Make Windows work up to four times faster with a solid state drive
In the final part of our series showing how to boost a PC’s performance, we will show you how to do this without making any changes to Windows settings. Unlike the preceding projects published in the previous two issues, this one will cost money but it is practically guaranteed to improve Windows’ start-up time and overall performance – by staggering margins.
The trick is to buy and install a solid-state drive, or SSD. While that sounds like a major and costly undertaking, drives start from just £40 and the job is easier than you might imagine. In fact, in many cases Windows will not even need to be re-installed and you will complete the task in 10 minutes.
What is an SSD?
SSDs use fast flash memory (like that used in USB memory keys) to store data instead of the magnetic disc platters found in traditional hard disks. They use the same (Sata) data and power connectors, but are much faster. SSDs are shock-resistant and completely silent - and because they use little power, they can improve battery life in laptops.
However, SSDs are more expensive than traditional hard disks. While you can get a type of SSD from £40, the Verbatim 240GB model we used costs around £200 from Amazon. Capacities of up to 1TB are available but the biggest drives carry hefty premiums, so look to lower-capacity drives to find the pricing sweet spot. Sandisk’s 480GB Extreme model, for instance, Crucial 256GB M4 Data Transfer kit, costing £168.
Beware of misinformation
Although SSDs can eventually wear out and fail, this is also true of hard disks. Modern SSDs use clever tricks to maximise their lifespan and will last years in normal use. They should never be defragmented, though (see the box on page 60).
It is true SSDs can fail suddenly and catastrophically, whereas hard disks often show warning signs before failing – slowing performance, error messages when saving and creaking noises. Backing up documents and files is the best form of insurance.
SSDs can be used with any Windows version, but ‘partition alignment’ issues in Windows XP are often talked about. This happens if an SSD is partitioned using XP, but it can be avoided by setting up the SSD using the supplied software. If no such software is supplied, use the HD Clone software (see below), and tick the box labelled ‘4K-alignment’ in Options.
Choosing an SSD
To find the size of SSD needed, open Windows Explorer (hold down the Windows key and tap E), right-click on the existing C: drive’s icon, choose Properties and look at Used space. The free version of HD Clone can transfer data only to an SSD that has at least the same capacity as the original hard disk, even if the original disk is not full. The €20 version (£16) does not have this limitation.
Once installed, it makes sense to move the operating system to the SSD using the data-transfer utility supplied with most kits, while leaving files and folders on the hard disk. This means that files are safe in the event of an SSD failure. Laptops do not have enough space for an SSD and hard disk, so files should be backed up on a regular basis .
For simplicity, a special kind of SSD called a ‘cache drive’ can be installed. These do not store documents but work invisibly in the background learning which files Windows uses most, to boost performance. They are primarily designed for use in desktop PCs. A cache drive is not suitable for PCs with multiple operating systems installed on the same hard disk (if separate hard disks are used for each operating system, that is fine).
The 60GB Corsair Accelerator cache drive we used costs around £56 from Amazon, but the 30GB version (£40 from Ebuyer) does a similar job. Crucial and OCZ also make cache drives. Cache drives are suitable only for Windows 7.
Another option - suitable for all operating systems - is to use a hybrid hard disk. Hybrid hard disks contain both a small cache drive and a traditional 2.5in hard disk, making them faster than ordinary drives but slower than SSDs. Sizes up to 1TB are available. They are installed in the same way as an SSD. There are only a few models, such as the 750GB Seagate Momentus XT (£115 from Ebuyer).
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