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Boosting your laptop's speed with a Solid State Drive

Updated on May 26, 2014
The SanDisk SATA 5000: One of the first 32GB solid state drives
The SanDisk SATA 5000: One of the first 32GB solid state drives | Source

Introduction

Since solid state drives (SSDs) burst into the market in late 2007, they have gone from strength to strength. Previously the domain of enthusiasts, SSDs have infiltrated the mainstream to the extent that traditional hard disk (HDD) giants like Seagate and Western Digital have taken notice.

At a first glance, you might find it puzzling why SSDs are superior to the hard disks they replace. After all, a paltry 128GB SSD today is about the same price as a traditional 1TB HDD. With digital media growing larger in size and applications consuming more disk space than ever before, it is only normal to wonder how a 128GB SSD could store everything. Indeed, space is the biggest trade-off you need to make.

Before that, however, let me first explain what an SSD is.


What is a Solid State Drive?

A solid state drive (SSD) is basically something like an SD card or a thumbdrive, just that it's much more durable and about a million times faster. Well, not a million, but you get the idea. This makes it really suitable for a laptop, where you tend to want your computer to boot up very quickly and for your data to remain intact even if you accidentally drop your laptop.

Just so you get a general idea of how fast SSDs can be: compared to a traditional hard drive which takes about a minute (or more) from the moment where you press the Power button to the moment you enter Windows, SSDs can usually complete the task within 15 seconds or less!

The advantage is not just in starting up. Applications seem to load up instantly with an SSD, while it may take seconds on a HDD. It may seem inconsequential, but given how often we run applications every day, it all adds up. And, I'm sure you know that in this fast-paced world we live in today where attention spans are shorter than ever, a few seconds may seem like eternity.

Why are SSDs so fast? The reason lies in the way it accesses data. While traditional hard disks have to spin up and seek to the exact place where the data is stored before being able to read it, SSDs can do so almost instantaneously simply by firing an electron. Remember those days where you defragmented your hard drive just to get things to run fast again? This is because by having all your required data at one place, the hard disk can just access things sequentially, dispensing with the need of seeking all over the place. With an SSD, however, there's no need for defragmentation, as a simple burst of electrons will just help retrieve your data from wherever it is.



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Why is speed so important?

If you've used an old computer for an extensive amount of time, you may have probably physically abused it in frustration when the hourglass (or loading orb on newer versions of Windows) appears next to your mouse cursor and refuses to go away. While that is understandable, the unfortunate fact is that it happens sometimes even on newer systems.

I used to be doubtful of the effectiveness of an SSD, until I got one for my birthday present. Boy, did I finally realise what I was missing out on.

Specification-wise, my computer wasn't slow by any means. It had a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, with a generous 8GB of RAM, and it was a fairly clean Windows installation. However, I used to have to wait two minutes for my computer to boot up, and then another two just for all my start-up programs to finish loading so that my web browser window would finally launch. I remember dreading to install Windows Updates as they would force a reboot, leaving me with five minutes of downtime.

With an SSD, all these changed. I barely see the Windows loading screen any longer, and as soon as I'm in the desktop, I could click on my browser window and it would appear instantly. It felt as if I had just plonked down $3,000 on a brand-new state-of-the-art system when the Crucial M4 SSD in question was worth only about $150.

Eventually, I decided to purchase a Crucial M500 SSD for my laptop as well. It essentially gave it a new lease of life. Though it was running a high-end Intel Core i7 quad-core mobile processor, it was bottlenecked by its slow-spinning 5,400rpm hard disk drive. I always opted to hibernate it and dreaded shutting it down completely, because the boot sequence was just. too. painful. With an SSD, I'm ready to go from a fresh boot in just fifteen seconds!

I admit that sometimes, you have to see it to believe it, so perhaps you could pop by your local store and have a look at some of the SSD-running laptops on display.

Where do I find one of these SSDs?

These days, all but the cheapest laptops generally have some form of SSD in them. Usually, they are paired together with a traditional hard disk. So, you may find advertising materials showing "500GB + 24GB", which means to say they pair a 500GB hard disk with a 24GB SSD. The 24GB SSD is used for caching, which means to say, a software or driver will, based on your usage pattern, store your most used data on the SSD so you can access them faster. Granted, you won't have fast access to all your data, but it is a cheap compromise. On one hand, you still get lots of storage, and on the other hand, you still enjoy some of the benefits of a full-fledged SSD.

Ideally, you would get a laptop that comes with a full-fledged SSD, as hybrid HDD+SSD combinations are rather software- or driver-dependent sometimes and may not work as intended all the time. Unfortunately, laptop manufacturers are keen to cash in on the privilege. While a 256GB SSD costs less than $150 these days, manufacturers such as Apple command over $250 just to put that same drive in that laptop. The good news is that laptops with 128GB of SSD space are getting more mainstream (and affordable), so you could probably get by if you do not require that much space.

The last alternative is to get your own aftermarket SSD to replace (or complement) your laptop's hard drive. However, this is dependent on the laptop you have. In some Acer laptops (particularly the V5 series), you have to dismantle practically the whole laptop before you can replace the hard drive; on the other hand, some laptops (particularly budget-oriented or heavier ones) provide direct access to the hard drive. My laptop (a Samsung Series 5) is fortunate enough to fall in the latter category. If you're keen on this, my suggestion would be to Google for instructions for your particular model before buying an aftermarket SSD.

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Which SSD to buy?

There are many kinds of SSD available, but the first thing to do is to make sure your system is compatible.


Compatibility

For most systems, your safest bet would be a SATA-based SSD. Try to look for one that supports SATA-III, as it's the fastest SATA specification available today. Virtually all SSDs on the market today are probably SATA-III compatible.

There are SSDs that also run on the PCI-Express interface. I won't go into much detail about them, but they are generally much faster (and more expensive) than their SATA counterparts as they are not constrained by the bandwidth limits of the SATA interface. Apple's range of SSD-running laptops now use PCI-Express SSDs.

One thing is for sure though: no matter the interface, it's guaranteed to run faster than a hard disk.


Type of Memory

The other important thing to know is that there are three main kinds of memory used in SSDs today: single-level cell (SLC), multi-level cell (MLC), and triple-level cell (TLC).

I won't go into the technical details here (you can read up more on Wikipedia), but a SLC SSD is most durable, followed by MLC and then TLC. MLC SSDs are the most common variant nowadays. While it is less durable than SLC, it will still last you about 30 years based on typical usage. A TLC SSD, meanwhile, will last you about 10-15 years on average. Most of us replace our computers within that period of time, so it shouldn't be much of an issue. The only popular TLC SSD in the market right now is the Samsung 840 Evo. Though it uses TLC memory, its performance is one of the best in the market today, allowing it to command a price premium over other SSDs.

Recommendations

There are a few prominent brands out there when it comes to SSDs.

Most SSDs use either the SandForce or the Marvell controller, though both Samsung and Intel have come up with their own controllers as well.

The distinction is important as SandForce controllers have a peculiarity: they treat compressible and incompressible data differently. Compressible data, such as Word documents, seem to be handled much faster with a SandForce controller, while incompressible data, such as already compressed data like Zip files, movies, and mp3s, seem to transfer more slowly. For a period of time, TRIM (basically an SSD's way of removing deleted data for good), thus causing slowdowns as a re-write is often much slower than a clean write on an SSD. However, this issue has since been resolved.

Among the other controllers, there really isn't much of a difference between them.

1: Crucial M500/M550

Crucial SSDs have always been popular with the masses as it provides good performance for the money. In particular, the 960GB version of the M500 can be had for less than $500, which comes round to less than $0.50/GB. For the M500, the 480GB and 960GB provides optimal performance, with the 240GB version being slower than the 120GB being much slower. Though, both the 240GB and 120GB versions are still way, way faster than your HDD.

Some sites have reported the M500 to have a high idle power consumption. From personal experience on a laptop, this isn't the case as long as DIPM+HIPM is enabled on your laptop, which it should on most modern systems.

On the other hand, the M550 brings about numerous performance improvements over the M500, though it is naturally more expensive. Though, it is still affordable as a whole.

Having used two Crucial SSDs, I am somewhat biased towards them, but for good reason. Their support forum is excellent and if your device is faulty, the return process is really simple: just mail it in and they'll send you a new one.

Both Crucial SSDs use a Marvell controller.

2: Samsung 840 EVO/840 PRO

The Samsung 840 EVO and 840 PRO command a price premium, but for good reason. They are really fast and have good power consumption figures. The 840 EVO uses TLC (with some SLC to improve performance and reduce wear on frequently used data) while the 840 PRO uses the traditional MLC. Though longevity was called into question when the 840 EVO hit the market, stress tests have shown that they are able to last more than twice as long as their life expectancy figure.

Overall, if you don't mind paying a little more, and you don't plan to use it for more than 10-15 years, the 840 EVO is a solid choice. The 840 PRO is more expensive, so it's not as worthy of a recommendation.

3: Intel SSD 530

For a period of time, Intel SSDs were the ones to get. They were reliable and speedy drives. The SSD 530 is no slouch, either. Though it uses a SandForce controller, with the help of Intel firmware and other optimisations, performance is generally good. It's also priced rather affordably as well, making it a good alternative to the Crucial M500.


Intel has also introduced the 730 (Skulltrail) series a few months back, which uses its own in-house controller. It's a great SSD, but I suggest you wait out a little as prices will probably drop in a few months' time.

4: Others

I don't really know much about other brands to make an educated recommendation, but some of the other more common brands are SanDisk, OCZ (now owned by Toshiba), Kingston and Transcend.

SanDisk SSDs are generally class-leading, especially their Extreme II series.

Meanwhile, OCZ offers the RevoDrive, a PCI-Express based SSD that's really fast, but really expensive as well (think $350 for a 120GB version).

Kingston and Transcend both use SandForce controllers. Their performance is unremarkable, but they are pretty affordable options (similarly priced or cheaper than the M500).

Dealing with the space issue

As I mentioned earlier, space is the main trade-off when deciding to buy an SSD.

If you're using a desktop, this probably won't matter as you can probably augment your SSD with a traditional hard drive. The problem arises when you have a laptop.

Well, the easiest way to get around this is to change your usage habits somewhat. Offload your less important things and your video/media library to an external hard drive, or an SD card slot (which most laptops probably have). Or, opt for a laptop that has at least a 256GB drive, which should be comfortable for most.

For me, after switching to a SSD on my laptop, I took out the old 1TB hard drive and placed it in a 2.5" portable hard disk enclosure, which I could easily carry around with me. As for you, I'm sure you're creative enough to figure a way that best suits yourself :)

One thing's for sure though: the switch to an SSD is completely worth the money.

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