WHICH STORAGE TECH IS RIGHT FOR YOU??
HARD DRIVES vs. SSDs vs. HYBRIDS…That is the question!
HARD-DISK DRIVES (HDD)
Hard-disk drives have been the default storage component in desktop and laptop PCs for decades. As a result, the term “hard-drive” is not the common descriptor for all storage hardware – the digital equivalent of “Q-Tip” or “Band-Aid.” Although modern hard-disk drives are far more advanced and higher-performing that their counterparts from yesteryear, on many levels their basic underlying technology remains unchanged. All hard-drives consist of quickly rotating magnetic platters paired with read/write heads that travel over the platters; surfaces to retrieve or record data. The technology is mature, reliable, and relatively inexpensive compared with other storage option; most hard-disk drives can be had for only a few cents per gigabyte. Hard-disk drives are available in relatively high capacities too, with today’s largest drives storing up to 4TB of data. Usually hard drives connect to a system via the ubiquitous SATA (Serial ATA) interface, and they don’t require any special software to work properly with current operating systems.
Hard-disk drives don’t perform nearly as well as solid-state drives or even hybrid products do in most situations, however. Today’s fastest hard drives can read and write data at more than 200MB per second with sub-8ms access times, but those numbers are significantly worse than the speeds of even some of the most affordable solid-state drives (which I’ll cover in a bit). The faster the platter rotation speed, the faster the hard drive. For example, a 7200-rpm drive outperforms a 5400-rpm drive.
Hard-disk drives are best suited to users who need vast amounts of storage and aren’t as concerned about achieving peak system performance. If you’re an everyday PC user who sticks mostly to email, Web browsing, and basic document editing, a standard hard drive should suit you fine. Just don’t tinker around with someone else’s SSD-powered PC, because once you’ve gotten a taste of a solid-state drive’s blazing read/write speeds, it’s hard to go back to even the speediest of traditional hard drives.
SOLID-STATE DRIVES (SSD)
On many levels, solid-state drives are similar to hard drives. They usually connect to a system by way of the SATA interface (though PCI Express-based drives are also available for ultrahigh-performance applications), and they store files just as any other drive does. SSDs, however, eschew the magnetic platters and read/write heads of hard-dick drives in favor of nonvolatile NAND flash memory, so no mechanical parts or magnetic bits are involved. By ditching the relative slothfulness of moving parts, solid-state drives deliver much better performance. They’re the fastest storage option available. And not only can SSDs read and write data faster than hard drives with most workloads, but they can also access the data much more quickly as well.
Whereas the fastest hard drives can read and write data at about 22MB per second and access data in a few milliseconds, the fastest solid-state drives can achieve 550-MBps (or higher) transfers that essentially saturate the SATA interface, and their typical access times are a fraction of a single millisecond. In a nutshell, SSDs make for a much snappier, much more responsive system, with lightning-fast boot times, application launch times, and file-transfer speeds. Another huge SSD advantage is durability. Because they have no moving parts, solid-state drives aren’t susceptible to damage or degraded performance from vibrations or movement. Drop a system or laptop containing a traditional hard-disk drive, and you have a very real chance of corrupting your data. But a solid-state drive won’t—can’t—skip a beat.
Solid-state drives aren’t without disadvantages, though. For one, SSDs are much more expensive than hard drives in terms of cost per gigabyte. Good, consumer-class solid-state drives run about $0.70 to $1.00 per gigabyte, whereas hard drives cost only a few cents per gigabyte. Solid-state drives don’t offer anything near the capacity of hard drives, either: The most popular SSDs have capacities of about 120GB to 256GB, with 512GB to 1TB models reserved only for those with gargantuan budgets. Another concern: When SSDs fail, they tend to do so without warning. Hard drives, however, will usually start to show signs of failure by throwing a S.M.A.R.T. error or suffering from a few bad blocks. In our experience, SSDs simply die without waving many—if any—red flags.
HYBRID HARD DRIVES
Hybrid hard drives blend HDD capacity with SDD speeds by placing traditional rotating platters and a small amount of high-speed flash memory on a single drive. Hybrid storage products monitor the data being read from the hard drive, and cache the most frequently accessed bits to the high-speed NAND flash memory. The data stored on the NAND will change over time, but once the most frequently access bits of data are stored on the flash memory, they will be served from the flash, resulting in SSD-like performance for your most-used files.
Some of the advantages of hybrid storage products include cost, capacity, and manageability. Because only a relatively small solid-state volume is required to achieve significant performance gains, a large investment in a high-capacity SSD isn’t necessary. Hybrid drives tend to cost slightly more than traditional hard drives, but far less than solid-state drives. And because the cache volume is essentially hidden from the OS, users aren’t required to cherry-pick the data to store on the SSD to prevent it from filling up. The hybrid storage volume can be as big as the hard drive being used, and can serve as a standard hard drive. Boot times also see some improvement.
Where hybrid products falter is with new data. When writing new data or accessing infrequently used bits, hybrid products perform just like a standard hard drive, and new hybrid drives have a “break-in period” while the software learns which data to cache. Due to the fact that hybrid products rely on caching software, they can also be somewhat more difficult to configure.
For users who don’t want the responsibility of managing multiple volumes or who don’t constantly work with new data, a hybrid drive can be a great option to improve system performance – all without having to give up any capacity or having to deal with the headaches of using separate solid-state and hard-disk drives.
With that being said, choosing between the three is entirely depending on what you need and your preference.