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I recently reviewed a Samsung 830 512GB solid state drive that now serves as the primary drive for my computer. Before it, however, I was using a 60GB solid state drive. Why? For the same reason as anyone else – price. While prices are slowly coming down, any SSD with a capacity above 128GB remains intimidating for the typical consumer.
What do you do when you have so little space? How do you prioritize your data? And do some programs benefit from quick storage more than others?
The Boot Drive
For most buyers, there's one thing that you're always going to want on your solid state drive. That's your operating system. Hardware enthusiasts have started to use the term "boot drive" to describe not just any bootable drive in any PC but instead a small, fast drive loaded with a computer's operating system.
Loading your operating system on a solid state drive will decrease boot times and load times for any operating system feature. You'll notice that the slight delays sometimes encountered in everyday computer use have been mostly banished.
Fortunately, today's operating systems can easily be accommodated by a modest solid state drive. Windows 7 needs 25GB of space for a full-featured install but can take up far less space if you disable various features. Mac OS X Mountain Lion and Linux take up even less space.
Your user profile should also be on your solid state drive. You do need to watch for bloat, as will be talked about later in this article, but you generally won't have much problem with it. User profile folders only start to get big when a mass number of files are placed in them (usually photos or videos) and you can easily move those to another drive.
Decrease The Footprint Of Windows
There's a wide selection of solid state drives with a 60GB or 64GB capacity that are priced around $60, so space is not something you'll have worry about. You may, however, want to decrease the size of your Windows install so you can install other applications.
You can start by opening Windows Features and disabling what you do not need. The most common entries are Games, Internet Explorer 9 and Media Features. Users who already have alternatives to these common Microsoft applications installed will probably not notice they are missing.
Another common trick that can save you several gigabytes of space is turning off Hibernate. This feature works by saving your computer's memory to your long-term storage, so disabling it frees up the space reserved for that function. Check out Microsoft's support page for instructions.
If you want to go smaller still you should check out our article on streamlining Windows 7. You'll find tips that let you get the operating system small enough to fit on an 8GB drive.
What Applications Should You Install?
After you install your operating system on your solid state drive you'll have to decide what to do with the leftover space. The simple answer is install apps. But what apps?
There's no category of apps that are going to benefit more others. Yes, an app with a long load time may load much quicker. But an app that normally has a short load time (like a web browser or document editor) will now load almost instantly.
With that said, I think productivity apps are usually the best bet. This is because they don't take up much space. GIMP loads with lightning speed off a solid state drive but takes only 250MB of space. The typical Microsoft Office suite weighs in at around 1GB. Smaller apps, like Filezilla, often take 20MB or less.
Most users can – and should – load every productivity app they have on to their solid state drive and still have a fair bit of space left over. Don't forget your web browser, either. It doesn't take much space and will load instantaneously when placed on an SSD.
After that you can worry about entertainment. Installing a game on a solid state drive can have a huge impact on load times, but a single modern 3D game can easily take up ten to twenty gigabytes of space.
Splitting your programs between two hard drives isn't difficult. My tactic is to create secondary Program Files and Games folders on my mechanical drive and place software in whichever folder is appropriate. Installers will automatically place desktop and start menu shortcuts in the right places regardless of where the software is installed.
What About Files?
Files not related to an application's function usually don't belong on a small solid state drive. They take up a lot of space and do not gain much benefit from a solid state drive's quick transfer rates.
Yes, it might be nice for an image file or movie file to load instantly. Most load quickly already, however, and once they load there's no benefit. An image file or movie won't look any different.
Movie files in particular need to be left on a mechanical drive. A single high-definition movie can take up 5 to 10GB of space. You simply don't have room for that on a small solid state drive.
Managing files between separate drives is particularly easy now that Windows has a library feature. This lets you view all files of a specific type, regardless of physical location, in the same library. To add folders to a library you just need to write-click the library's icon and navigate to Properties. You'll find an Include A Folder button in the menu that opens.
There are a few gotchas that you may encounter when using a small solid state drive.
Downloads are the first. By default, files you download will go to a folder on your primary hard drive. If you drive's space is vanishing without reason this is the first thing to check. Or you could change your browser's default download location to a folder on your secondary drive.
Gotcha number two is user data. A fair number of applications will install data into your Windows user folder even if you install the software on a secondary drive. This usually does not take up much space but it can add up to several gigabytes of data over time. Some apps neglect to delete this data after you uninstall them, as well, so keep an eye on it.
Patches are the last issue. Software tends to grow in size over time as new features are added and old ones improved. Games are particularly bad about this. A new patch with some content can add several hundred extra megabytes. Over time this can consume a lot of space, so check in on software folders regularly to see how much space they eat up.
Managing a small solid state drive can be pain, but it's doable. I used a 60GB drive with a full Windows 7 installation for about two years and never had much issue. I much prefer having a gigantic SSD, of course, but the benefit of the small drive was noticeable. Don't let capacity keep you from making the leap to the wonders of solid state storage.