Dear Lifehacker, I'm considering ordering a MacBook Pro with a solid-state drive. Is it really worth it to dish out the extra few hundred bucks for one?
Sincerely, Deciding on Drives.
Dear Deciding on Drives,
Solid-state drives (SSDs) make for a pretty great upgrade, but they aren't without their downsides (most notably, their high cost and low amounts of space). While the answer to "are they worth it?" is fairly subjective, there are a number of factors that can influence the usefulness of a solid-state drive.
What Is a Solid-State Drive?
Photo by Gillyberlin.
Traditional hard drives are made up of a spinning disk and a magnetic, movable read/write head. Solid-state drives, on the other hand, use microchips to store data, just like portable USB flash drives. Thus, they have no moving parts and are much quieter, more durable and faster than regular drives.
Speed is their biggest advantage. Not only do they have much faster read times since there is no moving head, but they also start up faster because they don't need to spin. Also, since the physical location of data doesn't matter on SSDs, read speeds is consistent no matter where your data is stored, and disk fragmentation isn't really a problem. In addition, they use up less power than regular drives, so in a laptop they'll also afford you a bit of extra battery life. All these things make them a pretty great upgrade to your computer, but they aren't necessarily worth it for everyone.
Who Will Benefit Most From Solid-State Drives
Because they can access and read data very quickly, you'll find that the biggest visible advantages of an SSD are fast boot-ups and application starts. Thus, they are the most useful if you're the type of person that likes to launch a lot of applications or launch certain slow-loading applications such as Adobe Photoshop. In addition, if you find yourself restarting your computer a lot (perhaps because you dual-boot), you'll be happy with the increased boot time of an SSD, lessening the time you spend waiting for your computer to start up and increasing the time you can spend working.
On the other hand, if you tend to just use your computer to check email on the web or write documents, you won't notice the benefits of an SSD as much. Websites won't load any faster, and if you're only launching your browser and one or two other applications, it probably isn't worth the upgrade to have them launch a few seconds faster.
Consider Size and Cost
Note that, while those are the characteristics that will decide whether you benefit, there are other things to consider. Most notable are the size and cost of solid-state drives. My 80GB SSD cost a whopping $US200, and if you need a lot of space for your music and other files, you'll be paying even more. A better set-up is to put your OS and applications on the SSD, while having a second, regular hard drive for all your data. This is easy in a desktop computer, but requires a bit of work for a laptop, since most laptops only have one hard drive bay. It isn't impossible, but if you're not comfortable digging around inside your computer you'll have to decide whether your data will fit (or whether you're ready to shell out an arm and a leg for a large enough drive).
Those are the most important things to think about. I personally upgraded to an SSD earlier in the year, and it was one of the best upgrades I've made to my computer, because I run a lot of native clients instead of web apps (e.g. I get my email in Postbox rather than Gmail and listen to music in iTunes instead of on GrooveShark). I also reboot my computer often and launch about 10 applications on startup alone, so the five to 10 seconds that now takes for them to load is quite a step up from the minute it used to take. My brother, on the other hand, does almost everything in web apps, running nothing but Google Chrome and iTunes at any given time (and leaving his computer on for a week or more without restarting). Thus, a solid-state drive would probably be a waste of money for him — it all depends on your workflow. If you do end up getting one, be sure to check out how to install it in your laptop as a second drive, as well as how to take full advantage of your SSD.