Technology Training

Are Solid-State Drives Worth The Money?

Solid-state drives (SSDs) make for a pretty great upgrade, but they aren’t without their downsides (most notably, their high cost and low amounts of space). While the answer to “are they worth it?” is fairly subjective, there are a number of factors that can influence the usefulness of a solid-state drive.

A history of Hard Drives

Hard drive technology is relatively ancient (in terms of computer history, anyway). There are well-known pictures of the infamous IBM 350 RAMAC hard drive from 1956 that used 50 24-inch-wide platters to hold a whopping 3.75MB of storage space. This, of course, is the size of an average 128Kbps MP3 file today, in the physical space that could hold two commercial refrigerators. The RAMAC 350 was only limited to government and industrial uses, and was obsolete by 1969. Ain’t progress wonderful? The PC hard drive form factor standardized at 5.25 inches in the early 1980s, with the 3.5-inch desktop-class and 2.5-inch notebook-class drives coming soon thereafter. The internal cable interface has changed from serial to IDE (now frequently called parallel ATA, or PATA) to SCSI to serial ATA (SATA) over the years, but each essentially does the same thing: connect the hard drive to the PC’s motherboard so your data can be processed. Today’s 2.5- and 3.5-inch drives mainly use SATA interfaces (at least on most PCs and Macs), though some high-speed SSDs use the faster PCIe interface instead. Capacities have grown from multiple megabytes to multiple terabytes, more than a million-fold increase. Current 3.5-inch hard drives have capacities as high as 10TB, with consumer-oriented 2.5-inch drives maxing out at 4TB.

The SSD has a much shorter history. There was always an infatuation with nonmoving storage from the beginning of personal computing, with technologies like bubble memory flashing (pun intended) and dying in the 1970s and 1980s. Current flash memory is the logical extension of the same idea, as it doesn’t require constant power to retain the data you store on it. The first primary drives that we know as SSDs started during the rise of netbooks in the late 2000s. In 2007, the OLPC XO-1 used a 1GB SSD, and the Asus Eee PC 700 series used a 2GB SSD as primary storage. The SSD chips on low-end Eee PC units and the XO-1 were permanently soldered to the motherboard. As netbooks and other ultraportable laptop PCs became more capable, SSD capacities increased and eventually standardized on the 2.5-inch notebook form factor. This way, you could pop a 2.5-inch hard drive out of your laptop or desktop and replace it easily with an SSD. Other form factors emerged, like the mSATA Mini PCIe SSD card, M.2 SSD in SATA and PCIe variants, and the DIMM-like solid-state Flash Storage in the Apple MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, but today many SSDs still use the 2.5-inch form factor. The 2.5-inch SSD capacity currently tops out at 4TB, but a 60TB version for enterprise devices like servers was released by Seagate in 2016.

What Is a Solid-State Drive?

Traditional hard drives are made up of a spinning disk and a magnetic, movable read/write head. The traditional hard drive is the basic nonvolatile storage on a computer. That is, information on it doesn’t “go away” when you turn off the system, as is the case with data stored in RAM. A hard drive is essentially a metal platter with a magnetic coating that stores your data

Solid-state drives, on the other hand, use microchips to store data, just like portable USB flash drives. Thus, they have no moving parts and are much quieter, more durable and faster than regular drives. Data is stored on interconnected flash memory chips that retain the data even when there’s no power present. The chips can either be permanently installed on the system’s motherboard (as on some small laptops and ultra-portables), on a PCI Express (PCIe) card (in some high-end workstations and an increasing number of bleeding-edge consumer systems), or in a box that’s sized, shaped, and wired to slot in for a laptop or desktop’s hard drive (common on everything else). These flash memory chips are of a different type than is used in USB thumb drives, and are typically faster and more reliable. SSDs are consequently more expensive than USB thumb drives of the same capacities. Speed is their biggest advantage. Not only do they have much faster read times since there is no moving head, but they also start up faster because they don’t need to spin. Also, since the physical location of data doesn’t matter on SSDs, read speeds is consistent no matter where your data is stored, and disk fragmentation isn’t really a problem. In addition, they use up less power than regular drives, so in a laptop they’ll also afford you a bit of extra battery life. All these things make them a pretty great upgrade to your computer, but they aren’t necessarily worth it for everyone.

Who Will Benefit Most From Solid-State Drives

Because they can access and read data very quickly, you’ll find that the biggest visible advantages of an SSD are fast boot-ups and application starts. Thus, they are the most useful if you’re the type of person that likes to launch a lot of applications or launch certain slow-loading applications such as Adobe Photoshop. In addition, if you find yourself restarting your computer a lot (perhaps because you dual-boot), you’ll be happy with the increased boot time of an SSD, lessening the time you spend waiting for your computer to start up and increasing the time you can spend working.

On the other hand, if you tend to just use your computer to check email on the web or write documents, you won’t notice the benefits of an SSD as much. Websites won’t load any faster, and if you’re only launching your browser and one or two other applications, it probably isn’t worth the upgrade to have them launch a few seconds faster.

Consider Size and Cost

Note that, while those are the characteristics that will decide whether you benefit, there are other things to consider. Most notable are the size and cost of solid-state drives. My 80GB SSD cost a whopping $US200, and if you need a lot of space for your music and other files, you’ll be paying even more. A better set-up is to put your OS and applications on the SSD, while having a second, regular hard drive for all your data. This is easy in a desktop computer, but requires a bit of work for a laptop, since most laptops only have one hard drive bay. It isn’t impossible, but if you’re not comfortable digging around inside your computer you’ll have to decide whether your data will fit (or whether you’re ready to shell out an arm and a leg for a large enough drive).

Price: SSDs are more expensive than hard drives in terms of dollar per gigabyte. A 1TB internal 2.5-inch hard drive costs between $75 and $95, but as of this writing, an SSD of the same capacity and form factor starts at $300. That translates into 4 to 5 cents per gigabyte for the hard drive and 25 cents per gigabyte for the SSD. Since hard drives use older, more established technology, they will remain less expensive for the near future. Those extra hundreds for the SSD may push your system price over budget.

Maximum and Common Capacity: Although consumer-based SSD units top out at 4TB, those are still rare and expensive. You’re more likely to find 500GB to 1TB units as primary drives in systems. While 500GB is considered a “base” hard drive in 2017, pricing concerns can push that down to 128GB for lower-priced SSD-based systems. Multimedia users will require even more, with 1TB to 4TB drives common in high-end systems. Basically, the more storage capacity, the more stuff you can keep on your PC. Cloud-based (Internet) storage may be good for housing files you plan to share among your phone, tablet, and PC, but local storage is less expensive, and you only have to buy it once.

What are the advantages of solid state drives?

Upgrading your regular old hard drive to a solid-state drive is one of the best upgrades you can make to your computer nowadays, as our hard drives tend to be among the biggest bottlenecks in performance. SSD read times are insanely fast, meaning using one will make boot times and application launches super short. One of the most publicised downsides of SSDs, however, is that they have limited number of writes before they wear out — however, with most newer SSDs, this isn’t actually a problem. Most modern SSDs will become outdated before they die, and you’ll probably have upgraded by then, so there’s not really a huge need to worry about writing to the drive too many times.

One of the main strategies in SSD usage is to use the SSD only for system files and applications. This will give you all the perks of fast boot times and fast application launches, but you won’t fill up your drive as fast. SSDs are expensive, and there’s no reason to break the bank for a large one — instead, just buy a small one for your OS and buy a regular, magnetic drive (any size you want; they’re pretty cheap nowadays) for your music, movies and documents. I understand this isn’t possible for everyone. Desktop users should absolutely do this, and while some laptop users may be able to mod their laptop to contain two drives, some may prefer not to (and netbook users just plain can’t). Thus, this guide will still apply to those who only have an SSD, but if you can, adding another drive is one of the biggest recommendations I can make.

Use Windows 7, 8 or 10

Windows 7 thru 10 has a lots of important features that will help your SSD, such as the TRIM command, disabling defragmentation and disabling Superfetch. If you’re still using XP or Vista, I highly recommend upgrading as some of these are not supported in versions before 7. Furthermore, if you have an SSD, later versions of Windows  will make a lot of these adjustments automatically. It’s also important to do a clean install of Windows, as it will fix your partition alignment, thus greatly increasing performance.

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