James wants to know whether he should opt for an SSD or HDD to save his files on
Last modified on Thu 21 Jun 2018 11.23 BST
I am hoping to go to university this year and am looking for a laptop. What’s the difference between an SSD and an HDD, and which would be better for a student? From what I’ve seen, you can get roughly four times as much storage on an HDD as you can on an SSD for the same price, so it seems an HDD would be the better option. James
The laptop market is moving from traditional “spinning rust” hard disk drives (HDDs) to chip-based, solid-state drives (SSDs) for several reasons. SSDs are more responsive; they consume less battery power; they are less likely to break when dropped and they take up a lot less space.
The main advantage is responsiveness. SSDs make actions such as loading and saving programs and files much snappier.
In laptops, the hard drive is not kept spinning all the time, so as to save power and provide longer battery life. When a program needs data from the hard drive, it has to wait until the hard drive spins up, which causes a slight delay. When a program fetches data from an SSD, it doesn’t have to wait: it’s almost instantly available.
The drawback is, and always has been, the price. SSD storage costs much more than HDD storage and the ratio used to be much higher. That’s why the changeover has already taken more than two decades. However, every time Flash memory prices fall, SSDs become cheaper and more people are willing to pay the price difference.
If you can afford an SSD, it’s the way to go.
Of course, SSDs mean that most people have to make do with much less storage space. A laptop might come with a 128GB or 256GB SSD instead of a 1TB or 2TB hard drive. A 1TB hard drive stores eight times as much as a 128GB SSD, and four times as much as a 256GB SSD. The bigger question is how much you really need.
In fact, other developments have helped to compensate for the lower capacities of SSDs.
For example, many people now store more data in the cloud – using online services such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox – instead of on their laptops. The advantage is that you can access your online files from other devices including desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Some people have home media servers or NAS (network-attached storage) file servers. If you have thousands of music files, thousands of photos, and hundreds of movies, they’re probably not going to fit on a laptop. The solution is to put them on a NAS, which will stream them to your TV, PC and other devices. (See Which NAS should I buy to store files?)
When you go to university or college, you will need to look after a lot of files. How you decide to do this should influence your choice of laptop.
First, you will have essential files such as essays and background research. It’s very important to back them up in case your laptop fails, or is lost or stolen. To do this, you can keep copies on an external USB hard drive bought for the purpose, on USB thumb-drives, on tiny SD cards that you can store safely, and online. (If you get an Office 365 account – free to students – you’ll have 1TB of online storage.) You can even keep backups on CD or DVD. This is less common nowadays, but some laptops still have DVD drives, or you can add a cheap external version.
Second, you will have some personal files, such as photos, music, movies and games. You should back these up to your external hard drive, and the irreplaceable ones should also be backed up online or on optical media or whatever. (A lot of media files are, in face, replaceable.)
Today, 64GB SD cards and 4TB external hard drives are cheap, while 8TB drives are affordable. If you have lots of external storage, you may not need that much space on your laptop. But if you play some of the bigger PC games, you probably will.
There are at least four types of laptop storage, not just two. Many cheap machines don’t have either an HDD or SSD, they use eMMC chips instead. These are a variant of the MMC (Multi-Media Card) and SD (Secure Digital) storage cards that became common in digital cameras and smartphones. The ones in laptops and tablets usually offer 32GB or 64GB of storage, though 32GB can lead to problems updating Windows 10.
Obviously, eMMC “drives” are not as fast as SSDs, but they work well enough for their intended purposes.
Consumer-level SSDs started out as replacements for traditional hard drives. They usually came in cases that would fit the same drive bays, which made it easier to replace an HDD with an SSD. This is still possible with some current laptops and many older ones.
However, the arrival of high-capacity Flash chips meant they could be plugged into the motherboard, which avoided the need for bulky HDD-sized cases. This enabled PC suppliers to make thinner, lighter laptops.
Early SSDs of this type often used the same layout as PCI Express Mini cards. The PCIe slot was already being used for wireless and network cards, video cards, disk controllers, and other purposes, so it was a well-known format. However, we’re now moving to an M.2 card that has been optimised for SSD storage. (M.2 modules can be longer, and you can mount chips on both sides of the card, which doubles the storage in the same space.) M.2 supports PCI Express, Serial ATA, and USB 3.0, and an SSD will normally use PCIe.
If your eyes have glazed over, just remember that the best results come from using M.2 and PCIe with NVM Express (NVMe) drivers and controllers. NVMe has been designed specifically for SSD storage, and works with SSDs in drive bays, not just the card-mounted versions.
Before you buy a laptop, check what kind of storage it uses. Can you replace the SSD or HDD if it fails? Can you upgrade it as drive prices come down?
If the storage chips are soldered to the motherboard, assume that your programs and data will die with your laptop, though Apple can retrieve them from some models.
If you want a more responsive laptop as well as lots of storage space, consider a hybrid drive that combines the two. Seagate calls them SSHDs (solid state hybrid drives).
Hybrid drives have controllers that handle both the HDD and the Flash chips that form the SSD, so they appear as a single drive. The SSHD learns over time which files need to be on the SSD for fast access and which files can stay on the traditional hard drive.
Hybrid drives approach (but don’t match) SSDs in speed while being closer to HDDs in price.
For convenience, the SSD chips can be packaged with the hard drive. However, sometimes the SSD fits into an M.2 NVMe or similar slot. For example, my Dell XPS desktop has a traditional 1TB hard drive with 16GB of Intel Optane memory that works as a cheap “hard drive accelerator”. (With a mains-powered desktop, you can keep the hard drive spinning, so an SSD makes less of a difference to responsiveness.)
In passing, Microsoft has been trying similar ideas with ReadyDrive and ReadyBoost in Windows since Vista in 2006.
Hybrid drives never really took off, and as SSD prices fall, their days are numbered. However, if you really need 500GB or 1TB of affordable storage, they’re faster than non-accelerated HDDs.
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