Most people don’t give much thought to the type of storage inside their computer. If the system boots up and the data is available then everything is good to go, right? In truth, how your system behaves will vary dramatically depending on the type of storage unit your Mac is using.
There are two main categories of storage systems being used by computers today. The standard hard disk drive (HDD) has been in wide use since the late 1980s, while the newer Solid-state drive (SSD) is a relative newcomer to consumer machines. There are also a few “hybrid” types of storage systems that attempt to blend the benefits of both approaches but I’ll leave that discussion for another time!
HDDs are a very mature technology. You can expect a large quantity of storage space at relatively low cost within the 2.5” or 3.5” industry-standard physical sizes with these drives. The primary limitation with an HDD is the lack of speed when accessing data from the drive. Because the drive uses rotating platters as the storage medium you’ll notice that booting up your Mac, copying large files from one location to another or even launching an application can take many seconds or even minutes depending on the specific task. Some users do not mind or even notice this delay, but for others these slowdowns cry out for a solution.
Further complicating the situation is the INTERFACE DIFFERENCE between the different types of drives. Nearly all current hard drives use the SATA connector. These connectors are used in most PCs and are found in some Mac models like some MacBook Pro 13 or older, Mac Mini, iMac, etc. The SATA connector works very well and makes compatibility a snap but there is a maximum speed limit of 450Mb/s (which is not a problem for HDDs as even the fastest would not be able to reach this level). SSDs that connect to the system via SATA often DO hit this limit which can stunt maximum performance in this configuration.
Several faster standards have been introduced in an effort to overcome this limitation (like NVMe). Apple uses several proprietary SSD interfaces in their computers that also allow them to exceed the strict limitations of SATA. The resulting performance benefits for NVMe and proprietary Apple solutions are in the 3-4x range, leading to mind-blowing speed gains vs. HDD or SATA-based SSD solutions.
Speed? So what? Is that really going to be of great help to you? Well, YES! The primary benefit of switching to or choosing a computer with an SSD drive is the near-instant access those drives provide.
SSDs also lead the industry when it comes to low power consumption. With no moving parts or motors Solid-state drives use far less power and generate only a fraction of the heat when compared to a standard HDD. That small amount of power might not seem like much but over the course of a month you could see savings of .25c to .50c on your power bill every month (even more if the computer operates 24/7).
Sounds like a no-brainer! What could go wrong?
The most commonly cited drawback of SSD technology is lifespan. In their current iteration SSDs are simply not as reliable over the long term when compared to HDDs. The electronic cells within the SSD have a limited number of read/write operation cycles which culminate in a finite time-to-die. When SSDs do fail, they often fail completely making data recovery difficult (if not impossible). If you are using a system with a Solid-state drive my best advice would be to ensure that you are backing up your system periodically so as to mitigate against the possibility of drive failure.
Another downside is that Solid-state drives usually cost more and come in smaller capacities than HDDs (though these disadvantages are rapidly evaporating as the technology advances)!
The news regarding SSD cost is not all bad! We’ve recently observed a steady decline in cost for Solid-state drives. For example, two years ago the wholesale price of a 480Gb SSD was in the $349.00 range compared to a 500Gb HDD priced at $119.00 (huge difference). As this article is written in late 2018 we see 480Gb SSDs in bulk priced in the $150 range compared to HDDs landing at about $95. We expect this gap to continue to narrow with SSDs eventually displacing consumer-sized drives in the 2Tb and lower sizes with HDDs continuing to be sold in the larger 4Tb+ spaces.
How do these drives perform in real-world tests?
I tested the popular MacBook Pro 13” (2012 model) with both drives and found that the time for the system to come to the desktop from a cold boot was 20 seconds for the SSD vs 43 seconds for the stock hard drive (more than twice as fast)! When I duplicated a 2Gb movie file on the SSD iI found it was nearly 3 times faster at completing the task than the HDD (8 seconds vs. 22 seconds). Impressive! These speed differences can give you an indication of the real-world speeds you could expect, but ultimately the changes are best observed during day-to-day actual use of the computer. Users that have upgraded from HDD to SSD express shock at the increase! It is not unusual to hear that “it seemed like a whole new computer”! What a difference a little drive can make!
So which drive is right for you?
For normal, daily use most users would benefit from the additional speed that SSD brings to the table. If you have huge quantities of data then you may want to remain with hard disk storage for now as large solid-state drives are still fairly expensive. The one area where HDDs still reign supreme and unquestioned in their dominance is the realm of BACKUP STORAGE. The mantra of backup systems is: go big and go safe! Nothing beats a good reliable mirrored backup array filled with HDDs!
Computer manufacturers usually give users a choice as to which drive type will be included inside their computer. Some typical options that might be present could include:
500Gb HDD LEAST EXPENSIVE CHOICE, MODERATE PERFORMANCE
1Tb HDD MODERATE COST, MODERATE PERFORMANCE
2Tb HDD HIGHEST COST, MODERATE PERFORMANCE
256Gb SSD HIGHEST COST, BEST PERFORMANCE
Despite the various pros and cons the user is left with a fundamental choice: go big or go fast! Recently, we’ve seen SSD drive costs begin to fall as manufacturers focus on the newer technology. This has resulted in more reasonable SSD drive costs which is good news for everyone!
The truth is there is not single perfect choice for all purposes. Many power users have one foot in each world. They use a fast SSD as the boot volume (internal storage on their laptop, iMac, etc.) with additional external large-capacity storage for massive databases like iPhoto libraries or iTunes collections. This blended approach make the most sense at this point in time allowing users to reap the benefits of a fast boot/applications drive with the necessary large storage capacity a large HDD offers. As prices continue to fall and capacities increase we expect SSDs to continue to increase their penetration into the storage markets of the world. Just make sure you’re keeping everything backed up!