We’ve talked recently about the importance of aligning your partitions on your SSD or your RAID array. What if I told you you could align an SSD or RAID array for free? Here’s where to find a free SSD alignment tool–it’s just not normally billed as such.

Alignment helps performance, sometimes tremendously, and it also dramatically improves your SSD’s life expectancy. Newer versions of Windows automatically align their partitions, but only if you do a clean installation to an empty drive. Older versions of Windows created their partitions starting at sector 63, for tradition’s sake. Maybe moving off sector 63 made dual-booting with Windows 9x harder.

Two readers, Jim and Xrocode, suggested utilities to do the job. One costs $30 and seems fairly automatic. One is free and requires a small amount of work. Grab the freebie here. It’s a 274 MB download, so it doesn’t even take all that long.

To align your disk:

Make a backup. You shouldn’t run into any problems doing this. But I can think of any number of disasters that weren’t supposed to be a problem either, so if there’s anything important on the drive, make a backup.

Download the Gparted live CD and burn the ISO or create a bootable USB drive.

Boot from it. The partition editor, Gparted, launches automatically if you just accept all the defaults. That’s handy.

Aligning your drive with Gparted

The Gparted live CD is a free SSD alignment tool

Right-click on the biggest drive and select Information to figure out if you even need to align your drive or RAID array.

First, check and make sure this is even necessary. Right-click on your primary partition and select Information. Look at the starting sector. If it starts on sector 63, it needs to be aligned. If it starts on a nice, even binary number like 2048 or 4096, it’s already aligned and you can skip the rest. What if you don’t know what your primary partition is? It’s probably the biggest one on the drive.

the process to align your SSD or RAID array

Choose an even number and select Align to MiB, then click Resize/Move.

If alignment is necessary, select your primary partition. Choose Partition -> Resize/Move.

Move your primary partition to the right by 1 or 2 MiB, whatever it allows. Select the option that says “Align to MiB.” Grow the partition into the few megs at the end of the disk if you want. Consider it your reward for your trouble, like finding a couple of pennies on the sidewalk.

Click the Apply Pending Changes icon. Accept the dire warning (I’ll tell you how to fix that in a minute), then hurry up and wait. It will do a read-only pass to look for problems, then do the real thing. I found it took about 10 minutes, total, for it to do both on my 30 GB OCZ Vertex drive. It may take longer on a modern drive.

Reboot.

Fixing up if your system doesn’t boot

If your system won’t boot afterward:

Boot off a Windows 7 or Vista CD, select your language, then select the Recovery Console. In my case, it found the Windows installation and offered to fix it for me. I let it, and it worked. If that doesn’t work, or if you want more control, drop to a command prompt and issue the following two commands:

bootrec /fixmbr
bootrec /boot

Or boot off your Windows XP CD and do the same thing, except the commands for the command prompt are the following:

fixmbr
fixboot

If you don’t have an installation CD, you can download a Windows 7 recovery disc from http://neosmart.net/blog/2009/windows-7-system-repair-discs/ and use that to repair your MBR.

Once you’re up and running, all that’s left to do is to enjoy the newfound speed and improved life expectancy. Use some of that $30 you saved to pay off a debt a little faster, and do me a favor and give a little of it to a charity that helps people.