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Hard disk drives vs. solid-state drives: Are SSDs finally worth the money?

September 17, 2012 06:25 AM ET
Testing the SSD with a MacBook

Microsoft Word opened in about two seconds, which would allow a user to begin writing to the top of a document, or reading it, regardless of its size. However, the Word document took 57 seconds to load all 372 pages, so you couldn't access the later pages until it had finished loading.

Cherryville
Intel's 520 Series SSD

Opening a 10MB Power Point presentation took 2 seconds. Copying the 327 JPG images took 15 seconds.

The Blackmagic benchmarking software recorded a maximum read rate of 456MB/sec. and a write rate of 241MB/sec. using 4KB blocks.

Intel's specification sheet states that the 520 Series SSD sports sequential read/write speeds of 550MB/sec. and 520MB/sec., respectively. I'm guessing that those specs were attained using higher-end hardware, such as a storage array.

I also tested the Intel 520 SSD on a MacBook with a SATA 2.0 3Gbps interface. The read/write speeds dropped significantly -- in this case, the 520 Series SSD offered a maximum sequential read and write rate of 280MB/sec.

Intel's drive also took it easy on laptop batteries, sipping a maximum of 5.25 volts while operating and only 600 milliwatts when idle.

Testing the SSD using Calypso's service

Calypso Industries uses the Solid State Storage Initiative Performance Test Specification (SSS PTS) and a standardized hardware platform to evaluate and compare drive performance. Developed by the Storage Networking Industry Association, there is no more accurate method to test drives.

Slower -- but still better

The drive I currently have installed in my MacBook Pro is an Intel 510 Series SSD with 256GB of capacity. When I installed it about a year ago, the system booted in about 25 seconds and shut down in about 2 seconds. Today, it boots in 45 seconds and shuts down in 7 seconds. It's slower than it was -- but believe me, it's still a vast improvement over a hard drive.

My Outlook mailbox still loads in about 3 seconds and Word opens in 2 seconds. Near instantaneous application load times are a wonderful luxury.

I could never go back to when I used a hard drive and I would turn my computer on, go and grab a cup of coffee and come back to wait for it to continue booting up. -- Lucas Mearian

The SSS PTS method requires that drives first be "conditioned" prior to testing, meaning data is written to the SSD until its performance levels out. New SSDs perform better than used ones because their controller chips don't have to move existing data around to accommodate new data writes. They can just stick the data anywhere without "thinking" about it.

Once all the blocks of an SSD have been used, however, then operations get more complicated and drive performance slows and then levels out. So the SSS PTS methodology calls for filling a consumer-class SSD to 75% of its capacity twice before it is tested so that the results reflect real-world performance.

Calypso's throughput tests showed the Intel SSD handily outperforming both the hybrid drive and, not surprisingly, the hard drive. The SSD had a blazingly fast top random read throughput of 505MB/sec, and a random write rate of about 225MB/sec. More importantly, the Intel SSD had an average "steady state" throughput of 223MB/sec. This means that most read and write operations will be performed at 223MB/sec.

Western Digital WD Black hard drive

Unlike the two other drives tested in this review, the WD Black uses a SATA 2.0 (3Gbps) interface, not a SATA 3.0 (6Gbps) connection. Manufacturers don't make laptop hard drives with a SATA 3.0 interface because the drive's performance can't even fully use a SATA 2.0 interface.

WD Black
Western Digital's WD Black hard disk drive

After I installed it into my MacBook Pro, the drive booted up in 20 seconds. Restart took just 21 seconds. While that's not SSD or hybrid drive load time, it's not that far behind; the speed can be attributed to the generous amount of DRAM on board. As the drive fills up over time, I would expect those bootups to slow down significantly.

Opening a 300KB, 372-page Word document took 10 seconds, then an additional 38 seconds to load all the pages.

The second time I opened the document, the RAM cache had obviously kicked in. The Word document opened in 2 seconds, and all 372 pages took only 25 seconds to load. The third time I opened it, Word again loaded in 2 seconds and the entire document loaded in 7 seconds, beating the SSD and hybrid drive alike. I had not expected that.

Opening a 10MB PowerPoint slide took just 2 seconds, the same time as the hybrid drive and the SSD.



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