How to Choose Your Parts, Part 6: SSDs and Hard Drives
Hello! Welcome to part 6 of the How to Choose Your Parts guide. In this installment we’ll be going over storage, so it’s all about drives. Once again, let’s get our key questions in order:
- What are you using this computer for? Depending on what you’re doing storage needs will vary. You may need large amounts of high-speed storage, or you may just need a lot of capacity and speed is secondary.
- What’s your budget? Storage is an area that you can easily save cost on if you’re willing to compromise a bit.
Before anything else we need to cover some basic pieces of information. There are two different types of drives you can have in your system:
Hard drives (HDD) are the most common form of storage available. They’re mechanical drives with a spinning platter that physically reads and writes information to sectors on the drive. This is why you’ll see them labelled with RPM in the specs. Hard drives will connect to your computer via SATA cables and come in 2.5” and 3.5” form factors. 2.5” drives are used for laptops while 3.5” drives are used for desktops. 7200RPM is the standard speed I would recommend if you plan to put a hard drive in your desktop.
Solid state drives (SSD) are a newer form of drive that utilize flash storage, kind of like a USB flash drive. There are several different form factors of SSD currently available:
- 2.5-inch SATA: These are the same size as 2.5” hard drives commonly used in laptops. They utilize the same SATA connections as well.
- M.2: This is a newer style of SSD that’s become popular recently. They slot directly into your motherboard as opposed to mounting separately like a 2.5” drive. They can utilize a SATA interface or an NVMe PCI express interface, but I’ll get to that later.
- There are other form factors such as U.2 and mSATA but they are either rare or utilized more for enterprise use cases, so I won’t get into those. Consumer drives are primarily made up by 2.5” and M.2 drives.
SSD or Hard Drive?
SSDs have gradually become more commonplace over the last few years and have reached a point now where they’re pretty standard. The main advantage SSDs have is that they’re much faster than hard drives. This means much faster boot-up time and loading speeds, so for general day-to-day use an SSD is going to have a very large impact.
With how affordable SSDs are now compared to a few years ago, in my opinion there’s no reason not to use one. However, SSDs are still more expensive than hard drives, so if you need large amounts of storage space, going SSD only can add up your cost fairly quick.
A common configuration people will use to compromise on that is have a smaller SSD as their primary drive with Windows and other software installed, then keep a secondary HDD for storage space. This can be a very good option because you can take advantage of the SSD's speeds for software you’re utilizing, and keep space on it free by using the hard drive as general storage.
On that note, if you’re a gamer, you’ve probably noticed how many modern titles can take up huge amounts of storage space. I personally have multiple games on my PC that are 80GB or more. Games that size can quickly fill a smaller SSD. While they do make a big difference in loading times, most games aren’t going to perform differently once they’re up and running, so you can still reliably use the SSD+HDD combo to save some cost and have a reasonable amount of storage space. There are some games that can see performance benefits from being on an SSD if they rely on texture streaming from local storage. Otherwise, they’ll run the same once they’re loaded whether on an HDD or SSD.
One other benefit SSDs have vs hard drives is not having any moving parts. This helps them be more resilient to physical damage than hard drives.
NVMe (PCIe) vs SATA SSDs
I mentioned before how consumer SSDs come in two primary form factors: 2.5” and M.2. The 2.5” drives are SATA, and the M.2 drives can be SATA or NVMe. There are some pretty key differences between SATA and NVMe so it’s important to understand exactly how that works and what benefits it gives you.
SATA M.2 drives function exactly the same as SATA 2.5” drives in terms of read and write speeds, they simply slot into your board directly. Besides ease of installation and space, there’s no advantage they have over a 2.5” drive. SATA III, which is the current SATA standard, maxes out at 600 MB/s for read and write speeds, in practice SATA drives usually have read/write speeds around 500-550 MB/s. When a SATA M.2 is installed in a motherboard, it occupies a SATA lane and most motherboards will automatically disable one or two of the physical SATA ports available. If you have a SATA M.2 alongside a normal SATA drive, make sure the normal drive is plugged into a port that won’t be disabled.
NVMe drives utilize a PCI express interface which has much faster read/write speeds. Most commonly you’ll see PCIe 3.0 drives, with PCIe 4.0 being recently introduced. PCIe 3.0 drives can have read/write speeds over 3000 MB/s, and PCIe 4.0 drives can be over 5,000 (this varies depending on the drive, make sure you check the specs). As you can clearly see this is a huge uplift vs. a SATA interface. However, the important thing to note here is that these are sequential read/write speeds.
There are two different ways SSDs can read and write data: sequential and random. Data is stored on a drive in a series of blocks; blocks are made up of bytes/bits of data. Every file or piece of data on a drive can be broken down into blocks. Sequential read/write accesses those blocks in sequential order, whereas random read/write goes directly to whichever blocks are needed.
Sequential read/write is used when you are transferring data files, and this is where NVMe has the advantage. Because of their much higher sequential read/write speeds, NVMe drives are much better for use cases that are transferring very large files or large amounts of data in general.
- Assuming you are reading/writing to other devices capable of these speeds. Remember, you’ll be bottlenecked by your slowest component. A data transfer from an NVMe drive to a hard drive is only going to transfer at the speed the hard drive can operate at.
Random read/write is used for most other things, like booting your computer or loading an application. You don’t need to access every single file on an operating system or a program for it to boot, so the computer utilizes random read/write instead to go directly to whatever blocks are required to accomplish what it needs.
Random read/write speeds are much more similar between SATA and NVMe SSDs. You won’t notice any difference for normal everyday use using one or the other. Unless you have a specific use case where you are transferring large amounts of data often, there’s not really any reason to get an NVMe drive. In practice SATA drives and NVMe drives will function exactly the same for the vast majority of people.
Which drives should I buy?
To be honest, most drives available will work perfectly fine for anybody. I’ll list some examples of drives to look at, and my recommendation would be choosing the one that has the capacity you want that costs the least. One thing to note though, some manufacturers will include utilities with their drives like cloning software or health monitoring, and the cheaper drives tend not to include those sorts of things. As always, it’s good to do some research and double check reviews to avoid any individual cases that could be poor quality, and remember, there are more options out there than what I list here!
- Western Digital Blue, Black
- Seagate Barracuda, Firecuda, IronWolf
- Toshiba N300, PC300, L200
- Inland Premium, Professional
- Crucial MX500
- Samsung 860 QVO, 860 EVO, 860 PRO
- Western Digital Blue
- Sandisk Plus, Ultra
- Inland Premium, Professional
- Crucial P1
- Samsung 970 EVO, 970 Pro
- Western Digital SN750
That pretty much covers it! SSDs and hard drives are fairly straightforward, and I'll mention one more time that in my opinion, there's no reason not to use an SSD, even if it's just a small one. Once you finish this, go read part 7!