A few months back, I was looking to migrate my aging Dell M1330 from its 160GB magnetic HDD to a Crucial M4 128GB SSD. I was reluctant to do a straightforward backup and clean install of Windows 7 onto the SSD, including reinstalling applications, if I could avoid it. So, I did some Google investigating and tried several open source options, before settling on Clonezilla. Sadly, after fluffing around for hours trying to configure a backup, Clonezilla would either hang or stop mid-way, a painful experience when backing up over 100GB of data. Little did I know there was a much easier way to get the job done.
I'm confident if I'd persisted with Clonezilla I'd have sorted out the backup and restore eventually (and I blame myself for not having the patience after a few hours of failure to continue), but, when you're desperate to get your system up and running again, I'm going to go with whatever is fast and effective.
What you may not know — I certainly didn't — is that the Backup and Restore feature in Windows 7 will happily take care of many of the considerations one must be aware of when setting up an SSD for the first time.
On the top of the list, and the reason most people do a clean format and install, is to assure proper block alignment. Now, an SSD will work fine if incorrectly aligned, but you'll be sacrificing performance for no good reason. And when an SSD's trump card over normal hard drives is speed, you want to be sure you're getting everything you can from it.
By default, any drive formatted in Windows 7, be it SSD or HDD, will automatically be block-aligned. So, if you create a disk image and transfer it, you don't have to worry about this at all. Unfortunately, from my reading, this isn't something Clonezilla can do. Hence the use of Backup and Restore.
The second is the size of your HDD. It's pretty common when transitioning to an SSD that the destination drive is going to be smaller than the source, as was the case for me with my 160GB to 128GB. This is easily handled by using Windows' own Disk Management tool. If you're over-size, you'll need to empty the drive until it's about 10 or 20GB less than the destination drive. You can probably get away with a smaller space margin, but there's nothing wrong with having a bit of a buffer.
Then, open up Disk Management. The easiest way to do this is to type "diskmgmt.msc" into the search box of the Start Menu and hit Enter. Once it's loaded, right-click on the main partition of the drive you wish to back up and hit "Shrink Volume". As long as there's enough free space, you'll be able to reduce the partition size to match that of the destination SSD. Unfortunately, the shrink tool isn't very visual, presenting you with a text box to enter a size in megabytes. Double-check your calculations before hitting the Shrink button.
Once this is done, you can go ahead and use Backup and Restore. Again, go to the search box of the Start Menu and type in "backup and restore". It should be the first option that appears. Run it and, in the left-hand menu, select "Create a system image". You'll then have the option of backing up to another hard drive, a series of DVDs or, my preferred option, a network location. If you have another drive in your laptop, go right ahead and select it (if it can fit your main drive). Seeing as most laptops don't come with multiple drives, it's best to go with a network location. Keep in mind that backing up to another partition on the same drive won't do you much good — it'll be inaccessible as soon as you take it out, obviously.
With a backup location selected, hit Next. Now, you'll have to choose what drive to back up. Again, if you have just the one drive, you won't really have any options here. Then, all you have to do is hit the "Start backup" option.
Grab a beverage, go outside or smack dragons in Skyrim until it's complete.
When it's done, or you're feed up with being king-hit into the stratosphere by marauding giants, you can switch drives (the manual part of this exercise) and then either use your Windows 7 install disk, or a system recovery disk to restore the backup. Conveniently, you can create a recovery disk from the Backup and Restore window — the option is immediately below the create a system image link.
Boot up using the recovery disc. Once it reaches the main screen, you'll want to select "Repair your computer", followed by "System Image Recovery". You'll need to point it to your image — if your network hardware is properly detected, you should be able to select the network location you backed up to previously, as long as you can provide it with the correct credentials. With the backup found, it's a simple matter of waiting for it to complete.
Following this process, I was able to backup my laptop, switch in the SSD, and restore it without a single issue. I wish I'd known about this before I'd gone to the trouble of looking for alternative. Sometimes, the best option is right there in front of you.
Keep in mind that this process won't be as smooth if you're changing other hardware — most notably your motherboard. Not really a problem with laptops, but with a desktop you might find a restored Windows simply blue-screens on startup. This is almost always caused by conflicting core chipset drivers. We'll look to cover this topic in another article, though the sure-fire solution is, sadly, a clean install.