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How-to guide: PCIe SSD upgrade using the Dell XPS 13 (9350) as an example

J. Simon Leitner, Stefanie Voigt (translated by Bernie Pechlaner), 07/09/2016

Our step-by-step tutorial explains how to upgrade the Dell XPS 13 2016 (9350) quickly and easily with larger and faster PCIe NVMe SSDs. Which ones are compatible? How does an upgrade impact the performance?

For the original German article, see here.

Dell's XPS 13 is currently offered with PCIe SSDs with a capacity of up to 512 GB - although the FHD-variant is only available with  drives as large as 256 GB. In addition, Dell also offers M.2 SSDs with up to 1 TB, which could be very interesting to power users. Dell ships the XPS 13 with drives from different manufacturers, so the performance might not quite be what the user was hoping for. Our review notebooks shipped with Samsung PM951-series SSDs, but there are reports out on the forums mentioning other drives.   

With conventional SATA drives, it's possible to transfer the entire system - via cloning - using an external USB caddy. Suitable external solutions are not available yet for the new-style SSDs, so the only course of action is to use backup software to transfer the system to temporary storage and migrate it back after the SSD has been swapped out.  

The following tutorial should apply to all Windows 10 systems equipped with PCIe SSDs (note: check the compatibility/form factor first!) - especially to the versions of the XPS 13 9350 we've reviewed so far:

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Compatibility

Before the upgrade it's essential to check the compatibility of the SSD. For the Dell XPS 13 9350, the following criteria must be met:    

  • form factor: M.2 2280 (80 x 22 x 3,7 mm)
  • interface: M.2 (PCIe)
  • protocol: NVMe

Here is a selection of compatible drives:

ModelCapacityRead max. Write max. Starting price
Samsung SSD 950 Pro    256 GB2200 MB/s900 MB/sfor $189 on Amazon
512 GB2500 MB/s1500 MB/sfor $319 on Amazon
Samsung SSD SM951   256 GB2150 MB/s1260 MB/sfor $167 on Amazon
512 GB2150 MB/s1550 MB/sfor $289 on Amazon
Samsung SSD PM951256 GB1000 MB/s280 MB/sfor $109 on Amazon
512 GB1050 MB/s560 MB/sfor $179 on Amazon
Toshiba OCZ RD400256 GB2600 MB/s1150 MB/sfor $174 on Amazon
512 GB2600 MB/s1600 MB/sfor $329 on Amazon
1 TB2600 MB/s1550 MB/sfor $769 on Amazon
HP Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro 256 GB2150 MB/s1260 MB/sfor $477 on Amazon
512 GB2150 MB/s1550 MB/sfor $649 on Amazon

The Geizhals price comparison shows a complete list of compatible drives and up-to-date pricing. For more details as well as the benchmark results of individual drives, please take a look at our HDD and SSD benchmark list.

Preparation

The following checklist outlines the required items:

  • compatible M.2 2280 PCIe SSD
  • Torx T5 screwdriver and plastic tools/lever
  • USB flash drive (FAT32 formated)
  • USB HDD/SSD with enough space for system data

Data backup

According to our research, Macrium Reflect Backup Software is one of the easiest solutions to us and also the cheapest one (also see Laptopmag). The product is available free of charge and is available in German. Of course, there are other suitable solutions on the market as well. Cloning the SSD - using two adapter cards and a desktop PC - is also an alternative.

Steps 1 through 3 are also suitable if the goal is simply a complete data backup. In case of a drive failure or if the notebook gets lost or stolen, the user can restore his or her data to a new SSD or new notebook.  

Step 1: Download and installation of the backup software

Here's the link to download the software: http://www.macrium.com/reflectfree.aspx

Step 1: Download and installation of the backup software
Step 1: Download and installation of the backup software

Step 2: Creating bootable rescue media

Click the button "Create Rescue Media" on the top right, then continue.

Step 2: Creating bootable rescue media
Step 2: Creating bootable rescue media
Update drivers if needed. Continue.
Connect the USB flash drive and select it. Create the rescue media.
Bootable flash drive has been created. OK.

Step 3: Creating system image

Connect the data drive (USB) and start the creation of the system image. Select the drive and click "continue". Accept the defaults.

Step 3: Create system image
Step 3: Create system image
Select the drive
Continue
Finish
Starting the backup
Depending on the size, creating the backup media can take up to one hour.
Backup complete. Exit.

Step 4: Boot from the rescue media, adjust BIOS settings

To be able to boot from the rescue media (USB flash drive), the BIOS has to be adjusted accordingly. This is also possible from within Windows and just takes a few clicks.

Click Windows Start Button, Settings
Click Windows Start Button, Settings
Click
Select
Select
Auswahl
Check

Swapping the SSD

Now it's time to start with the hardware. On the bottom of the XPS 13 there are 8 Torx (star) T5 screws which have to be removed. The ninth screw - a regular Phillips-type - is a different length hidden under the magnetic XPS flap. For the next step, we recommend using two plastic pry tools to remove the aluminum bottom cover from the base unit. It's best to start at one of the back corners and slowly move towards the front. It pays off to be very careful here, since the aluminum cover is attached by plastic hooks, which could potentially break. Once the cover is loose, it can be lifted up on one side and removed. The hardware is now accessible.

The M.2 SSD is attached with a single Phillips screw. Note: the SSD is under a little bit of tension and could pop out on its own, so some care is required. After the old drive is removed, the new M.2 SSD needs to be inserted at an angle. Once the pins are not visible any longer, the drive can be pushed down and secured with the screw.

For the assembly, simply reverse the steps: insert the aluminum cover on one side first and carefully push it into place, so the hooks can snap in. Insert the screws and screw them in taking care not to overtighten them. 

Flip the notebook upside down
Flip the notebook upside down
Remove 8 Torx T5 screws
Remove one Phillips screw underneath the XPS cover
Note: the Phillips screw is longer than the others
Use plastic tools to pry up the aluminum cover - starting at the rear corners.
Unhook the plastic hooks
Remove the cover
All components are accessible
As shipped: the Samsung PM951 SSD
Removing the screw that holds the SSD in place
Note: the SSD is under tension and flips upward
Remove the SSD and insert the new one
Push the SSD down and secure it with the screw

Restoring the backup

Once the new SSD is swapped out, connect the recovery USB flash drive and start the system, which will launch the Macrium recovery software. Select the drive and the image and start the restore. Depending on the size, this can take up to one hour. After the process has finished, remove the USB flash drive and the backup HDD and restart the system. Windows boots and looks exactly like it did at the time of the backup.

The recovery software loads from the USB flash drive
The recovery software loads from the USB flash drive
Select the backup drive
Select the image
Target disk (new system SSD)
Confirm and continue
Start the restore
OK
Remove the USB flash drive and the recovery drive and restart the system

Adjusting the partitions

After the reboot, any additional space - if the new SSD is larger - will show up as "unallocated" in the Windows disk manager. To create a new partition, all that's required is to format the space and assign a drive letter (right click within the disk manager). Allocating the space to an existing system partition is more difficult. We recommend using an additional tool - in our case, we downloaded the AOMEI Partition Assistant 6.0 (available here). The software is available free of charge and in German as well. After the download and install, follow these steps:

To extend the system partition, the unallocated space needs to be directly next to the system partition. To accomplish that, the partitions located between need to be moved behind the unallocated space one at a time. We can accomplish that by right-clicking each of them and select "resize". A new window opens and both the size as well as the position of the partition can be adjusted. In this case, we just move the partitions to the right and don't adjust the size. Once the unallocated space is next to the system partition, the above steps can be used to extend the system drive. All that's left is to apply the changes and exit the software.

Open the Windows disk manager (search for
Open the Windows disk manager (search for "drive partition")
New space - can be used to create a new partition or extend the system partition
Unallocated space all the way to the right - should be next to the system partition
Moving the partition left of the unallocated space to the right (move slider to the right, don't adjust the size)
The unallocated space is now moved one spot to the left
Repeat the steps until the unallocated space is next to the system partition
The system partition can now be extended
Extend the partition. Apply the changes (
The Windows disk manager after the partitions have been adjusted.

Performance comparison after the SSD upgrade

Increase in performance - but not up to the full potential
Increase in performance - but not up to the full potential

So far, so good. We get to enjoy about double the storage space - but what about the performance? The Samsung PM951 SSD is known for slower write speeds. With the new SM951, this shouldn't be an issue any longer. Samsung promises significantly higher transfer rates for both reads and writes. Instead of 1000/280 MB/s for reads and writes, the new SM951 should be capable of 2150 MB/s and 1550 MB/s for reads and writes, respectively.  

The results of our hard drive benchmarks are sobering, however: using AS SSD, we recorded only about 1400 MB/s for sequential reads and 1350 MB/s for writes. Although these results significantly surpass the previous drive (1300/240 MB/s), the are still a far cry from the theoretical limits. The SM951 SSD in the Thinkpad T460s manged a much higher 2000/1400 MB/s. So where's the bottleneck?

Intel's Skylake U-based CPUs have a total of 12 PCIe lanes available. In addition to the hard drive, various other components make use of those lanes - for example WiFi, Bluetooth and USB. The Thunderbolt 3.0 port the XPS 13 is equipped with takes up another 4 PCIe lanes, which theoretically could create a bottleneck. According to Dell, the PCIe SSD also uses 4 lanes, so that shouldn't be detrimental to the transfer rates.
Our web research also confirms our findings: a Samsung 950 Pro - which is, with a theoretical read rate of 2500 MB/s, even faster than the SM951 - topped out at only 1700 MB/s according to some reports. Our comparison table of hard drives and SSDs also shows that some notebooks (equipped with the same drive) are capable of much better performance. If the PCIe SSD is indeed connected at the maximum bandwidth, a possible culprit could be the software respectively the driver. We'll keep an eye on it and will conduct further tests with updates from Dell and Microsoft.

To sum up, we can say that the swap was a success, as it resulted in double the storage space and a pretty substantial increase in transfer speeds (even though the read rates are not quite were we would like them to be). A subsequent test of the battery life - we ran our standardized WLAN test - showed an equivalent (actually slightly better) run time than the original configuration. Many users who have upgraded to a Samsung SSD 950 Pro, however, report decreased run times.

Dell XPS 13 2016 9350 (FHD, i7-6560U)
Samsung SSD SM951 512 GB MZHPV512HDGL
Dell XPS 13 2016 9350 (FHD, i7-6560U)
Samsung PM951 NVMe MZ-VLV256D
Lenovo ThinkPad T460s-20FA003GGE
Samsung SSD SM951a 512GB M.2 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe (MZVKV512)
Dell XPS 13 9350 WQXGA
Samsung PM951 NVMe 512 GB
Apple MacBook 12 (Early 2016) 1.1 GHz
Apple SSD AP0256
Asus Zenbook UX305UA-FC040T
SK Hynix Canvas SC300 512GB M.2 (HFS512G39MND)
Asus Zenbook UX303UA-R4051T
SK hynix SSD Canvas SC300 HFS256G32MND
AS SSD
Copy Game MB/s
617.8
178.2
791.43
752.57
279.81
198.76
Copy Program MB/s
333.8
98.1
421.86
271.82
187.03
160.29
Copy ISO MB/s
830.2
222.3
1135.44
1040.98
545
325.44
249.28
Score Total
1992
1684
2439
3158
1094
909
Score Write
606
318
621
664
405
308
Score Read
911
935
1218
1679
452
399
Access Time Write *
0.031
0.035
0.033
0.031
0.115
0.07
Access Time Read *
0.048
0.088
0.041
0.046
0.186
0.074
0.1
4K-64 Write
363.4
186.3
366.01
492.01
283
296.61
213.4
4K-64 Read
722.4
767.4
968.26
1496.74
509
375.51
331.16
4K Write
107.4
108.3
114.4
116.49
22.1
63.96
65.11
4K Read
46.9
35.4
45.41
38.29
16.4
26.87
20.4
Seq Write
1347.5
235.3
1407.23
559.47
651
444.53
301.59
Seq Read
1412.5
1323.4
2039.37
1442.49
1056
496.81
474.51
CrystalDiskMark 3.0
Write 4k QD32
409.5
245.6
277
482.4
315
274.7
262.95
Read 4k QD32
467.1
399.7
561.3
572
464
262
325.4
Write 4k
139.5
133.9
139.3
142.2
20.5
71.87
74.63
Read 4k
52
39.63
51.35
42.36
14.6
28.08
21.41
Write 512
1480
276.3
1506
592.1
678
327.1
321.2
Read 512
1020
685.4
1339
615.2
616
301.6
331.4
Write Seq
1547
311.4
1530
590.2
638
412.1
321
Read Seq
1502
1131
1778
1236
754
469.1
465
Total Average (Program / Settings)

* ... smaller is better

Samsung PM951 256 GB (Original)
Samsung PM951 256 GB (Original)
Samsung SM951 512 GB (Upgrade)
Samsung SM951 512 GB (Upgrade)
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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > How-to guide: PCIe SSD upgrade using the Dell XPS 13 (9350) as an example
J. Simon Leitner, 2016-07- 9 (Update: 2016-07- 9)
Bernhard Pechlaner
Bernhard Pechlaner - Review Editor
Ended up in the IT sector in the 90s more or less accidentally and have remained in the industry (as a sysadmin) ever since. Always been interested in laptops - first purchase was - if memory serves correctly - a Toshiba Satellite T2115CS with DX4-75 processor, 4 MB of RAM and 350 MB hard disk drive (and Windows 3.1). To this day, laptops appeal to me - much to the chagrin of my wife, who doesn’t seem understand why we need 5-10 of them at any given time ;-).