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

September 17, 2012 06:25 AM ET

If you're looking for a hybrid drive, there aren't a lot of choices out there. There's Seagate and, well ... Seagate. Last year, SSD maker OCZ introduced its RevoDrive hybrid drive, but it came in a PCIe card form factor -- in other words, unusable in a laptop. The RevoDrive is targeted for workstations and for people working with high-bandwidth applications like video production, as well as gamers who love the performance that a high-end, high-priced desktop system offers.

Both Toshiba and Western Digital are rumored to be developing hybrid drives, but neither company would confirm that anything is in the works.

Even if they never catch on in a big way, I think hybrid drives have a lot to offer the average laptop user and they should be considered by anyone who is upgrading a laptop or desktop system.

The bottom line

I recommended an SSD in 2009. Now, in 2012, I do it with even more enthusiasm.

A word on cache SSDs

Coming soon to a store near you: Laptops that sport two drives, a high-capacity hard drive and a low-capacity solid state "cache" drive. By "low capacity," I'm talking about 20GB to 50GB of storage space.

Cache SSDs come in several sizes. Most are 2.5-in. mini-SATA drives, just like a typical laptop hard drive.

The cache SSD works in the same way as Seagate's Momentus XT: The OS and most frequently used applications are loaded from the flash memory, while the files and other less frequently used data are stored on the hard disk drive. The result is a lower-cost laptop with similar performance to a laptop with just an SSD.

Intel, Micron and OCZ are putting out cache SSDs; while Lenovo, Asus, Acer, HP and Dell are beginning to build laptops and ultrabooks that use them. For example, a number of Lenovo's ThinkPad and ThinkPad Edge notebooks support cache SSDs.

The Asus Zenbook UX32VD ultrabook combines up to a 500GB hard drive with a 24GB SSD. In fact, according to Intel's specifications, a device must use either a cache SSD or a full-sized SSD to achieve the performance required to be called an ultrabook. -- Lucas Mearian

To begin with, prices have dropped significantly. If you can afford to spend a couple hundred dollars on even a 128GB SSD, it's a superior proposition to even a 1TB hard drive. Why? The overwhelming majority of end users will never fill a 1TB internal drive, while just about everyone will be able to appreciate the incredible performance boost that an SSD provides.

For the money, there is no other system upgrade that will give you the performance boost of an SSD. That goes for consumers and data centers alike.

One caveat, though: Some may say that SSDs do not stop working or slow down over time, as hard drives do. I've been using SSDs in my personal computers for years now. Some do die and, just like a hard drive, they do slow down over time. Don't let anyone tell you different.

If you do decide to go with an SSD, it's best to order it when you first buy your system. That way, it can be configured correctly by the manufacturer, which will optimize performance and ensure your system's warranty isn't voided.

However, even if you decide to throw an SSD into your existing system as an upgrade, you'll still experience a significant boost in performance, particularly on boot-up and application load times.

If you don't have a few hundred dollars to plop down on an SSD, a hybrid drive is an excellent alternative. Of course, you're still dealing with a mechanical drive that can break if a laptop is dropped while the drive is running, but you'll still get performance vastly superior to a hard drive.

In the very near future, however, buying your own SSD may become a moot point as new ultrabooks and other lightweight systems enter the market. At that point, you may want to consider an entire system upgrade.

covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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