Buying the Best SSD for Your Laptop
Looking to upgrade your aging laptop? You can do only so much without a fabrication plant or a tech-savvy witch doctor at your service. In most cases, your options are limited to three: (1) Wipe the machine clean, and reinstall the operating system and your programs; (2) add more RAM; or (3) install a new hard drive or a solid-state drive (SSD).
Many laptop users may be surprised to find that option No. 3, using an SSD, is the single most effective update they can perform to an older machine. (Even better: Combine that with option No. 1.) An SSD upgrade is especially dramatic if the laptop relies on a platter-mechanism hard drive.
Some upgrades speed up a system only under certain circumstances, or with certain programs. An SSD, though, can make an older machine feel snappy and fresh across the board. If you’re using a platter drive, replacing it with almost any recent-vintage SSD should show a clear benefit when you’re booting up, launching programs, opening large files, loading game levels, and performing many other everyday computing tasks.
That’s because with an SSD, you’re dealing strictly with flash memory. Classic hard drives deliver plenty of gigabytes for your dollar, but they are at heart mechanical devices. Inside, a spinning disk holds your data, and a series of read/write heads on a moving arm tracks across the surface to find what you need to fetch and where you want to write. It’s hard for a mechanism like that, as fast as it may be, to compete with the speed of electrons coursing through an SSD memory chip.
It’s also hard for hard drives to compete with flash memory in terms of knock-about durability. Hard drives incorporate accelerometers, drive-head-parking technology, and other precautionary technologies to protect the disks and armatures in the event you drop a laptop. But there’s always danger to data if a drive gets jarred while it’s operating. SSDs are impervious to that kind of thing. A blow hard enough to damage an SSD would do frightful damage to the laptop, in any case.
“SSDs: Okay, where can I get one?” might be your first question. The key thing is, you’ll have to do some homework to see if your laptop can accept an SSD upgrade in the first place. If it’s just a few years old, it probably can. Really old models might not have support for SSDs in their BIOS at all, but a laptop that elderly isn’t going to be worth upgrading to start with. What you need to know is the kind of drive that’s inside the laptop now, and whether you can get at it easily for a swap.
The Basics: Laptop SSD Upgrades
First, flip over your laptop and check for a hatch on the underside secured by a small screw or two. If the hatch happens to say “HDD” or something similar, so much the better. Some laptops, such as late-model Apple MacBooks and many super-thin ultraportables, are fully sealed and won’t give you access to the innards without the help of a service technician (or some serious courage, combined with specialized tools). But if it’s possible to do the upgrade yourself, here’s what you need to know.
Getting Inside Your Laptop
Some mainstream laptops will afford you access to the hard drive through a bottom hatch, through a slide-out bay along the edge, or, failing that, by removing the whole bottom panel or, perhaps, the keyboard. (Some business-focused notebooks, like certain older Lenovo ThinkPads, have a bay on one side that holds the drive, screwed in behind a plastic face. If that’s what you have, count your blessings.)
The best places to get the skinny on drive access, if you can’t find an obvious access hatch yourself from the laptop’s outside, are via the laptop maker’s tech-support site, online forums, YouTube, and documents maintained online by the maker. Laptops vary wildly in how easy (or not) it is to access the main hard drive. So doing your homework before buying—or doing anything else, for that matter—is key. Don’t pry at the laptop’s bits at random.
Alas, the trend with many manufacturers in recent years has been to make it either difficult or impossible to access the parts inside the laptop on your own. The chassis might use proprietary or uncommon screws that have no typical-screwdriver equivalent, or the back might be sealed to the front in such a way that the only way inside is through a specialized process or tool only the manufacturer’s repair team is privy to.
In this same vein, the other recent issue with laptop storage upgrades: As more and more machines move toward thin, light profiles, so do the drive types themselves. To accommodate the demand for thinner machines, manufacturers are moving away from 2.5-inch SSDs, which are the same size as the hard drives they replace. Instead, what you may find inside will be an M.2 solid-state drive, which is a tiny sliver of a drive that’s shaped like a stick of gum. In most cases, an M.2 drive will use the PCI Express bus and employ a speed-up technique called “NVMe”; otherwise, it will use the conventional Serial ATA (SATA) bus. While M.2 drives are great as space conservers, it can be tricker to figure out how to replace them. Also, in some cases, the laptop will not have a 2.5-inch drive or an M.2 drive: The SSD will be soldered to the motherboard itself. In that case, no upgrade for you!
Again, we should stress that nowadays even looking in the direction of your laptop with a screwdriver in your hand might mean voiding your warranty. So make sure you read the details of your warranty coverage (if it’s still in force) extensively before undertaking this process.
Identifying the Drive
The key thing to know from the outset is the specific kind of drive your laptop has inside. For an upgrade to be worthwhile, you’ll be moving from a platter-based hard drive to an SSD, from a hard drive to a higher-capacity hard drive or SSD, or from a cramped SSD to a roomier one.
If the laptop has a hard drive inside that needs to be upgraded, it will be a 2.5-inch “laptop-style” hard drive using a Serial ATA (SATA) interface and running over the SATA bus. (To learn more about all the terms you need to know in the world of mobile storage, check out our SSD dejargonizer.) This type of drive is easy to swap out in favor of a 2.5-inch SATA-based SSD, assuming you can get physical access to the drive. Most of the SSDs on the market sold to consumers are 2.5-inch drives, with the SSD enclosed in a chassis the size and shape of a laptop hard drive. There is also the possibility that the laptop already has an SSD inside in the 2.5-inch drive form factor, the same size and shape as a hard drive. You can simply swap that out for another (presumably roomier) one.
Another possibility, especially in a thin, late-model laptop: It may already have an SSD inside in one of two alternative form factors: mSATA or M.2. These days, manufacturers use only M.2 in new laptops; some laptop models from years back may have made use of the now-defunct mSATA. Both, though, implement the SSD as a wafer-thin, bare circuit board. (To tell them apart: Most mSATA SSDs measure 31mm wide by 50mm long; M.2 drives are skinnier, at 22mm wide.) They can save a lot of space inside a laptop, but obviously, you can’t swap a much bigger 2.5-inch drive into their place.
An mSATA SSD can only be swapped for another mSATA SSD, but it signals an old laptop. If what you have is an M.2 boot drive, it’s only worthwhile upgrading that M.2 SSD for another of a greater capacity. (See our roundup of the best M.2 solid-state drives for more on M.2 and the rising variety of these drives.) Bear in mind that the M.2 “gumstick” style SSDs all look similar, but they can use either PCI Express or SATA as their bus interface, depending on the drive. Your laptop likely supports only one bus type or the other on the M.2 slot, so make sure you know what you need and what you are getting.
M.2 SSDs also come in different lengths, and you don’t want to buy one that is physically longer than the maximum supported space. (A shorter one might work, depending on the design.) Most M.2 drives come in what’s known as the “Type-2280” form factor, which stands for the width and length of the drive: 22mm wide and 80mm long. A Type-2242 (42mm) or Type-2260 (60mm) drive might be used by a laptop maker for space savings. Again, you need to know what type of drive you have before you buy, so we recommend looking in the manual, checking any available datasheets, or contacting support.
If the laptop is more than a few years old, though, in many cases you’ll have a humdrum 2.5-inch hard drive in there. And if so, there’s one key thing to find out: the drive thickness.
Through Thick or Thin?
Almost all recent-model SSDs are 7mm thick, but in years past, 9.5mm-thick SSDs were more common. Those measurements were not arbitrary: Older 2.5-inch hard drives meant for laptops tended to be 9.5mm thick, and the SSDs’ outer cases were made that thick to fill those bays. Now, hard drive bays in laptops vary in height, so thinner SSDs were necessary.
A 2.5-inch drive bay inside the laptop will be engineered to accept only one of those thicknesses. If it’s a 9.5mm-high bay, most current SSDs will have a little bit of wiggle room in the bay. That’s not a bad thing, but not ideal; you want the SSD to fit snugly, so that wobble inside the bay doesn’t bend the SATA connector (and you don’t hear any unnerving rattling). You should make sure the SSD vendor bundles a spacer to keep the drive seated firmly in the bay. Most do, nowadays, but not all. You could always improvise one out of (non-conductive, please!) scrap materials, but a pre-made one will fit better, and feel more professional.
If the 2.5-inch bay is 7mm high, then it will fit most modern SSDs snugly.
Know Your Software
Some drives will come with a license for a drive-copy or “ghosting” app, such as Acronis TrueImage. This is a nice premium, but we don’t consider the inclusion or absence of such software a deal-breaker, as we’ve had good luck performing the kind of tasks involved (such as drive cloning) with free software such as EaseUS’s Disk Copy Home.
That said, some makers are better than others in terms of drive-specific utility software. Some SSDs come with none; others, such as Samsung’s SSD EVO and Pro drives and Intel’s recent efforts, come with sophisticated tweaking and monitoring apps, epitomized by Samsung’s Magician app.
Some SSD makers sell their drives both bare (cheapest) and bundled in “upgrade kits” for a slight premium. Some kits are meant specifically for laptops or desktops; a desktop-focused upgrade kit might include a drive-bay adapter, so you can mount an SSD in a 3.5-inch bay meant for a bigger hard drive, while a laptop kit might include a SATA-to-USB data transfer cable, drive-cloning software, a bay filler frame, or some mix of those items. (Know that the presence of a “3.5-to-2.5-inch bay adapter” signifies a desktop-oriented, not laptop, kit.)
Also know that you can save a few bucks, sometimes, by opting for the bare-bones kit if you don’t need the upgrade accessories. But if you’re an SSD-upgrade first-timer, you might appreciate the extra parts and the extra guidance.
The Bigger Question: Internal or External?
Finally, there’s the question of whether or not all this trouble is actually worth it. If you simply want to add more storage to your laptop, and the prospects of getting inside the chassis are bleak, we recommend checking out our roundups of the best external SSDs, as well as the best external hard drives for Mac, and the best external hard drives overall.
Upgrading the internal hard drive on your laptop to an SSD is usually more about performance than anything else. Whether that’s for faster boot times, reduced load times in gaming, or just overall responsiveness during daily tasks, upgrading the internal drive with the OS installed on it is what’s going to affect these metrics the most.
But if you just want a place to keep more photos, music, or files that you don’t access all that often, an external SSD or hard drive can be a much simpler way of upgrading your laptop’s storage capacity…no screwdriver required.
Pros: Solid results across almost all speed benchmark tests. Competitive price per gigabyte. Bundled, optional-use heat spreader.
Cons: Crystal DiskMark 4K write results solid but not quite tip-top.
Bottom Line: ADATA’s XPG SX8200 Pro offers on-point-which is to say, fast-speeds for a PCI Express M.2 SSD at its price. It’s a strong value pick in the NVMe drive space.
Pros: Lightning-fast random reads and writes. Reasonable cost per gigabyte. Multiple capacity options. Easy-to-use Windows software. Long warranty.
Cons: Pricey upgrade for a mainstream PC that sees casual use.
Bottom Line: The Samsung SSD 970 EVO offers an excellent blend of throughput and performance, making it the best high-end internal M.2 PCI Express SSD for most users.
Pros: Blazingly quick sequential speeds. Very high durability rating. Competitive pricing.
Cons: 4K write speeds could be faster. Only two capacity options.
Bottom Line: The Seagate FireCuda 510 NVMe SSD is a searingly fast and durable storage drive made for gamers and creative professionals alike.
Pros: Great value. Fast sequential speeds. High durability rating. Five-year warranty.
Cons: 4K speeds proved lacking in our tests. No software management tools.
Bottom Line: If you’re on a budget but still want blisteringly quick sequential read and write speeds from your new SSD, look no further than what the new Addlink S70 has to offer.
Pros: Very affordable on a cost-per-gigabyte basis. Comes in 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB capacities. Supports hardware encryption. Excellent reliability ratings.
Cons: Relatively short warranty. SATA only; no PCI Express version.
Bottom Line: Thanks in part to the latest flash-memory technology, the Samsung SSD 860 QVO offers a lot of fast storage capacity for minimal money. It’s a winning internal solid-state drive for budget-minded upgraders.
Pros: Excellent endurance rating. Durability-to-price ratio is top-notch for a mainstream SATA drive.
Cons: More expensive than slightly speedier competing drives.
Bottom Line: ADATA’s Ultimate SU750, a 2.5-inch SSD, offers fine durability for its price and makes a solid pick for write-happy content creators, though it falls a smidge short on speed versus the leading SATA drives.
Pros: Low per-gigabyte cost. Good performance for PC games. Optional integrated heatsink. Multiple capacity options.
Cons: Relatively low random read and write performance.
Bottom Line: With heatsink and non-heatsink versions, and a software setting that delivers maximum power at all times, the high-performance WD Black SN750 internal SSD will appeal to gamers and other PC enthusiasts seeking a PCI Express NVMe boot drive.
Pros: On-point testing results for a value-minded SATA drive. Four capacities to choose among. Comprehensive drive dashboard.
Cons: Three-year, versus five-year, warranty. Lower “total writes” rating than competing drives from Crucial. Few ancillary features.
Bottom Line: The Crucial BX500 is a solid, budget-friendly 2.5-inch SATA SSD with a value bent, but at our test capacity, the company’s own MX500 is a better choice for most.
Pros: Decent terabytes-written rating for a budget drive. Strong sequential read and write results.
Cons: No management software. Merely average random read/write speeds.
Bottom Line: With respectably quick sequential speeds and a decent endurance rating, the budget-minded Mushkin Pilot-E holds its own against many pricier M.2 PCI Express SSDs for casual upgraders.
Pros: Aggressive pricing, at our 1TB tested capacity. On-point in most speed tests for a SATA drive in 2019.
Cons: Short company history in consumer market. Lower terabytes written (TBW) rating than competing drives. Minimal supporting software.
Bottom Line: SK Hynix, best known as a supplier of storage and DRAM chips to system makers, lands a solid base hit with its Gold S31. Its debut retail SSD delivers on-point speed and good value per gigabyte for a new SATA drive.