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TUAW Tip: Swap out your laptop's hard disk for a spiffy new SSD

Robert Palmer

If you're looking for a significant performance boost for your middle-aged laptop, replacing your aging hard disk with a solid state disk (SSD) could give your computer a new lease on life.

Solid-state disks (pictured, bottom) differ from traditional hard disks (top) in that they're not constructed with platters and heads. Instead, they're more like giant thumb drives, containing memory chips designed to be written and re-written without wearing out. The upside to this is that SSDs are much, much faster to read and write to, making booting and starting applications lightning-quick.

I recently installed an Intel X25-M SSD, a 160GB drive, as a replacement for a 120GB Toshiba hard disk for my 2006-vintage black MacBook. Spendy, for sure, but for the performance increase and the extra life it adds to my MacBook, well worth it. Plus, I had my state tax refund burning a hole in my pocket.

The performance is phenomenal. The old disk booted in a respectable one minute, 49 seconds. The new disk booted in a blazing 31 seconds. Ridiculous. Windows also boots in less than half the time it took before. Photoshop CS3 launches in five seconds, Illustrator CS3 in nine seconds.

Getting the drive was simple: It's moving the data that takes time. Read on to see how you can migrate your data like I did -- including a Boot Camp partition -- with little fuss.

Before you start, you'll need

  • Your laptop (with the old drive still installed)
  • Another Mac with at least a FireWire and USB 2.0 port
  • Your new SSD
  • An enclosure or adapter cable that works with your new SSD
  • A FireWire cable
  • A USB 2.0 cable
  • Carbon Copy Cloner (donationware, and available here); if you have the commercial SuperDuper! that will work fine as well
  • Winclone (free, and available here)
  • A coin (to remove the battery)
  • A precision screwdriver set (with at least a #0 Phillips and 2.4mm flathead)

You don't need a Windows XP or Windows Vista disc for this migration.

Plan of Attack

  1. Format the SSD.
  2. Back up existing Boot Camp partition.
  3. Clone Mac data onto SSD.
  4. Boot the MacBook with the SSD.
  5. Use Boot Camp Assistant to create a new Boot Camp partition.
  6. Use WinClone to migrate old Boot Camp partition onto the SSD.
  7. Test everything.

First, I put the new SSD into my SATA enclosure, just to make sure it's recognized by the computer, and that there are no manufacturing defects to worry about. The enclosure I used has both USB 2.0 and FireWire ports, but I chose to connect the enclosure to my iMac via USB.

I had to use a second computer -- my iMac -- to manage the cloning process. Any Mac with both a USB and FireWire port should work just fine.

Once connected to my iMac, I formatted the entire 160GB volume as a HFS+ (Journaled) volume. The formatted capacity worked out to a little over 148GB. I named it "Macintosh SSD."

Next, I connected my MacBook to my iMac via FireWire, and will boot the MacBook in Target Disk Mode. I only have one FireWire port on the iMac, so sticking to the same data bus -- while ideal -- just wasn't going to happen on this computer. Don't worry, though: The copy will still work just fine, but it will take a little longer. If you have a Mac Pro or other Mac with two FireWire ports (or better yet, two FireWire 800 ports), use those instead to speed up the file copy process. Unfortunately, if you don't have FireWire ports, this technique probably won't work for you, since Target Disk Mode only works with FireWire. You might instead have to use two enclosures (one for the source disk, and one for the SSD) and connect them both to another computer.

Next, I shut down the MacBook, connected a FireWire cable from the MacBook to the iMac, and booted the MacBook in Target Disk Mode by holding down the T key.

Once it appeared as a disk on the iMac, I started Winclone. Winclone does two things very well: Backing up NTFS and FAT32 partitions, and restoring NTFS and FAT32 partitions. My Boot Camp partition was formatted as FAT32, but the procedure should be the same for NTFS.

After agreeing to Winclone's terms, and under the Image tab, I selected my Boot Camp partition on the laptop (connected via FireWire), and clicked the Image button. For a 20GB partition over FireWire, this took about 30 minutes to finish. I saved the image file on my iMac's desktop. It's a good idea to make a note now of how large your Windows partition is, especially if it's formatted FAT32: The partition on the SSD will need to be the same size. (Those with Boot Camp partitions formatted as NTFS don't have to worry about this, as Winclone can expand an image to fill the new partition.)

Since Boot Camp Assistant only tries to partition the startup disk, we have to create a bootable Mac volume for the MacBook first, and then run Boot Camp Assistant there. To do that, we use Carbon Copy Cloner.

In Carbon Copy Cloner, I selected my MacBook's Mac partition (taking care to select the disk connected via FireWire, as both my iMac and MacBook's startup disks are named "Macintosh HD") from the Source Disk drop-down. From the Target Disk drop-down, I selected "Macintosh SSD." Under cloning options, I made sure to select "Incremental backup of selected items." It may sound strange, but checking this option is essential if your source and destination partitions are different sizes. (I made the mistake of selecting "Backup Everything" the first time, and Carbon Copy Cloner resized the larger SSD partition to match the smaller, old partition, leaving unused space on the disk and a messed up B-tree.)

For about 90GB of data, this process took about three hours. You might consider running it overnight.

With my MacBook's Mac-ness now living on the SSD, I installed the disk in my MacBook. This was easy: Just remove the battery (using a coin), loosen the three captured screws, and pull away an L-shaped piece of metal along the wall of the battery bay that covers the hard disk and memory slots. I pulled out the old hard disk by its tab, and removed four screws holding the drive to a flimsy metal tray that's connected to the pull-tab. The screws had a star pattern, but I used a 2.4mm flathead precision screwdriver that worked just as well.

I screwed the SSD to the metal tray, inserted the new drive, and reattached the L-shaped metal bay wall. I inserted the battery, turned the computer back over, plugged it into power, and started it up. Success! Already, "teh snappy" that my MacBook had gradually lost over the years returned with vigor.

My task wasn't over yet, though: I had to restore the Boot Camp partition. I ran Boot Camp Assistant (found in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder) and created a new Windows partition on the SSD that was the same size as my old Windows partition. Once Boot Camp Assistant is finished creating the new partition, I quit the software using the "Quit and Install Later" button.

At this point, I needed access to the Winclone image that I made on the iMac. So, I shut the iMac down and booted it in Target Disk Mode by holding down the T key. Since it was connected via FireWire, it showed up as a disk on my MacBook.

Starting Winclone (and agreeing to its terms again), I clicked the Restore tab. I then clicked Select Image, and found the Winclone image on the iMac that's connected via FireWire. Then, from the Destination drop down, I selected the new BOOTCAMP partition that Boot Camp Assistant just created for me. You can click the Partition Size button to double check there's enough space to put your image, if you like. Then I clicked Restore.

The restore process takes about as long as the image process did: half an hour for a 20GB partition. When it finished, I booted the MacBook into Windows by restarting the computer and holding down Option, and selected Windows. Double success! A faster Windows installation, too: This is working out nicely.

With the cloning process complete, there were a few issues I didn't anticipate. First, if you use Time Machine, it won't recognize your new SSD as the old hard disk, even if it has the same name. As a result, Time Machine will try to back up all the files on your new SSD. If you have enough space on your Time Machine volume for this, then great! If you don't, you may need to erase your Time Machine backup (losing all your incremental backups in the process) and start a new one. You can also purchase an additional Time Machine disk. For the brave, there is a process for reassociating your new drive with your existing backups, but your mileage may vary.

Alternatively, with your enclosure, you can use your old notebook hard disk as a Time Machine volume, provided that you're comfortable with storing your backups on a disk that's not brand-new. I don't really recommend this second option, but it is cheaper than buying a new disk, and -- provided your disk isn't more than one or two years old -- will probably work for a year or so. Remember that hard disks are consumable, and tend to fail in four years, on average.

Congratulations! We're done. That's all you need to know to move your laptop to a spiffy new SSD -- and get a hefty performance boost in the process.

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