Essential Guide

Essential guide to desktop and laptop solid-state drives

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What you should know before choosing a desktop or laptop solid state drive

Desktop and laptop solid state drives are now widely available at affordable prices. Learn what you should consider before adding an SSD to your PC.

Desktop and laptop solid-state drives have dipped enough in price that they should be considered when replacing a PC hard-disk drive (HDD). As the difference in price between SSDs and SATA HDDs shrinks, solid-state storage may be an attractive and affordable alternative to continuing to use SATA drives.

It should be fairly straightforward to replace a SATA HDD with solid state, or add a solid-state drive to complement a SATA hard disk, but there are a few key issues to consider before you open the case and install your new solid-state drive.

Is SSD compatible with your PC?

One of the first issues that must be considered is compatibility. Desktop and laptop solid-state drives use a SATA interface, and you should be able to plug a solid-state drive into any computer that currently supports SATA. It is worth noting, however, that some PC system boards offer two different modes for SATA drives.

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To provide backward compatibility, some SATA controllers come pre-configured to operate in IDE mode. IDE mode basically treats the SATA drive as if it were an IDE drive. To take advantage of the benefits that SATA offers over IDE, the SATA controller must be configured to operate in Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) mode. AHCI mode enables SATA features such as hot plugging and native command queuing.

The differences between IDE mode and AHCI mode can be an issue if you’re upgrading to solid-state storage. This is especially true if you plan to install a solid-state drive as a secondary drive in an existing system. If the system is currently operating in IDE mode and you install a solid-state drive and then switch the BIOS to AHCI mode, you’ll most likely end up with a Blue Screen of Death error message. The trick is to load AHCI drivers into Windows before modifying the BIOS settings.

This is much less of a problem if you’re performing a clean installation of the operating system onto a solid-state drive. Windows 7, for instance, natively supports AHCI. As long as you set the BIOS to AHCI before you begin installing the operating system, you should be OK. The same is not necessarily true for Windows XP, as it doesn’t natively support AHCI.

Keep in mind that some solid-state drives can operate in IDE mode. But using IDE mode does not allow you to fully take advantage of the performance benefits of a solid-state drive.

The pros and cons of desktop and laptop solid-state drives

Solid-state drives have rapidly gained popularity because they offer better performance than traditional hard-disk drives. Solid-state drives don’t have any moving parts, so they’re not limited by mechanical processes. The actual performance gain that you’ll see will depend on the drive that you install. At minimum, you should expect a 20% to 30% performance gain, but some benchmarks have demonstrated higher performance improvements.

Of course, that performance and reliability comes at a price. Desktop and laptop solid-state drives typically have much lower capacities than hard drives at the same price point. The “sweet spot” for desktop-grade solid-state drive capacity is about 160 GB. There are larger SSDs available, but the extra capacity comes at a premium price; at press time, a 500 GB solid-state drive sold for $1,000 to $1,500. A comparable hard-disk drive costs less than $200.

When to make the switch

Considering cost, performance and compatibility, the decision of whether to make the switch to solid-state drives in your desktop and laptop PC will usually come down to whether you’re currently taxing your system’s disk I/O capabilities.

Likewise, the generally limited capacity of solid-state drives isn’t going to be an issue for most desktop users since data is typically stored on a network server rather than directly on the desktop’s hard drive. Capacity might be more of an issue if you use a laptop, but unless you’re working with digital video, the solid-state drive’s capacity will probably be adequate.

The biggest advantage to installing desktop or laptop solid-state drives may be energy savings. Solid-state drives consume about 20% less power than a regular hard disk drive. This savings translates directly into lower energy bills, and laptop users will benefit from longer battery life. Energy savings alone probably won’t justify replacing all of your HDDs. However, as hard drives need to be replaced in desktops, it would be prudent to replace them with solid-state drives.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has previously received Microsoft's MVP award for Exchange Server, Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and has been responsible for the Department of Information Management at Fort Knox. You can visit Brien's personal website at www.brienposey.com

This was first published in February 2012

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Essential Guide

Essential guide to desktop and laptop solid-state drives

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