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To SSD or Not to SSD

Over the last few years a few companies have driven the adoption of SSD technology. The biggest and best known is, of course, Apple with its MacBook Air. Other companies used SSDs before Apple but no other company has been in such a position of influence to push SSD technology. It also helps that Apple is the largest consumer of flash chips in the world due to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod product lines.

If you read the big web sites about gaming and performance, most of them either use SSDs or hard drives in RAID 0 arrays. Many users look at the price of SSDs and immediately look at hard drives instead. After all, the price per gigabyte of SSDs is so much more expensive compared to hard drives, right?

What all of this ignores is one thing: productivity. What is double the productivity worth to you? It is hard to quantify how much of a difference having instant access to your applications and data makes as compared to waiting exponentially longer while your hard drive seeks for your precious information.

As long as you have a reasonable amount of memory (and even if you are running a little low), the upgrade to an SSD will have the single most significant positive effect on the performance of your system. Why? Because of I/O operations.

Every time you access information on your hard drive, the heads have to seek that information on the platters of the drive unless the information is already cached. That slows down most operations. System bootup is a slow process because of this and this is why defragmentation can help speed up your hard drive.

There has been talk for years about bottlenecks in computing. Along the way, the processor has been a bottleneck because it could not process information fast enough, the memory has been a bottleneck because information had to be transferred through a very slow bus to reach the processor, and finally storage technology. While the bus speed has increased dramatically, memory has become much more affordable, and graphics cards have increased their performance, storage technology has only made incremental improvements.

Although old parallel ATA (also known as IDE) technology has been totally supplanted and replaced by Serial ATA (SATA), the speed of the hard drives themselves has only improved slightly. In some cases, larger drives have actually made performance worse.

Moving to an SSD makes those typical seeks across the hard drive platters completely disappear. Instead of data being distributed over multiple platters, it exists within memory chips. This makes data access almost instantaneous. System bootup times will drop and launching an application or many applications will be much, much faster.

Does it make sense to go all SSD? For cost reasons, generally no. It very much makes sense to go SSD for the boot volume and applications. Bulk storage does fine on hard drives. Fortunately, most laptops and essentially all desktop system have the ability to have both an SSD and a hard drive installed. On laptops, this usually requires removing the optical drive.

Mitch Haile recently wrote about replacing his optical drive with an SSD. He used the excellent OWC Data Doubler bracket to replace the optical drive and provide space for an SSD. He chose to also use an OWC SSD to complete his system. This is essentially what I recommend to clients who want to upgrade their MacBook Pros for maximum performance.

Mitch also made the choice to use a 3Gb/s SSD instead of a 6Gb/s SSD. For most operations, the I/O operations per second improvement is so dramatic that, unless you are doing large bulk transfers to and from your SSD to external fast storage, the 3Gb/s vs 6Gb/s difference is not all that apparent. Although, if you do use an OWC Data Doubler in your optical drive bay, be aware that the Serial ATA port for the optical drive bay is 3Gb/s and not 6Gb/s like the hard drive bay’s Serial ATA port. If you are going with a 6Gb/s SSD, move your hard drive to the optical drive bay and put the SSD where the hard drive was.

If you want to improve your productivity and spend less time waiting for your system, put in at least a 60GB SSD. I recommend the Corsair Force GT series of SandForce controller-based SSDs. These are 6Gb/s SSDs using the same chipset and similar memory chips as the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6G SSDs but for less money.

Corsair Force GT 180GB

The Corsair Force GT SSDs come in 60GB, 90GB, 120GB, 180GB, 240GB, and 480GB sizes. What size to get? That all depends on your intended use habits. A basic user can get by with a 60GB SSD for boot and applications and store most of their data on a hard drive. The 60GB SSD is the cheapest option at $114.99 which works out to be $1.92 per gigabyte. This is very expensive per gigabyte but is the cheapest absolute cost.

If you look at the best value indicator, cost per gigabyte, a larger size is usually a better deal. The largest size of any SSD is almost always available at a premium and the 480GB is no exception. Even though it just dropped to $829.99, it is still $1.73 per gigabyte.

The 90GB, being an odd size is similarly expensive. The 120GB and 240GB are your best buys with the 180GB a close third. The 120GB, at $179.99, is $1.50 per gigabyte. The 180GB, at $289.99, is $1.61 per gigabyte. The 240GB, at $374.99, sits right between the 120GB and 180GB at $1.56 per gigabyte.

I just upgraded my MacBook Air using a 180GB OWC Aura Pro Express SSD. I am pretty happy with the size but I think the 240GB is really a better option. For the reasons I gave in my post, the 180GB was a better choice for that particular system. If you want to go with the best value, stick with the 120GB option with the 240GB being an excellent second choice. If you need just a little more space, go with the 180GB.

Whatever your choice, moving to an SSD is the best way to substantially speed up your computing experience. I highly recommend moving to an SSD for at least your boot and applications. For the time being, an SSD is an even better choice because hard drives have gone way up in price due to the recent flooding in Thailand.

The Corsair Force GT series of SSDs are available from Amazon.com as are the Corsair Force 3 series which are similar to the Force GT but use a cheaper type of flash memory and, as a result, are just a little bit slower. I would recommend going with the Force GT for the relatively small premium over the Force 3.

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