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Kingston SSDNow M Series Bundle

Date: May 22, 2009
Author(s): Rob Williams

Have the urge to jump on the SSD bandwagon, but don’t want to go through the hassle of yet another format and OS re-installation? Don’t fret, because Kingston has got you covered. With their new SSDNow M Series bundle, you’ll have all you need to upgrade from your current drive, while keeping your OS configuration and applications intact.



Introduction

What’s this? An SSD-related article on Techgage? Yup, it’s true. To be honest, we’ve been a little behind the curve here, even though we’ve been using SSD-equipped machines for our testing for quite a while. You can expect to see more SSD talk on our site in the near-future though, as we begin to roll out more storage content, some of which will be using our newly-revised testing methodologies.

The product we’re taking a look at today won’t be taken a look at from a performance-perspective. As Kingston’s SSDNow M series is based on Intel’s already-proven X25-M, there’s no need to go through the performance details once again. When Intel launched the X25-M just last fall, it took the tech world by storm, because as we saw, they proved that MLC-based chips weren’t worthless. Not by a long-shot.

So, what’s the purpose of this article if not for performance? The benefits of SSDs by now are well-known, and as I mentioned, so is the performance for this particular drive. Thanks to this, and also dropping prices, more and more people are looking to jump onto the SSD bandwagon, and it’s a great thing. The faster the adoption, the sooner the drives will plummet in price and grow in size.

For those curious about the benefits of a solid-state disk, there’s a few to point out. The first and most important (to enthusiasts) is simply the performance. Mechanical hard drives are currently the largest bottleneck in any machine, as was proven by Samsung’s lab monkeys just a few months ago. We may have lots of memory and a blazing-fast processor, but if we’re dealing with copying a large folder from one place to another, or loading up our favorite game, we’re going to be at the mercy of our hard drive.

SSDs do well to lessen the bottleneck by increasing throughput performance and decreasing latency, because rather than having a needle seek data on one of the multiple platters on a hard disk, reading from something like a flash chip with no moving parts is virtually instantaneous. What this means to you is faster-loading applications, faster game level loads and far less lag when pummeling the I/O with your various needs.

Past performance, solid-state disks are small, fitting into a 2.5″ form-factor. That’s small enough to fit inside any notebook that has an S-ATA interface, and means that you’ll have far better airflow around the hard drive area inside your PC. And since there are no moving parts, the drives are 100% silent… another huge plus. There are a few downsides too of course, but those have to do with pricing and densities, both of which are constantly improving.

Closer Look at Kingston’s SSDNow M Series Bundle

If you’re a long-time reader of Techgage, chances are good that you don’t mind reformatting your PC. Many of you likely do it on a regular basis, simply to have that “fresh PC” feeling (ahh, few things are as pleasing). For you, upgrading to an SSD likely wouldn’t a big deal. If you’re planning on a fresh install of your preferred OS, then it’s not going to be much of a problem.

But Kingston wants to cater to those who aren’t interested in reformatting their PC, but still want the benefits that an SSD can bring to the table. For those, the company has recently released what they call the “SSDNow M Series Bundle”, although I think a proper substitute for “Bundle” would be “Upgrade Kit”, because that’s just what it is.

As you can see below, there’s a lot more that comes with this SSD than simply the drive itself. Since this is an upgrade kit, the essential cables are included, such as a S-ATA and power connector, and also brackets used to install the SSD into a regular 3.5″ compartment inside your PC. You’d first secure a bracket to each side of the SSD, then slide in the new device and secure as normal.

While the aforementioned solution above is for those who are upgrading an SSD on their desktop PC, for notebook users there’s an included 2.5″ external drive enclosure. So with this one kit, both 3.5″ and 2.5″ drives are supported for upgrading, a nice plus. Regardless of which method you’ll be going with, the overall process will be exactly the same.

And of course, the star of the show, Kingston’s “Intel” SSDNow M:

We’ve about covered all there is to know about the product before putting it to good use, so on the following page we’ll discuss both the pre-requisites to getting things up and running, and also a few limitations.

Pre-requisites

When planning to upgrade to an SSD, there are a few things to need to keep in mind. First, and most important, is that because SSDs today are small compared to mechanical drives, chances are good that you are going to have more “used” space on your primary drive than the SSD can hold, and that’s obviously a problem when it comes to cloning.

The solution is simple… clean up your drive and make sure that no more than 85% of the SSD you’re planning to upgrade to is used on your main drive. Since we are dealing with a 80GB drive here, our main OS drive can have no more than 68GB of used space. It’s important to note that we’re dealing with full disks here, and not partitions, so if you have more than 68GB used across multiple partitions on the same drive, the cloning process will not be allowed to take place.

This is a limitation I’m not too thrilled over, but I’m hoping that it will effect few people. If you have more than one hard drive in your machine, and the other hard drives have a lot of free space, then that’s where you’ll want to back up a lot of the data on your main drive to, if you have to take the route of cleaning it up in order to free up enough space for the clone to take place.

What you should take away from this limitation is that your main drive shouldn’t have any partitions at all. You cannot split your main drive into two in order to use the second for backing up the data, because it just won’t work. This is a limitation of the included software, which is True Image HD by Acronis. I have a good feeling that Acronis’ full-blown Home or Business edition could do things on partition-by-partition basis, but to offer this kit at an affordable price, Kingston obviously had to make some choices.

Cloning Process

To help properly test this upgrade kit, I first formatted the notebook being used, and set it up according to how I’d set it up if I were to actually use it in day-to-day life. This meant installing all of the applications I’d use on a regular basis, including related profiles for those applications (specific user data, such as for e-mail, IM logs and information, et cetera) and of course, also my regular documents folder, which included over 30GB worth of documents and photos.

I deliberately installed more than 80GB worth of stuff in order to get a realistic perspective on things. Chances are good that you’ll also have more than 80GB used on your primary drive, so it seemed fair to take the same route. Plus, at this point I wasn’t sure of the limitations of the included cloning software, but I can say that in order to get anywhere, you have to be using no more than 68GB.

Here’s what was installed before I performed a “clean up”:

About 124GB used, which spanned numerous applications, five games (three Steam, two non-Steam), and other things you’d expect to see on a regular PC, such as IM clients, Microsoft Office, audio stuffs, all in addition to whatever was found in my documents folder.

Prior to cleaning things up, I defragged the full hard drive and was left with a nice result:

With the freshly-defragged drive, I ran a few iterations of HD Tune, and saw an average read speed of 65.3MB/s and a minimum of 38.3MB/s. This was done on a 320GB 7200GB Seagate Momentus drive, so it’s quite fast for something found in a notebook. We’re sure to see some stark differences after we upgrade to our SSD, though.

Because I had far too much used space on this drive, I had no choice but to uninstall what I could in order to get the size down to something a little more modest. To do so, I first backed-up my entire documents folder to an external drive, then uninstalled Lineage II, and all three games I had in steam. That left me with 64GB used, 4GB away from the limit. But, I was good to roll.

Cloning Process

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Whenever you do anything system-intensive to your PC like this, especially dealing with partition-changes, it’s absolutely imperative that you back up all of the data you need from your main drive. It’s unlikely that the process will fail, but you certainly don’t want to take a chance. There’s no telling what state a power surge or outage would leave your PC in.

You are in some ways protected even during the cloning process though. Because the Acronis software allows you to retain all data on the original drive, rather than deleting it, even if the process fails, nothing should happen to that data. After all, the software isn’t writing to that drive, but the new one. But, it’s still better to be safe than sorry, as they say. When it comes to your personal data, you do not want to take things lightly.

Because the entire process takes place in a bootable environment, I had no method of taking screenshots, so apologies for the lack of those. For the most part though, there’s not much to see, and the entire process is rather simple. The environment itself has Windows XP features, such as the window styling, but it’s actually built on-top of a Linux kernel, and we can assume that one application used for this process is ‘dd’ – a popular choice used by Linux users looking to copy data byte-by-byte.

To prepare for the clone process, you need to install the SSD into your computer, preferably as the main drive (installing it into the S-ATA 0 port) and then moving the source drive to any port after it. If you’re doing this on a notebook like I am, then all you need to do is put the original hard drive into the enclosure, and then install the SSD into the system. Overall, this process is simple.

Once you boot up with the included CD-ROM, you are welcomed by Acronis True Image HD, and three simple options. You can either back up your entire hard drive to a single file (a la Norton Ghost), restore that image, or clone an entire drive. If you picked up this kit, chances are you will want to clone and avoid the others. However, if you have more than one hard drive installed in your PC, and a backup file would fit on one of those, that’s an option you might want to take advantage of prior to the cloning process.

Choosing the cloning option will again avail a few more options, all of which are straight-forward. The most important of them all is whether or not you want to retain the data on the source drive, and that’s an option I recommend. If the clone goes well, you can easily format the drive after you get your machine back up and running. After choosing the options you need to, the cloning process gets underway. In our case, the entire process took about two beers… err… one hour to complete, so it’s rather fast overall.

With the cloning process complete, all you have to do is reboot your computer and await the boot process, which now will take place on your ultra-fast storage device. At this point, you are free to remove the source hard drive, and if you are using the enclosure, you can go ahead and format (assuming your PC boots fine), and from this point forward, you can continue using the enclosure to use your old hard drive as external USB storage.

Here’s how things looked after I got back into Windows on the new SSD:

As you can see, there’s absolutely no fragmentation, and that’s what we’d expect with a brand-new hard drive. We have quite a bit of our drive space used, but not so much that it will degrade performance. Below, you can see exactly how much free space we had.

But what about performance? After all, that’s what we’re all here for!

While our speedy 7200RPM mobile hard drive hit an average of 65.3 MB/s read speed, the SSD boosted that drastically to 176.7 MB/s. And where latency is concerned, there’s no comparison: 0.2 ms for the SSD and 16.4 ms on the mechanical drive.

It’s important to note that SSDs will vary in speed on some machines, primarily if you have a slower processor. On our notebook, we’re using a 2.0GHz CPU, and believe it or not, that proves to be a little bit of a bottleneck. To take full advantage of the speed, we recommend at least a 2.5GHz processor, as we’ve reviewed notebooks with such chips and found them to have ideal SSD performance. If you’re on a desktop and are using a decent CPU (and assuming you are purchasing an SSD, chances are you have one), you should be ready to see 200MB/s+ average read speeds and <0.1 ms latencies.

Final Thoughts

With the growing popularity of SSDs, it’s no surprise that some company came up with the idea to allow regular users to upgrade their PCs with little risk. So when Kingston approached me with the article idea, I couldn’t help but agree to take it for a spin, and I’m glad I did. Although there are a few caveats, all of which are mentioned on the second page, as long as you don’t mind taking the necessary steps to prepare your PC, you’re golden.

As of the time of writing, I couldn’t find a Kingston 80GB SSD without this kit, but as a kit, it’s available for $345 at Newegg, or $669 for the 160GB drive. By comparison, buying the same SSD from Intel costs $315 at Newegg, so with this kit, there is an obvious premium. For that premium, you get software that can both back up a drive and also clone, along with an enclosure you can use to create a USB-based external storage device.

For those looking to upgrade to an SSD without re-installing your entire OS, this is definitely the way to go. Although I wish the Acronis software would allow cloning a partition rather than the entire drive, it’s understandable why such a feature isn’t included, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s a lacking feature that’s likely to effect few. Plus, it might not even possible to have this option, due to how the master boot record works. I couldn’t get a response on the matter from Acronis prior to publishing this article.

Another huge bonus is that after you clone your drive, the software isn’t suddenly useless. You can use it later to back up the entire drive if you want to, or create a drive image that you can reload each time you want that feeling of a brand-new OS install.

SSDs today are far more affordable than they were just six months ago, and that fact is improving all the time. The day when we all have SSDs as our main OS drive is one that will be filled with relief, because finally, we won’t have our computers bogged down when doing more than one thing at once, due to issues with the I/O. That’s not to say that SSDs are exactly affordable either, because at 80GB for $345, the storage per gigabyte is far more expensive than a mechanical hard drive. But of course, you don’t get this performance with a mechanical drive, either.

Whether the premium for this kit is worth it is up to you, but I’d say it is. To be able to upgrade your PC to an SSD without re-installing the OS is a great thing. Depending on how much you have to copy, you could literally sit down, clean up, and an hour later be using your same OS and applications on an SSD. That, is convenient. Plus, you get the bonus of an enclosure for your mobile drive after the fact, so no storage goes to waste!


Kingston SSDNow M Series Bundle

May 22nd Addendum – Acronis had this to say about the cloning process…

Cloning operations are full clones, so it’s all or nothing. You cannot clone an individual partition from the OEM version, Home version, or the corporate versions.

The only way to successfully perform the operation listed below is via a restore-so you must take an image-save it to some location, then do the restore. When you do a restore you have the option to resize partitions, so if there is actually enough free space available on the source disk, you may be able to resize enough to get everything onto the SSD, it all depends on space.

The only other consideration is if the SSD is being placed to the same controller (it seems like it is). If it is onto another controller then Acronis Universal Restore will be needed.

Keep in mind that we can store images to all sorts of locations, from CD/DVD, to USB drives, to Network locations such as NFS shares, Samba shares (normal Window’s shares), SAN/NAS, and also FTP. The compressed image will be 40-60% of the used space of the 320GB disk, so you would need at minimum 160gb available to store the image file, I’d suggest a 200gb disk or share if available.

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