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Solid State Drives Explained

written by: John Lister•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/4/2009

We explain solid state drives, the lightweight alternative to traditional hard drives, including their advantages and disadvantages,

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    What are SSDs?

    A solid state drive (SSD) is a device used for storing data permanently. Unlike traditional hard drives, it has no moving parts. It works in a similar way to a USB memory stick, or a memory card in a digital camera, but is specifically designed to work as a standalone hard drive.

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    What are the benefits of SSDs?

    Faster access. A traditional hard drive needs to be spinning at a certain speed to work. This takes some time from a ‘standing start’. It also needs the head (the device used to write and read information) to move to the exact physical location on the disk where the relevant data is stored. An SSD doesn’t have either of these requirements and thus works much more quickly – even though the difference is a fraction of a second each time, it soon mounts up.

    More resilient. Because an SSD has no moving parts, it’s much sturdier and can cope with wider extremes in temperature or knocks and bumps.

    Quieter. Aside from cooling fans in the notebook or PC, an SSD is completely silent. This is different to traditional hard drives where you can often hear the drive working (particularly when it is on the verge of failing).

    Fewer fragmentation problems. Unlike traditional hard drives which often suffer from defragmentation (where files are physically scattered across the disk, making them slower to access), it makes little difference where files are located on an SSD.

    Size. Existing SSDs are sometimes smaller and lighter than the equivalent hard drives, though at the moment this advantage disappears with higher-capacity drives.

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    What are the drawbacks of SSDs?

    Capacity. The largest SSD available this year will be 128GB, with both Samsung and SanDisk working on 256GB editions. While this is enough for many people who use a laptop for its portability, it’s not as much as traditional hard drives which come in sizes up to 1TB (1000GB).

    Price. At the moment SSDs are considerably more expensive per GB than traditional drives. (However, prices are dropping rapidly and this is expected to continue.)

    Windows problems. The various editions of Windows, including Vista, are not designed with SSDs in mind. The problem is that an SSD is split into fewer, but bigger, sections than a traditional drive. However, Windows is set up so that it can only handle a small ‘chunk’ of data at a time, which means an SSD doesn’t run as efficiently as possible.

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    What is the future for SSDs?

    The specific advantages of SSDs mean they are most suited to use in laptops. At the moment only a few high-end laptops use SSDs, mainly because of the costs. Most analysts believe that the technology will advance to the point that SSDs become a practical and affordable alternative in 2010.

    Meanwhile, Microsoft has had talks with Samsung about changing Windows so it can make best use of SSDs. While Samsung hopes this change can come in an update to Vista, it’s more likely that any changes will come in Windows 7 – which coincidentally is due out in 2010.

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    Images

    A Sandisk SSD (external and internal)