Upgrading to SSD

SSD

Periodically, I consider computer system upgrades. One of the biggest improvements in recent years has been the development of SSD drives, however, they have some limitations – the biggest one is cost. In an earlier post, I mentioned using a SanDisk ReadyCache, which really does work to improve system performance, and is very affordable. However, I always had the feeling that it wasn’t quite to full SSD levels. SSDs have finally come down a lot in price; it finally hit my “sweet spot”, so I embarked on the upgrade adventure.

Updating to SSD isn’t as simple as, “unplug your old hard drive and plug in the new one”. It probably is simpler if you want a fresh start, and reinstall all of your stuff, but after considering how many programs and utilities I use and would have to ensure that I get re-installed, I decided to clone the drive.

The Samsung EVO 850 boasts great specs and longer life than older SSD models (one of the more concerning limitations).

Dell XPS 8000

One of the things you hear people repeat is that you can’t upgrade your Dell. Yes, the BIOS and motherboard are kind of proprietary and you may not be able to upgrade the CPU, but so far, I’ve been able to upgrade: * RAM (quantity can be increased, not speed or type) * Video Card (have to consider the wattage limitations, though) * Hard Drive/SSD

The problem with my old Dell XPS 8000 is that the BIOS does not have an AHCI option in the BIOS. AHCI is recommended for optimal peformance, and, in particular, enabling TRIM mode. It does, however, have a RAID mode, which can provide some of the needed capabilities (such as allowing TRIM); note that you can enable RAID mode and not actually set up a RAID multi-drive system.

What if you do a fresh install?

With a fresh operating system install, if your factory system had the original Win 7, you’ll need to prepare the necessary drivers ahead-of-time and prepare them on a USB drive for install. If the BIOS is in RAID or AHCI mode, apparently, the original Windows 7 installer doesn’t have those drivers ready. Owners of systems with later OS revisions may not have this problem.

If you need tips on reinstalling Windows, check out this guy’s site.

Enabling AHCI or RAID after a clone

If you clone a drive and try to boot into AHCI or RAID mode, you’ll get an error and the OS won’t load, as the correct drivers aren’t set up. These drivers need to be enabled first, then upon reboot, the BIOS needs to be set to the new mode. There is a high risk that you can mess up your installation making it non-bootable, so I would only do this after a fresh drive clone, so that you automatically have a backup – you may need to start over again.

You’ll want to review other articles on the internet to see what’s involved with enabling the needed drivers, and the problems you might encounter.

So, Microsoft has a patch to enable the AHCI drivers, and they describe the registry settings, but these changes don’t seem to work for RAID mode. It took me a while to find that there was an alternate registry key which seems to be related to RAID (HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\iaStor). WARNING: you can break your system if you change the wrong thing in there, or possibly even what was the right thing for my system. Be sure to have a complete backup in case you need to reinstall everything. I had my original HD as a backup. When I changed that, using the same method described for the other two settings (see the Microsoft or other articles), then the system behavior was as described in many of the guides on the ‘net, where it goes to reinstall the drivers when I reboot, etc. I was able to get it into RAID mode! Was it worth it? For that, I needed benchmarking data. More on that later.

Cleaning old files

In cloning the old system, I needed to trim space to fit all of the files on the new drive, which was half the size of the old drive. For the longest time, I did not use the full capacity of my hard drive, but over time, things build up. There are a couple of utilities that can help with cleaning.

First, identify the big offenders. If you have any media files, those tend to be large. What helps is having an application that will search the whole hard drive, and sort files and folders by size so that you can target those areas first. I found iTunes to be a big offender, with the backups of the iPhone and all of the applications and music. Using guides, I moved the media folder off to an external network drive.

There are some more subtle problems. Apparently, when Windows performs updates, it leaves backup information behind. I had almost 10GB worth! There is a Windows cleanup tool that can take care of that. This article has details on the cleanup process.

I have read many warnings about using CCleaner, in that it is too aggressive in what it deletes. However, you can deselect most of its suggestions and target certain areas for cleaning.

Eventually, I had recovered more than enough space for cloning, and I still have about 50GB free. I plan to re-attach the old hard drive, and use that for storing larger files, when necessary.

Performance

Since I’ve been using the cache drive for a while, my benchmarking starts there, not with the uncached drive, which would have been slower. (This should be a given!) The ReadyCache is both a hard drive and software solution, and a bit of a memory hog (another reason to upgrade).

HD and Cache!

The below benchmark was captured right after cloning, with the BIOS still in the old ATA/IDE compatibility mode.

SSD!

As you can see, there is a marked improvement over the HD/cache combination, but still doesn’t seem to be at its full potential. With the older SATA II standard, the practical maximum is around 300 MB/s.

Below results are after enabling RAID mode drivers.

SSD!

Now we’re talking!

SSD!

Enabling Samsung’s custom RAPID software doesn’t improve the benchmark (aside from the burst rate), but probably improves everyday performance.

Summary

It no longer makes sense to use something like the cache drive when a 250GB SSD can be had for under $100. Using an SSD makes a dramatic improvement to everyday use of the system, as things just aren’t sluggish when loading. Now your bottleneck is probably the internet.