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The Great SSD Migration, Part 1: Migrating a Windows 7 Desktop to SSD

As I noted in my recent article Install Windows 7 With A USB Memory Key, my home office environment is undergoing a big change of sorts this year. I'll be building the new network around Windows Home Server 2011 (previously codenamed "Vail"), once that ships, and in the meantime, I'm upgrading many existing PCs from hard drive-based storage to SSD (solid state drive) storage. I'd like to discuss the beginnings of that effort now.

As with hard drives (HDDs), SSDs ship in 2.5-inch (notebook PC) and 3.5-inch (desktop PC) variants, and there are even some 1.8-inch versions for ultra-portable machines as well. SSDs are, of course, more expensive and currently ship in much smaller storage capacities than their more traditional spinning disk HDD brethren. So where 2 TB desktop HDDs can be had for well under $100 at traditional retailers like, much smaller capacity SSDs cost much more.

Looking just at OCZ desktop (3.5-inch) SSDs, for example, we see the following prices at Amazon: 120 GB for $220 and 90 GB for $200. And these are for the company's Series 2 devices, which offer a 3 Gb/s SATA-type connection; newer 6 Gb/s Series 3 devices are coming to market and will command even higher prices.

So why would you want to replace a cheap high-capacity HDD with an expensive low-capacity SSD? One word: Speed. SSDs aren't just faster than HDDs, they're dramatically faster. It's not even close.

To give you an idea of what I mean by this, consider the first of my HDD-to-SSD migrations, which I performed recently on my main desktop, an admittedly aging Core 2 Quad-based Dell tower with 8 GB of RAM. Previous to the storage transplant, this system had two hard drives, a 300 GB Western Digital VelociRaptor HDD and a 2 TB Western Digitial Caviar Black HDD. The VelociRaptor was all the rage two years ago, offering 10,000 RPM performance and 16 MB of cache. But it achieves a relatively lowly Windows Experience Index (WEI) score of 5.9 (out of a possible 7.9), according to Windows 7.

I replaced the VelociRaptor with a 120 GB OCZ Vertex Series II SSD. (I'll be using an Intel drive for my first notebook transition.) This is part experiment, to be honest: I was curious to see whether such a small drive would be workable on my daily-use system, with a plan to continue using the 2 TB Caviar HDD for data. (I'll discuss this more in a bit.)

After backing up as required, and de-authorizing key applications like iTunes, Audible, and PhotoShop Elements, I cracked open the box, took out the VelociRaptor HDD, and replaced it with the SSD. Using a Windows 7 Ultimate Setup USB key (as described in Install Windows 7 With A USB Memory Key), I then installed Windows.

It took all of 10 minutes to get to the post-OOBE (out of box experience) screens where you input your user name and so on. That's roughly half the time it takes on a HDD. Nice.

And according to WEI, the overall performance is also dramatically superior: This drive scores 7.7 (again, out of 7.9) on this test, according to Windows 7.

OK, fair enough, and about what I was expecting and hoping for. The issue, however, is that replacing a HDD with an SSD isn't always as straightforward as it could be, and there is even some BIOS-related magic you may need to perform ahead of time to ensure that you're getting the most performance out of the new drive. Rather than recover this here, I'll instead point you to Ed Bott's excellent three-part series on SSDs; in part two he covers the issues you'll need to examine before making this transition. What I'm more concerned with is ensuring that a 120 GB SSD is big enough to actually use, in concert with a traditional HDD for data.

In the old days, this would involve a bit of work because, previous to Windows 7, Windows organized data in a rather monolithic way, with hard coded My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos folders. Yes, Windows 7 still uses these folders, but now your data is organized, from a UI perspective, using virtual folders called libraries. And the nice thing about libraries is that you can very easily configure them to utilize whatever folders you wish. So rather than move all the "My" folders--which is certainly possible--I decided to use this SSD experiment as a libraries experiment as well.

First, I created new Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos folders on the 2 TB HDD, which appears as the D: drive in Computer. Then, I individually visited each of the libraries and, using the "Includes" link at the top, removed both of the default locations. (For the Documents library, these locations were C:\Users\Paul\My Documents and C:\Users\Public\Public Documents, for example.) Then, I pointed each to one of the new locations on D:. (So the Documents library now points exclusively to D:\Documents.)

This is simple enough. The issue is that not all applications will respect the new locations because they are hard coded to save information to, say, the My Documents folder. And this folder is still on the smaller C: drive. There are two ways to handle this, I guess. You could simply change the location of the My folders to the D: drive of course. But I wanted to see how much trouble it was to just use the libraries. So for this first SSD experiment, I'm utilizing the second option, which is to leave the My folders alone and see what happens.

One obvious example of an application that utilizes a My folder by default is Apple's iTunes. When you install this application and open it for the first time, it creates an iTunes folder structure under My Music. Fortunately, iTunes also offers a way to move this location. So I created an iTunes folder in D:\Music and then opened iTunes a second time. Navigating to Edit, Preferences, and then the Advanced tab, you'll see a handy Change button: Click it, and point iTunes to the new location and you're good to go.

(Zune is smart enough to use Windows 7's libraries for its folder monitoring, and you can optionally manually point it to whatever folder locations you want instead, so this probably won't require much thought.)

I'll monitor this over time to see whether it makes sense. I guess my gut feeling is that I'll eventually run into some apps I can't easily move off of a My folder and I'll just end up moving them all. And if you do want to do this right away, it's easy enough: After creating the new folders on D: (or whatever drive), open your user profile in Explorer--by clicking on your user name in the Start Menu--and then individually right-click each My folder there and choose Properties and then the Location tab in the window that appears. Click Move to move the folder to a new location.

There are some additional changes you could make in order to tweak performance--manually setting your page file size, for example, or configuring the Windows Search indexing feature. But these configurations fall under the category of overthinking things, in my opinion, and it seems to me that this is a great example of where the software should be able to automatically configure itself intelligently as needed. Put simply, while others do offer up detailed advice in this area, I'm not interested. I want to move to SSD not spend hours tinkering with things.

From a storage capacity standpoint, I think the 120 GB drive will work. As things stand right now, the drive has 73.3 GB free of a possible 107 GB, and while I have a few more apps to install, I think I'm going to be OK. I'll provide updates as needed.

And looking ahead, I'll keep monitoring this system to see whether my libraries-only migration makes sense and change things accordingly if not. I'll also be upgrading some notebooks and my server with SSD going forward and will write about those experiences as they occur. My gut feeling is that 120 GB is a bare minimum for a single drive system like a notebook, whereas I'd personally be more comfortable with 240 GB or more. But 120 GB (or even less) should be just fine for a home server, since I won't be installing any apps in that system partition anyway.

With regards to my coming WHS 2011 migration, I also recently purchased a USB 3.0-based 3 TB external hard disk and a USB 3.0 card to make that process easier and quicker. More news as it happens.

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