How to move Microsoft's Windows 11 from a hard drive to an SSD

Breathe new life into your Windows machine with these simple steps

A blue solid state drive on a blue background

If your main PC storage is still a hard disk, by far the biggest speed boost you could give to your system is to replace that with a solid-state disk (SSD).

Although SSDs are more expensive on a per gigabyte basis, they generally offer much better performance. Windows 11 should load much more quickly when you first boot the PC and programs should open in an instant.

Swapping out a hard disk for an SSD is a relatively straightforward upgrade, although you’ll first need to transfer all the data from your current hard disk to the SSD. We’re going to talk you through that process.

How to pick an SSD for Windows 11

The first thing you’re going to need to sort is the SSD itself and here there are two things to consider: disk size and disk capacity.

If you’re replacing a hard disk in a laptop, you’re almost certainly going to need a 2.5in internal SSD that connects to the SATA port. Things are slightly easier with desktop computers, which normally have spare bays that let you install an SSD alongside your current hard disk.

An M.2 SSD shown inside a PC system

Shutterstock

A note on M.2 SSDs: Modern desktop motherboards also often come with an empty M.2 slot, usually located just below the CPU. This is designed to support smaller form factor SSDs, among other things, and is especially handy if you’re short on space or bay options. If you're planning to buy an M.2 SSD, just be aware that these come in a variety of sizes and types, each with their own connectors - so make sure to do your homework in order to get the one you need.

Before you make any purchase, check you can access the existing hard disk, especially on laptops or all-in-one PCs where it’s not always possible to remove the internal storage. You may need to consult your laptop/PC’s manual - usually available from the manufacturer’s website - to find out how to access the hard disk and you may need special screwdrivers to reach them.

SSD capacity is the other issue you need to consider. First you need to find out how much data is stored on your current hard disk.

Open Windows Explorer, click This PC and see how much data is stored on your C: Drive. Watch out for disks that have been partitioned, for example a system with Windows on C: and Data on D: - you need to add up both in those instances.

Ideally, you want an SSD that’s bigger than your current pool of data and then leave some room to spare. Beware, however, that SSDs start to get very expensive when you creep above capacities of 2TB.

If you’re replacing the hard disk in a laptop or all-in-one, you may find there aren’t any spare drive bays to have your old and new drives running at the same time. In this case, you’ll need to buy a SATA-to-USB adapter/enclosure so that you can plug the SSD into the laptop’s USB port and copy data from your existing hard disk.

Finally, if you’re adding a new SSD to a desktop PC and you’re planning on keeping your old drive, you’ll need to make sure you have spare SATA cables to connect your new SSD to the motherboard and power supply. If you're using M.2 SSD, this won't be an issue.

Moving Windows 11 to an SSD: Clean up and back up your PC

Before we get to cloning the data from the current hard disk to the new SSD, time for some housekeeping.

First, open Windows Search, type ‘add’ and open the ‘Add or remove programs’ function. Remove any applications you no longer use or need, as there’s no point in copying over redundant data. Likewise, empty the Recycle Bin and Downloads folder, and clear out anything else you don’t need. After doing this, you might find you can get away with a smaller SSD, which will also be far cheaper.

Screenshot showing how to back up a hard drive using Windows 11

Next, you need to take a full backup of your PC, just in case something goes wrong. It’s advised that you do this for most things involving your hard drive, but moving data to a new drive is a fairly risky process without a backup.

Fortunately, Windows 11 has a variety of built-in backup options, including backing up files to Microsoft’s cloud storage service OneDrive or using the File History tool with an external hard disk/SSD. We won’t go through these options in detail in this article, but this site gives a good overview of the options.

Moving Windows 11 to an SSD: Plug in your new SSD

Make sure your system is fully powered down for the following step:

Once the backup is sorted, it’s time to plug in the SSD – either via the USB caddy or by putting it straight in a desktop PC.

If you’re adding an SSD to a desktop PC, simply attach the new drive to a spare bay. Some PC cases come fitted with dedicated SSD bays, often located on the reverse side of the panel housing the motherboard. However, you may find that your case only has hard drive bays, in which case you’ll need to buy an SSD caddy or adapter. Once secured, connect the SSD to the motherboard and power supply using SATA cables.

If using an M.2 SSD, simply place the drive into the spare slot on the motherboard and screw in the other end using an M.2 screw.

A screenshot showing how to assign a partition to a newly installed storage device on Windows 11

Windows generally won’t display new hard drives or SSDs in File Explorer until they are initialised and partitioned. In order to set this up, open up the Windows search and type ‘partition’ and select the option to ‘Create and format hard disk partitions’. When you open that you should be offered the option to initialise the disk using either GPT or MBR.

It’s important to note here that Windows 11 will only boot from drives that are formatted using GPT - so you should select this option. Once the process is complete, the drive should appear as an unallocated space in the Disk Management window.

Moving Windows 11 to an SSD: Clone the hard disk

Now it’s time to start moving data to your new SSD. There’s a lot of software out there that can be used to clone hard disks, and the SSD you bought might even come with some that does the job.

If you don’t have any to hand, the free version of Macrium Reflect will do nicely. You’ll need to hand over your email address, and they’ll send you a download link and registration code via email. Install that on your Windows 11 PC, and when you get to the screen asking for a licence key, just select Next and enter the registration code on the following screen.

A screenshot showing how to clone a hard drive using Macrium software

Once Macrium is installed, select your current hard disk and click the ‘Clone This Disk’ button that appears beneath it. This will bring up a wizard that will walk you through the process. Make sure all the partitions of your current hard disk are selected for cloning, and then select your newly created SSD as the destination drive. Ignore the prompts asking you to save a backup schedule and click OK to run the backup.

This process could take a fair while, depending on the amount of data you have to copy.

Moving Windows 11 to an SSD: Replace the hard disk (laptops / all-in-ones)

If you’re swapping the old hard disk for the new SSD in a laptop or all-in-one, now’s the time to swap the drives. Take great care in doing this - remember or write down where all the screws you’ve removed have come from and use an anti-static band or make sure to ground yourself before touching those sensitive electrical components.

Once the old drive is out, simply slot the new SSD into the bay and replace the screws.

Moving Windows 11 to an SSD: Reboot from the new drive

If you’ve replaced the old hard disk with the new SSD, your system might boot automatically from the new drive once you press the power button. If not, or if you’ve popped the new SSD into a PC alongside the old hard disk, you will need to tell it to boot from the new drive.

To do this, you’ll need to open the UEFI setup screen in BIOS, by holding down a key immediately after you press the power button. This differs from system to system, but it’s normally either the DEL key or one of the function keys (F1, F2 etc) along the top row of the keyboard. The key(s) you need to use are normally displayed on the splash screen that appears when booting your system, alongside your motherboard’s manufacturer logo, but you can also search for this info online by using your laptop or PC model and ‘UEFI key’.

Once you’re in the UEFI menu, look for boot options and change the boot sequence so that it boots from the new SSD drive. Save your settings and Windows 11 should now load from the new drive.

If all of that is done correctly, you should notice immediate improvements to your system - it will generally take only a few seconds to boot to the desktop or login screen, and programs should load almost immediately.

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