Why You Need a Solid State Hard Drive

***  UPDATE 6/7/12 – See how I corrected a fairly major problem with my particular SSD in this article. ***

I recently upgraded my computer because it was beyond showing its age and was getting to the point that it couldn’t even complete certain tasks anymore.  The component I was looking forward to most was the new hard drive.  Isn’t a hard drive just a hard drive?  Don’t you always get so much more space than you’ll ever use?  Why care about that so much?

TL;DR:  I bought an SSD.  It sped up my computer a lot.  I think everyone would love one and should buy one.

For years I’ve dreamt of the day when really fast hard drives would be commonplace.  Sure, having a multi-core CPU and a killer video card are great, but think about what you wait on most of the time:  stuff loading, saving, and copying.  I imagine a time when the computer truly is just an appliance like TV.  You push a button and it is on and ready to go.  This requires some type of ultra-fast storage.  Enter the solid state drive.

You can think of a solid state drive (SSD) like a USB flash/thumb drive with much higher capacity and a much faster transfer rate.  There are no moving parts.  They are silent (obviously).  Theoretically, they will last longer and are more rugged than standard hard drives.  They use less power and, most importantly for me, they are much much faster.  Although this article at Tom’s Hardware is getting a little long in the tooth, I think it gives a pretty good idea of the typical hard drive vs solid state hard drive speed.  In particular the video on this page gives a good impression of the differences.

Why doesn’t every computer ship with an SSD?  The only reason I can come up with is cost.  When I purchased mine, it cost me about $280 for 256GB.  Ouch!  It was by far the most expensive component of my upgrade.  When I went back to check on the shipment of my order the next day, the price had dropped $50.  A few days after that when a friend asked what I ordered and I went to grab the URL, the price had dropped by $80.  At the time of this writing, the price is back up to $250 so I guess there was a temporary price war with someone.  You can check the current price by clicking here.

You can see that I decided to buy this component from Amazon.  I preferred their return policy on SSD’s over NewEgg’s.  Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t offer a price matching guarantee, but overall I’m happy purchasing the drive through them.

SSD’s do have a few unusual things that should be taken in to account:
1.  You should never sleep or hibernate an SSD.  In certain cases with certain drives in certain configurations, this can mess them up.  I haven’t read anything about the percentages here, but I gather that it is a small number but large enough to pay attention to.  Besides, SSD’s use so little power when idle, there is much less need to sleep them so why take the risk.

2.  You must never defrag an SSD.  I noticed when I installed Win 7 on my SSD, it automatically turned off defragging on this drive.  Apparently, defragging an SSD can cause it to become non-functional and at the very least puts unnecessary wear on it.  It wouldn’t speed up the operation of it anyway.  Don’t worry, you can reclaim the unused space by…

3.  Do use TRIM.  This is a process that goes in and reclaims the unused space on your SSD once a file is deleted.  If you are running Windows 7, when you install your SSD, it should automatically detect what kind of drive it is and start running TRIM on it.  You can check to see if TRIM is running by doing the following:  1. Open Command Prompt with Administrative privileges (“Run as administrator” when you right-click the command prompt icon is one way)  2. Enter the following command “fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify”  3.  If the result is ‘0’ TRIM is enabled.  I didn’t have to do anything special.  Win 7 detected the SSD and, when I checked, it was running TRIM.  If you don’t run some sort of reclamation software like this, the performance of the drive will degrade the more you use it.  If you don’t run software like this I imagine you’d have to eventually reformat the drive to get it back to a useful speed.  Why not run TRIM though?  It only operates when your computer is idle and it maintains its performance.

4.  Do set your mode to AHCI (or RAID if you are setting up a RAID array) before you install Windows on it.  I ended up having to install Win 7 twice because the first time I didn’t do this properly.  Win 7 still worked but I wasn’t getting all the speed out of the drive that I could.  I honestly don’t know the details, but AHCI works with SSD’s better.  You can see how to set it up in this video (at the 12:00 minute mark) and by following the instructions that came with your motherboard.  NOTE:  I set the BIOS to AHCI for the SSD, but I missed the step to load the AHCI driver before installing Win 7.  Basically, when you insert the CD and start the installation process, you will get to a point where it asks you which drive to install Win 7 on.  Notice down in the lower left-hand corner the button labeled “load driver.”  Now is the time to load the ACHI driver – before Win 7 is installed.

Yes, an SSD is a noticeable speed increase.  It isn’t the instant-on for everything that I was hoping for but it is so much faster than a standard hard drive.  Google Chrome loads about a nanosecond after you click on the icon.  Other programs take a little longer.  Windows 7 takes about one minute to be operational from the moment you press the start button (about half the time is the BIOS POST’ing and about half is Win 7 loading from the SSD).  It took about ten minutes to install Win 7 on this drive instead of the suggested 30 minutes for a normal hard drive.

Since SSD’s are silent, I notice the fans in my computer much more now.  What I always used to assume was the sound of the hard drive as a program loaded I now know is the CPU heatsink fan spinning up.

The SSD I have has not made me think of my computer as an appliance just yet, but it has reduced my wait times to almost nothing.  If I had it to do over, I would purchase the exact same SSD and be very happy that I did.  I cannot imagine a situation where a computer user would NOT appreciate the performance boost of an SSD.

Please note that most SSD’s are sized to fit in laptops (2.5” bay) instead of desktops (3.5” bay).  I thought I already had an adapter bracket or that I’d be able to buy one locally.  I was wrong.  Don’t fret.  Every SSD I looked at had a version with a bracket and one without.  Just remember to order the one you need or plan to order the bracket separately as I had to do.  Some of these stand-alone brackets even allow you the option of stacking two SSD’s in a single hard drive bay.  If only I had the money for two SSD’s so I could put them in a RAID array…  There is always something better and faster.