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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.

Solid-state drives are best suited to savvy PC users who seek high performance. If you don't mind managing multiple volumes and you have the budget, pairing a fast SSD with a high-capacity hard drive will result in the best of both worlds. The SSD can hold the OS and your most frequently used applications, while the hard drive can handle the bulk-storage duties. Managing multiple storage volumes can be a bit of a pain for casual PC users; if you know your way around a PC, however, combining a fast SSD and large hard-drive storage is a great, high-performance approach with minimal compromise.

If you're considering making the jump to a solid-state drive, check out PCWorld's ultimate guide to SSDs, which reviews seven of the top SSDs on the market today.

Hybrid hard drives

Hybrid hard drives blend HDD capacity with SSD speeds by placing traditional rotating platters and a small amount of high-speed flash memory on a single drive.

Hybrid storage products monitor the data being read from the hard drive, and cache the most frequently accessed bits to the high-speed NAND flash memory. The data stored on the NAND will change over time, but once the most frequently accessed bits of data are stored on the flash memory, they will be served from the flash, resulting in SSD-like performance for your most-used files.

Some of the advantages of hybrid storage products include cost, capacity, and manageability. Because only a relatively small solid-state volume is required to achieve significant performance gains, a large investment in a high-capacity SSD isn't necessary. Hybrid drives tend to cost slightly more than traditional hard drives, but far less than solid-state drives. And because the cache volume is essentially hidden from the OS, users aren't required to cherry-pick the data to store on the SSD to prevent it from filling up. The hybrid storage volume can be as big as the hard drive being used, and can serve as a standard hard drive. Boot times also see some improvement.

Where hybrid products falter is with new data. When writing new data or accessing infrequently used bits, hybrid products perform just like a standard hard drive, and new hybrid drives have a "break-in period" while the software learns which data to cache. Due to the fact that hybrid products rely on caching software, they can also be somewhat more difficult to configure.

For users who don't want the responsibility of managing multiple volumes or who don't constantly work with new data, a hybrid drive can be a great option to improve system performance--all without having to give up any capacity or having to deal with the headaches of using separate solid-state and hard-disk drives.

 

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