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How to Upgrade Your Existing Hard Drive in Under an Hour

If you’ve been eyeing the falling prices on spacious solid-state drives but putting off an upgrade because you don’t want the hassle of reinstalling everything, we here to help. Read on as we show you how to clone your old HDD onto a new HDD and get your entire system back up and running in under an hour; no reinstallation of Windows and all your apps necessary.

Why Do I Want To Do This?

Unlike popping in some new memory or adding a peripheral, upgrading a hard drive has the potential to be a real pain. Rather than go through the hassle of backing up all your documents and files, pulling your old disk, popping in a new one, formatting it, and reinstalling your OS (along with all your programs) and then tweaking everything to get it back the way it was, you can follow along with us here and have your old disk cloned, your new disk installed, and your machine up and running again in (typically) under an hour.

We used the very technique outlined in guide to upgrade all hard drives in our office PCs; the longest swap took 55 minutes and the shortest swap took 23 minutes. In both cases the actual time spent doing anything with the project was around 10 minutes (opening cases, running software, etc.) and the rest was simply the overhead imposed by the hardware we were using to perform the copy.

With that kind of turn around, and the little amount of hassle involved in actually completing the process, suddenly those much more affordable and spacious solid-state drives are looking mighty fine.

What Do I Need?

For this tutorial you’ll need four things. The first three are must have items and the fourth is variable dependent on your hardware setup and needs.

Hard Disks: The first two, and most obvious: you’ll need your existing hard drive and a second new hard drive. Ideally you’ll be migrating from a smaller drive to a larger drive, but there are situations where you may be migrating from a larger to smaller drive. If you, for instance, bought a cheap and slow 1TB mechanical HDD on sale and discovered that it wasn’t such hot disk to use as your operating system disk, you might be in the market for a smaller and faster 256GB SSD or the like.

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This tutorial is focused on upgrading the existing disk to a larger one, but as long as you par down your data on the old disk to within the parameters of the new disk (e.g. you move all your music and movies off that big 1TB HDD so that the core operating system, applications, etc. are within constraints of the new smaller disk) you’ll be fine. If you want some tips for paring down, check out the preparation section of our previous and related tutorial: How To Migrate Windows 7 to a Solid State Drive

Cloning Software: The third thing you’ll need is cloning software. There are some really powerful cloning tools out there that require very careful use of their very sophisticated components. While those tools are great when you all the power and nuance they provide, for your typical copy disk A to disk B job, they’re significant overkill (and often with a wide margin for errors).Our goal is to get this done quickly, efficiently, and with very minimal chance of misstepping and as such we’ve opted to use the free version of Macrium Reflect as it’s quite user friendly with an excellent GUI. In addition to the free software you’ll also want to create a recovery disc (using the free software) on either a USB drive or a writable DVD.

Connection for Second Hard Drive: Finally, you’ll need to map out how exactly you’re going to hook up the hard drives in order to clone them. If you’re using a desktop computer you may opt to simply crack open the case and hook up the new hard drive directly to your motherboard. If you’re using a laptop you likely won’t have the extra connections (or even space) for a second hard drive in your machine so you’ll need to use a USB adapter like the one we used in this data recovery tutorial.

If you do opt to use a USB adapter, we’d encourage you to use a USB 3.0 adapter on a USB 3.0 port. We ran speed tests alternating between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 and cloning a HDD over USB 2.0 increases the transfer time by 250-300 percent.

Hard drives on hand, software downloaded, new hard drive hooked up to your computer (be it via SATA ports on the motherboard or via USB adapter), and we’re ready to go.

Creating the Recovery Media

The Macrium Reflect installation process is straightforward. Run the installer, launch the app, and then take a moment to create a recovery disc. Trust us; nearly every hiccup you might encounter in this process can be mediated via the recovery disc and the last place you want to be when you need to create a recovery disc is staring at a hard drive error.

After installing Macrium Reflect, navigate via the menu bar to Other Tasks -> Create Rescue Media.

You’ll be prompted to select a Windows PE or Linux recovery media. Select Windows PE then click on the Advanced button and select version 5.0. The rescue media creator will ask if you want a custom VIM or a default VIM. Select the default VIM.

In the final step you’ll see a review of the settings and a prompt to select what kind of media you wish to install the recovery disc on. We’ve opted to use a USB drive.

When the process is complete, it’s time to move on to cloning the disk. Now is the time to ensure that the new hard drive is hooked up to your machine.

Cloning the Disk

Hard drives hooked up and recovery media on hand, it’s time to get cloning! The first step is the most important step and really the only step you can really screw up. If you do screw it up, you’re going to have a really, really, bad time.

In Macrium Reflect, select the “Disc Image” tab and look for your operating system disk (typically Disk 1, C:\, and labeled with a little Windows icon) as seen in the screenshot below.

When you select the disk the option “Clone this disk” will be available beneath the selected drive. Click on it.

The next menu is where you make the most important selection within this entire tutorial. Macrium will show you the source drive you just selected and prompt you to select a destination.

Click on “Select a disk to clone to…” to select your new hard drive. If your system has multiple hard drives attached (e.g. the primary C:\ drive, a few media drives like F:\, E:\, etc. and then the blank HDD you’re about to use) it is critical you select the correct hard drive. If you perform the clone operations on the wrong disk (e.g. F:\, which has all your home movies on it) all the data on that disk will be gone. Double check you have selected the correct hard drive.

Once you have double checked that you have selected the correct destination disk, click “Copy selected partitions.” Macrium will ask if you wish to perform a “forensic” or “intelligent” sector copy. “Forensic” will copy every single bit on the hard disk, regardless of whether or not it’s actually in a used sector. “Intelligent” will only copy the disk sectors actually in use. We recommend you select the intelligent sector copy and tick “Verify File System.”

When you’re done, there’s one thing you’ll likely notice immediately: the partition copied in a 1-to-1 ratio to the new disk which means if you’re upgrading from a 120GB SSD to a 512GB SSD there will be a whole lot of unused space. Don’t worry, we can fix that easily enough. Simply click on the “Cloned Partition Properties” beneath your freshly cloned disk.

There you can click the “Maximum Size” button to automatically resize the existing partition to utilize the full amount of available disk space.

Much better! We didn’t spend all that money upgrading to a nice spacious SSD to leave the partition unexpanded. At this point, with your disk cloned and your partition expanded, it’s time to test out the new drive.

If you’re using a desktop computer the easiest way to test out your new disk is to simply boot down your computer, unplug the cables from your old hard disk (the source disk), and leave the cables for the new disk (the destination disk) plugged in. If you’re using a laptop you’ll need to swap the hard drives.

Reboot the machine and it should boot right up without an issue. If there’s any hiccups you have two immediate options: reverse the process from the previous step and boot back to the old hard drive or, as we’ll look at in the next step, use the recovery media.

Deploying the Recovery Media

So you booted up the freshly cloned disk and instead of a nice boot splash screen you got an error message. Don’t panic! There’s a very good chance that your problem is very minor and a quick run through with the recovery media will mend any minor issues (like issues on the cloned disk with the master boot record or the like).

The recovery media is a breeze to use. Pop in the disk or flash drive you created, reboot your computer, and then wait for the Windows PE and the Macrium Reflect recovery tool to start up. If it does not boot up immediately (and especially if you’re using a flash drive instead of a disc) there’s a good chance that USB booting is either turned off or low-priority in your BIOS. Reboot, load the BIOS, and ensure that USB booting is prioritized over hard drives.

The recovery media will automatically load Macrium Reflect. You can access the boot repair menu one of two ways. You can click Restore -> Fix Windows Boot Problems in the menu bar or you can select the very same option from the left hand “Restore Tasks” panel.

Select your Windows installation, click “Next” then “Finish” and based on the version of Windows you’re running the repair tool will perform the necessary steps to repair your disk such as repairing the MBR (Master Boot Record), the BCD (Boot Configuration Data), or the like.

When it finishes and prompts you to reboot your computer, remove the USB drive or disk and click “OK” to complete the process.

Clean Up

Once you’ve successfully booted back into Windows and everything is running smoothly there’s nothing left to do in the cloning process. That said, there are a few best practices to consider. Although everything functioning as it should is a good sign (and generally indicates that it will continue to do so), we recommend setting your old hard drive aside (or even leaving it physically mounted but unplugged in your computer case if you have the space to spare) for at least a few days.

This way should anything go wrong with your new disk you can plug your old disk right back in, reboot, and it’s like you did an instant full-disk restoration from the date of the cloning process. If everything continues to run smoothly and you wish to repurpose the old disk, by all means do so: we took the smaller SSDs we replaced and repurposed them for machines that could use a snappy boot and speedy read/write but don’t need lots of disk space.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/18/14

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