Windows 7 and SSDs: Setup secrets and tune-up tweaks

Solid-state drives (SSDs) let your PC start and shut down fast, and they work at speeds that blow the doors off conventional hard drives. Here's how to maximize performance.

Solid-state drives are wicked fast. SSDs start and shut down fast, and they perform read operations (especially random reads) at speeds that blow the doors off conventional hard drives. In the first installment of this series, I gathered the numbers to show just how much faster you can expect an SSD to perform in the real world.

But you might need to jump through some setup hoops to get top performance out of an SSD-equipped PC running Windows 7. That’s because Windows has evolved over many years with features that specifically target the behavior of conventional hard disks. Features like Superfetch and Prefetch and ReadyBoot are designed to monitor files you access at startup and when you launch programs and then arrange them on the disk for optimal access. Because SSDs don’t have motors and spindles and platters and magnetic heads, they don’t benefit from those features and need to be handled differently.

In fact, there are a series of steps that must be performed before an SSD can perform to its full potential on a Windows PC. Skip any of those steps and the results can be disappointing.


Don’t miss the rest of this series:

Part 1: Windows 7 and SSDs: Just how fast are they?

Part 3: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size


My own personal experience bears this out.

Back in October 2009, I bought a Dell Latitude XT2 with a 256GB SSD. One of the first things I did was to replace the Dell-supplied copy of Windows XP Professional with Windows 7 Professional. Disk performance was reasonably fast, but it certainly wasn’t jaw-dropping, and the disk score in the Windows Experience Index was stuck stubbornly at 5.9.

I did a little research last summer and learned that a lot of Dell customers were experiencing the same disappointment with this particular hardware combination. The problem was that the hardware—a Samsung PB22-CS3—needed a firmware update to work properly with the advanced disk-handling features in Windows 7. That update had to come from Dell, and as of last July, it wasn’t available.

A third-party utility, CrystalDiskInfo, confirmed that this disk did not offer support for the TRIM command, which is one of the key requirements for proper SSD operation. (Using the TRIM command allows the system to properly erase blocks of data in the background; for an explanation, see this excellent article by Anand.) Windows 7 supports the TRIM command natively; earlier Windows versions don’t.

Over the holidays, I decided to check again and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Dell had released a firmware update for this drive several months earlier. Because the firmware update wipes out all data on the drive, I had to do a clean install of Windows 7.

The performance difference was like night and day. And benchmark results show why. Here are the Windows System Assessment Tool (WinSAT) results from July 2010 (original OEM configuration) and then from December 2010 after updating the SSD firmware and installing the latest Intel storage drivers:

Disk throughput (bigger=better) Original Optimized
Sequential Read (MB/s) 151.9 219.39
Random Read (MB/s) 10.77 130.25
IO/Responsiveness (smaller=better) Original Optimized
Average IO Rate (ms/IO) 4.29 1.14
Grouped IOs (units) 15.43 8.94
Long IOs (units) 36.69 2.65
Overall Responsiveness (units) 566.01 23.72
Disk score capped at 5.9? Yes No

With the new setup, the disk subscore in the Windows Experience Index jumped from 5.9 to 7.4, and the difference is noticeable. The system is 13 12 times faster in random reads, which is what makes the most profound difference in everyday operation.

Updating the firmware was the key that unlocked the performance of this device, but it isn’t the only crucial step. On the next page, I list the steps you need to go through to ensure that an SSD performs properly with Windows 7.

Next page: Six setup secrets

Setting up Windows on an SSD requires a few extra steps that aren’t necessary with an installation on a conventional hard disk. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Make sure you have the latest firmware. Because firmware updates wipe out all data on the drive, you must do this operation as the first step; make sure to back up all existing data first. You’ll need to check with the drive manufacturer or the OEM, depending on whether you purchased the drive as a retail upgrade or as part of an OEM PC. Follow the instructions to complete the firmware update; this typically requires booting from removable media such as a USB flash drive.

2. Set the disk controller to AHCI mode. In the system BIOS, set the SATA controller for Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) operation before installing Windows. This step is crucial. Using the legacy IDE or ATA mode prevents you from installing the proper disk controller driver later and will result in reduced performance.

3. Consider using a Secure Erase utility to reset the drive to its original, out-of-the-box state. This step isn’t essential but can be helpful, especially on a well-used drive. Do not perform a full format using Windows disk management tools. For Intel drives, you can use the Intel Solid State Drive Toolbox. If you have a Lenovo computer, this feature is available as part of a BIOS Menu Setup Extension. For OCZ drives, see this discussion thread for links to a Secure Erase utility. The HDDErase tool also works with many drives; see this tutorial for download links and instructions.

4. Boot from the Windows media and begin the clean install. Use the Windows Setup utility to create the partition. If you have a partition created using any other tool, delete it and use the Windows 7 disk tools to create a new one. This ensures that the partition is properly aligned.

5. Install the latest storage driver. If your system includes an Intel SATA controller, you should use the most recent version of the Intel Rapid Storage Technology driver, which is located here. Currently (updated January 2012), the most recent version is 10.8.0.1003.

6. After completing setup, check the Windows Experience Index. Click Start, click Computer, then click System Properties. On the System page, click Windows Experience Index, which takes you to the Performance Information and Tools page. The Primary hard disk score for a properly configured SSD should be over 7.0. If necessary, click Re-run The Assessment to refresh the numbers.

To verify that all the features of the SSD are working properly, install the free CrystalDiskInfo utility. As this example shows, it confirms that Native Command Queuing (NCQ) and TRIM are enabled.

It also offers an interesting glimpse at the health of your disk.

When Windows 7 detects that you have a properly configured, fast SSD drive, it disables several unnecessary features, including Superfetch, Prefetch, and ReadyBoot. It also disables scheduled defragmentation operations for the SSD, which isn't necessary, and can reduce the usable life of the drive.

In the final installment of this series, coming up next, I’ll discuss the best ways to split up system and data disks.

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