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Hard disk drives vs. solid-state drives: Are SSDs finally worth the money?

Lucas Mearian | Sept. 18, 2012
Three years ago, I wrote a story comparing hard disk drives to solid state drives (SSDs) based on capacity, performance and cost.

(When requesting test units, I asked the companies for their highest-capacity review models. While capacity affects SSD performance, it really doesn't affect hard drive performance -- at least, not until the drive is filled.)

How I tested

For the benchmark tests, I used an Apple MacBook Pro running OS X Mountain Lion, with 8GB of RAM and a 2.3GHz Intel Core i7 processor.

To measure read/write performance, I used the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. To determine file transfer speeds, I used a 1.19GB folder that held 327 JPG images. The file was transferred from a desktop folder to the hard drive.

Additionally, I tested application load time by opening a 10MB PowerPoint presentation and a 372-page, 300KB Microsoft Word document.

The Intel 520 Series SSD

I started with the Intel 520 Series SSD. According to the specifications from the manufacturer, it had the best performance potential of all three drives I tested.

The SSD was actually tested on two separate platforms: First, I ran the tests described above using my MacBook Pro with an SATA 3.0 internal drive interface. However, because SSDs will perform better right out of the box than after they've been filled with data, I decided to also send the SSD to a professional drive testing service, Calypso Systems, which benchmarks drives for drive vendors and system manufacturers.

Testing the SSD with a MacBook

Microsoft Word opened in about two seconds, which would allow a user to begin writing to the top of a document, or reading it, regardless of its size. However, the Word document took 57 seconds to load all 372 pages, so you couldn't access the later pages until it had finished loading.

Opening a 10MB Power Point presentation took 2 seconds. Copying the 327 JPG images took 15 seconds.

The Blackmagic benchmarking software recorded a maximum read rate of 456MB/sec. and a write rate of 241MB/sec. using 4KB blocks.

Intel's specification sheet states that the 520 Series SSD sports sequential read/write speeds of 550MB/sec. and 520MB/sec., respectively. I'm guessing that those specs were attained using higher-end hardware, such as a storage array.

I also tested the Intel 520 SSD on a MacBook with a SATA 2.0 3Gbps interface. The read/write speeds dropped significantly -- in this case, the 520 Series SSD offered a maximum sequential read and write rate of 280MB/sec.

Intel's drive also took it easy on laptop batteries, sipping a maximum of 5.25 volts while operating and only 600 milliwatts when idle.

Testing the SSD using Calypso's service

Calypso Industries uses the Solid State Storage Initiative Performance Test Specification (SSS PTS) and a standardized hardware platform to evaluate and compare drive performance. Developed by the Storage Networking Industry Association, there is no more accurate method to test drives.


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