Preparing an SSD for Real-World Use

The final step in using an SSD is learning how to use a drive with a bit less space on it than the typical hard drive. There are two operating system tweaks that you should make to ensure that you're not losing a lot of space on your SSD. Windows automatically sets up a "page file" on your OS drive equal to the size of your total system memory (RAM) amount. It also creates a hibernation file, also equal to your RAM amount, to enable the system to be hibernated with power off without losing data. If you have 8GB of RAM, Windows has will claim 16GB of your precious SSD space. But taking back this SSD space is relatively straightforward, as described below:

  1. The Page File - the reason Windows creates a page file is that in the past, RAM has been very expensive relative to the cost of an entire system, and therefore most users did not have a sufficient amount of memory to run typical programs without quickly running out. So the operating system uses the system drive (in this case an SSD) to "extend" the memory into a page file. If you have 4GB or less of RAM today, you should just let Windows use its default setting, which is to create a page file equal to the RAM size, in this case 4GB. We've found that many applications will simply fail to launch when using 4GB of RAM with a smaller page file. But if you have more than 4GB of memory, you're using precious SSD space as system memory when you likely have enough RAM to avoid doing so. Therefore, reduce the page file size (but don't eliminate it). A good rule of thumb is to allow Windows to use 1GB of drive space for a page file, as many applications are programmed to look for it, even if with larger amounts of RAM, they don't really need it. Finding the setting requires a bit of digging, but we've got a map below to illustrate this below. Here's what it shows: (a) right-click on "My Computer" in the Start Menu; (b) select "Advanced system settings"; (c) click the "Settings" button under the "Performance" heading; (d) click the "Advanced" tab in the next window and then the "Change" button under "Virtual Memory"; (e) select your SSD from the list, then select the radio button for "Custom size", and then type in 1024MB (1GB) in each of the two boxes. Now you have an SSD-friendly page file of 1GB and you can go on with your day...or proceed to step two! Note that the instructions above apply to Windows 7. If you're using Windows 8, you can simply type "System" while on the Start Screen, select the System option that pops up, and then continue to step b above.Page File

  2. The Hiberation File - this issue is a bit more complicated, as for some users, particularly laptop users, hibernation is very useful, since you can hibernate and unplug your system without losing whatever you're in the middle of working on. So this is really up to the particular user, but keep in mind that a hibernation file equal to your RAM size will be created automatically if you have hibernation on, even if you don't use the feature. And shutting it off is not enough - the file sticks around until you issue a very particular command to delete it. Luckily, Microsoft has provided an automated widget to turn on and off hibernation and delete the hibernation file in Windows 7. Note that for Windows 8, there is no automated process for deleting the hibernation file, and furthermore, Windows 8 uses the hibernation feature to speed up the boot process on any system, so it's probably worth just leaving the settings at default on Win 8/8.1.

Another thing to know now that you're ready to use your SSD is that the common tech advice of "just defragment your drive" does not apply to SSDs. They do not get fragmented like hard drives, and running a defragmenting utility on an SSD will actually reduce its lifespan without improving its performance by performing a huge number of unnecessary writes to the drive. Once you've used an SSD, you'll likely forget all about the need to run a defragmenter, but just in case it occurs to you to try it on an SSD - don't! 

Setting up an SSD and a Hard Drive in the Same System

Assuming you are like most computer users and have lots of media (music, photos, videos), you'll probably need a hard drive in your computer to store all that data. An SSD is typically too small for such files (and you don't need the speed of the SSD for opening them). So you'll need to install a hard drive as well, and there are three tricks to that.

First, you need to allow the operating system to see the second drive, which requires creating and formatting a hard disk partition using the Windows Disk Management Control Panel, pictured below (again in Windows 7, although the control panel is identical in Windows 8). You'll just need to right-click on the name of your hard drive and "initialize" the drive, and then create a volume name for it (for instance D:). The screenshot below shows where you'll find the link to open Disk Management as well as the application itself.

Initialize

My Documents

Second, you need to point the operating system to your second drive to use it for your Documents folder. Notice below that when we click "Properties" on the "Documents" link in the Start Menu, it opens up a dialog box that allows additional folders to be added for saving your Documents. In this case there are both C: and K: drives added as possible locations, but we don't want our files going to C:, because it will fill up too quickly. So we set K: as the save location, and would then highlight C: and remove it. Note that this does not delete the folder - if you have files there, they'll stay there, but you'll probably want to manually move them to the new My Documents folder that you create on your hard drive, as you otherwise won't see them when you open Documents the next time. Follow the same steps for Pictures, Music, etc., to ensure that you aren't filling up your SSD with big media files.

Installing

Third, when you install new applications, you might have to give some thought to whether there's enough space on the SSD to install the application, or whether you want to use up that precious space for an application you don't use often. Every software installer will allow a "custom" installation - each installer works a bit differently, but just look around for an option to change C: to whatever your hard drive label is.  Below you'll find an example of a simple installer that allows the user to manually type in another install location, in this case the D: drive.

So that's it - we've covered all the basic tricks to getting the most out of your new SSD. But perhaps you have one more question...

So, How Fast in an SSD Anyway?

Any SSD is much faster than a hard drive, but the newer, higher-end models are much, much faster. Take a look at the benchmarks below as measured by the utility CrystalDiskMark. The results on the left are for a Samsung 830 256GB SSD. The ones on the right are for a Samsung F4 2TB hard drive.

Speed

Notice that the first row of numbers, labeled "Seq" (short for sequential large files, which are stored all in one place on a drive) are much higher on the SSD, representing performance nearly four times as fast. That's a big improvement. But look at the third row, labeled 4K. This is a rating of each drive's ability to select small files in random locations on the drive, which is how most operating system components are actually stored and accessed. Yes, you're reading that right - the SSD is not just faster, it's orders of magnitude faster, at least at reading small random files. In this case, it's 26 times faster. And this is what makes SSDs revolutionary to the world of home computing. Opening windows, switching windows, opening multiple applications quickly - that's where all those little random searches for information on a spinning hard drive platter really add up. The hard drive's "read head" actually has to physically move around looking for information. Sounds like a real chore!

So the moral of the story is...no matter what you use your computer for, an SSD will help. The entry price is a bit steep, but consider it an investment in your own time. You'll appreciate it!

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