Have you finally reached a breaking point because your computer’s load times move at a snail’s pace? It’s time to ditch those arduous wait times and give your PC an upgrade. And the best way to do that is by grabbing a reliable solid-state drive.
We’ve put together a handy guide for everything you need to know about SSDs, which will help you grab one that’ll suit your needs.
This article has been updated since its original publication.
What is an SSD?
When SSDs – that’s Solid State Drives for the uninitiated – first burst onto the scene, there were two easy ways to tell them apart from their mechanical hard drive ancestors.
Firstly, they were generally smaller than the SATA mechanical drives that were the style at the time, but secondly, and more importantly, they were way more expensive. SSDs promised speed for sure, but you didn’t half pay for it.
As with any technology, time has been very kind to SSD prices, and the quantity of storage you can get for much more modest prices has risen astonishingly in just a few short years. If you break it down to a per-GB price, mechanical drives can still come out as a cheaper option, but that’s a difference that is rapidly reducing in importance, while SSDs become more reliable and stay way faster than mechanical drives will ever be.
Still, if you’re looking into buying an SSD, whether you’re upgrading a desktop rig, configuring a new PC for someone else to build for you or just comparing specifications on pre-built systems, it’s worth knowing what to look for to ensure that you’re getting the best value for money.
The key factor here that you can boil down to is still going to be that cost-per-GB basis, and if you can score a good deal on a lot of SSD storage for not much money, go for it.
As SSDs have evolved, the full picture of what you need to consider when comparing SSDs has become a little more complex. I’ll run through the terms you’re likely to see when SSD shopping, and why they might matter to you more or less depending on your needs.
Understanding SSD jargon
You’re probably aware that traditional computers – as distinct from the astonishing but brain-bending category that is quantum computing — think of everything as ones and zeroes.
Where traditional mechanical drives use platters to store all those single digits, rather like a stack of LPs, SSDs instead store everything in non-volatile flash memory, using tiny goblins to shuffle around all those 1s and drop those zeroes, because they don’t weigh anything at all.
Well, OK, you got me.
I was checking if you were still paying attention, because tiny goblins have nothing to do with SSDs that we know of, but the reason why SSDs are so much faster has to do with the nature of writing directly to flash memory that can keep storage even when power is cut.
Where a traditional drive has an access head – again, my LP analogy works pretty well here – that has to seek out bits on the drive, an SSD drive can simply send that data as an electrical signal directly to where your PC needs it to go. This is a lot faster, a lot more energy efficient and a fair degree more durable too.
It’s important to note that while SSD storage can retain data even when power is dropped, it’s not immortal. Early SSDs also compared poorly to their mechanical counterparts because there’s a limit to how many times you can write, delete and rewrite to flash storage, although this is something that has improved markedly in recent years.
The bigger durability gain for SSDs is that they have no moving parts, which means that they don’t care at all if your laptop is moving while they’re trying to write. You can drop an SSD while it’s writing with few issues unless the impact cracks it or likewise, whereas a small bump on a mechanical drive can lead to serious write errors. Many mechanical drives have fancy drive head parking mechanisms to limit this problem, but SSDs simply never needed that kind of trickery.
Early SSDs, and some still on the market do still borrow from mechanical drives in terms of interfaces, with plenty of drives still using either SATA (internal) or USB (external) connectors for compatibility reasons. It’s great to be able to easily plug in an SSD and have it work, but the downside of these interfaces are slower transfer speeds, with the best of SATA only hitting a maximum of 600MB/s.
Newer SSDs use what’s called NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express), a term you may see in marketing materials alongside PCI Express (PCIe) when discussing speed. NVMe can more directly address your computer’s processor, which means that it can ping data around at rates that are considerably faster than SATA can handle. At current peaks with an NVMe M.2 drive you could hit 3,500MB/s at peak – way faster than that SATA peak.
If you’re still paying attention, you probably noticed that I snuck in a new bit of jargon there in the form of M.2. That’s also a term you’ll see in SSD marketing materials, and it refers to a connection type and build size for SSDs specifically.
Where old school SSDs aped the style of mechanical drives with SATA connections, M.2 form factor drives are even more compact and rely on having the right connectors on a motherboard and typically NVMe on board, although you can get M.2 SATA drives as well. If you’ve got a laptop with an onboard SSD, especially a more modern ultrabook style model, the odds of it having an M.2 drive are very high indeed.
One trap to dodge for laptop upgrades even if you’re sure your current system can take an M.2 drive is to ensure that you can actually take out the existing drive. Some manufacturers solder their drives directly to the motherboard, making internal upgrades impossible.
Yes, Apple, I’m looking straight at you. If you want to run an SSD upgrade on a MacBook, you’ll either need a much older MacBook model, or make do with an external SSD drive.
How Do I Match An SSD To My Needs And Budget?
I’m going to use a few practical examples here with drives available right now at Amazon to give you an idea of where certain models fit in the market, and why they might be a good or poor choice depending on your needs and budget. SSDs can be a better or worse fit for your needs, and it’s important to keep an eye on prices over time, because what you can get for a fixed sum is generally improving.
Pros: It’s cheap, it uses SATA so could be good if you’ve got an older motherboard without M.2 sockets
Cons: It’s relatively slow – 500MB/s read and 380MB/s write and low capacity
Who it’s good for: If you’re giving a much older PC one last gasp of life, this could be a simple way to make your primary Windows partition quite a bit faster if it’s struggling on an older mechanical drive, with actual document storage in the cloud or on a secondary mechanical drive.
Pros: Much faster – up to 3000MB/s as a full NVMe M.2 drive
Cons: No SATA3 compatibility, so you’d need a newer motherboard that supports it to work at all
Who it’s good for: Those with motherboards that have unpopulated M.2 slots looking for just a little more storage, although this drive is also available in 1TB and 2TB capacities.
Pros: Ruggedised external storage with a USB-C connector, so it’ll plug into just about anything, doesn’t need an external power supply
Cons: USB 3.1 speeds top out at 550MB/s, you could get a lot more storage from an external mechanical drive
Who it’s good for: If you want a super-light external drive you can shuffle between systems, this could be a good match, although I’d certainly compare priced options in external mechanical drives if I was considering this option.
Pros: A good amount of storage for the money, WD’s Green drives use low power modes
Cons: Stuck with SATA speeds
Who it’s good for: Folks upgrading older laptops where it’s still possible to swap out the SATA drive, because WD’s Green drives sell themselves on their low power draw.
Pros: 2TB is a lot of storage, and Samsung’s V-NAND technology can push up to the full 3,500MB/s on supported systems
Cons: You have looked at the price, right?
Who it’s good for: System builders wanting a very fast and high capacity SSD. Or very nice people who want to send one my way, no questions asked.
Editor’s note: Descriptions and features are as taken from manufacturer/seller claims and user reviews on Amazon.