I just built a new system. I had to leave my last PC in the Philippines when I moved here – I had way too much to bring back in such a short time.
I decided to build a very fast machine. We all want fast computers, don't we? That doesn't mean we want to waste money. The trick is to find the best price/performance point you can, while keeping your actual usage scenario in mind.
What's a “usage scenario”? Simple. How do you plan to use your shiny new computer? Are you mostly doing e-mail, web site browsing and playing back videos? Then you don't need raw performance hard drives and a video card with 800 pipelines and 3 gigs of high speed RAM! Are you editing high resolution videos? Then you do need fast, large drives and a powerful video card. How about gaming? Powerful video with excellent 3D rendering is very important. Drive size and speed isn't.
I do mostly image editing, with a few shots at video here and there, and I do simple PC gaming. The images I work with are mostly 25 megabyte RAW files. I knew I needed fast, large drives, and a powerful video card.
So why am I writing about SSD drives?
The old saying about upgrading computers is simply memory, memory, memory. And that's what SSD drives bring to the table. Adding more RAM memory is always a good idea, but now with SSD drives, we have another easy to implement option.
Whenever you do anything in Windows, the operating system is involved in one way or another. Any well-written software will use built-in Windows functions to handle low-level processes, like finding, reading and writing files to disk, handling memory management chores, and so on. Also, Windows uses your paging file (also called the “swap” file) more often than people realize. While the main purpose of your paging file is to provide extra memory for memory intensive operations, Windows has to maintain data in the swap file so it will be ready for use. This can be very slow, as Windows is doing it's thing, your software is doing it's thing, and Windows is managing the swap file, all at the same time. These processes are all competing for access to the hard disk drive(s) in your computer, and that causes high levels of disk queuing. That means some requests are waiting while others are being handled. Of course, system builder and tweakers always put the swap file on a separate physical disk to avoid this disk contention. That assumes that the end user has more than one hard drive. That also assumes you are happy dedicating a hard drive to only swap file use – a terrible waste in my opinion.
A SSD or Solid State Drive is made of non-volatile memory circuits, not physical platters, motors and moving read/write heads. They are incredibly fast! Modern day SSD drives for the consumer market use NAND Flash memory. Now, getting into what that really means is beyond the scope of this blog post. Click that link if you really need to know! In short, the Flash memory in a solid state drive works similarly to the RAM memory in your PC or on your video card. No moving parts! The main difference is that Flash memory keeps the data when the power is turned off. RAM doesn't. You do have a battery backup/UPS, right? 🙂
Anyway, putting Windows and your swap file on a SSD makes your entire system much, much faster. Here's an example. Before I installed my SSD, I used a 7200 RPM Western Digital Black series hard drive. It's a very fast drive. Booting up this PC would take roughly 25 seconds to get to the login prompt, and then another 15 or 20 seconds to stabilize while loading all the drivers, start-up software, and so on. Let's call it 40 seconds from power on to ready to crank out some work. With the SSD drive installed, this beast is ready to crank out photo edits in 15 seconds! No wait, no fuss. When the PC goes into sleep mode, recovery is instant. From hibernation, I'm back in Windows in about 4 seconds.
Before SSD, Adobe Photoshop would start up and load a 25 MB RAW file in about 25 seconds. Now? Maybe 5 seconds from the click. Little edits that would take 20 – 30 seconds to render now take 2 – 3 seconds. It's that much faster.
My 256 gig Samsung SSD costs $239 at TigerDirect.com – one of my preferred places to buy PC parts. When you compare that to a 3 TB (that's Terabyte) Hard Disk Drive, like the Seagate Barracuda, which sells for only $134.00, you can see the huge difference in price per unit of storage. SSD drives are much more expensive that standard disk-based hard drives.
The thing to consider is how much is your time worth? Those minutes and seconds add up, and to stay productive, I like to keep moving. Waiting for a process to finish drives me crazy, I lose my train of thought (or creative focus), and have to spend more time getting my brain back in gear. When you can spend $239.00 and see immediate, major system wide improvements in productivity, it's a no-brainer to me.
There are a few other things to consider before running out and buying an SSD drive.
Adding an SSD drive to an existing system is not trivial. The storage capacity of SSD drives are much lower than standard hard drives. As mentioned above, mine is only 256 gigs – large enough for Windows, the swap file, and some other data files that Windows expects to be installed on the same drive. When your current drive has more data that the SSD capacity, you have a real problem on your hands. It's not as simple as moving stuff around – your system expects that data to be in the right place. SSD drives are best used when you are building a new system, or when you don't mind reinstalling Windows and your other software; in other words, backup your data, and plan on reloading everything. You really should be doing this every two years anyway 🙂
Your system should have an available socket for SATA 3, or 6 gig SATA drives. You can use a 3 gig SATA connection and you won't see much difference in speed, in the real world.
If you have an older machine, adding an SSD drive may not make much difference. Your computer's processor and motherboard (and RAM, etc), have only so much bandwidth to move data. If your system doesn't use a PCI bus, or better, don't bother. Plus, on a system of that venerable age, your existing drives will slow everything down anyway. Not to mention, older machines won't have the SATA connection these drives need. You would need to add a SATA card, and the bus in those older machines will slow it down anyway.
In the next few articles, we'll take a look at video cards, RAM memory and video monitors. Happy computing!
Do you have a Solid State Drive? Tell us your thoughts in the Comments section below.