Do you like your storage cheap and plentiful, or fast and safe? Here’s how to choose between a traditional hard drive and a solid-state drive in your next PC.
The Choice Is Yours: SSD or HDD?
Until just a few years ago, PC buyers had little choice about what kind of storage to get in a laptop or desktop PC. If you bought an ultraportable anytime in the last few years, you very likely got a solid-state drive (SSD) as the primary boot drive. Larger laptops are increasingly moving to SSD boot drives, too, while budget machines still tend to favor hard disk drives (HDDs). The boot drives in desktop PCs, meanwhile, are a mishmosh of SSDs or HDDs; in some cases, a system comes with both, with the SSD as the boot drive and the HDD as a bigger-capacity storage supplement.
If you have to pick just one, though, how do you choose? Let’s get into the differences between SSDs and HDDs, and walk you through the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you decide.
HDD and SSD Explained
The traditional spinning hard drive is the basic non-volatile storage on a computer. That is, information on it doesn’t “go away” when you turn off the system, unlike data stored in RAM. A hard drive is essentially a metal platter with a magnetic coating that stores your data, whether weather reports from the last century, a high-definition copy of the original Star Wars trilogy, or your digital music collection. A read/write head on an arm accesses the data while the platters are spinning.
An SSD does functionally everything a hard drive does, but data is instead stored on interconnected flash-memory chips that retain the data even when there’s no power present. These flash chips are of a different type than the kind used in USB thumb drives, and are typically faster and more reliable. SSDs are consequently more expensive than USB thumb drives of the same capacities. Like thumb drives, though, they’re often much smaller than HDDs and therefore offer manufacturers more flexibility in designing a PC. While they can take the place of traditional 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch hard drive bays, they can also be installed in a PCI Express expansion slot or even be mounted directly on the motherboard, a configuration that’s now common in high-end laptops and all-in-ones. (These board-mounted SSDs use a form factor known as M.2. See our picks for the best M.2 SSDs.)
Note: We’ll be talking primarily about internal drives in this story, but almost everything applies to external hard drives as well. External drives come in both large desktop and compact portable form factors, and SSDs are gradually becoming a larger part of the external market.
A History of HDDs and SSDs
Hard drive technology is relatively ancient (in terms of computer history, anyway). There are well-known photos of the IBM 650 RAMAC hard drive from 1956 that used 50 24-inch-wide platters to hold a whopping 3.75MB of storage space. This, of course, is the size of an average 128Kbps MP3 file today, in the physical space that could hold two commercial refrigerators. The RAMAC 350 was limited to government and industrial uses, and it was obsolete by 1969. Ain’t progress grand?
The PC hard drive form factor standardized at 5.25 inches in the early 1980s, with the now-familiar 3.5-inch desktop-class and 2.5-inch notebook-class drives coming soon thereafter. The internal cable interface has changed from serial to IDE (now frequently called Parallel ATA, or PATA) to SCSI to Serial ATA (SATA) over the years, but each essentially does the same thing: connect the hard drive to the PC’s motherboard so your data can be shuttled to and fro. Today’s 2.5- and 3.5-inch drives mainly use SATA interfaces (at least on most PCs and Macs), though some high-speed SSDs use the faster PCI Express interface instead. Capacities have grown from multiple megabytes to multiple terabytes, more than a million-fold increase. Current 3.5-inch hard drives have capacities as high as 14TB, with consumer-oriented 2.5-inch drives maxing out at 5TB.
The SSD has a much shorter history. There has always been an infatuation with nonmoving storage from the beginning of personal computing, with technologies like bubble memory flashing (pun intended) and dying in the 1970s and 1980s. Current flash memory is the logical extension of the same idea, as it doesn’t require constant power to retain the data you store on it. The first primary drives that we know as SSDs started during the rise of netbooks in the late 2000s. In 2007, the OLPC XO-1 used a 1GB SSD, and the Asus Eee PC 700 series used a 2GB SSD as primary storage. The SSD chips on low-end Eee PC units and the XO-1 were permanently soldered to the motherboard.
netbooks and other ultraportable laptop PCs became more capable, SSD capacities increased and eventually standardized on the 2.5-inch notebook form factor. This way, you could pop a 2.5-inch hard drive out of your laptop or desktop and replace it easily with an SSD. In time, other, more compact form factors emerged, like the mSATA Mini PCIe SSD card and the aforementioned M.2 SSD format (in SATA and PCIe variants). M.2 is expanding rapidly through the laptop SSD world, but today many SSDs still use the 2.5-inch form factor. SSDs in the 2.5-inch size currently top out at 4TB. (Seagate does offer a 60TB 3.5-inch SSD for enterprise deviceslike servers, but that’s an outlier.)
Advantages and Disadvantages
Both SSDs and hard drives do the same job: They boot your system, and store your applications and personal files. But each type of storage has its own unique feature set. How do they differ, and why would you want to get one over the other?
Price: SSDs are more expensive than hard drives in terms of dollar per gigabyte. A 1TB internal 2.5-inch hard drive costs between $40 and $60, but as of this writing, the very cheapest SSDs of the same capacity and form factor start at around $125. That translates into 4 to 6 cents per gigabyte for the hard drive versus 13 cents per gigabyte for the SSD. Since hard drives use older, more established technology, they will remain less expensive for the near future. Though the price gap is closing between hard drives and the very lowest-end SSDs, those extra bucks for the SSD may push your system price over budget.
Maximum and Common Capacity:Although consumer SSD units top out at 4TB, those are still uncommon and expensive. You’re more likely to find 500GB to 1TB units as primary drives in systems. While 500GB is considered a “base” hard drive capacity in 2019, pricing concerns can push that down to 128GB or 250GB for lower-priced SSD-based systems. Users with big media collections or who work in content creation will require even more, with 1TB to 4TB drives common in high-end systems. Basically, the more storage capacity, the more stuff you can keep on your PC. Cloud-based (Internet) storage may be good for housing files you plan to share among your smartphone, tablet, and PC, but local storage is less expensive, and you have to buy it only once, not subscribe to it.
Speed: This is where SSDs shine. An SSD-equipped PC will boot in less than a minute, and often in just seconds. A hard drive requires time to speed up to operating specs, and it will continue to be slower than an SSD during normal use. A PC or Mac with an SSD boots faster, launches and runs apps faster, and transfers files faster. Whether you’re using your computer for fun, school, or business, the extra speed may be the difference between finishing on time and failing.
Fragmentation: Because of their rotary recording surfaces, hard drives 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, bits of large files end up scattered around the disk platter, causing the drive to suffer from what’s called fragmentation. While read/write algorithms have improved to the point that the effect is minimized, hard drives can still become fragmented to the point of affecting performance. SSDs can’t, however, because the lack of a physical read head means data can be stored anywhere without penalty. Thus, SSDs are inherently faster.
Durability: An SSD has no moving parts, so it is more likely to keep your data safe in the event you drop your laptop bag or your system gets shaken 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 a distance of a few nanometers when they are in operation. Besides, even parking brakes have limits. If you’re rough on your equipment, an SSD is recommended.
Availability: Hard drives are more plentiful in budget and older systems, but SSDs are becoming the rule in high-end laptops like the Apple MacBook Pro, which does not offer a hard drive even as a configurable option. Desktops and cheaper laptops, on the other hand, will continue to offer HDDs, at least for the next few years.
Form Factors: Because hard drives rely on spinning platters, there is a limit to how small they can be manufactured. There was an initiative to make smaller 1.8-inch spinning hard drives, but that stalled at about 320GB, and smartphone manufacturers have settled on flash memory for their primary storage. SSDs have no such limitation, so they can continue to shrink as time goes on. SSDs are available in 2.5-inch laptop-drive-size boxes, but that’s only for convenience in fitting within established drive bays.
Noise: Even the quietest hard drive will emit a bit of noise when it is in use. (The drive platters spin and the read arm ticks back and forth.) Faster hard drives will tend to make more noise than those that are slower. SSDs make no noise at all; they’re non-mechanical.
Power: An SSD doesn’t have to expend electricity spinning up a platter from a standstill. Consequently, none of the energy consumed by the SSD is wasted as friction or noise, rendering them more efficient. On a desktop or in a server, that will lead to a lower energy bill. On a laptop or tablet, you’ll be able to eke out more minutes (or hours) of battery life.
Longevity: While it is true that SSDs wear out over time (each cell in a flash-memory bank can be written to and erased a limited number of times), thanks to TRIM command technology that dynamically optimizes these read/write cycles, you’re more likely to discard the system for obsolescence (after six years or so) before you start running into read/write errors with an SSD. If you’re really worried, several tools can let you know if you’re approaching the drive’s rated end of life. Eventually, hard drives will wear out from constant use, as well, since they use physical recording methods. Longevity is a wash when it’s separated from travel and ruggedness concerns.
Overall: Hard drives win on price and capacity. SSDs work best if speed, ruggedness, form factor, noise, or fragmentation (technically, a subset of speed) are important factors to you. If it weren’t for the price and capacity issues, SSDs would be the hands-down winner.
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:
• Enthusiast multimedia users 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 cheap space. SSDs are too expensive for buyers of $500 PCs.
• Graphic arts and engineering professionals: Video and photo editors wear out storage by overuse. Replacing a 1TB hard drive will be cheaper than replacing a 500GB SSD.
• General users: These folks are a toss-up. Users who prefer to download their media files locally will still need a hard drive with more capacity. But if you mostly stream your music and videos online, buying a smaller SSD for the same money will give you a better experience.
• Road warriors: People who shove their laptops into their bags indiscriminately will want the extra security of an SSD. That laptop may not be fully asleep when you violently shut it to catch your next flight. This also includes folks who work in the field, like utility workers and university researchers.
• Speed demons: If you need things done now, spend the extra bucks on SSD for quick boot-ups and app launches. Supplement with a storage SSD or hard drive if you need extra space (see below).
• Graphic arts and engineering professionals: Yes, we know we said they need hard drives, but the speed of an SSD may make the difference between completing two proposals for your client and completing five. These users are prime candidates for dual-drive systems (more on that below).
• Audio engineers and musicians: If you’re recording music, you don’t want the scratchy sound from a hard drive intruding. Go for quieter SSDs.