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Solid-State Hard Drives for Laptops: Worth the Price?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/22/2011

Solid State Hard Drives are an exciting new technology, particularly for laptops. But every new technology brings its costs. Are Solid State Drives ready for the mass-market, or are they still only useful in the most lavish mobile PCs?

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    Goodbye, Ye Olde Mechanical Drive?

    Mechanical drives have been the mainstay of long-term PC memory of decades. Solid-state solutions have always been possible, but there were major limitations that made them impractical in comparison to mechanical disks, the largest of which was that manufacturers of solid-state memory simply didn't have the technology needed to make 3.5" or 2.5" solid-state drives capable of holding a respectable amount of content. Now, things have changed, and for the first time in history we have solid-state hard-drives which are practical for the consumer to buy and use in a mobile computer.

    But it may not be time to dump your old mechanical drive just yet. Before deciding to switch to a solid-state drive, or purchase a laptop which uses a solid-state drive, it is important to understand what you should expect from this new technology.

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    Mechanical Hard Drives - Not Dead Yet

    drives Undoubtedly the largest advantage claimed by mechanical hard disks is massive amount of data they can store. While companies like Intel have been working hard to bring forward cutting-edge solid-state disks, mechanical hard-drive businesses like Western Digital haven't been resting on their laurels. The amount of hard-drive space available in laptop mechanical drives has exploded, making drives with 500GB of storage possible. For a laptop, which will likely never have to store memory-eating content like video games or high-definition movies, that is an incredible amount of storage.

    The high amount of maximum storage available in a mechanical hard drive becomes even more appealing when price is considered. 500GB laptop hard disk can be purchased for just over $100 dollars, and even bigger mechanical hard drives are in the future. The constant expansion of mechanical hard drive storage space will surely keep prices low.

    And don't count the old mechanical disks out when it comes to performance, either. While mechanical drives appear to be far worse than solid-state disks when the two are pitted against each other in IO meter drag races, those benchmarks represent server workloads, not the kind of work you'll be doing with a laptop. When it comes to things like reading and writing files, solid-state disks are often more of a mixed bag. They can read very quickly, but their write speeds are often low.

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    In With The New

    Despite the low write speeds of many solid-state drives, the performance of solid-state disks is still very good. The largest advantage is in random access scenarios. This proves useful when first opening a program. It will load quicker, resulting in a snappier feel. The best solid state drives are also quite competent in straight file copy drag races.

    Performance, however, is the least of the reasons to make the switch. Practicality can be just as important, and in comparison to mechanical hard drives, solid-state disks offer a number of perks.

    Even the cheapest solid state drives still cost around $200 dollars for 80GB, so price isn't that perk. However, because laptops take a lot of punishment, the lack of moving parts among solid-state disks is important. Mechanical drives in hard disks stand a chance of being damaged whenever the laptop is suddenly and rapidly moved, or even if the laptop is picked up by an edge, allowing the chassis of the laptop to flex. Because of this, many laptops now include anti-shock features which halt mechanical drives when they detect that the laptop is being moved. These protections help, but they also cause the entire laptop to freeze momentarily, which can be an annoyance. With a solid state hard drive, you can deactivate the feature without worry.

    Power consumption is also much lower with solid-state hard drives. Samsung solid state disks, for example, typically use a fourth of the power of Samsung mechanical drives. This means your battery will last longer. Noise and vibration are nearly non-existent, as well, which is great for people who bring their laptops to classrooms and meetings.

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    Time To Buy?

    Ultimately, the massive difference in price will make the decision for many of you. Many people either can't or won't accept the $200-$300 dollar price gap between a good mechanical hard disk and a solid state drive. If you are mostly interested in value, or simply can't see the advantage in spending as much money on a hard drive as you might spend on an entry-level laptop, then sticking the mechanical drives will make far more sense.

    That said, the premium associated with solid state drives does buy the user some worthwhile advantages. The increase in performance is nice, but the better battery life and reliability are probably far more important to laptop users. For true road-warriors, the confidence that a solid state drive brings may be invaluable.