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Monday, August 20, 2012

Why You Need a Solid-State Drive

I'm a pretty frugal guy. When it comes to gaming, I'm always on the lookout for a solid deal and I do the large majority of my game purchasing during Steam sales. Sure, I'll splurge every once in a while, but unless the item in question is an urgent need, I'll usually wait it out.

For me, solid-state drives (SSDs) always fell into the unnecessary category in the past when I was trying to budget a PC build. SSDs perform the same job as a standard hard drive; both serve as internal storage, though SSDs are exponentially more expensive per GB than HDDs. Why shell out a hundred bucks or more for what is essentially a luxury item that isn't explicitly required for your PC to function?

Image: Rainer Knäpper, License: artlibre

The answer in short: adding an SSD to your computer, whether it's a laptop or a $2000 gaming behemoth, will be the single most noticeable upgrade you ever make to your PC.

That's a pretty bold claim, and until I installed an SSD in my own rig it's one that I never would have believed. Once you go with an SSD, you'll never want to go back. They're reliable, they're faster and quieter than a traditional HDD, and in the end they're worth every penny.


I had been using PCs with standard HDDs for roughly 20 years without any issues as far as I was concerned, and the price of adding a relatively tiny SSD to my PC seemed way too steep. Price has always been the biggest hurdle to the broader adoption of SSD tech. Before the Thailand flooding in 2011, you could buy a 1TB 7200rpm HDD for $55-75 and 2TB green drives for less than 100 bucks; at the same time, a 60-64GB SSD would set you back $110-$140 unless you caught a sale. When you had the option of grabbing a 1TB HDD for around $0.06/GB or a 64GB SSD for $2/GB, the SSD was a tough sell.

Thankfully, SSD prices have seen a steady decline over the past year or so and they've finally managed to dip under the magical $1/GB barrier. In fact, if you keep an eye out for sales you can usually do a lot better than that - this past weekend, Newegg had a 256GB Kingston SSD available for $140. At $0.55/GB you're still paying more per GB than you would with a hard drive, but the gap is closing and the performance increase definitely justifies the price premium. Hard drive prices still haven't fully recovered from the post-flood price gouging, making SSDs look even more attractive.

Setup and Storage

There are a couple of configuration options available for using an SSD in your system, the most common of which involves using your SSD as a boot drive and retaining your existing HDD for storage. This gives you the best of both worlds - you'll see a significant speed boost from having your OS and commonly-used programs on the SSD yet you won't be hamstrung by size constraints. The most noticeable benefit to having your OS installed on an SSD is the significant drop in boot time. Going from power-on to usable desktop with a hard drive can take upwards of 2-3 minutes depending on the amount of stuff you have loading at startup. A solid-state drive can typically get the job done in 30-40 seconds, much of that spent going through the BIOS/UEFI startup routine.

What size SSD you choose largely depends on your budget. While it's possible to squeeze Windows 7 onto a 30GB SSD, it's not the best option: you're going to need to offload all of your programs and data onto your slower hard drive, nullifying some of the performance gains of your SSD. A 64GB or 128GB drive is going to give you more options in addition to better performance - write performance generally goes up with drive capacity. Pair the SSD with a 1-2TB HDD for games, music, and storage and you're in business.

Speed and Performance

Benchmark test on my 64GB C300 after a fresh install.

When a hard drive accesses data, it needs to first position the read/write head over the disk surface and wait for the data to rotate into place, which takes time. Every time the disk needs to reposition itself, whether for multiple files or due to file fragmentation, your CPU ends up waiting for the mechanical HDD components to get aligned and start transferring data. Solid-state drives, on the other hand, do away with all of the moving parts and use NAND flash memory to store data, meaning they can read from anywhere on the disk almost instantaneously and fragmentation is a non-issue. In addition, HDD speeds are inconsistent over the surface of the disk; the linear velocity of a point near the outer edge of a platter is higher than that of a spot near the center, which means that sustained read and write speeds get worse as you move towards an HDD's center. SSDs don't have this issue. Every millisecond saved adds up to shave seconds (or minutes) off of your OS boot time and application load times.

Top: C300 64GB SSD; Bottom left: 100GB OS partition of Spinpoint F3 1TB; Bottom right: 400GB storage partition

I ran CrystalDiskMark on both my Crucial C300 64GB SSD and Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB HDD (above) to add some numbers to the discussion. Sequential reads and writes (the top line) show more of a best-case scenario that is only seen when you're reading or writing one gigantic sequential file. You can see the difference in speeds between the different areas of the hard drive here, whereas the SSD remains uniform throughout. Crucial advertises read speeds of 355MB/s and write speeds of 75MB/s over SATA III, so it's clear that I'm getting every ounce of promised performance. The other tests show random 512K and 4K reads and writes that hammer home the idea of seek time and how fragmentation can kill your performance with an HDD. While performance of the HDD falls off the table, the SSD holds up much better.

Performance Over Time

Performance degradation and a limited lifetime have always been a concern with SSDs, but in the end they're mostly a non-issue. Anandtech has a ridiculously in-depth explanation of the inner-workings of an SSD and the TRIM command, which lets the SSD handle garbage collection in advance instead of when you're trying to write something. The issue of an SSD's "limited lifespan" is non-existent unless you're abusing the heck out of your drive. Flash memory cells are limited in that they can only be written to a certain number of times, and the SSD's controller works to spread out the workload and maintain the overall health of the drive. Tom's Hardware did some endurance calculations earlier this year while reviewing an Intel SSD with a Sandforce controller. They determined that in a worst-case scenario where you're constantly hammering the drive with writes, the SSD will stand up for about 5 years, while in more of an ideal situation it could last as long as 75 years before the flash memory's write cycles are exhausted. Even if the actual number is more like 10 or 15 years, that's still pretty long.

Left: fresh SSD installation; Right: after 14 months of use.

I ran CrystalDiskMark on my drive last night to compare it to the test results I got after first installing the drive. The drive is 76% full and I've used my PC pretty much daily for 8+ hours over the 14 months between tests. You can see that the read speeds haven't changed at all, and while the writes have dropped off a bit they haven't exactly tanked. If I wanted to, I should be able to secure erase the drive to free up all of the used memory cells and restore the drive to it's original performance. This drive was released over two years ago, and newer drives do an even better job of retaining performance over time. In addition, the read speeds of some of the newer drives are in the neighborhood of 450-500MB/s with writes in the 300-400MB/s range.

Gaming and Conclusion

Gaming with an SSD can be tough because of the size. I use my 64GB drive for Windows 7 and most of my programs and usually sit in the 35-45GB range. If you're smart about what you install and where you install it, you could squeeze one or two games onto a smaller SSD. An SSD's impact on gaming performance is really only felt in decreased load times, which can be handy in something like an MMO. I thought about throwing Starcraft II on my SSD, but in the end I'd probably be waiting on my friends or my opponent to load into the game before it started anyway.

With that being said, I still think buying a solid-state drive was the best decision I've made in a while. My entire system feels faster and more responsive and restarting my PC when installing updates or a new program is that much less of a pain. The difference is especially noticeable when using a PC with a traditional hard drive - the 3-5 second delay between clicking on a program's icon and seeing the window finally pop up on your screen just isn't there with an SSD. As prices continue to drop, solid-state drives become an increasingly attractive option for a new build or to give your current system a boost. Take the plunge - you'll be glad you did.

Further Reading


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