Are Solid-State Drives Worth The Money?

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.

Sincerely, Lifehacker


Comments

    Check out SSD Hybrid drives too, like the Seagate Momentus XT. They're traditional hard drives with a small added SSD cache (4GB for the Momentus) to cache frequently used files. Performance benefits are in between a traditional harddrive and an SSD as you'd expect but disk sizes tend to be much larger than SSDs. I'm definitely keen to get one soon for around $180 - $200 for 500GB.

    Not sold on SSDs to be honest (still too expensive in any cost/benefit analaysis), but that icon/dock set in your MacOS screenies is truly awesome. Got a name/link?

    Running a Matrix Raid in Windows currently and SSD is honestly the next step. All I need to do now is explain to the missus why I want to spend so much on so little space.

    "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."

    Actually, that statement is incorrect. Tests conducted in 2008 over at Tom's Hardware conclusively demonstrated that SSDs actually *reduce* battery life in notebooks:

    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ssd-hdd-battery,1955.html

    While it is true that due to their lack of moving parts SSDs require less power than conventional drives when idle, SSDs require substantially more power when performing read/write operations. Energy consumption in a conventional HDD is at its highest only when the drive actuators are moving the platters - during most read/write operations power requirements increase only slightly above idle.

    Granted, things may have improved since the article was written but when you consider how long mechanical hard drives have been around SSDs are still the new kid on the block. They may eventually deliver on their promise of greater efficiency.

    I bought a Macbook with a 128GB SSD at the start of this year. Not entirely sure it was worth the few hundred I had to fork over - but they're definitely superior to traditional drives.
    it takes less than 10 seconds to boot up, and I've given it a few decent drops, and not even been stressed that the HDD might have died.
    So I don't regret buying it, but it's something I'd think hard about doing again.

    I brought my son a netbook with an SSD drive, so that I don't have to worry about him killing it with rough handling. Considering the looks of the thing, I think it has a hard life, going to school and from room to room in the house. I suspect a hard drive would have given up by now, but the SSD is of course, unaffected by bumps and movement.

    I got a work issue laptop with a solid state hard drive. I don't reckon that I could go back to a HDD.
    I consider it to be an essential to anyone with a laptop due to the fact that not only is it faster, but I noticed that hard drive's in laptops seem to retract their reading heads when their moved, or tilted, which is not good for when I'm lying on the couch watching a movie, whereas ssd's are seemingly immune to this issue

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