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SSDs vs. hard drives vs. hybrids: Which storage tech is right for you?

Marco Chiappetta | Jan. 18, 2013
With the fairly recent rise of solid-state drives and hybrid drives (which mix standard hard drives with solid-state memory), the storage landscape has significantly altered, creating a cornucopia of confusing options for the everyday consumer.

SSD vs hard drives vs hybrids

In times past, choosing the best PC storage option required merely selecting the highest-capacity hard drive one could afford. If only life were still so simple! The fairly recent rise of solid-state drives and hybrid drives (which mix standard hard drives with solid-state memory) have significantly altered the storage landscape, creating a cornucopia of confusing options for the everyday consumer.

Yes, selecting the best drive type for a particular need can be befuddling, but fear not: We're here to help. Below, we explain the basic advantages and drawbacks for each of the most popular PC storage options available today. Tuck away this knowledge to make a fully informed decision the next time you're shopping for additional drive space.

Hard-disk drives

Hard-disk drives have been the default storage component in desktop and laptop PCs for decades. As a result, the term "hard drive" is now the common descriptor for all storage hardware--the digital equivalent of "Q-Tip" or "Band-Aid." Although modern hard-disk drives are far more advanced and higher-performing than their counterparts from yesteryear, on many levels their basic underlying technology remains unchanged. All hard-disk drives consist of quickly rotating magnetic platters paired with read/write heads that travel over the platters' surfaces to retrieve or record data.

The technology is mature, reliable, and relatively inexpensive compared with other storage options; most hard-disk drives can be had for only a few cents per gigabyte. Hard-disk drives are available in relatively high capacities too, with today's largest drives storing up to 4TB of data. Usually hard drives connect to a system via the ubiquitous SATA (Serial ATA) interface, and they don't require any special software to work properly with current operating systems.

In other words, traditional hard drives are spacious, simple, and comparatively dirt-cheap.

Hard-disk drives don't perform nearly as well as solid-state drives or even hybrid products do in most situations, however. Today's fastest hard drives can read and write data at more than 200MB per second with sub-8ms access times, but those numbers are significantly worse than the speeds of even some of the most affordable solid-state drives (which I'll cover in a bit). The faster the platter rotation speed, the faster the hard drive. For example, a 7200-rpm drive outperforms a 5400-rpm drive.

Hard-disk drives are best suited to users who need vast amounts of storage and aren't as concerned about achieving peak system performance. If you're an everyday PC user who sticks mostly to email, Web browsing, and basic document editing, a standard hard drive should suit you fine. Just don't tinker around with someone else's SSD-powered PC, because once you've gotten a taste of a solid-state drive's blazing read/write speeds, it's hard to go back to even the speediest of traditional hard drives.

 

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