SOLID STATE VS. HARD DISK: STORAGE WARS

Solid-state drives (SSD) have been around for years now, and while it’s certainly more common to see them in everyday use, they haven’t quite been successful in vanquishing their aging predecessor. Cost has dropped and reliability has increased for the SSD, but the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) continues spinning in a number of systems. So what’s the reason for the HDDs tenaciousness, and, more importantly, which type is better for you?

THE PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE

Before we can talk about the advantages of one storage medium over the other, it’s important to look at what the actual difference between the two technologies is. Both types of device are forms of non-volatile memory, that is, it keeps its data stored indefinitely, even without power.

The hard disk drive is a dizzyingly complex device that involves a magnetic read/write head hovering mere microns above a spinning ceramic platter. True to its name, the actuating arm is used to both read and write bits of data to the platter at ridiculous speeds. Every HDD is a technological marvel, perfected and improved since the introduction of the technology by IBM in 1956. However, the HDD has a number of drawbacks that come with the limited nature of its technology.

The technology inside of SSDs is a bit harder to describe. To put it literally, they use NAND-based flash memory to store data to achieve its non-volatile status. That may not mean much to the layman, but the advantage is clear: data storage without moving parts. This provides the SSD some big gains over its older cousin, but also has its drawbacks.

PERFORMANCE

Of all the components that makes up a modern PC, none offer the same performance impact as swapping to an SSD. As mind-bogglingly fast as a modern hard drive is, it will always be hampered by its need to physically spin its disks and move its read/write head to access data. The SSD doesn’t really require any seek time, so the sky’s the limit in terms of speed.

How big is the difference? Massive. Swapping from an HDD to an SSD will typically yield around 10-20 seconds faster startup times in Windows. This may seem small, but in practice, those extra seconds can feel like an eternity. The performance increase extends to all programs as well, making the whole experience of navigating your desktop seem a lot snappier and more responsive.

RELIABILITY

Based on the lack of moving parts within an SSD, it may seem logical that it would be more reliable than the delicately constructed HDD. However, in this case, logic doesn’t have the whole story. While the spinning platter design does make HDDs more likely to break after being dropped, the SSD’s memory blocks actually wear out after a certain number of erasures, and once worn out, are gone forever. This may seem scary, but manufacturers provision these blocks strategically to diminish the effects of wearout. It’s entirely possible that you’ll be replacing your SSD out of obsolescence, rather than breakage.

With that in mind, when an HDD dies, it usually does so on arrival or soon after due to manufacturing errors. An SSD has a better chance of living out its warranty, but is more likely to die without warning. To add to the concern, data on a dead or dying HDD can often be recovered using various tools, regardless of how damaged it is, but data on a dead SSD is gone forever; completely irretrievable.

COST

As recently as 2010, you’d be expected to pay up to $600 for as little as 120GB of storage on an SSD, which is an extremely high price for storage. Nowadays, that same 120GB SSD is more in the realm of $70. Most users will probably want more storage than that, but even a more reasonable 500GB hard drive will run in the price range of $200. Needless to say, prices have dropped and continue to drop on this storage technology.

Even with SSD prices as low as they are, they’re nowhere near the value you’d get from the classic platter HDD. For less than the $200 needed for a 500GB SSD, you could get a 4TB (4000GB) HDD. That’s a lot more storage for a lot less cost. Obviously, the actual storage size isn’t the only factor when it comes to the value of a drive, but if you’re someone who stores a lot of data on their system, an SSD might not provide the space you need.

WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU?

So with the pros and cons all laid out, what is really the best option when it comes to permanent storage? This may be a bit of a cop-out, but the answer is: both.

There’s a lot to be said about having a system with both an SSD and an HDD running side by side. Installing Windows on a reasonably sized SSD and saving all your data to a beefier HDD helps cover both speed, storage size, and even reliability. However, there’s a few more technical hurdles to be overcome, which might work well for someone familiar with jumping those hurdles, but may be too cumbersome for a casual user, which is where a third option comes from.

Hybrid drives help offer the speed of an SSD and the storage of an HDD by combining the two into one. A typical hybrid drive contains only a small amount of NAND flash memory, with most data contained on the magnetic platters. To increase performance, data from the platters are cached in the flash memory, allowing important programs to launch at the speed of an SSD. It’s a bit more expensive than a standard platter drive, but provides better value per gigabyte than an SSD.

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