Dell's XPS 15 features several upgradeable components, but swapping in a new SSD could make the biggest difference.

Many high-end laptops these days come with very few upgradable features. There is one component you usually can improve: storage. While even the most basic SSD outperforms any hard disk drive (HDD) you can get even more speed and more storage by upgrading. The Dell XPS 15 (9550) is my top pick for those who want a powerful, quad-core non-gaming laptop — and despite its svelteness it's surprisingly upgradeable. Here is how to make it even better by tossing in a new SSD.

Why Upgrade

There are two reasons to upgrade your SSD in the XPS 15 (or XPS 13): more storage and more speed.

Maybe you thought 256GB would be enough, but now with lower prices for flash storage a 1TB SSD would be nice and roomy. And even though it's faster than an old spinning disk hard drive, it can still be even faster to load apps and save large files.

The XPS 15's included SSD is pretty good, but there are better options out there. On most options the biggest performance gain you'll see is in write speed.

Upgrade options

There are quite a few SSD drives on the market these days, but everyone goes with Samsung for both performance and storage.

Samsung 850 EVO

Samsung's 850 EVO series is a bit older now, but it's available in a 1TB configuration for about $300 and get up to 540MB/s, and 500MB/s read and write performance. The 850 EVO is only good if you want a low-cost storage boost, but not necessarily a performance one.

See at Amazon

Samsung 950 Pro

Another older option for speed, which I use here, is the Samsung 950 Pro. That drive is available at just over $300 for 512GB and gets 2,500MB/s and 1,500MB/s read and write performance. This drive a good option if you want to triple your write speed (read speeds are identical to the default Samsung PM951 drive).

See at Amazon

Samsung 960 EVO

A significant step up in performance would be going with the brand-new Samsung 960 EVO with a whopping 3,200 MB/s and 1,900 MB/s read and write performance. That privilege, however, will cost you an extra $180 for the 1TB option over the older 850 EVO — current prices sit at around $520. There are also 250GB and 500GB configurations available.

See at Amazon

Samsung 960 PRO

Pushing the limits to the extreme is the current king of laptop SSDs: the Samsung 960 PRO. That drive is not even out yet (it's set for a December 31, 2016, release) and costs $629 for 1TB – or twice the price of the 1TB 850 EVO. You can even get a 2TB version for a jaw-dropping $1,299.99. For all that cash you only get a small bump over the 960 EVO with 3,500 MB/s and 2,100 MB/s read and write performance. Nobody said the very best would come cheap.

See at Amazon

The Samsung 850 EVO is the best value currently for a large storage increase, but slower read and write speeds. If you can afford it though the 960 EVO gets you much faster read and write times and it may be worth the extra cash. The 960 PRO, on the other hand, is only if you have the money or really, really, need that extra incremental speed boost (hint: you probably don't, but don't let me stop you).

For now, I'm using the 512GB Samsung 950 PRO for my Dell XPS 15.

Difficulty Rating

Physically swapping out the SSD in most laptops is very simple. The hard and weird part comes in cloning or backing up your current SSD to the new one so that you can just pick up from where you left off in using the laptop.

The actual hardware swap should take no more than 15 minutes. Doing the backup and restore can take longer.

Backing up

Doing a backup and restore from the old SSD to the new one is not hard, but there are multiple ways to do it. Alternatively, you could just reinstall Windows 10 with an ISO on the new drive and start from scratch.

Personally, I go for the pricey but easy and reliable third-party solution with Macrium Reflect. It's an extra $70 on top of that SSD purchase, but it's a great tool for anytime you need to image your drive for backups.

Restoring a Macrium Reflect image to a new SSD

The process is as expected: Run the software on your current SSD and backup/image your PC to an external USB drive. After swapping out the SSD, boot the XPS 15 to the USB drive and restore the image.

Samsung also makes their free Data Migration software for use with their SSD drives as well with accompanying documentation. While Samsung's option is free, you do need a way to connect the new SSD to the laptop to directly copy its contents. For a laptop SSD, this means you need to buy an enclosure with a USB connection (though that means you can then repurpose your old SSD as a new external drive).

What you need

You will need a few tools like hex and Philips screwdrivers and a small pry to help remove the bottom cover on the XPS 15.

Some of the tools you will need for this job

You may have your own tools, but since I plan on doing this more often, I picked up the E-Durable Pro Bit Driver Kit on Amazon. It was a mere $12 and includes every tool you will need to work on electronics like a laptop, and I recommend it if you don't have anything at the moment.

See E-Durable Pro Kit on Amazon

You will also want a clean and well-lit workspace and somewhere safe to put the screws from the bottom of the XPS 15.

Opening the XPS 15

To begin, shut down (not sleep or hibernate) your laptop and unplug it from the power adapter.

You should also use an Anti-Static Wrist Strap when touching the internal components.

See Anti-Static Strap at Amazon

To open the XPS 15 (9550), you will want to do the following.

XPS 15 screws All 12 of the screws holding the XPS 15 together

  1. Place the XPS 15 bottom-up. I recommend on a cloth to prevent any scratches.
  2. Remove the 10 Torx head screws from the bottom.
  3. Remove the 2 Philips head screws from beneath the XPS label (lift the cover).
  4. Pry the cover off gently using a pry tool.

The cover should just click and come off without much force once all 12 of the screws are removed.

Changing the SSD

With the display hinge oriented away from you, you'll find the SSD below the exhaust fan and to the left on the XPS 15.

  1. Remove the placement screw at the base of the SSD.

  2. Gently peel off the gum-like insulation material. Don't throw it away, as we'll be reusing it.
  3. Gently lift the old SSD at a 20-degree angle and slide it out.
  4. Insert the new SSD firmly into the slot at the same 20-degree angle.
  5. Lay down the new SSD and replace the placement screw.

  6. Reapply the insulation. This will help dissipate any heat the SSD generates.

Reassemble and boot

  1. Position the laptop's base panel in place.
  2. Replace the 12 screws around the edge of the base and under the XPS label plate.
  3. Turn over and open the laptop.
  4. Install the old SSD in your external drive enclosure.
  5. Plug the old SSD into any USB port on the XPS 15.
  6. Press the power button in the top right corner to boot the laptop.
  7. Immediately press and hold F12 until the Boot Menu appears.
  8. Use the arrow keys to select the USB drive and boot from the old Windows 10 install.
  9. Use your choice of software to copy the contents of the USB SSD to the newly installed SSD.

Remember, if all else fails, you can just put back your old SSD.

Results!

The benefit of updating to a faster (and larger) SSD is revealed in benchmarks. But you can also "feel" it in everyday usage whether loading a large video game, transferring large files, rendering a video for output, or even just booting into Windows. This is particularly the case for the lower end XPS 15 that uses a hybrid HDD / SSD option.

To be fair, the SSD that the XPS 15 ships with is solid, but here is a direct before and after using benchmarks from CrystalDiskMark (higher numbers are better):

Device Read Write
Samsung PM951 (Old) 1751 598
Samsung 950 Pro (New) 2009 1519
MacBook Pro 13 (2016) 1549 1621

As you can see, the big improvement from this upgrade is the write speed. That's significant for many 'pro' users out there who need to render video or do heavy lifting. If you are just consuming media e.g. playing games, you still get a noticeable bump, but it's not quite as impressive. Of course, going to a 960 EVO or 960 PRO should see even more impressive speeds than these!