I don’t need to go into the importance of performance when it comes to PC gaming. To get the most out of the experience, people pick the most powerful graphics card (or graphics cards) possible. They install the most fire breathing CPU Intel or AMD makes, along with a ton of high speed RAM. They choose a widescreen, 4K gaming monitor and surround audio for the most immersive gaming experience ever. A mechanical keyboard and programmable gaming mouse give them that millisecond response edge over the competition.
What’s frequently left out of the picture is the hard drive. Sure, storage gets a nod, but it’s often taken for granted. So long as there’s enough storage to get the job done, that’s usually good enough. Most desktop gaming PCs come equipped with a high capacity 7200 rpm hard drive — good enough to get the job done. But that is one area where gaming laptops actually have a bit of an edge over many gaming desktops: they usually come with at least some solid state storage. Even if it’s only enough capacity to hold the operating system, that SSD provides a big performance boost and its something that all gaming PCs would benefit from.
Your HDD is Probably a Performance Bottleneck
Gaming involves huge amounts of data being read from your PC’s hard drive, especially now that 4K gaming and virtual reality are in play. When you launch a game, there’s a pause while data is loaded by the system. Game publishers try to minimize the impact of the delay by showing information, like Fallout 4’s info screens. Every time there’s a cutscene, the same deal (although nowhere near as bad as when the cutscenes played directly off optical drives). Throughout the game, the hard drive is constantly reading and writing data. This can be extreme enough in gaming to cause a condition known as ‘hitching’ when the game is forced to pause briefly because it can’t read data off the hard drive fast enough to keep up with what the player is doing.
Even the fastest, 7200 rpm HDDs can seem slow compared to solid state drives (SSDs). Seagate makes one of the fastest HDDs, a favourite high performance option for gamers. The Seagate Barracuda Pro is highly regarded as an ultra high performance HDD, with maximum sustained transfer rates up to 220MB/s. Of course those numbers go down significantly when you are talking real world reading and writing performance, when the drive head is seeking back and forth across the disk.
As good as that is, it pales in comparison to the performance of an SSD. The Samsung 850 Pro SSD, for example, boasts maximum sustained read speeds of 550MB/s and write speeds of 520MB/s. With no drive head to mechanically move back and forth, the SSD advantage is considerable higher when it comes to real world reading and writing performance.
Outside of the game itself, an SSD trounces a traditional HDD when it comes to system performance. Boot times are a fraction of what they used to be and the system will seem snappier when the operating system is installed on an SSD.
HDDs Still Have a BIG Role to Play
I just spent over 250 words more or less trashing HDDs, but that wasn’t meant as an overall attack on the traditional hard drive. In fact, for most PC gamers (at least those who don’t have a bottomless wallet), the HDD still has a critical role to play in a gaming PC: mass storage.
While nowhere near as bad as it was when the technology first began to go mainstream, price remains the SSD’s Achilles Heel, especially for high capacity drives. Consumer SSDs are so affordable they are standard issue in laptops these days. SSDs with the kind of capacity gamers need? That’s still a different story. And PC games continue to get more storage-intensive. Those 4K graphics files are huge. Take Gears of War 4, for example. The publisher released a patch this summer after complaints about install sizes exceeding 120GB. That’s 120GB for a single game. Even after the patch compressed files, it was still a 100GB game.
With those big game install files, the traditional HDD still shines.
Combine SSD with HDD
Gaming PCs have multiple drive bays. Many gaming laptops have two. So the ideal solution for most PC gamers is to install an SSD in one bay and use the rest for HDDs. The operating system is installed on the SSD to maximize overall system performance. And if you invest in a mid-size capacity SSD — say 512GB or so — there is also sufficient room to install several frequently played games. That way your gaming PC sees optimal performance when playing these games, and the HDD is no longer a bottleneck.
But use high performance, 7200 RPM HDDs in the remaining bays for mass storage of your game library and other digital media like video files. If anything on those HDDs is being used frequently and causing a slowdown, you can transfer it to the SSD. Of course if you have a big budget, you can go all SSD and not have to deal with manually managing your files for optimization. As an added bonus, ditching the HDDs altogether in favour of solid state will cut down on computer noise.
The Hybrid Option
In cases where the budget is tight, a hybrid drive like Seagate’s FireCuda is an option. Hybrid drives combine the mass storage of an HDD with a small amount of flash memory — usually enough to install the operating system and to cache some frequently used files. This is an inexpensive way to get mass storage combined with SSD-like system performance in a single drive. It won’t make gaming itself any faster, but booting your gaming PC and general operation will definitely feel snappier.
Into gaming on your PC? Check out the rest of our series on PC gaming, with topics including video cards, high performance Wi-Fi routers, a guide to setting up a gaming mouse, and choosing between a desktop PC and a laptop for gaming.