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Are SSDs worth the extra cost?

| June 13, 2010 9:00 PM

Dear Propeller Heads: I'm shopping for a laptop and I'm considering upgrading to a solid state drive because I hear they're faster. Are they worth the extra cost?

A: We're sure the importance of your work is stupendous, but there are cheaper ways to save time. Why not cut back from eight to six hours of sleep every night? (We just saved you several hundred dollars and added six years to your waking hours.)

Solid state drives (SSDs) top traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) in many areas, but they'll cost you. They are typically lighter, faster, quieter and more durable than "normal" drives. But for the price they command, they should also help you quit smoking, lose weight and improve your tan.

SSDs aren't new - they've been used for years in the military, in factories and in hospitals, where disk durability and reliability are paramount.

If you were to crack open an "old-school" hard drive, you would void your warranty and lose your data. But you would also see layers of magnetic platters. Small metal read-write heads are mechanically moved over the platters to read and write data using minute magnetic pulses. This is similar to the way music was stored on 8-track tapes. The technology is well established, but because it requires mechanical movement of the platter and read-write heads, it is relatively slow.

Enter solid state drives, which use flash memory chips instead of magnetic platters. They're similar to USB memory sticks, camera memory cards and some MP3 players. The advantages of a SSD are due to its lack of moving parts.

Writing to a SSD can be (but is not always) faster, but reading from them can be many times faster, leading to faster system boot-ups and wake-ups from stand-by mode.

But even if you spend all day saving documents and searching for files until you retire in 30 years, you'll only gain back about 12 days by switching to solid state. You'll save more time skipping your lunch break and swallowing bouillon cubes at your desk, or giving up shaving and growing a beard.

So what are the other advantages? SSDs are lighter than their HDD counterparts, sometimes about one fifth the weight - a big deal in laptops, where every ounce counts.

They're also quieter, and more resistant to shock. Dropping a hard disk drive is likely fatal to the data it stores; dropping a solid state drive won't hurt much unless it lands on your foot. Did we mention they're lighter?

The main disadvantage to SSDs is their price. "Normal" hard drives cost around $0.50 per gigabyte, but SSDs cost $3-$4 per gigabyte. Although prices have dropped since their introduction, a 250 GB solid state drive will still set you back more than $750. Compare that to the $250 a traditional hard drive of the same capacity would cost.

For a thorough comparison of SSDs and traditional hard drives, see the Dr. Dobbs article at

Only a few laptop models provide SSD options right now, but this will change as prices come down and drive capacities go up. Perhaps years from now, we'll talk about mechanical drives the way we talk about 8-track tapes today, but see PC Magazine's John Dvorak at for a contrarian viewpoint.

So upgrade to solid state, but do it for the lighter weight, the quieter operation and the durability. If you're just looking to save time, consider foregoing the elevator in your office building and just stepping directly out the window. When your co-worker asks if you have vertigo, tell her "Oh no, only about 10 feet more." (Apologies to Ogden Nash, who offers one last bit of time-saving advice: "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.")

When the PropellerHeads at Data Directions aren't busy with their IT projects, they love to answer questions on business or consumer technology. E-mail them to or contact us at Data Directions Inc., 8510 Bell Creek Road, Mechanicsville, VA 23116. Visit our Web site at

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