Not all solid-state drives (SSDs) are created equal. Specifically, an NVMe SSD upgrade can deliver much faster performance on a machine that's already using a SATA SSD.
The good news is you can probably upgrade your Windows computer, especially a desktop, to an NVMe drive. The better news: NVMe drives' prices are getting friendlier. Samsung, for example, lowered the price of its 970 series quite significantly on the release date.
And here's the best news: you can migrate to an NVMe drive without losing data, system settings, or having to reinstall Windows. And if you're using the same computer -- namely the motherboard --there's no need to reactivate your software, either.
I upgraded a Windows 10 computer from a 1TB WD Blue SATA SSD to a 500GB Samsung NVMe SSD 970 Evo for this post. But you can upgrade any qualified computer (running Windows 7 or later) that currently uses any SATA drive (hard drive or SSD) to any NVMe SSD by following the same process.
NVMe SSD Upgrade: Hardware requirements
Before you can upgrade, make sure your computer supports NVMe. That means either it has an "M key" M.2 slot or has an available x4 PCIe slot. In most cases, you can use the x8 or x16 PCIe slot for a video card (most desktop computers have at least one).
For best performance, make sure your computer supports 3rd Gen PCIe (or later). Earlier PCIe versions will likely work, but you won't get the best performance in this case.
That said, here are what you need:
- An NVMe solid-state drive: Get a drive of a significantly larger capacity than the total data on the SATA drive. For example, if you're using a 1TB SATA drive that's 30 percent full, a 500GB NVMe drive (or larger) will do.
- An NVMe PCIe adapter, only if your computer doesn't have an NVMe M.2 slot.
- Drive cloning software. I recommend the free version of Macrium Reflect.
Windows in-place NVMe SSD Upgrade: Steps by steps
- Make sure your computer is turned off. Assemble the NVMe drive onto your computer using the M.2 slot or the PCIe slot (via an adapter). Then turn it on. It will boot into the SATA drive as it did before.
- Install Macrium Reflect (or any drive cloning software that you're comfortable with).
- If you're using Windows 10, skip to step #4. For older Windows, download and install the NVMe driver software for your SSD. After the installation, restart your computer.
- Run the drive cloning software and clone the existing SATA drive to the NVMe drive. (For details on cloning using Macrium Reflect, check out this post.) When you're at it, note if your current SATA drive uses an MBR or GPT partition for later troubleshooting. Once the cloning process is complete, turn your computer off.
- Remove your SATA drive and mission accomplished! If you want to keep the SATA drive in your computer as a secondary drive, continue to step #6.
- Change the boot order of your computer to boot from the NVMe drive first. You can do this by going to the Boot section of your computer BIOS. You can get to the BIOS by tapping on the F2 or Delete key on the keyboard right after pressing on the power button to turn the machine on most computers. Or check with the user manual.
And that's it! Now, you'll notice a significant performance improvement, even if your old SATA drive is an SSD. In my case, the machine now booted up in about 5 seconds, down from almost 20 seconds.
Alternatively, you can also install a newly cloned NVMe SSD into another computer. In this case, make sure the new one uses the same boot method -- BIOS or UEFI -- as the old one. In this case, you'll likely need to re-activate the software (Windows, Office, etc.).
NVMe SSD upgrade: Troubleshooting
I didn't run into any issues, but here are the common few and how to fix them.
- The computer keeps booting into the old SATA drive: Make sure you change the boot order to make the NVMe SSD the first boot drive. Or remove the old SATA drive if you don't want to bother with the BIOS.
- The computer won't boot successfully, showing boot error like "Boot drive not found" or a blue screen. Two scenarios here:
MBR vs. GPT partition types
Whichever partition type your old SATA drive uses, the new NVMe drive will use that, too. That said, make sure you set the boot type in BIOS accordingly, as follows:
- If the MBR partition type is in use -> Make sure the computer use the Legacy boot method
- If the GPT partition type is in use -> Set the machine to use the UEFI boot method.
The computer will run into an error if it boots with an MBR drive using UEFI and vice versa.
Missing NVMe driver
The driver issue only applies to a computer running Windows 8.1 or earlier, and you might have forgotten to restart your computer in step #3 above. In this case, you'll need to do the upgrade again from the beginning.
There you have it! If you have more issues or questions, let me know in the comment section below.
Generally, with a computer that uses a UEFI motherboard, which is the case of most computers made in the past decade, upgrading it from a SATA drive to an NVMe is straightforward. For a computer with the legacy boot, you might need to do some tweaks. It's best to convert it to UEFI first if that's possible.