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The Basic Guide to Buying SSDs

oFlamingo 3,799 August 21, 2012 at 11:06 AM
By now, a good number of Slickdealers have traded in their old hard drives to SSDs. The consistently high number of thumbs ups on SSD deals however, leads us to believe that the majority of Slickdealers are still in the market for this upgrade. Chances are, if you didn’t build a custom computer or didn’t spend over $1,000 on your current one, you probably have a regular hard drive. If you’ve been ignoring SSD deals this entire time, but want to learn more about how these SSDs can actually increase your computer’s speed, here are a couple of basic concepts you need to know.


HDD v. SSD
A disk drive (spinning or solid) is your computer’s main persistent storage (as opposed to RAM, which is reset on reboots). It houses your applications, documents, pictures, songs, videos, etc. All of this data is written in a somewhat random fashion and can reside in any portion of the disk.

Hard drives have a number of mechanical parts - a spinning disk where all your data is stored and an arm that reads and writes the data. It takes an arm’s movement (‘seek’) to read data from two different places on a disk, similar to how a needle reads music from an LP.

Solid state drives on the other hand do not have any moving parts. They use flash memory like those found in USB drives and media players. Because of that, they do not incur a ‘seek penalty’ to move the arm to read from two random sections of the disk. That alone results in significant improvement.


Price
Given the immediate speed benefits of an SSD, there’s no reason not to switch, right? For the same reason not everyone buys a first class ticket when traveling, SSDs come with a premium price tag. Hard drives are significantly cheaper - 2TB hard drives can be as cheap as $100. At that price, it's difficult to get anything more than 180GB of SSD these days, with the best deals hovering around $0.50/GB. Luckily though, you don’t really need to get a full TB of SSD.


Storage Capacity
Just like hard drives, most consumer SSDs come in size tiers, usually in multiples of 60 or 64GB, and rarely go above 512GB without a significant jump in price. Price wise, the sweet spot is currently on drives sized between 120 and 256GB. As such, SSDs are best used as ‘boot’ drives, which host the operating system (Windows or OS X) and applications (Office, Photo suites, etc). Using them to store large music/video files is generally considered ineffective unless an SSD is your only drive as is the case with laptops.

Following the above principle, a 128GB SSD should be sufficient for most users for normal use - a single OS and a handful of additional applications. We’ve seen 128GB SSDs for as little as $80 in the past and 240GB ones can be as low as $120. You can also supplement your SSD with a hard drive, if your system allows for that.


Hybrid and Caching Drives
We feel that hybrid and cache-only drives deserve a special consideration as well.
Hybrid Drives
A hybrid drive is a traditional 500GB+ spinning hard drive but comes with an added built-in SSD-driven cache. The cache is usually between 4-16GB, which automatically provides the speed boost to frequently accessed files. Hybrid drives can be had for as low as $70/500GB ($0.14/GB).
Caching Drives
A cache-only drive is a separate drive, which requires a separate connection to be available in a PC or laptop. It speeds up frequently accessed data on an already installed spinning drive. Unlike a standard SSD, a caching SSD is not visible to the operating system directly, and may not be used to directly store any information. 64GB Cache SSDs can be had for $49 ($0.77/GB). Some laptop manufacturers (HP, Lenovo, Dell) have started to include mSATA cache modules to their laptops, which act just like cache drives as well.

Physical Size and Accessories
Depending on what you’re upgrading or building, you will need to consider the physical size of the SSD. Most SSDs (2.5”) are smaller than desktop hard drives (3.5”), so you’re generally safe, but you may need a mounting kit, which go between $3-$5. For laptops, SSD-shopping can be a little more difficult as some smaller laptops use 1.8” drives. Some manufacturers use custom-built SSDs, which are not available from 3rd parties (Apple Macbook Air, ‘Retina’ Macbook Pro). Some manufacturers go as far as voiding the warranty if you tinker with the system yourself.



SSD Caveats

Performance degradation over time
Unlike magnetic counterparts, most consumer (read ‘affordable’) SSDs’ performance degrades with time due to the nature of flash memory read/write/erase patterns. TRIM and good space utilization practices help alleviate some of the drop in performance.

TRIM
TRIM is a special disk function, which when combined with operating system support (OS X 10.6.8+ and Windows 7+) allows previously written and later deleted cells on the drive to be cleared out. This refreshes SSD performance to its near-original levels. Note that the disk, the PC and the OS all have to support the feature for TRIM to work.

Utilization
If TRIM is not available and as overall good practice with most SSDs (other than hybrid/cache drives), you want to leave 20-25% of its total size unoccupied, otherwise performance starts to suffer.

Firmware
All SSDs rely on firmware to perform internal functions (including TRIM), maintenance and other optimizations. Firmware is often issued to address some performance and stability issues. The rule of thumb is to keep current on the firmware for your specific drive whenever possible. Check the drive manufacturer’s sites to see if one is available for the drive you have/are considering.


Other (minor) considerations

Stability and reliability
When SSDs arrived into consumer market, there were a lot of issues with immature system support, drivers, controllers, etc. At this time, most modern Serial ATA II/III SSDs have been issued firmware updates to alleviate and/or remove most of those issues, and should be of little concern.

SATA II or SATA III
If you’re switching from a hard drive, any SSD will increase your overall computer responsiveness. "II" and "III" when used with Serial ATA refers to peak transfer speed. SATA II transfers at 3 Gbps (approximately 280 megabytes/second) while SATA III transfers at 6 Gbps (approximately 550 megabytes/second). The difference is significant if you’re transferring gigabytes of information continuously, but if you’re more of a casual user, either type sure work fine. Furthermore, only SATA III based PCs and laptops can take advantage of the highest performance tier, but are still backwards compatible with SATA II drives. If the machine you’re upgrading is more than 2 years old, chances are you’re still using SATA II. which also works with either SATA II or III drives.

Brand consideration
The most reputable brands - Crucial, OCZ, Samsung, Intel, Sandisk, Kingston - offer a good mix of drives for different target markets.


Great, So Which Drive Should I Choose?
Bottom line, if you are currently using an ‘old-fashioned’ spinning drive, and want to get an immediate performance boost to your applications, and have a budget of a $100 or so, SSD is the one component that will give you just that. We generally don’t make any specific product recommendations since everything is dependent on respective situations, but as a reference for price points, here are the last 7 front page deals which can help guide your purchase decision:


To keep track of SSD deals, set up a deal alert for SSDs here: http://slickdeals.net/forums/dealalerts.php?do=adddealalert&kw=ssd&votelevel=6 For tech discussions, visit the Tech Support forum.

40 Comments

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L11: Monkey's Apprentice
2,720 Reputation
#31
Quote from dadoody View Post :
Good info.

I stick to regular magnetic hard drives. My own experience with Flash memory has been a nightmare. Sudden I/O device errors, finding high rates of corrupted bits after a file transfer that I can't even use the file anymore, and the fact that is hard as hell (near impossible) for me to recover deleted data. Thats just all from my experience with them USB sticks, maybe things are better on a dedicated SSD, but I am a multi purpose user - games, multimedia, trading, reading, writing, etc., and my drive has been fine. Might not load as fast as I want sometimes, but its fast enough for me.

I use one of them Dell XPS8300s that was on sale here last November. Great machine.
Data recovery is virtually non-existent on SSDs and that's a good thing IMO. With TRIM enabled, once the file has been marked as deleted it's, for all intents and purposes, gone. Yes, some researchers have been able, on some controllers, to retrieve some data directly from the chips themselves, not through the SATA interface. Once you empty the trash I would consider it gone forever.
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
#32
I'd rather have a six year old laptop with an SSD, than a brand new one without an SSD.

SSD's are THAT fast!!

Computing power has doubled every 18-24 months. Hard drives are stuck in the 80's.
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
#33
Quote from TheMightyQuinn View Post :
would this be a worthwhile upgrade even on a $300 laptop (fujitsu lifebook lh531) purchased last year?
Night and day difference...
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#34
Quote from jhooper View Post :
Night and day difference...
Ditto that. Put one in a basic intel core i3 laptop running windows 7 and it made an amazing improvement in boot time, downloading updates, restarts, and shut downs. The machine seems to operate faster in general even when not doing the above tasks.
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#35
thanks for this information...
nice job
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#36
Quote from sonthan00 View Post :
SSD is perfect for photo processing also. People have used it as scratch disk to speed up Photoshop. Lightroom can also benefit from SDD.
Very true. I went from about a 30 second load up time on photoshop, to about 6 seconds with the upgrade to an SSD.
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
#37
Please back up your SSDs at least weekly to a magnetic drive.
My Corsair F120 failed twice.
All my saved games are gone.
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
#38
Quote from lanshark View Post :
Please back up your SSDs at least weekly to a magnetic drive.
My Corsair F120 failed twice.
All my saved games are gone.

True...one thing the article does not mention is that SSD cells have a limited shelf life. Meaning they can only be overwritten a certain amount of times before they die. The SSD keeps tracks of these dead cells and uses other fresh cells to take over their spots. Eventually the whole drive will die and be useless. SSD's are built quite a bit bigger than advertised, say 800G for a 500 G drive, those extra 300 G of cells will be used to replace dead cells. I think the manufacturers are banking on everyone moving their data to larger SSD's at some point before the old ones fail.
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L11: Monkey's Apprentice
2,720 Reputation
#39
Quote from Pacolypse View Post :
True...one thing the article does not mention is that SSD cells have a limited shelf life. Meaning they can only be overwritten a certain amount of times before they die. The SSD keeps tracks of these dead cells and uses other fresh cells to take over their spots. Eventually the whole drive will die and be useless. SSD's are built quite a bit bigger than advertised, say 800G for a 500 G drive, those extra 300 G of cells will be used to replace dead cells. I think the manufacturers are banking on everyone moving their data to larger SSD's at some point before the old ones fail.
That's why they implemented wear leveling so cells are written to on a consistent and even basis. The actually lifespan of these writes is unclear though for consumer applications. It could last 5 years or 10 years or more. People doing constant writes to their SSDs should definitely keep a close eye on whats going on.
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#40
Quote from brbubba View Post :
It shouldn't but it's a good idea to check with mac users on a commonly used SSD since there have been problems in the past. Also you will need to take extra steps on OS X to get TRIM enabled.
I just installed 256GBV4 from Crucial. It's screaming fast on my mid-2009 Macbook 15 inch Pro. Well worth it.

Several years ago, ever since Apple released Snow Leopard, I thought that if I installed 8GB of Ram and I upgraded my regular 250GB HD to 500GB Hitachi Tristar, that I would not run into anymore problems of the rainbow wheel of deathspin. I ran intense programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop. I also used my Mac for videos and Lossless Audio conversions. WAS I WRONG.

SSD has been a great upgrade. The Mac is REAL quiet. I don't know if it's one half the time anymore. The cooling fan is never turns on at all. The heat from the computer is not even there. Amazing. I will never go back to HD anymore.
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
#41
thank you for the great article! learned some great info!
Reply Helpful Comment? 0 0
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