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SSD vs. HDD: The Hard Drive Decision

Written by Azzief Khaliq
Last updated May 25, 2021

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Expanding your computer’s storage or picking parts for a new PC? Then you’ll be interested in what we have to say about SSD vs. HDD. Choosing between a solid-state drive (SSD) and a traditional hard drive (HDD) is a fundamental choice to make when it comes to storage.

Each type of drive has pros and cons, and there’s still no one-size-fits-all solution available right now. Let’s run through some important criteria and see which drive type comes out ahead in each.

SSD and HDD Defined

Before we kick off the SSD vs. HDD comparison, let’s quickly explain each type of drive.

The classic hard disk drive (HDD) is a mechanical form of storage that uses magnetically coated metal or glass platters to store information. The platters spin when loading or writing data, which is done by read/write heads on a metal arm.

HDD mechanics

The magnetic platters and metal arm inside an HDD. Source: Benjamin Lehman

The arm can only move forward and backward across the width of the platter. So, to access specific data or find empty space for writing new data, the platter has to spin around to make those sectors accessible to the read/write heads. This slows things down, as your CPU has to wait for the platter to reach the correct locations.

These platters spin at different speeds depending on the drive. The two most common speeds are 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM. 7200 RPM drives perform better as the platters rotate faster, which means the read/write heads can access the data more rapidly.

sata SSD example

Example of a SATA SSD.

On the other hand, a solid-state drive (SSD) doesn’t use moving parts to store data. Instead, SSDs write data to NAND flash memory chips, similar to those used for USB thumb drives. By eliminating the need to spin platters and physically find sectors to read/write to, SSDs transfer data much quicker than traditional HDDs.

As far as interfaces are concerned, modern hard drives connect to your motherboard via SATA III ports. SSDs use either the same SATA III interface or the faster NVMe interface via M.2 slots on your motherboard. NVMe uses your motherboard’s PCI Express lanes for even more data bandwidth, making these drives even faster than SATA SSDs.

sata vs pcie SSD speeds

Source: Simms

Kingston also has an excellent overview of SSD interfaces that you can check out here. We recommend you take a quick look if you’re new to the world of solid-state drives or just need a refresher.

Now that we’re clear about both drive types, it’s time to dig into the nitty-gritty of the SSD vs. HDD.

SSD vs. HDD: Speed

The biggest reason to opt for an SSD over a traditional HDD is performance. SSDs boast significantly higher read and write speeds, allowing you to load programs and boot up your computer in seconds.

How much faster is an SSD, you ask? Here are CrystalDiskMark results for a 7200 RPM 2 TB Western Digital Black HDD versus a 500 GB Samsung 850 EVO SSD installed in one of our systems:

ssd vs hdd benchmark

130-140 MB/s is about as good as an HDD gets. It’s not bad, but it can’t hold a candle to the SSD installed on the same computer. Even the “lowly” SATA SSD is almost four times faster at reads and writes than the traditional mechanical drive. That’s a significant speed boost with a direct and noticeable effect on load times.

Quicker loading isn’t the only benefit, either. Since your CPU won’t have to wait for a hard drive platter to spin up when it requests data, your system will be snappier and more responsive overall.

There’s really no contest here: if you need speed, SSDs are the only way to go. It’s the most noticeable real-world difference between SSDs and HDDs and the main reason to opt for the former.

Samsung NVME SSD

An NVMe SSD, the Samsung 970 EVO. Source: Samsung

If you want even higher transfer rates, NVMe SSDs are the way to go. These drives connect through the M.2 slots on your motherboard and use your CPU or motherboard’s PCIe lanes, making them much faster than SATA SSDs.

How much faster? Expect at least six times the transfer rates with just PCIe 3.0. Here’s our 1 TB OEM Samsung PM9A1 (equivalent to a Samsung 980 Pro) benchmark added to the graph from earlier:

HDD vs. NVMe SSD speed benchmark

Those are some mighty impressive numbers. Before you get too excited, though, you should be aware that these ~3500 MB/s transfer speeds don’t always translate to real-world performance. Games, for example, don’t see huge benefits from being installed on NVMe SSDs versus SATA SSDs.

Given the higher cost of these NVMe drives, that’s frankly quite disappointing. We wouldn’t recommend an NVMe SSD over a SATA SSD if you’re only planning to run games on it. At least, not if you’re expecting it to drastically reduce loading times.

This isn’t to say that NVMe drives are pointless. Data-intensive professional and scientific workloads like bioinformatics can take advantage of NVMe drives to improve performance. And, since they’re small and connect directly to the motherboard, NVMe drives can be handy if you’re building in a compact case and want to avoid using 3.5” or 2.5” drives.

For most users, though, a SATA SSD will suffice. The most significant upgrade is from a mechanical hard drive to an SSD. After that, it’s all minor improvements and luxuries that most people can do without for now.

SSD vs. HDD: Price and Capacity

The HDD vs. SSD comparison falls heavily in favor of solid-state drives when it comes to speed, but that isn’t the only important part of choosing storage. Depending on your needs, the cost (per gigabyte) and capacity of your new drive can be equally significant. And that’s where HDDs shine.

HDDs make up for their lack of speed by offering great value, measured with the cost per gigabyte metric. Let’s take 1 TB drives as an example. HDDs like the Western Digital WD Blue and Seagate BarraCuda tend to hover around the $50 mark, making the cost per gigabyte of these drives around $0.05/GB.

On the other hand, even budget-oriented 1 TB SSDs like the Crucial MX500 and Western Digital WD Green will set you back around $100, give or take a few dollars. So these SSDs have a cost per gigabyte of $0.10/GB. That’s not too bad, but it’s still double that you’d pay for a 1 TB HDD.

HDDs also have a capacity advantage over SSDs. Most SSDs max out at 2 or 4 TB, with only a select few consumer models available with more. Samsung sells an 8 TB version of its 870 QVO SSD, but you’ll pay an eye-watering four-figure price for the privilege of that much flash storage in one drive.

HDDs, on the other hand, are available with up to 18 TB of capacity. Sure, these high-capacity drives are pricey, but they’re still cheaper than Samsung’s 870 QVO while offering an extra 10 TB of storage over the SSD. Depending on how much you pay, these 18 TB monsters can go as low as $0.04/GB, which is a tremendous per-gigabyte cost.

Hard drive manufacturers aren’t stopping at 18 TB, either; Seagate has started shipping 20 TB drives to enterprise consumers and plans to have 50 TB drives by 2026. The combination of large capacities and low cost per gigabyte means that there’s still life in the venerable HDD, especially for users who need more space than speed.

While SSD prices will eventually come down, they’re unlikely to be able to beat HDDs for pure value. This is doubly true if you need a drive for mass storage of files and documents, where performance doesn’t matter in the slightest.

SSD vs. HDD: Reliability

seagate hard drives

Source: lilzidesigns

SSDs score another big win over HDDs in the reliability stakes.

Not having any spinning platters and read/write heads means that you won’t have to worry about head crashes or other mechanical failures when using an SSD. That makes them perfect for laptops and anyone that moves their drives (or computer) around regularly.

While mechanical failure isn’t an issue, SSDs do still have a limited lifespan. The flash memory used will wear out over time as you write data to it. That’s why SSDs have a TBW rating that indicates how many terabytes you can write to the drive over its lifespan.

xpg nvme ssd

Source: Onur Binay

Larger and higher-end SSDs will have higher TBW ratings. For example, the 500 GB Samsung 870 EVO has a 300 TBW rating, while the 1 TB variant doubles it to 900 TBW.

That said, we wouldn’t really worry about an SSD’s endurance unless you’re a heavy power user. I’ve been using a 120 GB Samsung 840 EVO as my main OS drive for the past eight years, and it’s still going strong. I’ve only just gone past the halfway point on the drive’s 70 TBW rating too.

ssd vs hdd reliability

Besides, SSDs are designed to compensate for limited endurance with features like overprovisioning and TRIM.

In our experience, hard drive reliability has just as much to do with luck as it does with the actual hard drive brand or quality. However, SSDs definitely tilt the odds in your favor since there are much fewer things that can go wrong.

SSD vs. HDD: Noise and Power Consumption

It’s much the same story when it comes to noise and power consumption. Since SSDs don’t have any moving parts, they come out ahead in both criteria.

HDDs emit noise due to the motors and rotating platters inside. Admittedly, they’re not the loudest parts in a system, but you can definitely notice drives spinning up when under load. There are no such noise issues with SSDs, of course.

If you value silence above all else, ditch the hard drives and go for an all-SSD storage solution. After all, every bit counts when you’re trying to build a whisper-quiet rig.

ssd heatsink cover

Source: u/mx1701

SSDs also consume less power than similarly-sized HDDs. Let’s take the 1 TB WD Green SSD we mentioned earlier. Western Digital’s spec sheets claim a maximum read and write power consumption of 2.8 W, with an idle power draw of just 30 mW.

In comparison, the 7200 RPM 1 TB WD Blue consumes 6.8 W in use and idles at 6.1 W, significantly more power than the SSD. This won’t be a big deal for a desktop PC. But what if you’re out and about using a laptop with a mediocre battery? In that case, the power savings of an SSD might help your computer run for just that little bit longer.

Overall, SSDs are definitely the better option if you’re concerned about noise levels and power draw. Of course, not everyone will care about either of these criteria. If you do, though, consider going with solid-state storage going forward.

To Drive It Home

 SSDHDD
Speed
Price / Capacity
Reliability
Noise / Power Consumption

The SSD vs. HDD decision is relatively simple. If you need a ton of space to store files, the HDD is still king. But for everything else, whether it’s speed, reliability, or noise, the SSD rules the roost. Cost is really the only stumbling block with SSDs, as they’re still more expensive per gigabyte than hard drives.

However, prices have come down enough the past few years that smaller SSDs are now within reach of even budget PC builders. Besides, if the cost of high-capacity SSDs is an issue, you can always use both types of drives in your system. Use a smaller SSD for your OS and important programs and a high-capacity HDD for documents and file storage. That way, you get the best of both worlds.

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