hdd-or-ssd

Competing Technologies with Different Strengths

SSD (solid state storage) and HDD (hard disk drive) both serve the same purpose: storage for your computer. However, they are fundamentally different technologies. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s start with hard drives, the mass storage of choice for decades. These are mechanical devices. They store and read data using a head that moves back and forth across a rapidly spinning magnetic disk, or platter. It’s actually not unlike a record player. Hard drives don’t take well to being jarred while in operation and they tend to make some noise as the platter spins up and the head moves back and forth. When you think about it, the concept of having such an archaic-sounding storage device inside a computer these days seems a little ludicrous.

However, hard drives have the advantage of being very inexpensive and offering tremendous amounts of storage capacity. You can pick up a 4TB hard drive for less than $200. That’s a pretty good argument for staying old school …

SSDs are a more recent development. They use Flash memory, a kind of chip that retains data even when power is cut off. SSDs have multiple advantages over traditional hard drives. They have no moving parts, which means silent operation, less power used and no worries about mechanical failure. But their primary claim to fame is speed. While a hard drive might offer 100 MB/s read/write speeds, SSDs easily hit 500 MB/s. Some next-generation models are now reaching unheard of levels, to the tune of 2000+ MB/s. With an SSD, computers boot up in seconds and just about everything is snappier, not just saving and loading files.

So why is this even a discussion? SSDs seem to be clearly the no-brainer choice. Unfortunately,  it’s not quite that simple. There’s no question SSDs are technically superior, but they still remain more expensive than hard drives and the cost difference becomes more significant as capacity increases. The price has come down considerably on SSDs in the 500GB and under capacity, but when you go above that it begins to get very pricey in comparison to hard drives. And if you need massive storage, there simply aren’t many SSD options available over 1TB. At least not yet …

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Laptop: SSD or Hard Drive?

One of my go-to upgrades for all the laptops kicking around my house is to replace the hard drive with an SSD. It’s a great way to get new life out of an aging computer.

There are just so many benefits. Besides the big performance boost, the SSD cuts down on operating noise and it helps to eke a little more time out of the battery. It also eliminates the worry of someone accidentally knocking the laptop (while sitting at a cafe or in an open office) and causing the hard drive to suffer a mechanical failure.

With a laptop, the primary disadvantage of SSDs doesn’t usually come into play. People who need massive amounts of storage tend to use desktop PCs, so an affordable SSD of 500GB capacity usually isn’t a sacrifice.

So unless you’re using a laptop to edit and store a library of 4K movies, an SSD is almost always the way to go when upgrading the storage.

hard-driveDesktop PC: SSD or Hard Drive?

Desktop PCs tend to be more reliant on having plenty of storage on tap. These are the computers that are most likely to be used for gaming and in many homes, they also serve as a media centre: the home of the family digital photo libraries, home videos, music and movie libraries. Because a desktop PC is usually positioned relatively far from the user, hard drive noise is seldom an issue. Saving a little on power is also not usually primary concern and even for the energy conscious, a hard drive uses a fraction of the power that other components do.

Speed is always a big win, but in most cases the need for massive storage capacity wins out. So if you’re upgrading a desktop PC and lack of expansion slots (or budget) forces you to choose between SSD and hard drive, the hard drive is usually the best bet. But I would at least go for a fast, 7200 rpm hard drive.

Although, there’s another option …

sshdThe Third Option: Hybrid Drives

Storage manufacturers recognize the fact that at this point in time, we’re in a bit of a transitional period. Many computer and laptop owners are forced to make a choice between SSD and hard drive, and that can mean having to give something up. So they came up with an ingenious option known as a hybrid drive (sometimes called an SSHD).

The aim of a hybrid drive is to offer the speedy performance of an SSD, along with the massive storage capacity of a traditional hard drive, while keeping the price as low as possible.

To pull this off, they start with a high capacity hard drive. Then they incorporate a small SSD as part of the same unit. The solid state storage is sufficient to hold the operating system and key, frequently used files. This gives you much of the performance boost of switching to SSD, including the near “instant on” rapid booting, yet you don’t give up the huge capacity of the traditional hard drive. It’s a pretty smart solution.

Affordable hybrid drives are offered by traditional drive manufacturers like Seagate, and available as an option on Apple Mac computers as a Fusion Drive.

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Whether you choose a traditional hard drive or an SSD, upgrading your computer’s storage is a win. While it’s one of the easiest upgrades you can do, opening up a PC isn’t for everyone. If you’re uncertain about the installation, you can still go ahead and do it by letting Geek Squad take care of everything for you.

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I totally agree on having external drives. I have three WDs sitting on my desk. Much faster for saving and retrieving files than with a cloud service. I do like the cloud option for universal access –anywhere from anything– but tend to use that more for work in progress, and the drives for backup and archiving.

  2. Usually, if what I want is additional storage, I will go with an external hard drive. Usually I go with Western Digital, I like using these because it makes it a lot easier to use large files on different systems. I know there are different cloud based systems that allow storage of data as well, but I have not looked into them much and am not completely comfortable with the idea of storing my data online. When upgrading my laptop hard drive I would probably go with a solid state because I keep many other files on my external drives.

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