A solid state future

Let me get this off my chest – I’ve never liked hard disk drives (HDD).

All hard disks are are liable to die on you any second. It doesn’t matter which brand it is, what’s the capacity or how old it is. I’ve had brand new drives go kaput, and lost hundreds of gigabytes of data each time (not permanently though, thanks to a religious habit of backing up my stuff twice over).

Why this happens is because a HDD is made up of delicate moving parts, despite its tough exterior. A good knock to a HDD often means bad news.

 

525px-Hard_drive-en_svg

I mean, just look at this Wikipedia diagram of a hard drive – every hard drive is a remarkable achievement in physics and engineering, thanks to the dizzying speeds at which the moving parts travel. According to Wikipedia, the head + actuator arm can accelerate up to 550Gs!

Amazing, for a technology that arrived in 1956.

Of course, nobody learns about HDD internals in school – this is so incredibly geeky right – thus everyone takes hard disks for granted. But our lives have become intertwined with HDDs. So much of our personal data and memories are now stored on HDDs in servers and within our personal computers.

Now for the past six months or so, I’ve been thinking about the next generation of computer storage – solid state drives. In essence, they’re basically big thumb drives designed to replace HDD technology. By using several memory chips with no moving parts, they can access data far more quickly than a traditional HDD. And because nothing physically moves within the drives, you can drop an SSD onto the tarmac and it’ll still work fine and dandy. Much like how my thumb drives have survived several spin cycles in the washing machine!

 

800px-Open_HDD_and_SSD A traditional hard drive on the left, versus a solid state drive with 12 memory chips. Image from Wikipedia.

Sounds like a magical solution right? So why haven’t SSDs taken the world by storm yet?

  • They’re way too expensive now. (see below)
  • Low capacities compared to HDDs. At time of writing, 80GB and 160GB SSDs are the readily available capacities, compared to 1.5TB or 2TB HDDs.
  • Every SSD has a limited lifespan as data can be repeatedly stored in the memory cells up to a certain limit (anything from 1 million to 5 million times, depending on the type of memory cell). Whether you reach that limit in your personal computing use is another question.

 

Intel_SSD_angle

Nevertheless, as a true-blue early adopter, I took the plunge yesterday when I was lucky enough to snare an Intel 160GB SSD at Chamoxa, Sim Lim Square.

The stock arrived on Monday and three days later, there were only two left in the shop in their brown OEM cardboard boxes. It’s possibly the most in-demand product in our favorite IT mall these days as it’s never in stock.

Other brands like OCZ and Kingston are readily available, but the Intel SSDs are generally regarded as the best performers on the market today.

The financial damage was substantial – S$739 for a 160GB Intel SSD.

That’s about $4.60 per gigabyte, compared to the dirt cheap HDDs which go for about $0.12 per gigabyte! That makes a SSD 38 times more expensive than a HDD! You could buy a cheap desktop PC or a netbook with that price tag.

Now from a pure ROI point of view, it doesn’t make sense to get an SSD. You aren’t going to get 38 times better performance from an SSD versus a HDD. A computer is made of many different components, each which provides each own bottleneck. 

And the low capacity also means I have to store all new data on my other HDDs, and leave the SSD just for installing Windows and other key applications.

But you know, we PC geeks grew up in the 80s and 90s when every 10% increase in computing performance was akin to manna from heaven. And trust me, after installing Windows 7 64-bit Ultimate and putting the Intel SSD through some initial usage, I don’t regret spending the moolah.

The key benefit of my new SSD is that alot of waiting time has been cut down or eliminated. Some quick observations:

  • It takes 35 seconds from the time I power up the computer (and the motherboard and graphic card has to slowly wake up here!) to a fully usable Windows 7 desktop with Windows LIVE Messenger and Security Essentials all loaded.
  • Photoshop CS4 takes an average of 3 seconds to launch. It used to take about 8 seconds. And the previously lumbering Adobe Bridge (which I use to manage my high-res photos) loads in 2 seconds flat.
  • Websites load ridiculously fast. Most people don’t realize that today’s Internet webpages require fast processors and hard drives, thanks to all the dynamic content. But loading any webpage with my 100Mbps Starhub connection is near instantaneous now.
  • According to Win 7’s Experience Index, my SSD is now rated at 7.5 (7.9 being the highest possible), while my Seagate HDDs were rated at 5.9. Windows 7 was designed with SSDs in mind too. Now, the bottleneck in my PC is the two-year-old Nvidia 5900 graphics card.

I don’t like to do benchmarking like other geeks, but from a casual user’s point of view, I’d say that my PC experience seems faster by anything from 50% to 200% of what it used to be.

It’s purely perceptual of course, but think about it, we often think our PCs are slow because they take so long to load applications or webpage. The SSD takes that problem and crushes it.

Ok, this is probably the honeymoon phase before the SSD begins to deteriorate from use. I have also yet to put the SSD through the paces by doing HD video-editing.

The good news is that Intel has released a toolkit and firmware to help keep the SSD in tip top condition if you run it on a weekly basis (but I’m probably too lazy to).

What thrills me is that we are finally entering into the next phase of the computing era, having been stuck in a 32-bit world for over two decades.

With a 64-bit Windows 7, my PC can utilize more than 4GB of RAM and is better at dealing with multitasking. With an SSD, loading times have been cut significantly, and I don’t need to worry so much about sudden death of the storage media. For people who have to manage a lot of photos and videos on their PC, this combination of hardware and software is a godsend.

Of course, HDDs will be around for some time, but just like thumb drives and SD cards, SSD prices will come tumbling down with an exponential increase in capacity. I believe in a few years’ time, SSDs will be the standard in all laptops and perhaps even desktops.

If you have an opportunity to buy a laptop that uses an SSD drive (eg. the uber cool Dell Adamo or Adamo XPS), don’t think too much about it and just jump in. I used to think that Windows 7 was pretty fast for an OS, but with an SSD, you truly unlock its inner speed demon.

PS: When I asked my wife to check out our new blazing fast PC, she said: “You’re spoiling the kids.” I agree, but why shy away from the future when you can have it now? I like to spoil myself too.

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