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Making SSDs Work on Windows 7

By now, everybody’s aware of the speed and power consumption or battery life benefits that solid state drives (SSDs) can confer on desktop and notebook PCs, respectively — at least, for those prepared to cover their high costs of acquisition. Knowing that some IT professionals will no doubt be asked to retrofit such hardware into certain “high-value” users’ desktop or notebook machines, I’d like to share some potential pitfalls that might crop up for those potentially hapless staff members. Here, “high-value” often translates into “high visibility” for the results of such efforts and “high expectations” regarding their results.

I’ve just gone through the process of getting SSDs to work on several Windows 7 machines, and I can now attest that there’s a LOT more involved in getting an SSD working properly than simply imaging the old drive, copying that image to an SSD, and replacing the old drive with the new (SSD) one. And while Windows 7 is rightly touted as an “SSD-friendly” or “SSD-aware” operating system, that friendliness or awareness isn’t as likely to be helpful in cases where the OS is moved from an existing conventional hard disk to an SSD after the OS is installed. That said, if you can reinstall Windows 7 on a system with a new SSD in place, some of these observations won’t apply — enough of them, in fact, that you may want to consider this as an additional impetus to upgrade your users from 32- to 64-bit OS versions as an “excuse” to justify the reinstall (and make your life easier).

There are three major areas where you’ll have to proceed with some caution, and will probably have to experiment with the SSDs and systems you’re working with to understand what’s what:

1. Firmware Updates
Most SSDs packaged or sold before November/December 2009 (and I have to believe this still represents a substantial portion of the stock on resellers or distributors shelves, even at this very moment) include older firmware. Download CrystalDiskInfo (see this page at Crystal Dew World) so you can determine which version of firmware is installed on whatever SSDs you have on hand. For the kind of performance most users expect from SSDs, firmware that supports TRIM (a technique for managing SSD content that’s been written, then deleted, for improved re-use and disk writing performance) is absolutely essential. Be prepared to invest $35 on an eSATA drive caddy so you can easily update the firmware on these drives from a bench PC before installing them in their target machines. Investigate the SSD maker’s firmware update tools (Intel and Samsung make such hardware and software, and Intel also offers a pretty nifty SSD Toolbox as well) and learn how to use them.

2. Windows 7 Tweaking
There’s a lot of stuff that has to be turned off or tweaked on Windows 7 to make sure your users can make the most of the fairly high investment in switching to an SSD. Be sure to check out and use Ahsley Maple’s excellent SourceForge project called SSD Tweaker to help you understand all the many settings you must check (and often monkey with) to make sure Windows 7 and your user’s SSD will get along properly (and quickly enough).

3. BIOS Issues
You may have to reset the desktop or notebook PC’s BIOS to interact with SATA drives on those systems as AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) devices rather than having them emulate IDE (which is how many SATA drives work on the systems into which they’re installed). Sometimes, you can simply force Windows 7 to load the msahci.sys driver through a registry hack, reset the BIOS, restart Windows and let it repair itself (using the capable and reasonably quick Startup Repair options built into Windows 7 itself). Sometimes, more forceful shenanigans become necessary, and may even require re-installing the OS as a last and mostly unwelcome resort. See if your users can live with IDE emulation first, if you find yourself facing the decision to reinstall the OS to achieve the right host controller capabilities on user hardware platforms.

Though SSDs are indeed fast, and do offer performance and power benefits, they can be irksome and tricky to get working properly. But with a little online research, and some preparation for the problems you may encounter, you can get through the tasks involved without losing too much time or sleep. Just don’t think of it as a simple remove-and-replace operation, and you’re already well on the way to accomplishing this task.