Should you swap your laptop hard drive for an SSD?

I’ve just been briefed by Kingston on the merits of its SSD Drives. Sandisk also has a range. Solid-state storage, capacity typically 128GB but larger is possible, lower power consumption (so longer battery life), better reliability (nearly drop-proof), and faster.

Kingston gave a demo showing how an SSD-equipped Toshiba laptop booted more quickly and processed images faster than an allegedly identical model with a conventional hard drive.

The company will be providing bundles that make it easy to switch. You get a USB case into which you insert your new SSD drive. Run the supplied cloning software, unscrew the drive flap on the laptop and swap the drives. Worth doing?

It strikes me as worth considering, but there are a couple of snags. One is cost and capacity – your SSD drive will be more expensive and store less than the old rotating type. That could change – but beware betting against hard drives, they are one of IT’s great survivors.

The other snag is that although SSD drives apparently score better on reliability – what the industry measures as MTBF or Mean Time Before Failure – they have a special bad habit of their own, which is that capacity gradually reduces as they wear.

What happens is that as cells wear out, the clever firmware remaps them to good cells, ensuring that your data is safe, but reducing the capacity.

The one “errm I’ll get back to you on that” moment comes when I ask what might be the normal expectation, in terms of how rapidly capacity reduces with normal usage. It is determined by how many writes you make; clearly it helps to have generous RAM in order to reduce the usage of temporary files.

The man from Kingston also revealed that some SSD drives have hidden reserves. For example, 10% extra capacity might be unavailable for use initially, but swapped in as it is needed. This hides the problem for a while, but does not cure it.

Still, you would think that SSD will win out in the end, as capacity improves and cost comes down. Further, if your main concern is how long the battery lasts on your train journeys and transatlantic flights, SSD is definitely worth a look. Many netbooks come with SSD as standard – the first device I had which uses them was an Asus Eee PC.

5 thoughts on “Should you swap your laptop hard drive for an SSD?”

  1. Having used SSD’s and 7200rpm drives in laptops, I cannot recommend SSD’s enough. I have a netbook with a modern SSD (made by RunCore – and nowhere near as fast as current items on the market), and a MacBook Pro with a 7200rpm 200GB Seagate.

    The netbook smokes the MacBook Pro in most tasks. Booting, application launching – anything involving I/O, and it’s a snap of the fingers. The responsiveness is also simply amazing. The vast majority of tasks on a computer are I/O bound – you’re waiting for information to be read from storage into memory (or less often, written back). Take away almost all storage delay, and the improvement to overall system speed and responsiveness is dramatic.

    Remember that a modern OS is made up of a huge number of files. A clean OS X install is over 500,000! When booting, or launching an app, or anything else, the system has to read hundreds if not thousands of those files. To read them on a hard drive, the head has to seek to position, settle, and wait for the data to spin around underneath it. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking 10ms over those few hundred or thousand files, you’re adding up seconds in a hurry. An SSD has no access time to speak of. It’s memory – every byte is like every other byte (okay, it’s broken up into cells in the SSD, but for reading it holds true). And that doesn’t even start talking about the sheer throughput of the SSD, which also outstrips all but the fastest hard drives. Hard drives to the best of my knowledge cannot saturate a 3Gbps SATA-II bus. SSD’s are already clamoring for SATA 3.0.

    My next full-size laptop will have an SSD – even if that means the SSD is 40% of the cost of the computer – because it’s that important now. I compare it strongly to how having a laptop changed the way I work, and how always-on broadband changed the way I use the internet.

    Now, as to the downsides. There were cases with early SSD’s where they would slow down over time due to the way the memory cells were written. As the drive filled up, the SSD would always try to use new memory cells to avoid erasing old ones, as erasing is particularly slow. This works fine – until you run out of space, and performance tanked. This has now been addressed by doing cleanup in the background when the SSD is idle.

    The other major concern – wear and tear leading to the SSD dying – well, I can’t say I’ve seen anyone actually report this happening. I see lots of mention of this potential downside, but as far as I can tell it’s still just hypothetical. Maybe it will rear its ugly head in the distant future, but in the here and now, SSD’s are still going to be far more reliable than a magnetic, mechanical hard drive, if only by virtue of fewer things that can go wrong (especially catastrophically – like a head crash).

    In short – get an SSD. You will one way or another over the next few years. I’ll put myself out there and say that within three years, SSD’s will replace hard drives in all but the most budget laptops. Desktops will follow later – durability doesn’t mean as much – but even there the speed benefits will win out.

  2. Well, I had a long follow-on regarding first generation MLC performance, current MLC performance, the importance of small block read/write performance, and benchmarks, but WordPress ate it.

    Here’s some info of when I upgraded a first-generation MLC SSD to a more modern one (although even now, it’s considered dated):

    And if you’re looking for a modern SSD for a laptop, the Intel X-25M and OCZ Vertex are both excellent performers and reasonably priced.

  3. I have been watching with interest myself, torn between upgrading the CPU to a 25W one instead of the current 35W and/or getting an SSD.

    Both are out of my price range at the moment especially as I do not use my laptop as much as my desktop, which could use a nice new monitor. But, its good to see more and more people looking into SSDs so I know where I stand.

    People make the size of SSDs too much of an issue when its just a simple matter of putting your existing drive in an external caddy you can keep your OS on the SSD and your larger data on the hard drive.

  4. I’m considering upgrading my Toshiba laptop to SSD. It only has an 80GB drive, so it’d be a space upgrade as well.

    I’ve even been considering installing them as boot drives in my media systems. I have 3 systems running MythTV, and they very rarely update data. Most of the disc IO is reading divx and mp3 files that never change.
    If I did that, I’d put the host OS on the SSD, and the swap and video files on the HDD. Hopefully, I’d get good boot times and still avoid any possible write fatigue issues.

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