Solid-state drives (SSDs) have dropped in price to the point where it's affordable to replace your laptop's hard disk with one of roughly equal capacity. It's possible to buy a 256GB SSD for around £150, but if you think a 128GB SSD will suffice for your storage needs, you can pay as little as £80.

It's true that this is still more expensive than a hard disk per gigabyte, but there are several benefits of upgrading to an SSD including speed, reliability and battery life.

See also: Crucial M4 SSD review and other solid-state drive reviews

SSDs use flash memory which is considerably faster than the old hard disk in your laptop. Install an SSD and you should see two immediate benefits: faster boot times and faster application load times. SSDs can be spectacularly fast at reading data, although their write performance varies depending on whether they're dealing with large or small files, and whether those files can be compressed or not.

SSDs are far more resistant to shocks and vibration than a traditional mechanical hard disk. In a laptop which is more prone to being dropped or moved during use, it makes a lot of sense to have an SSD with no moving parts: your data will be safer.

Since hard disks have a motor which spins the platters round, they use more power than SSDs which use very little power. Plus, as there are no moving parts they're completely silent.

Crucial M4 SSD 256GB

Group test: what's the best SSD?

Is your laptop compatible?

Before you reach for your credit card, do a little research to find out whether your laptop is a good candidate for an SSD upgrade.

Sony Vaio FW11E

Operating system: If your laptop runs Windows XP, it's not as great plan to invest in an SSD. XP isn't well optimised for use with SSDs. Windows Vista is better, but Windows 7 is the best OS for SSDs as it supports TRIM which helps ensure your SSD's performance is maintained. Some SSD manufacturers include utilities which help overcome Vista's lack of TRIM support.

Hardware: Check that your laptop has a SATA hard disk. As a general rule, if your laptop was made in 2008 or later, it should have an internal SATA connector (see below) which is needed for modern SSDs.

Laptop SATA connector

There are three SATA standards: 1, 2 and 3. These run at 1.5Gbps, 3Gbps and 6Gbps respectively. The latest SSDs support SATA 3, but older laptops may not, and this could limit the speed at which the SSD can operate. To find out which SATA version your laptop supports, check the manual or search online.

The important thing to bear in mind is that SATA is backwards compatible, so you can install a SATA 3 SSD in a laptop which has a SATA 1 connector  - it simply won't work to its full speed. It's still likely you'll see an improvement in speed, though.

Obviously, make sure you can actually get to your laptop's disk to swap it. Some laptops have an easily accessible caddy with a cover held in place by one or two screws.

BIOS: Some laptop BIOSes don't support SSDs and may not work properly with a solid-state drive. The best way to check if your laptop has a BIOS which supports SSDs is to search forums to find out if other users have successfully upgraded. You could also try contacting the manufacturer directly, or your intended SSD's manufacturer to see if it can offer upgrade advice.

Warranty: If your laptop is still under warranty, upgrading to an SSD could void this cover, so check the small print before you start unscrewing covers and removing the hard disk.

Next page: preparing your laptop and installing the SSD