It’s a given that we entrust our ever growing digital lives to our computers, flash drives, external drives, and the “cloud”. One thing is certain in that every year our digital needs and expectations continue to grow which forces the question of where to store it all. To help answer this we looked at a hard drives from Hitachi, Iomega, Imation, Seagate, Western Digital, and WiebeTech to see the differences.
The vast majority of drive solutions are similar in that they house some sort of mechanism to hold data, either a traditional hard drive, or a new solid-state drive, but the nuances matter usually in the physical case, ports, and bundled software. The cases range from utilitarian, designer, metal, plastic, and rubber coated. Some have lights, capacity gauges, docks, upgradability, toughness, and differing software bundles with different features that you may or may not need.
Lets start with SSD Drives
The newest consumer friendly trend in hard drives are SSD drives, or Solid State Drives, which have no moving parts, just a lot of fast NAND flash memory. Apple’s decision to base the new MacBook Air on an SSD put them into the public’s consciousness in a very real way, paving the way for wider implementation. They have been available for a couple of years in the consumer space, but having the new model creates a paradigm shift in thinking of storage expectations. SSD technology isn’t actually that new, the first solutions began in the 1950s, with 1995 seeing the first flash memory based units. Those were very specific solutions for high-tech, so it really is only recently that we are using them in a practical sense. After all, we take USB flash drives for granted now, but a few years ago they were expensive and somewhat exotic!
The advantage of SSD drives is that they are very fast, almost indestructible, generate little heat, no noise, and use less power. The disadvantage is that they are much more expensive, primarily designed to replace the internal drive in either your laptop or desktop computer, and are much smaller in capacity, but naturally that is a moving target. Currently, the SSD to HDD price per storage is roughly this: NAND Flash SSDs run about $1.50-2.00 per GB and Hard Disk Drives cost around .10 cents per GB for 3.5" and .20 cents per GB for 2.5" drives. So, $1.50 per GB compared to .20 cents per GB is a pretty dramatic increase!
Initially most of the SSD kits on the market are for internal use, however external solutions are starting to appear. I used and abused the SSD drives that came with the Kingston SSDNow V+ Series kit and the Imation SSD M-Class Solid State Drive & Upgrade Kit. These are fully featured swap out kits that include a SSD drive, USB case, cables, and mounting hardware for your desktop or laptop system. The idea is that you clone your existing drive, and then swap the old drive into the case, and put the SSD in the system. I used them extensively as external drives in the case, and although not designed for this purpose they worked great. Even though the USB 2 bus is seriously slower then the throughput possible via SATA, they mounted instantly, and transfer speeds were among the best in class for USB 2 devices.
Kingston and Imation are technology based companies with an engineering culture that comes through in their products and marketing which is to say that they seem to be engineering first and marketing second companies, and I’ve always found their products to be solid as a rock. Kingston is aimed a bit more directly at the consumer space and is well known there in terms of branding, while Imation has a tiny bit less presence in the consumer space, but is well known and respected in the industry space, as well as are its numerous brands. I liked the idea of an included USB 2 case so folks could transfer data from their existing drive, then use the old drive in the case. This was in fact a challenge since my host drive was double the size of the SSD’s I tested, requiring an installation that consisted mostly of my OS, selected apps, and a little data. Heck, we are all probably carrying around a lot of data that we don’t need anyway! But unless you have a 128 or 256GB drive in your laptop, cloning might be an issue if you have a smaller SSD. The Kingston carries a 3-year warranty, while the Imation has a 5-year warranty.
Not all SSD drives are created equal, and the Intel X25-M SATA Solid State Drive is faster then most drives as it employs a faster memory controller technology among other attributes, but it was also more expensive then other technologies, with smaller capacities, but in terms of sheer speed, the Intel drive was pretty darned fast. For the bleeding edge user, the Intel SSDs are a great choice, but for the majority of users the barely perceptual difference in use might favor lower cost drives. Keep in mind that compared to even the fastest traditional drives, all the SSD drives win the race. If I were designing a digital imaging and video lab for the university, and if the budget allowed, I’d strongly consider having an SSD as my primary boot drive, and then installing at least one additional traditional drive for the bulk of the data. Price aside, the Intel X25-M drive is a bit of pretty impressive technology and fast stable drive.
As with any new technology, there are some issues that are being sorted out as they mature. Initially SSD’s seemed ideal for archival use, but it turns out that they have a limited number of read/write cycles, but for the most part, that’s not a serious issue for most users, since by the time you actually get there years from now, you will have long migrated to a new drive. Is anyone still using their 10 year-old SCSI drives unless they have to? I tend to think that the read/write issue is in fact a non-issue in terms of practical lifespan. However since computers are synergistic devices, all aspects must be in sync to really profit. Windows 7 is optimized to take advantage of SSDs unique technology, however at the current time the Mac OS and older hardware sets aren’t in sync therefore limiting the speed of the fastest SSDs.
There are other technology differences between SSD’s and HDD’s to keep in mind when moving to the new technology. Fortunately firmware updates are available for drives, and OS updates often bring improved compatibility. One practical problem is that when you update some SSD drives with new firmware, it typically deletes all the data! So, you better have that old HD with a current clone on hand to boot off of and plan to re-clone your data! Intel provides an excellent set of tools to access the details of their drives, but alas they are only Windows compatible, leaving Mac users a bit adrift.
The Intel SSD Toolbox with Intel SSD Optimizer is a set of applications to maintain and manage Intel SSD’s. The Intel SSD Toolbox is impressive in it’s set of tools. Because SSD’s degrade over time unlike conventional hard drives, it’s important to manage the Trim Attribute that the Intel controller has, and this is possible using their SSD Optimizer. It is specifically designed to run with Microsoft Windows 7, but will run on Microsoft Windows Vista and XP operating systems as well. Mac users will have to find someone with a Windows system to maintain their drives. Hopefully Intel and others will release Mac compatible SSD tools in the near future. The Kingston SSD NowV+ series feature TRIM support. So, make sure that whatever drive you purchase has TRIM support. For more information on maintaining your SSD drive on the Mac OS, an excellent article on this can be found at the Mac Performance Guide site. http://macperformanceguide.com/Storage-SSD-Reconditioning.html We can only hope that OSX 10.7 features TRIM support, since given a lot of use, the speed of an SSD can degrade as much by as much as three-quarters of it’s original speed. Some drives (like the one’s that Apple uses in their laptops) use what is known as “Garbage Collection” to maintain the drive without the need for OS compatible TRIM capability. The new Kingston drives use this technology and feel that it negates the need for firmware and TRIM interaction. So as you can see there is a bit of the brave new world involved in SSD choices and use.
For a Mac laptop user SSDs force some decisions about the capacity limitations. Yes they speed things up considerably, but since Mac’s don’t have the niceties of removable optical drives, or secondary traditional drives, you might just find that 128GBs cramps your style, especially with no other choice except a USB 2 or FireWire port for your data to hang off of. Apple’s choice was to favor form over function, thus a MacBook Air really isn’t designed for heavy lifting, and after your OS is installed, your applications, some music and a video or two, and you are out of room. Sure, you can buy larger SSDs but they cost more then the computer itself. So, this will be a bit of a niche market, but not for long. Windows based laptops often have room to install two drives in differing ways, so while they might be heavier and less elegant, they offer true workstation performance that can take advantage of the SSD.
One popular option is to use a SSD drive as your main boot drive in your computer, assuming it has either an open architecture like a tower, or desktop, or at least an e-SATA port, so you can rely on a fast large drive to hold the data. I tested the 128gb Kingston SSD this way, and startup times on my MacPro were drastically cut, in all cases almost by half. And this was with a system with more damaged disk sectors then a vote in Alaska. Having had a chance to view SSDs on other optimal systems the speed gains are even more impressive.
Intel likes to demonstrate the stability of SSD technology by mounting their SSD and a top shelf traditional laptop form factor HD onto a modified paint mixer! Running identical laptops side by side, identical operating systems, and playing the same video, the traditional hard drive continues to lock it’s heads causing the video to freeze mid-frame, and finally it stopped playing altogether. Meanwhile, as you might expect the SSD worked just fine, no matter what. This was brought home to me in a very real way as I traveled by bus to meetings in NY. My MacBook Pro couldn’t play music as every single bump in those glorious New Jersey roads caused the heads to lock up! Meanwhile the guy next to me with a $300 netbook didn’t even blink. Now, if only a 512GB SSD was affordable! SSD drives are moving from the bleeding edge to the cutting edge and make sense for anyone seeking a faster, cooler, and energy saving strategy to inject new life into your system.
Harris Fogel, Posted 12/1/2010
For more information on the Kingston SSDNow V+ Series kit visit: www.kingston.com
For more information on the Imation SSD M-Class Solid State Drive & Upgrade Kits visit: www.imation.com
For more information on the Intel X25-M SATA Solid State Drive visit: www.intel.com