Review: Hard disk vs. solid-state drive -- is an SSD worth the money?

SSDs have the speed, but HDDs have the capacity

Performance tests

Not surprisingly, the Vertex SSD handily beat the Seagate HDD for cold boots: 20 seconds to start up Windows XP for the OCZ and 40 seconds for the Seagate. The SSD also beat the HDD for restarts: 26 seconds versus 37 seconds.

(While it may seem odd that the Seagate drive performed better on a restart than on a cold boot, keep in mind that the drive is still spinning and plenty of OS data is still residing in memory. The drive also has native command queuing (NCQ), which allows its controller to prefetch data in order to access it more quickly on reboots. It works in the same way a grocery list helps you find products as you enter the store. OCZ's Vertex drive with Indillinx controller also has NCQ.)

When it came to I/O speed, there was no match. I used ATTO Technology's ATTO Disk Benchmark v2.3.4 and Simpli Software's HD Tach v3.0.4 benchmarking utilities to perform my read/write performance tests. The ATTO benchmark software showed the OCZ had a read time of 244MB/sec and a write time of 172MB/sec. The Seagate HDD had an average read rate of 98MB/sec and a write time of 87MB/sec.

Using HDTach, the read/write results were quite different. OCZ's drive showed a 196MB/sec read rate, the Seagate, 84.6MB/sec.

The HDTach software also measures CPU utilization and random access times. OCZ's drive had a random access time of .2 milliseconds; Seagate's 16.9 milliseconds. While Seagate's slower random access time wasn't surprising, I was surprised that it actually beat the OCZ drive on CPU utilization: the OCZ SSD used 8%; the Seagate HDD used 5%.

Next I transferred a 1GB folder filled with photos and video files to the drives from a USB drive. Both the SSD and the HDD accomplished the file transfer in about 50 seconds (the Seagate was 2 seconds slower).

For the battery test, I used MobileMark 2007 benchmarking software from Business Applications Performance Corp. (BAPCo). The software simulates more than a dozen programs that people use in everyday life, so it's considered a very accurate measurement of power consumption, and the results from this test were the biggest surprise of all. The battery lasted 132 minutes when powering the Seagate drive and 137 when powering the OCZ -- only a five-minute power difference.

Conclusions

While the SSD outperformed the HDD in most benchmarking tests, as well as handily beating out the competition for boot-ups, whether or not as a consumer you should choose an SSD over a HDD will depend on your needs. HDDs, especially those with 7,200-rpm spindle speeds or higher, offer respectable read/write rates and vastly higher capacity levels.

Typical notebook or desktop users probably won't notice a big difference between an SSD drive and a traditional hard disk drive other than a faster boot-up and quicker application-launch times.

According to Jim Handy, who co-authored a report about digital storage in consumer electronics, SSD will continue to dominate in small handheld devices because the cost to produce flash memory-based drives is significantly cheaper than hard disk drives. So in some cases, SSDs make sense for products such as MP3 players that can store large numbers of compressed music files on drives with relatively small capacities.

"You can buy a $50 HDD with 120GB of storage. A 120GB SSD will set you back around $250-plus. You can buy $30 worth of flash, though -- as long as 16GB is enough for your needs," said Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis Inc. "That way you can pocket the other $20."

But for laptops and desktops, where consumers will continue to seek as much capacity as money can buy, Handy said SSD adoption will likely suffer for years to come.

The final word: For most users, this a good time to consider buying a higher-end HDD that should deliver more-than-enough performance -- and plenty of room to grow -- while you wait for SSD prices to drop further.

That could be a long wait.

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Lucas Mearian

Computerworld
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