Published: May 19, 2010 11:00 PM
By Vincent Lheur
On the left, we have the 300 GB WD Velociraptor, a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) that has at its heart platters that spin at 10 000 rpm.  These help it reach speeds that aren't often seen on this type of device. |
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On the right, the 120 GB OCZ Agility, an SSD drive that relies on flash memory instead.  It's one of the best examples of this technology currently available.

2 want this Me too!
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3.5'' Hard Disk Drive | 2.5'' Solid State Drive
Interface: SATA-2
| Interface: SATA-2
Capacity: 300 GB
| Capacity: 120 GB
Also available as: 75, 150, 300 and 600 GB
| Also available as: 30, 60, 120 and 250 GB

THE BACKGROUND

HP Pavilion dm1 Although they were largely unknown to the general public just a few years ago, the cost of SSD drives is falling fast and they are beginning to find favour with consumers.  More and more people are now willing to consider them as a replacement for the traditional hard disk drives that have been around for decades.

It's reached a stage where it's now worth considering both technologies before choosing a drive, whether you're building a new computer or replacing an existing drive.
Asus Eee PC 1201N 

Is one technology better than the other?  How can you decide which is best for you?  We're hoping to answer these questions by comparing two big players from either side of the divide!

This comparison is mostly intended for those who aren't already familiar with the two rival technologies: if you've already made your choice and want some recommendations about specific products, have a look at our Product Survey: Internal Hard Drives, which combines both hard disk drives and SSDs.

  

PERFORMANCE: SSD WINS


Raw speeds: although both drives manage excellent top speeds, the SSD takes the lead when you're working with lots of small files.  Be wary of cheaper SSDs, which don't always have this lead over HDDs.

Access time: there's no need for a photo finish in this case, with the SSD miles ahead of the HDD which has to spin up its disks and move the read head into place before accessing the files you've requested.  And that's using the WD Velociraptor, which has the best access times of any HDD.  It goes without saying that other, slower, drives will be even further behind.
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Real-life speeds: it's all well and good having a drive that works quickly when moving and copying files, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to help your software run fast.  Long access times in particular can make life difficult for your software, and while that's something that some HDDs avoid, it's never true of SSDs.  Their explosive access times mean they can launch Windows and start your programs much faster.

Conclusion: the HDD's performance is a long way behind the SSD's.  The only way they can rival SSDs is if all you need is a lot of storage space for your personal data, photos or music.  Otherwise, the latter win hands down.

STORAGE SPACE: HDD WINS

With a current upper limit of 256 GB—and if you want that much, it's going to cost you a lot—SSDs are clearly lagging behind HDDs.  A new 600 GB version of the Velociraptor has bust been released, and other drives are available that have their overall capacities counted in terabytes (1000 GB).
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Because of this, SSDs are generally restricted to use as system drives to optimise the start-up times for software, but they'll also suit people who don't have too much data to store.  On the other hand, if you have a lot of videos or other big files, you're going to need to look for a bigger drive.

TEMPERATURE, NOISE, AND DURABILITY: SSD WINS

Temperature: because they use flash memory, SSDs barely warm up at all.  The same isn't true of HDDs which can in some circumstances become as hot as 50 °C.

Noise: HDDs have moving parts, which inevitably make a lot of noise, especially when you're trying to randomly access lots of small files (like when you're stating up Windows).  SSDs remain perfectly quiet whatever you're doing with them.
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Durability: the third advantage of using SSDs is that they aren't sensitive to a few knocks, within reason of course.  That's a not inconsiderable advantage for if you're looking to fit one in a laptop. 

If your laptop's HDD is in the middle of reading or writing data, even a mild bump can write it off—and that means you'll lose all the files you had on it too.

 

PRICE: HDD WINS

As we mentioned when we looked at storage space, SSDs are prohibitively expensive for some people.  The cost per gigabyte of flash memory is still very high if you have a lot of data to store.
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The cost per gigabyte for a normal HDD is around 20 times more expensive than and SSD.  That can be quite a powerful argument if you're looking to maximise the amount of space.
 

RESULT: SSD FOR PERFORMANCE, HDD FOR STORAGE

Desktop PC: if money's no object, SSD is quite simply the best choice technologically, but you'll need to remember that you might not have as much space as want for storing all the software you'd like.  Above 128 GB, the prices really begin to soar.  That's why it can be a good idea to start with a smaller SSD of 60 GB or 100 GB for all of your programs, and a separate, larger HDD to store your personal files.

 
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Laptop: SSDs are a good choice in laptops, too, with a few extra benefits.  Firstly, they're more resistant to rough handling, and offer an even more noticeable improvement because the 2.5'' HDDs found in laptops are usually a lot less powerful than their 3.5'' desktop equivalents, like the Velociraptor we're looking at here.  However, there generally isn't room for two drives in a laptop, so if you go for an SSD and still need extra storage space, you might have to fall back on external storage.

Server: you shouldn't even think twice before installing a HDD on your home server because it's the capacity of the network, not the drive, that will limit performance.  And in that case, the most sensible strategy is to opt for the option that offers the most storage for your money.
In the future?  When manufacturers reach a ceiling and can't make HDDs any bigger, SSD drives could really start to take over.  It'll still take a few years before the cost of flash memory falls to levels comparable with today's hard disk drives.
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