SSD advancements the final nail in HDD's coffin?
21st Dec 2008 | 09:00
Noisy, sluggish HDDs to become a thing of the past
Accepting change is hard.
It's the same reason old people are disgusted by young people talking loudly on mobile phones and why middle-aged people listen only to Paul Weller records and complain that modern music is 'just banging sounds'.
It's also why the idea of replacing our gaming PCs' hard drives with solid state drives seems like madness. The idea of a glorified memory card being better than several decades of established, reliable mechanical technology? Nonsense?
Unfortunately, the jig is up. The future is coming on quick and the venerable hard drive may not be able to stand against it. Over the last year, solid state storage has quietly established itself as a reliable mainstay in both netbooks like the Eee PC and in high-end laptops. The capacity may still be rock-bottom, but the Windows load times are frighteningly fast.
What's been slower is the crossover to desktops, as it's hard to take a full-size PC with less than 500GB of storage seriously. Now that the technology's a couple of generations along, the sort of speeds an SSD offers are frankly astonishing.
32GB, 64GB or even 128GB may seem like a miserably small amount of space, but bear in mind that Vista and its pagefile only needs about 20GB. That leaves room enough for your most played couple of games plus Office and Photoshop, all of which will enjoy dramatically quicker load times.
The rest of your stuff can lurk on a cheapie half-terabyte secondary hard drive. Soon enough, SSDs themselves will hit that half-terabyte mark, and noisy, sluggish HDDs will be a thing of the past.
That said, two factors keep SSDs from assuming immediate dominance.
First is price – a decent SSD, even a low capacity one, goes for the same amount of money as a mid-range or even high-end graphics card. The sort of component that could revolutionise your PC in other words, while even the best SSD will, realistically speaking, only offer some extra convenience.
That said, if your main system is a laptop and you genuinely use it on the move a lot, a good SSD – especially Intel's wonderful X25 – will dramatically change that system. There'll be far less of a load-up time and the lack of moving parts in a SSD means less battery drain and more sturdiness in your storage medium. The sooner all lappies tote a SSD, the better.
For desktops, though, we're still a few years off SSDs being a necessity. Fortunately, all the SSDs here will slot into either a laptop or a desktop, so long as you've got SATA rather than PATA drive connections.
The second thing to bear in mind is that the technology's still new, so performance can be all over the place. There are a lot of differences between drives, and nothing resembling price standardisation as yet. It's only with the most recent generation that these things have really found their feet, so shop carefully.
While the average speeds the Patriot Warp V.2 and OCZ Core Series demonstrate are spectacular, the exhaustive graphs behind those numbers show an awful lot of fluctuation: random latency spikes and read/write slowdowns meaning sustained, day-to-day performance won't be quite the revelation the numbers suggest.
The laughably expensive Intel X25, by contrast, is a whole lot more constant, generally keeping that incredible 220MB/s read speed sustained rather than wobbling all over the place. It's for precisely that reason that the X25 is so expensive, as Intel's gone to a lot of efforts with the firmware and controller to make it a cut above the rest.
Additionally, while the read times are incredible, generally SSDs write a bit slower than hard drives do, which is worth bearing in mind if you need something for regular large file copying – making system backups, for instance. There are also lifespan problems with many models, especially the more affordable ones.
It's not like hard drives aren't prone to failure after a harrowingly short time, but the price tag on SSDs makes it a bit scarier. Intel's X25 makes a lot of strides on the longevity front and should trade blows with any mechanical hard drive, but be prepared for cheaper SSDs to wear out in a few years.
We're still in the earliest flushes of this tech, so chances are you'll want to upgrade to a faster, higher capacity unit in a year or two anyway.
The hard way
Meanwhile, back in platterland, matters ain't exactly simple, either. For all the cosmetic similarities between drives, a spade is not a spade here. While it's true that the degree of variance in hard drives over the last few years has been nowhere near that of, say, processors and graphics cards, careful shopping is still required.
Capacity – the go-to stat for a great many folk – is only half the story. Space is easy. Space is space, and you can always just add another drive if you need more (so long as your power supply's up to it, anyway). For docs, MP3s and movies, any old drive will do. For games and big apps though, speed matters more than space.
So, if you're shopping for a new hard drive and those are beyond your means, ensure the drive you choose is SATA-II not SATA-I, and has at least a 16MB cache – less than that and you'll be hanging around for a while. WD's Raptor and Velociraptor drives, incidentally, achieve their extra nippiness primarily through their increased rotational speed – 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) compared to the standard 7,200RPM.
Many laptops still go even lower than this, opting for 5,400RPM to keep the power consumption down; if you're after a portable gaming machine, a faster HDD is one upgrade well worth making.
And so we come back to change, and the inevitability thereof. SSDs will only get faster as the years roll on, which means the future's not looking bright for the geriatric platter-based drive.
Playing games off the SSDs was a joy, especially when we were trying to join chums already on a TF2 server and every second we weren't yet in the game meant points lost. Going back to playing from a hard drive felt like swapping lightbulbs for candles.
Unfortunately, only those most flush with cash will be able to break out of the dark ages into the enlightened SSD age. For now, olde worlde hard drives, unquestionably, remain the smarter buy, as looking to the bigger-picture, more space is more important to a desktop system than the speed gains SSDs currently offer.
The price of 500GB + SATA II drives are incredibly low these days, and between that and the unbelievably low prices of RAM, upgrading an existing PC is more bargainous than it's ever been.
As soon as the price of SSDs drops, however, they're going to become an essential upgrade. Aside from the ludicrous £400 price tag, the Intel X25 is particularly the most desirable hard drive of all time, though, of course, its slim capacity means it's still only really worthy as a boot drive in its current form.
If it can drop down to around the £150 to £200 mark soon enough it's possible we'll start seeing Intel dominating the storage market, in the same way as it does the processor market. That's a terrifying future monopoly-wise, so hopefully the wealth of competition (mainly from manufacturers best known for RAM, now branching out looking for more revenue streams as memory margins are sliced) will both drive the prices down further and ensure a much wider, healthier range of purchasing options.
Today though, the olden-tech Velociraptor may hit the sweet spot on the price/performance/capacity Venn diagram, but tomorrow SSDs will unquestionably reign supreme.
First published in PC Format, Issue 221
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