First Impressions On a Solid State Drive (SSD)
Posted on: December 4th, 2011
I’ve been planning to get my hands on an SSD for over a year now. Now, finally, during this year’s black Friday sales I found one matching my needs and budget. Here are my first impression based on the first 24 hours of usage.
The full story is that I decided to upgrade my several years old, refurbished laptop that I’ve been using as my main computer. I got a nice new Dell machine for under $500 at Fry’s which had plenty of processing power (Inter Core i3 processor = has 2 cores and able to execute 4 threads simultaneously) and was working noticeably faster than my old single core machine. However the difference wasn’t whopping as one would expect from a basically quadrupled processing power.
Fortunately, I know that the reason for this is that the hard drive is the bottle neck in all fast CPU systems. The traditional, spinning platter based, hard drives have physical limitations which create serious slow-downs for the whole system. Basically, most of the time the processor is “twiddling its thumbs”, waiting for the hard drive to read or write the requested data. The slowness of traditional hard drives come from the moving parts. A read/write head needs to position itself and then wait for the desired sector to spin under it, then it can read it or write it. No doubt, traditional hard drives have improved tremendously over the years and today’s drives are 3-4 times faster than they were a decade ago. But they have pretty much reached their physical limitations in speed.
The new kind of hard drive is the Solid State Drive. It is a large capacity memory chip with an interface circuit so that it can act as a replacement for a regular hard drive. The vast improvements made in the memory manufacturing made it possible to create these devices and they are getting more and more popular as reliability goes up, while prices go down.
Currently the price per GB on an SSD is about 10x of a regular hard drive but considering that many hard drives are poorly utilized, it’s getting to the point where it is considered as a replacement for regular hard drives. Another drawback that I’ve seen is that many of them suffered from a “sudden death” disease, ie: after a few months of use they just stopped working with no warning at all. That was one reason I was holding off getting one sooner. I’m not the kind of guy jumping on the latest and greatest gadgets. I do my research before switching to a new technology (eg. I did not have a smart phone until a few months ago & I’m glad I waited because it saved me a lot of money and frustration).
Anyways, after a careful research, I found an SSD which, according to reviews did not suffer from sudden death and has been on the market long enough to prove it. I got a Crucial M4, 64Gb, 2.5″ (laptop size) SSD. It was $125. That much money would have bought me a 500Gb or 1TB in a regular hard drive, however I did not need a big one because I don’t keep much stuff on my laptop’s hard drive. Only the working set of files, the rest is stored on a file server, backed up constantly. My old laptop had a 60Gb hard drive and I hardly ever used more than half of it. The new Windows 7 is a lot more of a space hog than XP was but I was still able to get everything I needed to fit into 27Gb. So I still got plenty of space to store my current project files.
Since I’m a techie and did system transfers a hundred times, I just cloned my new machine’s original hard drive onto the new SSD. The process was smooth and was done within 15 minutes — much faster than reinstalling everything . The computer booted up just fine, Windows recognized and installed the new drive. I have not had any software or hardware issues.
Now, that’s the nice part. As expected, based on other people’s review, the computer boots up in less than half the time than before. The Windows logo animation doesn’t even have a chance to finish and my desktop is up and running! Nice!
The program start-up times are also significantly smaller. Pretty much everything starts up within 1 second, most of them in a split second. So far only LibreOffice took longer than one second and the reason for that is that it’s a bit poorly written, it uses only one thread of the processor during start-up and for some reason it manages to max that out. But that one too, is 2-3 times faster to start than it was with the regular hard drive. Switching between windows (running applications) is pretty much instantaneous.
I must tell, though, that I’m running a highly optimized installation of Windows and don’t have an antivirus running (I know how to avoid viruses). But it’s still true that comparatively, start-up times will be cut in half or less.
Now, my new bottleneck is the internet connection. My 3 megabit DSL connection just makes the browser look slow. So my next research will be which ISP to choose to get a faster connection without paying an arm and a leg.
I’ve also made some tweaks to further capitalize the speed of the new SSD and extend its life. Let me talk about this latter aspect a bit.
The Achilles heel of SSDs is the write operation (change of content on the drive). When data is written to an SSD it needs to use a higher voltage to “burn in” the data so that it doesn’t get lost when the power is cut (ie: non-volatile memory). This higher voltage causes a tiny degradation of the circuits and over time, when a lot of data is written to the drive, it will not hold data correctly anymore. SSDs, of course, have techniques to minimize the effect of this. They have Error Checking and Correction (ECC) circuits that detect data corruption and in most cases can correct it. They also keep track of which parts are used the most and move those sectors around so that the wear is evenly distributed. With these, they have reached ( theoretically) the same level of reliability as regular hard drives. However, there’s not enough empirical data yet to support this claim. Although, I think it should be close to the truth, considering also that an SSD is pretty much unaffected by mechanical shocks (drops, kicks, bumps) that would kill a regular hard drive.
Even though SSDs are supposed to last just as long as regulad HDs under the same circumstances. I like to play it safe and take precautions. The first thing I did was to eliminate the Pagefile on my system, by adding RAM & then turning it off. The Pagefile is a very large file that Windows uses to move the data of currently running applications in and out of RAM. It is constantly used, even if the computer has large amounts of unutilized RAM. I could never make any sense of that… Anyways, I’ve upgraded my RAM to 8GB and got rid of the Pagefile. This also increases the speed of operation and since RAM is cheap , it’s not a big deal. I also disabled all automatic updaters and other background processes that might write data to the disk unnecessarily.
With these steps I’ve cut the amount of write operations to probably 1/4th to 1/10th. By the way, according to the specifications sheet of my SSD, it’s supposed to last five years with 20GB of writing every single day. So I might get 20 years of use out of it )
I also was very happy to see that one of my favorite tools, Crystaldiskinfo, does work with the new drive. It shows me if there’s any degradation detected by the SSD’s hardware. So far, everything looks perfect.
I consider my experiment a great success and I’m already spoiled by the speed (my other machines now feel so slooow .
As long as you don’t need a large hard drive space, or can combine an SSD with a traditional hard drive (where the SSD is holding the operating system, and the regular HD is holding the user files), it is definitely the single most effective way to boost performance of a computer. I’ve seen plenty of machines that had faster processors, more RAM, better video card, etc but using a regular HD and they were most definitely slower than my, now $650, laptop. Even gaming computers can’t match its speed, if they use traditional HDs.
If my experiment continues to be successful then I’ll start offering a “booster” upgrade for relatively new machines (less than 3yrs old) next year. Basically for about $200 a computer can be transformed to run like if it was on steroids )
I’ll keep you updated….
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