Are you running out of storage space? Has your old hard disk slowed to a crawl? Then it’s time for a hardware upgrade. But should you get a cheaper, traditional hard disk drive or buy a fast SSD? We’ll show you the differences between HDDs and SSDs in terms of speed, capacity, cost, and lifespan – so you can make the right decision.
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Until the late 2000s, the world was simpler. When you bought a new hard disk drive or personal computer, your hard disk storage choices were limited to size and perhaps speed (for example: 5,400 or 7,200 rotations per minute). But today, when you buy a new PC you’re confronted with two very different options.
In the example above, the laptop on the left comes with a traditional hard disk drive, while the one on the right contains a more modern solid state drive. The basic purpose of an SSD or HDD is the same: These storage devices preserve your memories, music, documents, and programs. But the technology behind them is quite different:
HDDs: An enclosure contains a series of platters covered by a ferromagnetic coating. The direction of the magnetization represents the individual bits. Data is read and written by a head (similar to the way vinyl record albums work) that moves extremely fast from one area of the disk to another. Since all of these pieces are “mechanical,” the hard disk is the slowest component of any computer – and the most fragile.
SSD: These newer types of disks store information on flash memory, which consists of individual memory cells storing bits that are instantly accessible by the controller. Learn all about SSDs here.
SSDs are often used in laptops because they're non-mechanical. Also, solid state drives require less power, which translates into better battery life. While lower-priced laptops still come with traditional hard drives (it’s one way for manufacturers to minimize their costs), most midrange to high-end machines come with an SSD.
And while hard disks have moving parts, solid state drives are shock-resistant. If you drop your laptop, chances are that the read/write head of an old-school hard drive is in motion, which could lead to data failure. This doesn’t happen with SSDs.
But it isn’t always an either/or choice. In some cases, you find “hybrid” computers. The system partition that contains the operating system, application programs, and the most-used files are installed on an SSD. Other data, such as movies, photos, and documents, are stored on a traditional HDD, which is larger and less expensive.
The speed difference between solid state drives vs hard drives is significant. SSDs are extremely fast in all areas, but the speed difference is more pronounced when performing certain tasks, such as:
Sequential read/write operations: The speed difference of an SSD vs hard drive is most apparent when copying and moving huge files (such as movies). On old-school HDDs, the copying process takes 30-150 MB per second (MB/s), while the same action takes about 500 MB/s on normal SSDs, or even 3,000-3,500 MB/s on new NVME SSDs. That means you can copy a 20 GB movie in less than 10 seconds with an SSD, while a hard disk would take at least two minutes.
Small “4K” read/write operations: Most of the time, when you run Windows (or MacOS), open programs, or browse the web, you’re actually opening and manipulating thousands of smaller files, which are stored in small blocks of data (usually sized at 4K). The faster your disk can read (and write) these 4K blocks, the faster and snappier your system operates. With HDDs, the speed ranges from 0.1 to 1.7 MB/s. SSDs and NVME SSDs, however, operate at much faster speeds of 50-250 MB/s in 4K reads/writes.
TTo demonstrate the speed difference between an HDD vs SSD, compare the benchmarks below (using CrystalDiskMark). The numbers on the left are from a 7-year-old HP 630 laptop. On the right, we’re using a 2017 MacBook Pro.
Speed differences between an older HP laptop with an HDD (left) and a newer MacBook Pro with an SSD (right).
In terms of personal perception, the HP’s system is painfully slow. Every click in Windows is accompanied by a massive delay, boot time takes four minutes to fully complete, and launching Chrome takes about 15 seconds. It isn’t fun.
In comparison, the 2017 MacBook Pro is running Windows 10 and sporting a fast NVME SSD. Sequential reads are nearly 56 times faster (fifty-six times faster!) and small 4K read operations are about 226 times faster. As you might expect from the improved performance numbers, Windows takes 10 seconds to boot. There is no visible delay when launching Chrome — it’s just there. Night and day. Night and day. So it makes a lot of sense to upgrade to an SSD on a PC or if you want to speed up your macOS computer.
But no matter if you’re using an SSD or HDD, you’ll want to make sure it stays clean, so that your machine can operate at its best. Avast Cleanup will tune up your drive, update your apps, and fix other annoying problems, to make sure your computer runs as fast as it should.
There are lots of myths surrounding SSD life spans, and the assumptions go back to the early days of SSDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is true that SSD cells have a limited lifespan, but this isn’t really an issue today.
In theory, the more data written to a cell, the faster it wears out. Nowadays, an SSD cell survives about 3,000 write cycles, which doesn’t sound like much at first. But thanks to the principle of wear leveling, the SSD controller makes sure that write operations are spread evenly across all cells in order to minimize “cell death.” Additionally, modern SSDs contain spare cells that will replace cells that go bad. This is called bad block management, and it’s why the larger the SSD, the longer its lifespan.
However, even if you were to constantly (24 hours a day) write data onto a hard disk, you’d still have decades until the disk eventually dies. (Read more about the myths and facts of SSD endurance.)
If you are concerned about how much information you can store on each type of drive, don’t worry. There are no differences in storage capacity. You can get HDDs and SSDs in similar sizes. Usually the range is 128 GB to 2 TB. And if you need to radically free up space, you can easily format any hard drive, internal or external — no matter if it's an HDD or SSD.
But larger SSDs are still more expensive, so let’s talk about price.
The market for flash storage is volatile and varies based on supply and demand. While the price for SSDs has decreased a lot, there is still a significant price difference. A 500 GB HDD costs between $25 and $50 (for faster, higher-end models), whereas a 500 GB SSD costs anywhere from around $60 to $150. Naturally, these prices will change over time.
A good source for direct price comparison of popular disk sizes can be found at PCPartPicker.com.
The average price of a 1 TB SSD.
The average price of a 1 TB HDD.
In this example from April 2019, you can see that the old-school HDDs either remained around the same price point, or they experienced sudden spikes. In contrast, the price for a 1 TB SSD dropped from around $400 to slightly above $200 (with some discounted models at $100-150).
Generally, you’ll experience much crisper gaming with an SSD. Given the huge amounts of data a game has to shuffle back and forth (loading levels, character models, etc.), an SSD helps games load and run faster. You’ll also experience less stutter when gaming, as the rest of your PC doesn’t need to wait for game data to load – which offers quite an advantage, especially in the eSports arena.
Here’s a simple example: Loading the world of GTA V takes about 25 seconds on my Samsung 970 Evo Plus with an SSD, compared to more than two minutes when using an old mechanical hard disk. It’s a game changer, and it’s why you should always use an SSD if you’re building your own gaming PC.
If you’re simply looking for a cheap way to store files, then you can still get a great deal with HDDs. They offer lots of terabytes at affordable prices.
But for your “primary” drive (your operating system, application programs, and most-used files), you should upgrade to an SSD, because it offers dramatically improved speeds.
But regardless of whether you’re using an SSD or HDD, you’ll need to keep your drive clean. Your operating system requires a lot of disk space to operate – and running low on space can cause extreme slowdowns and even crashes.