Intel SSD

Introduction

By now, most people have at least heard of "solid state drives" (or SSDs for short), but we might as well refer to them as "super-speedy drives" given how they've revolutionized personal computing.

But what is an SSD, and how would the typical home computer user, photo enthusiast, or gamer use one? This article will teach you the basics of SSDs with just a bit of technical jargon, and will then provide the steps you'll need to take to set one up in your computer.

A Very Brief History of SSDs

Intel brought SSDs into the consumer mainstream with its x25-m model in 2008, which it replaced in 2009 the x25-m G2 model, shown to the right. Intel offered for the first time an SSD with the three key ingredients for success:

  1. uncompromised performance in all drive-related use versus traditional hard drives;
  2. reliability; and 
  3. a price that consumers could at least wrap their heads around (80GB for ~$250)!

Samsung SSD

What's Inside an SSD?

An SSD is a data storage device that uses "solid state" (electronic) components to store data, rather than spinning mechanical components like hard drives, which are a lot more similar to an old record player than you might think! The three major components of SSDs are:

  1. the "NAND memory" chips, which store data;
  2. the "controller", which moves data; and
  3. the "firmware", which acts as the operating system for the SSD (and which in some unfortunate circumstances, can crash just like any operating system, leading to data loss).  

Samsung has made a name for itself in providing reliable and high-performance SSDs, like the 840 model pictured to the left. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of the few companies left that manufactures all three of the major components in its SSDs. [Update: years after the release of the 840, it and its successor the 840 Evo were found to have fairly serious issues related to NAND design that caused significant slowdowns. As of our most recent update, only Crucial has been able to avoid any serious firmware or hardware flaws]. 

Physical Characteristics of SSDs

Designed to fit the 2.5" standard long associated with laptop hard drives, SSDs will appear to be extremely small to anyone familiar with big, heavy 3.5" desktop drives. The 1" difference in the nomenclature doesn't even begin to truly describe the size difference - a 2.5" SSD is about the size of your average smartphone but much lighter! While SSDs can differ in thickness (e.g., 9.5mm or the thinner 7mm required for some notebooks), they will all be the exact same length (100mm) and width (70mm).

mSATA Drive

M.2

There are three other common form-factors for SSDs, two of which are essentially already obsolete as of our most recent update. First is the 3.5" size, which never made a lot of sense, since it was simply designed to conform to desktop drive mounts, and was mostly a hollow shell. Second is the micro SATA (or mSATA) drives, which take the components in a 2.5" drive and shrink them into a device the size of a matchbox, as shown to the left. There was nothing inherently wrong with this design, but in 2015, most motherboard manufacturers switched over to the M.2 format, shown to the right. It's not actually any smaller, but it allows for more advanced SSD technologies to be used, including the ultra-fast PCIe interface.

Installing an SSD

Now that you've learned a bit about the basics of what an SSD is, you're ready to set up your own SSD. The first thing you need to know is that SSDs will perform faster and have a longer lifespan if used with Windows 7 or later operating systems. Some versions of Linux and Macintosh OS 10 also provide the necessary features to get the most out of an SSD. The feature that these operating systems have in common is what's called the "TRIM command", which basically allows the operating system to manage the memory built into the SSD by preparing blocks of memory for writing data in the background. While an SSD will work on older operating systems like Windows XP or Vista, it will likely become slower over time, and the lifespan will likely be shorter.

SATA Data

SATA power

Another key to getting the most out of an SSD is connecting it to the right interface on the motherboard. The interface seems quite simple: all consumer SSDs connect to the motherboard via the SATA (or mSATA) interface, and motherboards should come with the cable required to connect it. The SATA cable is typically a flat red or black cable with the a straight or 90-degree connector at each end, shown to the left. You'll also need to connect the SSD to the power supply using a similarly-shaped (but wider) SATA power cable, pictured to the right. 

The trick here is that while most SATA cables do the same thing, not all SATA motherboard ports are the same, even if they look identical. For any modern SSD, it's best to have a SATA port rated at 6 Gigabits per second (6Gbps), rather than 3Gbps. And even then, not all 6Gbps ports are the same - the ones connected directly to the Intel chipset on a motherboard are the best (and those in AMD chipsets for use with AMD CPUs are slightly behind). The third-party SATA ports used on many motherboards in addition to the "native" ports operate at a slower speed even if rated at the same 6Gbps. Reading the motherboard manual may help to identify these, but the easiest option is almost always to plug the SSD into the lowest-numbered SATA ports, which are usually labeled SATA 0 and SATA 1.

Finally, the motherboard must be set up to communicate with an SSD effectively. This typically means changing a setting in the BIOS (accessed from the boot screen by pressing a certain key, such as F2 or F8, as indicated at bootup). The setting is called "Advanced Host Controller Interface" (AHCI), and it's found in a BIOS menu. It's an alternative to the older "IDE" standard, which will still work, but using AHCI will help the SSD to achieve its maximum speed potential. The picture below illustrates what this selection looks like in a modern UEFI (formerly known as the BIOS).

AHCI Select

What if you forget that step and load up your operating system, boot into Windows, and then realize that you never changed the AHCI setting? Can you go back and change it now? Well, if you go into the BIOS and change it once the operating system is loaded, it will lead to a scary bluescreen crash. But have no fear - Microsoft provides an incredibly easy fix for Windows 7 users on the Microsoft Support Website, which automates the preparation within Windows. Once you use that fix, you can enter the BIOS upon a restart and switch the setting from IDE to AHCI. For Windows 8/8.1 users, the process isn't automated, but Microsoft still provides a step-by-step fix.

So, to review, here's a checklist to keep in mind for optimal performance:

  1. use Windows 7 or later
  2. plug the SSD into SATA ports 0 or 1
  3. set the motherboard to AHCI mode before loading the operating system, but if you forget to do so, you can do so afterwards by following the instructions linked above from Microsoft.

A Word on Cloning

One area where SSDs differ in operation from hard drives is how the operating system sorts the data on the SSD. Hard drives have physical "sectors" on them, while SSDs do not - if forced to conform to hard drive sector size, SSDs will become "misaligned," causing them to perform worse and experience shortened lifespans. When the data from a hard drive is moved (or "cloned") to an SSD without taking these differences into account, the sectors will end up misaligned. The easiest way to avoid this outcome is to install the operating system from scratch on an SSD and reinstall all your applications. But what if you already have your operating system and all your applications on a hard drive and don't want to do all that extra work? 

There are certain data migration programs that not only move data, but also align the sectors of the SSD so it won't be forced to "think" like a hard drive. If this is an option you'd like to have, look for an SSD that includes a data migration kit offering an alignment tool, or purchase one separately. These kits used to be more common - as of our most recent update, the only widely-available one comes from Kingston. Note, of course, that you must take into consideration that your existing hard drive may be larger than a new SSD, which means it might have more data than can fit on an SSD. 

What's the Guru's advice? Take this opportunity to start with a fresh OS installation. It's worth the extra effort to know that the SSD is operating at peak efficiency!

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