Essential guide to desktop and laptop solid-state drives
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Makers of solid-state drives pitch the devices’ zippy performance as the next step for personal computers. So how do desktop and notebook SSDs really compare with traditional hard-disk drives, and how can you put the technology to work in your organization? J.R. Nelson, editor of DesktopReview.com, gives us the latest in this podcast with Andrew Burton, editor of SearchSolidStateStorage.com. Download the recording, or check out our transcript below.
How does pricing for desktop and notebook SSDs compare with comparable HDDs?
Nowadays, you can pretty much buy a solid-state drive, no matter what your budget is. If you just want to put something in that’s a fast-boot drive, you can pay as little as $50 and you can get a pretty fast 16 GB flash drive. Put that into your computer and you’re good to go. But even for high-end enthusiasts, people who like making their own PCs, IT professionals, and anyone who wants to make their desktops and laptops faster, price is the number one consideration when it comes to investing in this new technology.
In terms of comparing it to hard drives, right now, it’s kind of a bad time to compare. Because of the recent flooding in Thailand hard drive prices have pretty much doubled -- and in some cases, tripled -- in price compared to where they were six months ago. Despite that, you can expect to pay between $1 and $2 per gigabyte for a solid-state drive -- at the high end, you can expect to pay roughly about $2 per gigabyte for a solid-state drive. But if performance isn’t quite as high on your list of priorities, you can get away with spending just $1 to $1.25 per gigabyte. So, despite your budget, regardless of where you want to be, you can find a solid-state drive that can fit your needs.
As far as performance goes, how do desktop and notebook SSDs compare with traditional disk drives?
When you’re talking about traditional rotating, magnetic-disk hard drives -- the fastest hard drives out there -- barring some of the 15K SAS drives you can find in really high-end disk arrays, you can expect to get a little over 100 MB per second in throughput and performance, sometimes a little bit higher. You’ll see some that get to 130, but rarely more than that. Solid-state drives, on the other hand, they’re almost limited by the SATA bus maximum speed, so we’re talking about high-end solid-state drives that can get 500 MB per second throughput. And if performance is a real consideration, you can put two of those into a RAID array at RAID 0 and pull a gigabyte per second in potential throughput. In terms of overall throughput, solid-state drives have the potential to be much faster. But that’s not even why they’re such an attractive proposition in terms of upgrading laptops and desktops.
The real draw to a solid-state drive comes in terms of its latency, or really, lack thereof. On normal hard drives, after a while, hard drives will spin down to save power. And when you want to access data after you’ve let your computer sit for a little bit, the computer has to spin the hard drive back up, it has to seek out data on the hard drive, find where it is, and put it into the operating system. Solid-state drives never spin up and down. They have an active state and a sleep state, but the transition between them is nearly instantaneous. When you talk about latency, which is the speed it takes for your solid-state drive to find data and present it to you, we’re talking about time on the order of .1 milliseconds. So you basically don’t notice it. As a result, we have computer boot up times of four seconds, five seconds. Photoshop, which on a regular hard drive might take 10 seconds to load -- one second, two seconds (to load).
So on these solid-state drives, people like to flaunt the numbers in terms of, “Oh, this drive can get 500 MB,” but that’s not the real draw. Especially when you have an older system, and you just want to upgrade it to make it faster, you can put in a low-end solid-state drive. Even if it might only get 150 MB or 200 MB per second transfers, it still has instantaneous latency, and that’s what makes the computer feel really fast.
Can you install a SSD directly into a laptop, or are there any compatibility issues that have to be worked out first?
Any desktop or laptop you buy today is going to have the SATA standard, which was adopted years ago, (so) you don’t have to worry about being unable to physically plug the solid-state drive into your computer. There’s only a couple of things you might want to watch out for -- older computers, and we’re talking fairly recently, within the last couple of years, might have shipped with the SATA 2 standard, which only goes up to 3 gigabits per second. And as a result, if you have a very fast solid-state drive, and you put it into a computer that has only the 3 gigabit limit in terms of its data bus, then you might not be able to take advantage of all of the high-end speed and features of that solid-state drive. And that just means you can save a little bit of money and get something not quite as high-end and you won’t notice the difference.
New laptops and new desktops ship with SATA 3, which offers 6 gigabit per second performance. And the real high-end solid-state drives are just starting to get near that limit, but it’s not anything you have to worry about anytime soon.
The other thing you might want to consider when you’re putting these new drives into your older computers is that there are software routines built into new operating systems called TRIM, which take care of garbage collection on solid-state drives. Due to the way these SSDs work, the operating system has to go in every once in a while and clear off used sectors of the solid-state drive in order to avoid the drive slowing down.
Some operating systems don’t support TRIM or those garbage collection procedures. Windows XP, for example, doesn’t have any of that stuff built in, and Windows 7 does, so when you’re talking about putting these into older systems, you may want to take the time and upgrade the operating system while you’re at it, just to be sure you have an operating system that is aware of what an SSD does, and can optimize for it.
And it’s not just TRIM. Windows 7 knows that it doesn’t have to defrag a solid-state drive. You don’t actually want to defrag a solid-state drive, because you gain no benefit and it can actually damage the drive.
How widespread is corporate adoption desktop and notebook SSDs these days? If so, what types of applications are they being used for?
We really haven’t heard anything in terms of any specific companies adopting these drives en masse. We’ll hear about these drives being used in massive disk arrays for servers, because database writes are super, super quick. But in terms of rolling out desktop and notebook SSDs to the workforce, we don’t hear a lot about it.
There are a number of benefits to doing that, though. Solid-state drives use less power, and if you roll out things like netbooks, for example, that can make a very noticeable difference in terms of battery life you are going to get. They use less power, they don’t get as hot as traditional hard drives, and they can save power. When you have a workforce, people don’t like to have to sit there and wait for their computers to start up. In the morning -- they want to get in, get to work, and leave. Solid-state drives, since they boot so quickly, people really have no problem turning their computers all the way off, because it’ll just take a few seconds to get back where they were. It would actually save corporations a lot of money by forcing users to turn their computers off at night, instead of just putting them to sleep, or just leaving them on, which so many people do. That applies to any SSD.
In terms of actual applications that take advantage of it, anything that is going to be doing a lot of disk writes will take advantage of these. You might not think about it, but companies are very security-focused, and everybody will have virus checks and virus scanners on their computers. Virus scanning on an SSD is completely different from virus scanning on a hard drive, because it takes a minute, maybe, to scan the entire disk. You can use your computer while you’re doing the virus scan, and you’re not limited, you don’t have any slowdowns, because the operating system is (placing demands) on the hard drives.
That’s a huge benefit to transitioning to desktop or notebook SSDs, because it allows you to use your computer while you’re doing the virus scan, so you don’t have to boot these computers in the middle of the night, run the virus scan and boot them back down.
Other applications -- I mentioned Photoshop earlier, (but) if you’re a company with many graphic designers, 3D software renders or CAD, things like that, solid-state drives could make a huge difference. In fact, you could have two in a computer, and you could run your software off of one, and have one solid-state drive dedicated as a scratch disk. Those computers typically have 12, 24, 26 gigabytes of RAM, but even then, when you have those huge textures, you’re going to have to spin that down to disk at some point, and having an SSD in there could be a huge advantage if you have any application that needs access to scratch data.
What have been the big developments in this space in the past few years?
We’ve seen development of new controllers -- such as the SandForce controller, which is the talk of the town for the moment. So we’ve seen new developments in these controllers which allow much faster read-write speeds on the solid-state drives, we’ve also seen some companies doing things like OCZ, which put a lot of flash memory onto a PCI Express card and slots that into your PCI Express bus -- that gets around SATA, because it’s not limited to 3 or 6 gigabits. So if you really need the fastest speeds, you can install that into your expansion slot and have extremely fast read-write times and disk-access time. Now, you’ll pay for that -- they have a 240 GB model and that starts at $1,600.
Another development we’ve seen this year is smaller form factors -- those allow laptops to be thinner than ever before. Apple created its own SSD form factor for the MacBook Air. And that computer is among the first we’ve seen that, from the beginning, is only SSD. You can’t get it with traditional disk at all, because the laptop is simply too thin. A lot of companies are following their lead: Intel is introducing this $300 million marketing and research push into the “ultrabook” category. And we’ve seen ultrabooks from Toshiba, Lenovo, Asus, Acer and all these companies all use flash storage because it allows you to get the laptop thinner than ever before.