll-in the drivers it needs for the SSD and tell you to reboot. XP may not, Check with the SSD manufacturer to determine compatibility before you buy. (To be honest, I've only tested these SSD drives with Vista.)

Also make sure that your portable actually uses a 2.5-inch drive. Most do, some don't. Lenovo's X300 Thinkpad series, for example, doesn't and if you're upgrading the SSD shipped with it, a 2.5-inch replacement won't fit. The Samsung drive in the Lenovo is smaller.

If you're replacing your boot drive, you might want to clone the existing hard disk onto your SSD before you do anything else. It will spare you the task of needing to re-install drivers and, in most cases, you can create a proportional partition on the SSD should your old drive and the new solid state drive differ in capacity.

We've done this successfully many times with Apricorn's DriveWire. It includes instructions and all the needed cloning software. If you intend to use the hard drive you're replacing as an external disk when you're done, consider instead Apricorn's Universal Hard Drive Upgrade Kit. Ditto on the instructions and software. As well, the enclosure doubles as the new home for your old drive.

When your drive is ready to install, power down your computer and unplug it. Turn the laptop upside down and remove the battery. This will assure that all power is off to the motherboard and the components connected to it. The problem with this approach, unfortunately, is that you've now left your computer ungrounded.

If you're sitting in a cloth chair with your comfy Mocs rubbing on a nice rug, you could be a source of deadly lightening bolts that we typically call static electricity. Either ground yourself by touching something metal (not connected to or touching the portable) each time before you touch it or stop by your local electronics store and pick up a grounding wrist strap. (Follow the directions on how to use the wrist strap.)

Portables of recent (two or so years) vintage will have a cover plate on the bottom or an edge plate along one side that needs to be removed so you can access the drive. Older laptops might require that their entire bottom panel be removed. Put any screws off to side and note where each has been removed should they be of differing lengths.

Once you've gained access, check the mounting arrangement your notebook uses. Most common is a plate or straps that attach to the portable's frame and to the mounting holes on the drive. (If you find chewing gum or duct tape, you probably bought the laptop used and you're on your own.) In the case of side-mounted drives, they often just slip in or out with a gentle tug or push. Again, when dealing with the drive mounting, segregate any screws according to size and location if they differ. Move any retainers out of the way as well.

If your hard drive attaches to your motherboard via a cable, hold the cable's connector - not the cable itself - and gently remove the drive from it. If it connects via a hard connector attached directly to the motherboard, use your thumbs (or thumbnails) to gently pry it away. (Side-mounting drives usually require some lateral friction from your thumbs to jettison them. Try not to press downward more than needed.)

Once the old drive is out, just reverse all the steps to install the SSD. If cabling is involved, make certain that you've carefully folded or tucked any cables into whatever nooks and crannies that may have hidden them in the first place (if that's the way it was.) Replace any screws, retainers, or cover plates that you've removed.

Replace the battery; put the portable into the upright position, plug in the power cable, and hit the button. If you don't hear a loud "Zzzzzzt," or smell acrid smoke, you're probably okay. The first time you try to boot from the SSD it will take almost forever so that shouldn't worry you in the short run. (If it really does take forever, then yes, be worried. Go back and check your workmanship.)

Allow Windows to boot and load any drivers it needs; reboot if required; and voila! Your SSD is installed and running. You've officially entered the 21st Century.

BTW: If you're installing an SSD in a desktop system you'll need a drive bay adapter. It can be as simple as metal saddle into which the SSD is installed and which is then installed in a 3.5-inch bay. If you want to be cutting edge, you can get a spiffy looking one that protrudes through the faceplate, some of which will let you use the drive as a removable device. Just Google "2.5-inch hard drive adapter" and you'll find a slew. The basic steps are the same as outlined above.

Bill O'Brien is a freelance writer who has written a half-dozen books and more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology, including Apple computers, PCs, Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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