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The Alluring New Solid State Drives (SSDs)

Will this lightning-fast storage make your hard drive obsolete?

What’s an SSD?

An SSD provides data storage functionality just like an ordinary hard drive does in your computer, but it uses next-generation technology that makes it faster, smaller—and more expensive.

SSD - Hard Drive

Left: SSD; Right: hard drive

As improvements in technology allow us to make our computing devices even lighter and faster than ever before, hard drives are beginning to have to compete with solid state drives (SSDs) that use cutting-edge “flash” technology to read and store information. The newer flash-based technology differs in that it’s completely electronic—meaning that SSDs don’t contain spinning disks and movable read/write heads that can slow down or delay operations. Instead, SSDs use microchips to contain data.

You’re probably already familiar with small flash-based storage devices that you can plug into a USB port on your PC to transfer a few files and tote around in your pocket. SSDs take this to the next level with much higher

capacity—enough to replace the hard drive in some instances.

Flash-based storage can already be found as an alternative to a hard drive in some newer lightweight laptops and tablet PCs: if you’ve recently purchased a new netbook or ultraportable PC, you may already have an SSD inside. Even if you don’t currently own a device with an SSD, as the trend toward lighter and more portable computing devices continues, you’ll definitely see SSDs becoming an increasingly commonplace and affordable data storage option. Tech enthusiasts and early adopters are increasingly purchasing SSDs separately to swap into existing PCs or laptops as an aftermarket performance-boosting upgrade.

What are the advantages of an SSD over a hard drive?

Using an SSD as an alternative to a hard drive can dramatically increase the speed of your computer.

One of the inherent speed bottlenecks in most computers has to do with the way that the hard drive reads and writes data. Hard drives are prone to mechanical delays, since the hard drive head has to jump about the hard drive’s spinning disk to scan for and collect the different parts of files needed to run programs and the operating system. The longer it takes the hard drive head to move itself to the necessary pieces of data, the longer it takes documents to load and programs to run. This even impacts the startup time of your system.

But because SSDs are flash-based, they store and retrieve data electronically, so they don’t require any mechanical or moving parts to read or write information. As a result, computers equipped with SSDs are able to load, retrieve, and run programs at much greater speeds. This is why SSDs are hands down one of the fastest storage devices you can have on your PC—and operate at speeds that are generally ten to twenty times faster than traditional hard drives.

Another advantage that SSDs have over traditional hard drives is that they are more resistant to damage from being knocked about, since there aren’t any moving mechanical components to damage (such as a sensitive read head or spinning platter). What’s more, flash-based storage is smaller and lighter than even the most portable hard disk drives—which allows it to be used as the data storage in ever-thinner and more lightweight laptops and tablet computers. Plus, due to the lack of moving parts, SSDs are more energy efficient and quieter than hard drives.

Tip: SSDs are available in the same form factor as the small hard drives used in laptops. In many instances, an SSD can be swapped directly into a laptop’s tiny hard drive bay.

Are there any disadvantages of using an SSD instead of a hard drive?

Cost is definitely one of the issues as far as SSDs are concerned. Because the technology is newer, SSDs are still significantly more expensive than hard disk drives in terms of cost per GB of storage. For example, while you can purchase a standard hard drive with a full terabyte (1TB) of storage capacity for under $50, an SDD with just one-tenth the amount of storage capacity costs over double! This means most users still can’t affordably upgrade to SSDs to exclusively hold the entire operating system and all of their programs and files.

As a result, if you’re considering replacing your hard drive with a new SSD, keep that old hard drive around, because you can use both together for an affordable solution that provides greater speed and enough capacity for all your files. Many computer enthusiasts who have chosen to upgrade to an SSD use it only for the most frequently accessed files and programs (such as the Windows operating system itself along with a couple of their most frequently-used applications), then store the files that they access less often—such as videos, photos, old documents, and rarely-used programs—on their old hard drive, where there’s plenty of space and having ultra-high read/write speed isn’t such a factor in daily system usability.

Tip: Don’t use an SSD to store your photos or media collection. Keep large collections of infrequently accessed files on a secondary hard drive.


SSD performance degrades over time
. SSDs store data in discrete sections in their flash memory chips—you could think of these sections as digital “buckets”—and they are constantly being filled and emptied with old and new data, much like you could fill a bucket with various liquids. However, unlike a hard drive where you can simply write new data directly on top of old data to replace it in one step (without actually erasing the old data first), SSDs must take an extra step to erase old data in an entire section before that section can receive any new data to store—much like a bucket would need to be emptied before filling it again with another liquid. The longer an SSD is in use, the fewer “already-erased” clean sections there are available, and as the SSD runs low on available clean sections, the slowdown your expensive new SSD experiences is inevitable.

Another potential disadvantage of SSDs is that their flash-based memory has limited write cycles, which means that you can only store information in a particular section of an SSD a finite number of times before that section no longer retains the data reliably. While this limit can be hundreds of thousand—or even millions—of write cycles, modern computers are capable of pushing enough input/output operations per second that it is a factor SSD manufacturers have had to improve upon as the technology has matured—and users may need to consider.

Maintain the life and performance of your SSD

Most operating systems and PC maintenance programs were not designed with the unique characteristics and limitations of SSDs in mind, so they do not necessarily have methods in place to mitigate or prevent SSD slowdown. Worse yet, traditional drive maintenance tools—like hard disk defragmenters—can actually prematurely age your SSD by exposing it to several unnecessary write cycles.

To keep your SSDs running at top speed:

  • Don’t run a traditional hard drive disk defragmenter on your SSD.
  • Be scrupulous about removing digital clutter such as browser cache and temp files that could be needlessly filling up precious space and slowing your SSD down.
  • Consider tools which automatically maintain your system, so that you don’t have to remember to do regular maintenance.
TIP: System Mechanic’s PC Cleanup PowerTool™ can help you keep the space on your drive regularly cleared out—you can clean out junk files with just one click, or enable the PC cleanup settings in ActiveCare® to proactively wipe out junk file clutter whenever your computer is idle.

 

iolo UptoSpeed

UpToSpeed™ is iolo's ongoing article series written by PC experts for everyday computer users. Each article is packed with easy tips and practical advice on the latest issues affecting computers to help you get the most out of your PC.






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