How to install an SSD

Learning How to install an SSD can seem intimidating if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of a gaming PC, but it’s one of the easier upgrades you can make. The benefits are immediately noticeable if you switch from the slow frames to an older mechanical hard drive as well, ensuring you boot into the OS in record time and aren’t stuck on the game’s loading screen for too long.

In fact, knowing which solid state drive to choose is harder than actually plugging the thing into your PC. That’s the difference between form factors, as the best SSD for gaming is an M.2 NVMe drive, but you shouldn’t count out the 2.5-inch SATA drive. Then there are the different generations of ports, which can dictate speed. Fortunately, all generations are currently backwards compatible, but if you pair a Gen 4 SSD with a Gen 3 motherboard or vice versa, you’ll be locked into the slower Gen 3 speeds.

SSDs are becoming more and more affordable, so it’s easy to mix and match all types without breaking the bank. We’ll walk you through which SSD to choose, how to install the thing, and put Windows back on the drive so you can get right into the game.

Samsung 4TB QLC SSD

1. Which SSD should you choose – 2.5-inch or M.2?

Conventional hard drives (otherwise known as hard drives or HDDs) are quite thick at 3.5 inches, and often require large cages to fit multiple drives in a single system. Hard drives work by using a physical arm to locate the data on a disk, much like a record player, which takes time and is often more fragile than modern alternatives.

The first wave of SSDs is much thinner at 2.5-inches, allowing you to fit many more drives in a fraction of the space. Thanks to something called NAND Flash memory, the path to your data is much more direct, resulting in faster read and write speeds.

The latest and greatest evolution of this technology is the M.2 SSD, which scales down the form factor even more. Without getting too complicated here, these come in five different lengths and two different types: SATA and NVMe. If your motherboard supports M.2 SSDs, as it usually appears on the bottom half of the card, check which size and type are compatible before you buy. Otherwise, you can buy a PCIe adapter to insert it next to the graphics card.

If you want the fastest possible speed and your motherboard can handle it, NVMe SSDs are the way forward with the lowest latency. SATA M.2 SSDs have the same specifications as 2.5-inch SSDs, but are guaranteed to be better than most because they only use the best version of the connector. If your system doesn’t support M.2, however, 2.5-inch SSDs provide a more direct upgrade to hard drives that use the same connector, meaning compatibility isn’t much of an issue beyond fitting it into your case.

Please note: M.2 SSDs can be quite difficult in the dedicated slot. They require smaller screws than 2.5-inch SSDs (M2 x 3mm screws), and therefore a smaller screwdriver to install them. You won’t find these screws in the M.2 SSD box as they usually come with the motherboard. The problem here is that if they don’t come pre-installed in the motherboard itself, the bag it sits in is often lost, requiring you to buy a new one before proceeding with the installation.

Samsung 970 EVO Plus vs 970 EVO

2. Choose the right capacity

Moving from one storage drive to another can be a hassle-free one if you don’t go for one with equal or greater capacity. Given that SSDs are more expensive per GB, those of you upgrading from a hard drive will likely deal with a drop in available space. The first thing you need to do is compare how much space you use on your current drive compared to what you need. Keep in mind that many modern games, such as Cyberpunk 2077, now recommend that you install them on an SSD, so you may want to consider a larger capacity SSD.

In this example, we go from a 1TB HDD to a 750GB SSD. It immediately looks like we’re in trouble, but of the total hard drive capacity, we’re only using about 340GB. We know that with a little partition magic, we’ll be able to clone the entire installation as is without much effort.

But if we were to switch to a 250GB SSD, we’d have to do some heavy lifting to get things working. In this case, uninstall programs and games that you don’t use regularly by right-clicking on the Windows logo at the bottom left of the screen and going to Apps and features. Once you’ve done this, it would be best to back up and remove all important files from the drive you’re replacing to an external device or cloud service.

If you struggle to track down data that can be deleted, a storage analysis app is your best friend. WinDirStat, for example, will check your storage drives and produce a beautiful color map, grouping file types together to give you a clearer view of what’s stored on the drive and where.

3. Select the SSD speed

All storage drives are rated based on their “read speed” (how quickly you can access existing data) and “write speed” (its ability to store new data). The type of connector plays a big role in how fast an SSD can be, with NVMe M.2 SSDs currently sitting on the throne by quite a large margin. NVMe drives with PCIe 4.0 support are the fastest, but you’ll need to make sure your rig is compatible before dropping cash on one. It will still work in a PCIe 3.0 motherboard, but the speeds will only be as high as the slowest component in the chain. It’s also worth bearing in mind that PCIe 5.0 is on the horizon.

Higher speeds are always desirable, but they don’t come cheap. To stay within your budget, you may have to make some sacrifices, prioritizing either capacity or speeds depending on your needs. If it makes your decision a little easier, multiplayer players will always have to wait for the slowest person in the lobby anyway, and you’re unlikely to be that person if you’re running your game from an SSD.

With speed, capacity and compatibility in mind, you’re now ready to check out our list of best SSDs to see which one is right for you.

Install an SSD

4. Install a new SSD

Now, with the SSD in one hand and the screwdriver in the other, let’s get started. You don’t need to touch your current drive unless it’s in the way, so your only focus is on the new SSD.

To install a 2.5-inch SSD, you only need a standard screwdriver to secure it (the most common places are in the hard drive cage or a dedicated space in your case, such as a bracket behind the motherboard), and both a SATA power cable and SATA data cable to connect it. There is no hard and fast rule on how to do things, but you may find it easier to connect the wires before attaching the drive, depending on how you handle cables.

If you’re adding to your collection of hard drives, you should already have a power cable coming from the PSU around that area. You may have to rummage around in your spare boxes for a new data cable as these often come with the motherboard and not the new SSD, but these are pretty easy to come by if you’re stuck. Plug the other end of the data cable into the motherboard and you’re good to go.

If you’re fancy and upgrading to a super-fast NVMe SSD, then the steps on how to install an M.2 SSD are also easy, provided you have a small enough screwdriver and the right screw to lock it in – this also comes with the motherboard.

When you insert the M.2 SSD into the connector, it will sit at an angle until you secure it with the screw. Higher end motherboards even come with a shield that covers the drive with claims of dissipating heat, but realistically these just help clean up the look of your system. Most motherboards come with at least one M.2 slot, if not more, but those without can opt for a PCIe adapter instead.

5. Replace the Windows drive

To turn your rig into the best gaming PC out there, you’ll need to set up Windows (or perhaps another Linux-based operating system). This is best done as a fresh start with a clean copy of Windows, but it requires a large amount of cleanup to move all your files over, potentially re-download your Steam library, and get all the latest updates. Fortunately, a small program called Macrium Reflect can get you back into the game in no time, provided you’ve installed an SSD with enough space.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed Macrium Reflect, it will analyze your system and identify all attached drives and relevant partitions. The boot drive contains the C: partition, but if you want to double-check, right-click the Windows icon in the lower-left corner of the desktop and click Disk Management. This will also show the drives on your PC and you can match them by right-clicking on a drive and checking its properties.

You need to clone all the partitions on the old Windows boot drive to ensure you get a complete copy. This is as simple as selecting the drive you want to clone, clicking Clone this disk and selecting your new SSD as the disk you want to clone to in the window that appears.

Your new SSD should be a blank slate, but if there are already partitions on it, select each and click Delete Existing Partition to remove the drive. Then drag and drop all the partitions from the boot drive to the SSD. If you’re switching to a smaller capacity SSD, this is when you might need to shrink a partition to fit everything.

As long as there is free space inside a partition, you will be able to shrink it down. Select the partition you need to shrink down and click Cloned Partition Properties. The following dialog allows you to choose how much you want to shrink the partition (or, if you’re switching to a larger drive, expand it). Figure out how much space you need to fit all the other partitions and make sure you cut it down to fit.

Once all the partitions are dropped onto the new drive, click Next a few times, double check that you’re copying the correct drive to the correct destination, and click Finish. Now it’s time to play the waiting game. There is no point in watching the progress bar, the cloning process will take a couple of hours at best.

Fury RGB SSD review

6. Checking the SSD and troubleshooting

Once the cloning process is complete, you can turn off your PC and reboot from your shiny new SSD. When the computer boots, press the Del key to enter the BIOS and change the boot priority of the new drive so that it no longer boots from the lagging hard drive.

If all goes well, you won’t notice anything different when Windows starts up, and everything you transferred will be exactly where you left it. But when you launch games and programs, they will be much faster to load from the SSD.

It’s best to leave the old installation alone for a few days, as you’ll be able to repeat step five again if something goes wrong. Once you’re sure everything is working as it should, you can format the old drive and use it as extra storage space.

And that’s all it takes. You’ll no longer be on the wrong side of a comment about your hamster getting tired or needing to crank the wheel to load into a game. But you can always check out how to install a graphics card, or perform a CPU upgrade if you want to get some extra frames as well. If you do, take a look at how to install a power supply for some extra juice to run these components.

Check out the best SSDs below:

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