Should you buy a Solid State Hard Drive?

Recently it was reported that Microsoft’s Head Office only use solid state drives in their computers. Microsoft believe that the switch to solid state drives will save them money due to the improved performance, higher reliability and lower energy costs. So in this blog we ask the question should the average user switch to a solid state hard drive (SSD)?

Now, before we go any further the important thing to remember is this. Your hard disk is only one of the things that determine your computer’s performance. I recommend looking at your computer’s ‘Windows Experience Index’ to see if there are other areas that might be slowing your computer down.

There are several ways to get to this screen but here are ways to find it on Windows 7 or 8. On Windows 7, click start, go to the control panel and type ‘experience’ into the search box and select ‘Check the Windows Experience Index.’ In windows 8, type ‘experience’ on the metro screen and select ‘Use tools to improve performance’ which will take you to the Experience Index screen. The Index screen of the Windows 7 computer I’m typing this on is shown below with the Hard Disk rating highlighted. If the Processor and Memory ratings are also low then you might be better off saving yourself the cost of a SSD and putting that towards the cost of a new machine.

Note: If your computer runs XP, don’t buy a SSD, because XP doesn’t run well on them. If your computer ‘runs’ Vista, don’t buy a SSD, because Vista doesn’t work well on any type of drive.

Advantages.

Solid state drives are much faster.

A traditional hard disk drive (HDD) offers maximum data transfer speeds of 50-120MBps. Most solid state drives have maximum transfer speeds of 300-500MBps. This means that SSDs should be noticeably faster. So are they? Our experience indicates that SSDs really are much faster.

Recently we switched one of our own PCs from a regular 7200rpm 500GB HDD to a 240GB SSD. Since the new disk was a direct clone of the original and not a new installation, we were curious to see how much of a performance increase we’d get. Boot up time dropped from about 55 seconds to around 20 seconds, and applications and files stored on the drive opened noticeably quicker than they had previously. The PC only has a 3Gbps SATA II interface so wasn’t even able to take advantage of the drive’s full 6Gbps SATA III performance so it’s likely that on a more up to date PC the improvements would be even greater.

Solid state drives have no moving parts.

Having no moving parts gives the solid state drive (top) distinct advantages over a traditional hard disk (bottom). The most important is that since mechanical failure is the single largest cause of hard disk failure, removing the mechanical parts makes the solid state drive more reliable. Solid state drives are much lighter, use less energy, and are (almost) completely silent.

Disadvantages

SSDs are expensive.

Solid state hard drives are coming down in price but in terms of GB per £ they are still poor value. Currently a 1TB regular hard disk drive can be bought for around £50 and a 2TB drive for around £80, meaning you can expect to get at least 20GB of storage for every pound that you spend. The best value SSDs tend to be the 120GB-480GB size, with a 120GB likely to be around £80, a 240GB around £130, and a 480GB around £220. This means that you’ll do well to get 2GB of storage for every pound that you spend. Or to put it another way, SSD capacity costs at least 10 times as much as HDD space.

SSD are lower capacity.

Compared to the standard capacity of a regular hard disk drive, solid state drives are quite small. Most computers now ship with 500GB or 1TB internal drives, and the most common sizes of external drives in retailers are 500GB, 1TB and 2TB drives. The most common sizes of SSD in the same retailers are 60GB, 120GB and 240GB. For this reason, SSD is not a good option for storing large amounts of data or use as backup drives.

For a lot of users, particularly in an office environment, a 240GB hard disk has far more capacity than they’ll ever use so this isn’t really a disadvantage at all for them.

Things to consider when looking for a SSD.

Interface

Remember that the interface will affect the maximum speed you will get. SATA III interfaces will allow 600MBps transfer, SATA II allows up to 300MBps, and SATA only allows a transfer rate of 150MBps. If your PC or laptop has an original SATA interface, you might not see much improvement buying a SSD over buying a cheaper HDD because a good quality HDD can produce up to 120MBps. SATA drives and interfaces of all 3 types are compatible with each other but the transfer speed is limited to whichever has the lowest specification, so you could use a SATA III drive in a SATA II interface but you’d only get SATA II speeds.

Performance

Solid-state drives usually list information about sequential read and write speeds and random write speeds. The higher these are the faster your drive will perform. Your solid-state drive will be performing random writes much more frequently that sequential writes so random write speeds are probably the most important.

Capacities

Do you want to use it as a primary storage drive, or only use it for a boot drive. The capacity you’ll need will depend on how you plan to use the drive. If you plan to use a solid-state drive as a primary boot drive, low capacity hard disks should be sufficient and opt for higher capacities if you plan to store large files on the drive. The best solid-state drive manufacturers offer a variety of capacities so you can find the drive that best fits your needs.

3.5” drive bay mounting kit

Most solid-state drives have the 2.5-inch form factor used in laptops, so the inclusion of a 3.5-inch mounting kit is extremely useful if you are going to put it in a desktop computer. Many SSDs come with a mounting kit included. You can buy the mounting kits separately for £5-10. Your PC may even be one of the few that includes 2.5” drive mounting bays.

Data transfer

If you are thinking of buying a SSD and cloning your current hard drive onto it you need to be aware that most cloning software programs have issues transferring data from a larger hard disk to a smaller one. They’re programmed to transfer to drives or similar or larger size so if your C: drive is on a 500GB HDD and you want to move it to a 120GB SSD, don’t expect it to be an entirely simple and straight-forward process. You’ll probably end up using backup or partitioning software at some point to overcome the lack of capacity on the new drive.

So is SSD right for you?

On the face of it, the choice is fairly simple. The SSD has clear advantages in speed and reliability and the HDD has clear advantages in cost and storage size. It’s not really quite that simple though.

The SSD advantage in reliability is primarily a statistic one because some HDDs have worked problem free for more than a decade and some SSDs will fail within the first few months. You’ll still need to backup a SSD and there’s no guarantee that it won’t just stop working at any time. Ironically a traditional hard drive might give you more warning of its impending failure by a change in the noise it makes, whereas the almost silent SSD will not.

There’s also nothing to stop someone with lots of data using regular HDDs to store the data while enjoying the benefits of using a SSD as their primary boot drive. Many new mid-range desktop computers are sold with a small SSD drive containing the operating system and a large HDD for data. There’s no reason why someone who already has a decent computer can’t change their own set-up to match this.

So the answer to the question “Should you buy a Solid State Hard Drive?” is really one that you can only answer yourself. Hopefully this blog has given you enough information to make that decision.

Thanks for reading

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