Installing a solid-state drive is one of the best upgrades you can make for your desktop computer. And the easiest way to get one into your system is to physically install it, connect the right cables, and reinstall Windows from scratch.
(This story originally ran in April 2013, written by Lifehacker alum and former editor-in-chief Whitson Gordon. It was updated in August 2018 by David Murphy.)
But maybe you don’t want to deal with setting up Windows (again), getting all of your critical files and folders back on a new hard drive, and reinstalling all your apps. We feel you. But there’s also another option when you’re migrating to a new SSD: cloning your old hard drive onto the new one. It’s (reasonably) fast and easy to do, and something you can set to run overnight if you don’t want to wait and watch. When you wake up and switch your system over to your new SSD, everything will be exactly as you left it.
Before we begin, there are a few caveats (as always). First, your new SSD has to be big enough to hold everything on your primary hard drive. If that’s not the case, cloning won’t work. You can delete files you no longer need (or can re-download again, like your huge games library) to free up space. That, or you can just install a fresh version of Windows on the new SSD, make that the primary boot drive (via your motherboard’s BIOS), and use your older hard drive as secondary storage for your less-critical files, games, movies, or whatever.
A note for laptop owners
If you’re replacing your laptop’s drive with a new SSD, this entire process becomes a bit more difficult, since you probably only have room for one drive (unless your laptop comes with a spare slot for an M.2 SSD). You can pick up a USB-to-SATA adapter, an external dock, or one of these fancy gadgets and clone your primary drive to your new SSD that way.
Depending on your USB connection and the size of your laptop’s drive, the cloning process could take anywhere from a reasonable to a large amount of time. However, the wait is worth it: replacing an older mechanical hard drive with a brand-new SSD is one of the best performance upgrades you can give your laptop.
Step One: Grab Macrium Reflect (free edition)
We’ll be using the application Macrium Reflect to clone your hard drive to your new SSD. You can find it here—just click on the big “home use” button. When you double-click on the installer, you’ll actually see a screen that looks like a downloading tool rather than your typical application installer. That’s correct. I’m not sure why Macrium Software goes this route instead of just offering up the entire app as a download, but there you go.
You shouldn’t have to change any options on this screen. Just click the “Download” button and follow all the prompts when it has completed. Once Macrium Reflect loads up, and assuming your new SSD is connected to your desktop or laptop, you’ll see a screen that looks something like this:
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be wiping my F:\ drive (“Tiny Game Drive”) and pretending I’m cloning my primary drive, C:\, over to it. (I accidentally deleted my screenshot that showed F:\ as empty, so let’s play pretend for a moment.) Also, ignore the two hard drives in the middle (“Steam” and “Big Fatty”). I have a lot of drives in my desktop system.
Step Two: Setting up the clone
To get started, just click on the “Clone this disk” link underneath your primary hard drive, which should be selected by default. On the screen that appears, click on the “Select a disk to clone to” link in the big box of empty white space and pick your new SSD. Your screen should then look something like this:
You might have as many partitions as my example; you might have fewer. Regardless, you’re going to want to get them situated on your new SSD. You might just be able to click “copy selected partitions” and have everything map out perfectly on your new SSD. You might also get hit with a:
Sigh. In my example, I could fit the first four partitions onto my new SSD, but the fourth partition—my primary data partition—appeared as if it was eating up the rest of my SSD’s space, even though the SSD had plenty of room for every partition from my primary drive. To fix this, click on “Undo” and manually drag your partitions from your old hard drive onto your new SSD, saving the largest partition for last:
Once you’ve done that, click “Next.”
Step Three: Activating the clone
You’ll now see a screen that has a pretty detailed review of all the things Macrium Reflect is going to do once your clone starts. No, it hasn’t done anything yet—you’ve just been setting it up.
You can review these settings if you’d like, but you’re probably pretty safe to just hit “Finish,” which starts the procedure: