When on the hunt for a new PC or external hard drive, you’ll likely see two different storage options: Traditional hard disk drive (HDD) and solid-state drive (SSD). Deciding on the best one for your needs can be a massive obstacle if you don’t know the difference. Should you go with the old-school HDD or the newer, faster SSD? Here, we’ll help you make the best choice based on crucial factors such as storage size, speed, and price.
If you decide an SSD is right for you, we’ve also rounded the best SSD deals available now.
It isn’t difficult to find hard drives with several terabytes worth of storage — and they are getting bigger all the time — without too much of an increase in cost to the consumer. In contrast, SSDs tend to be much smaller and become prohibitively expensive over 2TB.
However, when it comes to storage space, hard drives have a distinct advantage and likely will for the foreseeable future. If you want to store something long-term or store large files and folders, hard drives are the way to go, but that is one of the only areas where hard drives still hold sway.
Speed, form factor, and durability
Drive “speed” is predominantly focused on how fast they can read and write data. For HDDs, the speed at which the platters spin helps determine the read/write times. When accessing a file, the “read” part of the read/write head notes the magnetic sections’ positioning as it flies over the spinning platters. As long as the file being read was written sequentially, the HDD will skim it. However, as the disc becomes crowded with data, it’s easy for a file to be written across multiple sections. This phenomenon is called “fragmenting” and leads to files taking longer to read.
With SSDs, fragmentation is not an issue. Files can be written sporadically across the cells — and are designed to do so — with little impact on read/times, as each cell is accessed simultaneously. This easy, simultaneous access to each cell means files are read at incredibly fast speeds — far faster than an HDD can achieve, regardless of fragmentation. That’s why SSDs can make a system feel snappy — because their ability to access data across the entire drive, known as random access, is so much faster.
This faster read speed comes with a catch. SSD cells can wear out over time. They push electrons through a gate to set its state, which wears on the cell and, over time, reduces its performance until the SSD wears out. That said, the time it would take for this to happen for most users is quite long; one would likely upgrade their SSD due to either obsolescence or a desire for more storage space before a standard SSD would fail. There are also technologies like TRIM, which help keep SSDs from degrading too quickly.
On the other hand, hard drives are much more vulnerable to physical damage due to their use of mechanical parts. If one were to drop a laptop with an HDD, there is a high likelihood that all those moving parts would collide, resulting in potential data loss and even destructive physical damage that could kill the HDD outright. SSDs have no moving parts, so they can better survive the rigors we impose upon our portable devices and laptops.
Another thing to be mindful of is the form factor of these devices. HDDs are almost always a 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch disk, while SSDs come in various shapes and sizes. The most common is still the 2.5-inch drive, but smaller SSDs built on form factors like M.2 and PCIe are becoming increasingly common. They are more expensive than their SATA III counterparts but are much smaller and increasingly offer the fastest storage speeds.
For further information on SATA, you can check out our guide that includes everything you need to know about it.
Although prices have been coming down for years, SSDs are still more expensive per gigabyte than hard drives. For similar amounts of storage, you could end up paying nearly twice as much for an SSD than an HDD — and even more at higher capacities.
While you’re paying higher prices for less space with an SSD, you’re investing in faster, more efficient, and far more durable data storage overall. If you’re building a system with speed, power needs, or portability in mind, then an SSD is going to be the better choice. Adding another hard drive is easy and cheap on most desktops, so it’s a good upgrade down the road if you need more storage space. Having a separate data drive also allows you to update or reinstall your operating system with minimal effort.
As SSD prices drop, we are finding fewer reasons to opt for HDDs in most systems. For as , there are brand-name 500GB SSDs available, which is almost the same price as the average 1TB HDD. At those prices, even casual users will notice a drastic improvement in terms of boot-up time, data access, and general system snappiness. We expect new systems to include an SSD — or at least a hybrid drive.
Hybrid drives, externals, and the final word
Hybrid drives offer a middle ground between the benefits of SSDs and HDDs. They combine an HDD and SSD into one device. There are a couple of different versions of this sort of technology.
First, there are the SSHDs — or solid-state hybrid drives. These drives are full-sized HDDs (often around one or two terabytes) that come equipped with an extra cache of SSD NAND memory (usually a few GBs worth). SSHDs work by learning which files you use most often and writing them to the quickly accessible SSD section of memory. All other files are stored on the HDD’s spinning disc. While an SSHD won’t give you the durability and lower power needs of an SSD, they should still offer a considerable uptick in speed for certain processes.
You can find SSHDs that can fit a 2.5-inch slot, as well as 3.5-inch options. In addition to these two hybrids, which are good options for those with space for only one drive, one could also opt to buy multiple separate drives depending on their configuration and available mounting space.
AMD Ryzen systems running X399, X400, or X500-series chipset motherboards can utilize AMD’s StoreMI technology drives of different types. You can use any combination of drives to make your hybrid storage solution, though most users will choose to use a small SSD paired with a larger HDD. Another option is Intel’s Optane memory, which acts as a small caching drive in itself, though it’s not available on AMD systems.
There is also the option of using a drive as an external storage device. Many manufacturers develop drives specifically for that purpose and produce external housing kits that fit various SSDs and HDDs. Users will find that external drives have all the advantages of an internal drive, but with enhanced portability.
SSDs are quickly becoming the preferred storage solution of older, mechanical HDDs. If you’re looking for a new system, only consider those that feature an SSD, as these faster drives offer a substantial performance boost. The price difference will be well worth it if there is one at all, but you’ll be sure to appreciate the speed of SSD technology every time you turn it on.
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