If you purchase a MacBook Air, newer MacBook Pro with Retina display or an ultrabook these days and chances are the storage is a solid-state drive (SSD). Compared to traditional magnetic drives that have spinning platters and floating heads, SSDs have no moving parts. Of course being a newer technology, SSDs have had a much higher cost per megabyte compared to standard hard drives, but with prices falling and their significant advantages, they may now be worth looking at for your storage needs.
There are many drives types, models and brands. One drive I’m using is the SanDisk Extreme 240GB 6Gbps SATA Solid State Drive, which not long ago, was over $300, can now be had for about $169. And that’s a significant drop.
So why would I want to spend three times more for the same amount of storage?
First of all, a huge advantage of solid-state drives is that they have no moving parts. Your typical hard drive has a motor that can fail. The motor spins magnetic platters, where a head attached to an arm, floats mere microns above the platter and reads and writes to the disk. Now while I have not seen too many motor failures in my time, a rapid jolt or drop off the desk to the ground and your hard drive can be more or less toast.
An SSD is solid-state. It doesn’t need a read/write arm. Instead SSDs use memory called NAND flash memory or non-volatile memory and unlike RAM the information is not lost when the power is turned off. Now while not totally indestructible, an SSD is certainly a lot less susceptible to this accidental type of damage.
The other huge advantage is that an SSD is that it’s typically faster and more responsive than a traditional drive. The SanDisk Extreme with an SATA 6Gb/s interface can boot a PC in less than 20 seconds; it can also quickly shut down your system. With the nature of the drive you can quickly put it into sleep mode and have it wake up almost immediately. The SanDisk extreme solid-state drive offers read speeds up to 550 MB/s and write speeds up to 520 MB/s.
Faster response also makes it great for gaming and highly intensive input output applications.
An SSD also consumes less power, so it can help with a notebook’s battery life. It also generates less heat and thus creates less havoc on the internal components of your computer. Of course, with no moving parts, it’s much quieter.
Now there are some possible disadvantages of solid-state drives compared to a standard hard drive. First, of course, there is the price. We know that. Unlike HDDs an SSD doesn’t overwrite data. It erases what’s there then writes to it. Apparently there are a limited number of times it can be erased before it can’t be written to anymore. I’m not sure what that number is; however, if computers are being sold with SSDs that number can’t be very small.
The other thing is that if an HDD fails, it might be possible to recover the data from the platters by sending it to a lab; of course recovery can be costly and not guaranteed. With and SSD once it’s gone it’s gone. I guess that’s what backups are for.
What I liked about the SanDisk is its simple packaging. It has the same form factor as a 2 1/2 inch drive. In fact I first tried it out as an external device by installing it while testing the StarTech portable hard drive enclosure. (See CanoeTech article Oct 9)
I thoroughly enjoyed the fast transfer, especially while testing it using a USB 3.0 enabled computer.
This SSD is also easily designed to replace an internal 2.5” notebook drive in your Mac or PC.
Now one thing you should know. By replacing your old drive with this one, you will certainly gain performance and the benefits of SSD. However, if your computer does not support the fast 6Gbps SATA, the drive is still backwards compatible. So it will work on a 3Gbps or a 1.5Gbps slower bus, but you likely will not be able to take full advantage of this drive’s awesome speed.
Furthermore, on some very old MacBook Pro models with a certain type of NVidia SATA controller, as I discovered, will further keep you from getting the most out of the drive. You wont get the 15-20 second boot ups, but you can still be up in a minute or so. Still, it’s better than the antique 5400-RPM 100GB hard drive which by now is likely on its last legs anyway.
If you have a very old system, first decide whether an upgrade is warranted. Next, you might want to check with SanDisk’s tech support.
Newer models running more recent operating systems, like at least Mac OS X Lion would certainly fair much better. The same would probably hold true for Windows based systems.
So overall, if you’re in the market to upgrade your storage and you think you can take advantage of some of the wonderful things that an SSD can offer, it might be time to make the switch.
Once you go SSD, you’ll never go back.
Greg Gazin is the Real Canadian Gadget Guy.