Why and How to Upgrade to SSD: A Small Business Guide

Thursday May 5th 2016 by Joseph Moran

Do you own aging small business PCs? Instead of replacing them outright, consider SSD upgrades for a relatively simple and inexpensive performance boost. We show you how to upgrade to SSD.

If you're like most small business owners, you replace aging PCs and laptops with new models every five years or so. Outfitting employees with new computers can help enhance overall productivity, but doing so comes with a down side, too.

Most apparent is the cost of each new PC—a typical mainstream business model (sans monitor) costs $400 to $500. But the true cost of replacing a PC lock, stock, and barrel rises even more when you factor in migrating user applications, settings, and data from old PCs to new, particularly when the latter includes a newer version of Windows.

Even with tools that partially automate such a migration, the process can be time- and labor-intensive. The process often reveals applications or hardware (or both) that no longer work properly or that you must reinstall, re-register, or upgrade. But you can give an existing PC a significant performance boost for less cost, less effort, and less hassle than a total PC replacement it's called an SSD upgrade.

How to Upgrade to SSD

SSDs are much smaller (and faster) than standard 3.5-inch hard drives.

Why Upgrade to an SSD?

SSD stands for Solid State Disk, and SSDs store and retrieve data on memory chips similar to the kind found in USB Flash drives. In contrast, conventional hard drives use rotating magnetic platters and a mechanical read/write arm. The upshot is that SSDs are a lot faster than hard drives. Exactly how much faster varies depending the specific situation and exactly how you measure performance, but on average an SSD can read and write data at least two or three times faster than a hard drive.

What makes an SSD such a potent upgrade is that that reading and writing data are the cornerstones of virtually everything a PC does, so the performance benefit isn't just theoretical. It's immediately perceptible how much less time it takes to perform common tasks such as starting your PC, launching applications, loading and copying files, and so forth.

Upgrading a laptop with an SSD comes with a fringe benefit; since SSDs use a bit less power than hard drives, it may boost battery life slightly. And because SSDs contain no moving parts, dropping an SSD-equipped laptop while it's running probably won't affect your data. In the case of a hard disk, such a drop almost certainly would result in data loss.

SSDs aren't a new technology—they've been around for years—what's new is their affordability relative to hard drives. A few years ago SSDs were so pricey that they appealed only to tech enthusiasts and computer speed freaks. But today you can buy an SSD for about the same price as a conventional hard drive—less than $100 in some cases (though SSDs give you many fewer GBs per dollar than hard drives—more on this in a moment).

Benefits of Upgrading to SSD: OS Stability

Aside from the performance gains, SSD upgrades offer small businesses another important benefit; a way to sidestep Microsoft's current efforts to push them from Windows 7 to Windows 10. We recently told you how Microsoft is limiting support for Windows 7 on new PCs, and indeed will prohibit sales of new PCs with Windows 7 installed after October 31, 2016.

This effectively means than any future new PC your company buys will almost certainly run Windows 10—not that there's necessarily anything wrong with Windows 10. But if you'd rather stick with Windows 7 (for reasons of uniformity, familiarity, or anything else), upgrading existing PCs with an SSD lets you do that for almost another four years (until support for that operating system ends on January 14, 2020).

We should add that swapping out a PC's hard drive for an SSD will not affect Windows' licensing status—i.e. it won't cause any problems with Windows activation.

Upgrading to SSD: Caveats

Now that we've shared the benefits of SSD upgrades, you need to know about the caveats as well.

  1. Limited Capacity: First and foremost, and as we mentioned earlier, SSDs give you only a small fraction of the storage of a conventional hard drive. While hard drive capacity measures in terabytes (TB), you'll find SSDs mainly available in gigabyte (GB) capacities. Here's a good rule of thumb: for a given cost you can expect an SSD will give you between 1/8th and 1/12th the capacity of a hard drive. So for example, $80 will typically buy a 2 TB conventional hard drive but only about a 250 GB SSD.

    If that sounds like a huge difference in capacity, it is. But it's probably not a meaningful one in a business environment where you most likely store the majority of your data on a server or even in the cloud. Indeed, there's a good chance most of your PC hard drives contain so much empty and unneeded space that replacing them with smaller SSDs will not be a problem.

    However in situations where you absolutely need to keep large quantities of data directly on the PC, upgrading to an SSD may not be a viable option for you. For reference, a 1 TB SSD, the largest commonly available capacity, will set you back between $200 and $400, while 2 TB SSDs—much less common—ring up north of $700. You can but SSDs at even higher capacities, but only at nosebleed prices.

  2. Not Always a Performance Panacea: While an SSD upgrade will provide a meaningful speed boost for most day-to-day work in general business applications, it won't be a big help for specialized, processor-intensive applications such as video encoding, 3D rendering, or financial/scientific modeling. Those tasks will benefit much more from a new PC (and hence a more modern CPU) than an SSD upgrade on an existing PC.

  3. Potentially Tricky Internal Access to PC: Many, if not most, business-class laptop and desktop PCs make access to the internal hard drive easy enough that even a layperson should be able to upgrade to an SSD in just a few minutes (and an IT person will be able to do it in her sleep). On many desktops you can get at the hard disk without tools, and on laptops it's often accessible behind a few screws and an underside panel.

    But some PCs make physical access to the hard disk a pain in the butt, and in these cases the extra time needed may make an SSD upgrade impractical or not cost-effective. Case in point: many thin-and-light laptops require partial disassembly to reach the hard disk.

How to Upgrade to SSD

Nearly a dozen vendors sell SSDs, and although we'd like to tell you that all SSDs are created equal, you'll find differences between models and manufacturers, just like with hard drives. Some SSDs are faster than others due to the type of memory chips they use or other technical characteristics, but you can rest assured that any SSD you buy will be considerably faster than the hard drive it replaces.

The easiest way to upgrade to SSD is to purchase the drive as part of an SSD upgrade kit, which includes disk imaging software to copy the contents of your existing hard drive to the SSD, as well as a USB dongle or enclosure to externally connect the SSD for imaging prior to opening up the PC for the physical swap.

Another option is to buy a stand-alone SSD and use free, open source Clonezilla software to do the imaging. This method takes longer because you have to first use Clonezilla to image the existing hard drive, then install the SSD in the PC, and then re-run Clonezilla to copy the image to the SSD. Using Clonezilla can be intimidating if you're not technically inclined, but this tutorial does a good job of outlining the process step-by-step.

Be aware, however that Clonezilla expects your target disk (the SSD) to be of equal or larger size than the source disk, so won't work to image, say, a 1 TB hard disk to a 500 GB SSD (at least not without diverging from the default settings), even if the actual amount of data on the 1 TB hard disk is less than 500 GB.

Whether or not you use an upgrade kit, if you're doing the SSD upgrade on a desktop, be sure you get a 2.5-inch-to-3.5-inch bracket adapter—the adapter lets you mount the 2.5-inch SSD in the hard drive's larger 3.5-inch bay. Some SSD upgrade kits include this adapter, but you can buy them separately for less than $10.

If the hard disk-to-SSD imaging process goes smoothly, and you connect the SSD properly (remember to connect both the SATA power and data cables—the large and small connectors, respectively), Windows should start up normally when you turn on the PC. It will identify a new storage device and prompt you to restart (you won't need to provide any drivers).

After you restart the PC, you're done. Your SSD-equipped PC will look and work exactly like it did pre-upgrade—only faster.

Joseph Moran is a technology writer and IT consultant specializing in services for consumers and small businesses. He's written extensively for numerous print and online publications, and is the author of File Management Made Simple, Windows Edition from Apress.

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