Samsung NVMe drives as marketed. The extreme perspective implies extreme speed. Or something.

How to upgrade a Dell XPS 15 9550 to a Samsung 960 EVO NVMe M.2 SSD

John M. Kuchta
Jan 1, 2017 · 9 min read
Enlarged to show texture.

My Dell XPS 15 came with a Toshiba M.2 NVMe SSD (part number THNSN51T02DU7, sometimes branded XG3). To be honest, the speeds were pretty good, and faster than necessary for most people:

Real-world CrystalDiskMark 5.2.0 x64 result with Toshiba THNSN51T02DU7

But I’m not most people, and if you’re reading this, you aren’t either. I wanted, nay, needed more. And Samsung just released the 960 EVO, which is tearing up benchmarks all over the web. Unfortunately Samsung dropped the ball and didn’t make a 2 TB EVO model — 2 TB is limited to the PRO and retails at $1300, so I picked up the 1 TB EVO for a far more reasonable $479.

Before you start, you’ll need some tools, man.

The M.2 slot that we need to access to swap the drive is hidden under the bottom panel of the XPS 9550. There are several T5 Torx screws and two Philips screws that hold the panel to the bottom of the laptop, and one more Philips screw inside that secures the M.2 card to the mobo. The official Dell XPS 15 9550 Service Guide has all the info and diagrams you need for the actual hardware swap, but I have plenty of work to do before I get to that part of the operation. In any case, it’s good to have that hardware up front. If you don’t have the Torx driver already, forget Amazon — they’re cheaper at your local Home Depot.

Now, all I have to do is clone the Toshiba drive to an image, then restore the image to the Samsung, install Samsung’s drivers and regrettably named Magician app, and I won’t have to completely reinstall Windows and all the Dell drivers. Easy, right? Well, I’m glad you asked. The following is a chronicle — a cautionary tale, perhaps — of what I learned during the process:

Episode 1: Let’s try the built-in Windows Backup

They’re giving it away for free? It must be good!

I thought I’d back up the system image using Windows 10’s Windows 7 Backup utility to the Synology NAS, which has an SMB fileshare. It has a few things going for it, on paper at least:

  • It’s included in Windows 10/7, for free.
  • It creates system images with or without your personal files. In my case, I only cared about the system files and partitions.
  • It supports SMB file shares.
  • Windows Recovery natively supports restoring the system images it creates, so I should be able to avoid making special USB boot drives of recovery software.
  • Did I mention it’s free?

No-brainer, right? I wish. Once I started the backup, Windows Task Manager Performance tab showed regular spikes to 300–400 Mbps and drops to 0; in other words, no steady throughput. Should I blame the WiFi? I checked packet statistics on my WiFi AP and confirmed that the Dell’s 3x3 11ac card is reliably transmitting (but not receiving) packets at 1.3 Gbps. So, it’s not the WiFi. I gave in to scepticism anyway and switched to Ethernet (using the Dell USB-C DA200 which I found on eBay for $45). The Performance tab now shows regular spikes at 800 Mbps, with the same drops to 0, and no steady throughput. I’m not kidding. I took a screenshot and sent it to Jonah for some sanity checking.

Windows Backup’s irregular network/disk access. Sorry for potato quality; I didn’t save the original screenshot. This is what happens when Telegram auto-compresses a 4K screenshot.

I was busy with other work so I was willing to give it some time. In all, I waited six hours (6!) for the utility to reach a paltry 37%. At that point I gave up, and questioned how Microsoft managed to make it that slow, and why I bothered using the built-in utility in the first place. Seriously. It’s just a system image. 😑

After seeing the screenshot, Jonah recommended Clonezilla, so per Clonezilla’s recommendation, I downloaded tuxboot 0.8.3 and created a bootable Clonezilla amd64 USB stick. This laptop is UEFI after all. Here’s what it’s like to use Clonezilla 2.5.0 “stable”:

Episode 2: Dell UEFI vs. tuxboot, Clonezilla

Press F12 while the Dell is booting and try to boot from the USB drive. It doesn’t show up in the boot menu. Check the different options listed, and change the boot mode to UEFI, Secure Boot Disabled. Reboot. The USB drive now appears, but as a legacy boot device. I’d learn later that disabling Secure Boot wasn’t necessary at all. tuxboot just sucks.

Spend one hour total trying to boot successfully from the Clonezilla stick. Get a blank screen with a blinking terminal prompt. Question my sanity; did I really disable Secure Boot? Check that Secure Boot is actually disabled. Yes, it’s disabled. Try multiple USB sticks. Give up on tuxboot, and manually copy the .zip contents to the USB stick. Run the .bat script under utils. Successfully boot into Clonezilla.

Episode 3: Clonezilla, in true Linux style, throws cryptic, show-stopping errors

Or, The Clone Wars

During the Clonezilla wizard, choose backup to Samba server. Choose Ethernet. Attempt DHCP. Get a kernel error. Restart Clonezilla, and try WiFi. Get an “unable to link” error. Restart Clonezilla, and choose Ethernet again. Set a static IP address, mask, gateway. Great, now I have a network connection. Set up the Samba connection in Clonezilla. Get a Clonezilla error: /home/partimag not a directory

Google the error, get nothing helpful. Try again with a / at the end of the Samba path, get the same error. Curse Clonezilla and tuxboot for wasting my time.

Episode 4: A New Hope

Google “free system image backup”. Find Macrium Reflect Free (home use only). Download and install. Create rescue media using the same USB stick that tuxboot couldn’t format properly. In Windows, tell Macrium to image the Toshiba (which Dell has decided to split into five [5!] partitions for recovery purposes) and store it on the Samba server that Clonezilla couldn’t reach. Get transfer speeds averaging 852.1 Mbps and peaking at 1.0 Gbps over Ethernet. I couldn’t believe it. I took a screenshot:

Macrium Reflect Free cloned my Toshiba to a Windows File Share at nearly line-level Ethernet speeds. How that is possible, I have no idea. But it also proves that the Synology was not to blame for the Windows Backup slowness. No sir. That’s on Microsoft.

Install Macrium Reflect Free on my desktop, and start an image verification from my desktop. This is yet another awesome and free feature from Macrium. This will take awhile, so I let this run on the desktop while I returned to work on the 9550.

Open the laptop according to the Dell service guide (linked above). Swap out the Toshiba for the Samsung. Screw everything back together.

Boot the Dell from the Macrium Recovery USB stick. Works like a charm, even with UEFI Secure Boot turned back on (which Microsoft recommends); Reflect Free had no issue connecting to the Windows File Share. Verification finishes on the desktop. Tell Macrium to restore all the partition sizes to the Samsung.

ERROR: There’s not enough room to restore all the partitions.

Oh, no bueno. Well. Let’s see if Reflect Free can resize the main data partition so that all the partitions can fit back onto the drive. Yep. Reflect Free CAN DO THAT TOO. 😍 Start the restore and go to bed.

Episode 5: The Magician Strikes Back

In the morning the restore had finished and exiting Reflect rebooted the laptop. It booted into Windows on the new SSD flawlessly, and Windows operated as expected, with a nice little speed boost.

Sorry for potato quality. This is actually a phone snap of the thumbnail icon. I don’t want to talk about it.

But to really maximise that improvement, I have to install the Samsung NVMe driver and Samsung Magician (which is helpful for health checks and firmware upgrades). Both list support for the new 960 EVO. Should work, right? Wrong.

Samsung NVM Express Device is not connected. Connect the Device and try again. OK. Assclown.

Bizarre capitalisation on “Device” aside, this was simply Not True. And for Magician’s next act:

UNKNOWN DRIVE. This drive is not supported. INVALID SERIAL NUMBER. Interface: Unable to detect. AHCI Mode: Deactivated.

Cue me checking the Samsung download page again just to confirm that this software supports the 960 EVO:

There. Right, there. Manbearpig. “This driver supports Samsung NVMe SSD 960 PRO, 960 EVO,” blah blah.
960 series support: CONFIRMED

Now, if I were a smarter man, the information above would have been enough to point me to the problem. Maybe you already see it, you clever knave. And if I were a much smarter man, I would have read the Installation Guides before installing anything (it always helps to RTFM). These very guides are what finally tipped me off that something was wrong.

Episode 6: Return of AHCI

In the installation guide for the NVMe driver, Samsung helpfully includes a screenshot of what should appear in Device Manager when it’s installed correctly:

Device Manager after a successful NVMe Installation

So I checked what I saw in my own Device Manager. Lo and behold:

Storage Controllers listed in Device Manager by default for the Dell XPS 15 9550

It sure looks like that Intel Chipset SATA RAID Controller is showing up where the Samsung NVMe Controller should be. And Dell doesn’t tell you that, by default, the Dell XPS 15 9550 ships in “RAID” mode. Could having SATA Operation in RAID mode prevent Samsung’s software from working? Samsung’s Magician installation guide mentions that there are issues with IRST (in other words, RAID mode). Why would that make any sense if NVMe bypasses SATA entirely? That’s an existential question for another time. I know one way to test.

To switch a Dell XPS 15 9550 from RAID to AHCI mode, while booted in RAID mode, you have to prepare the system for the change. It’s pretty major change, and Windows will crash while booting otherwise, so do the following:

Open a Command Prompt as Administrator and run the command:

bcdedit /set {current} safeboot minimal

Reboot and press F12 to open the BIOS menu:

Dell XPS 15 9550 one-time boot menu, BIOS Revision 1.2.16

Under System Configuration > SATA Operation, “RAID On” is selected:

Default SATA Operation mode: RAID On, and on, and on

Switch this to AHCI, Yes, Apply, OK, Exit. Windows then boots in Safe Mode.

Are you sure you would like your computer to work? Why, yes. That’s why I’m here, after all.
Yes. Or, “OK.” It’s unclear why the button is “OK” here, but “Yes” earlier. I guess BIOS makers just don’t care.

Once Windows has booted, it has modified the registry keys necessary for future normal boots to succeed on the AHCI setting. Open another Command Prompt as Administrator and run the following to disable Safe Mode:

bcdedit /deletevalue {current} safeboot

Reboot one more time and you’ll be back in Windows with AHCI mode enabled — schwing!

Episode 7: The SSD Awakens

Now, with SATA Operation in AHCI mode, the NVMe driver installer worked, and Magician recognised the 960 EVO. FINALLY. Did documenting my own trials help you? Sound off in the comments.

In retrospect, I’m left wondering:

  • If NVMe bypasses the SATA controller, why does having the SATA controller in RAID mode ruin everything?
  • Why does Dell ship the 9550 with “RAID On” if there are no configurations what offer multiple drive bays (e.g. two M.2 slots, or an additional 2.5" SATA bay)?
  • Macrium Reflect Free proves that backup software can be fast, free, and easy to use. Why does Microsoft Backup move at speeds more a propos glaciers than software?
  • What the hell happened to Clonezilla? Apparently the latest “stable” 2.5.0 is just utter garbage. Jonah assures me it worked in earlier builds, and I remember having some success with Clonezilla (despite the arcane text-only menus one must endure) in years past.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Steve Schardein at Triple-S for this guide for saving me from editing registry keys myself. Thank you to Jonah for keeping me sane, as usual. And, most of all, thank you Macrium for making such amazing imaging software and giving it away for FREE.

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