One of the most common questions We get asked when designing and building a new system for our clients is "What type of storage is better? HDD or SSD"
I have touched on this subject before, however I'll go into a little more detail this time.
The traditional spinning hard drive (HDD) is the basic nonvolatile storage on a computer. That is, it doesn't "go away" like the data on the system memory when you turn the system off. Hard drives are essentially metal platters with a magnetic coating. That coating stores your data, whether that data consists of weather reports from the last century, a high-definition copy of the Star Wars trilogy, or your digital music collection. A read/write head on an arm accesses the data while the platters are spinning in a hard drive enclosure.
An SSD does much the same job functionally (saving your data while the system is off, booting your system, etc.) as an HDD, but instead of a magnetic coating on top of platters, the 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 (like on some small laptops and ultra books), on a PCI/PCIe card (in some high-end workstations), 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 differ from the flash memory in USB thumb drives in the type and speed of the memory. That's the subject of a totally separate technical treatise, but suffice it to say that the flash memory in SSDs is faster and more reliable than the flash memory in USB thumb drives. SSDs are consequently more expensive than USB thumb drives for the same capacities.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Both SSDs and HDDs do the same job: They boot your system, store your applications, and store your personal files. But each type of storage has its own unique feature set. The question is, what's the difference, and why would a user get one over the other? We break it down:
Price: To put it bluntly, SSDs are very expensive in terms of dollar per GB. For the same capacity and form factor 1TB internal 2.5-inch drive, you'll pay about $75 for an HDD, but as of this writing, an SSD is a whopping $600. That translates into eight-cents-per-GB for the HDD and 60 cents per GB for the SSD. Other capacities are slightly more affordable (250 to 256GB: $150 SSD, $50 HDD), but you get the idea. Since HDDs are older, more established technologies, they will remain less expensive for the near future. Those extra hundreds may push your system price over budget.
Maximum and Common Capacity: As seen above, SSD units top out at 1TB, but those are still very rare and expensive. You're more likely to find 128GB to 500GB units as primary drives in systems. You'd be hard pressed to find a 128GB HDD in a PC these days, as 250 or even 500GB is considered a "base" system in 2014. Multimedia users will require even more, with 1TB to 4TB drives as common in high-end systems. Basically, the more storage capacity, the more stuff (photos, music, videos, etc.) you can hold on your PC. While the (Internet) cloud may be a good place to share these files between your phone, tablet, and PC, local storage is less expensive, and you only have to buy it once.
This is where SSDs shine. An SSD-equipped PC will boot in seconds, certainly under a minute. A hard drive requires time to speed up to operating specs, and will continue to be slower than an SSD during normal operation. A PC or Mac with an SSD boots faster, launches apps faster, and has higher overall performance. Witness the higher PCMark scores on laptops and desktops with SSD drives, plus the much higher scores and transfer times for external SSDs vs. HDDs. Whether it's for fun, school, or business, the extra speed may be the difference between finishing on time or failing.
Fragmentation: Because of their rotary recording surfaces, HDD surfaces work best with larger files that are laid down in contiguous blocks. That way, the drive head can start and end its read in one continuous motion. When hard drives start to fill up, large files can become scattered around the disk platter, which is otherwise known as fragmentation. While read/write algorithms have improved where the effect in minimised, the fact of the matter is that HDDs can become fragmented, while SSDs don't care where the data is stored on its chips, since there's no physical read head. SSDs are inherently faster.
Durability: An SSD has no moving parts, so it is more likely to keep your data safe in the event that you drop your laptop bag or your system is shaken about by an earthquake while it's operating. Most hard drives park their read/write heads when the system is off, but they are flying over the drive platter at hundreds of miles an hour when they are in operation. Besides, even parking brakes have limits. If you're rough on your equipment, a SSD is recommended.
Availability: Hard drives are simply more plentiful. Look at the product lists from Western Digital, Toshiba, Seagate, Samsung, and Hitachi, and you'll see many more HDD model numbers than SSDs. For PCs and Macs, HDDs won't be going away completely, at least for the next couple of years. You'll also see many more HDD choices than SSDs from different manufacturers for the same capacities. SSD model lines are growing in number, but HDDs are still the majority for storage devices in PCs.
The Right Storage for You
So, does an SSD or HDD (or a hybrid of the two) fit your needs? Let's break it down:
• Multimedia Mavens and heavy downloaders: Video collectors need space, and you can only get to 4TB of space cheaply with hard drives.
• Budget buyers: Ditto. Plenty of space for cheap. SSDs are too expensive for $500 PC buyers.
• Graphics Arts: Video and photo editors wear out storage by overuse. Replacing a 1TB hard drive will be cheaper than replacing a 500GB SSD.
• General users: Unless you can justify a need for speed or ruggedness, most users won't need expensive SSDs in their system.
• Road Warriors: People that shove their laptops into their bags indiscriminately will want the extra security of a SSD. That laptop may not be fully asleep when you violently shut it to catch your next flight. This also includes folks that work in the field, like utility workers and university researchers.
• Speed Demons: If you need things done now, spend the extra bucks for quick bootups and app launches. Supplement with a storage SSD or HDD if you need extra space (see below).
• Graphics Arts and Engineering: Yes, I know I said they need HDDs, but the speed of a SSD may make the difference between completing two proposals and completing five for your client. These users are prime candidates for dual-drive systems (see below).
• Audio guys: If you're recording music, you don't want the scratchy sound from a hard drive intruding. Go for the quieter choice.
Now, we're talking primarily about internal drives here, but the same applies to external hard drives. External drives come in both large desktop form factors and compact portable form factors. SSDs are becoming a larger part of the external market as well, The same sorts of affinities apply, i.e., road warriors will want an external SSD over a HDD if they're rough on their equipment.
Personally, I like the "Dual Drive" option, where both an SSD of 120GB or above AND a 1TB or larger HDD are fitted. The OS and programs/Apps going on the SSD and all other DATA going to the HDD.
So, there you have it... I hope this has helped you make the decision as to which type of storge is best for you.
See you next time,
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