Eduardo Angel
Eduardo Angel

Eduardo Angel has worked as a photographer, DP, digital consultant, photography instructor, and architect.

Hard Drives: Solid State Drives vs. Hard Disk Drives

February 24, 2012

"The limited number of write cycles for SSDs gives them a limited life span"

Solid State Drives (SSD) store digital data just like Hard Disk Drives (HDD), but they are very different in terms of construction and performance. SSD technology has made a dramatic impact on reliability, speed and performance.

Hard disk drives are electromechanical devices with spinning disks and movable read/write heads. The device needs to wait for these moving parts to get in place before they can write or read any information. This makes them slower, and more likely to fail. SSDs use microchips that retain data in non-volatile memory chips and contain no moving parts. This potentially makes them much faster than HDDs.

Advantages of Solid-state Drives

SSDs can instantly read and/or write twice as fast HDDs. This is a clear advantage when booting a computer, downloading large files, opening software applications, or working on highly demanding tasks like photo or video editing. A critical deciding factor is the controller (the "brain") behind a SSD. A mediocre controller with a top rated SSD may end up being slower than a conventional HDD.

SSDs do not need to be defragmented, and they stand a better chance of surviving a drop or impact. Strong magnetic fields, like speakers or even cell phones, can corrupt the data on a HDD, while SSDs are unaffected by magnets. SSDs consume less power (2W SDD vs. 7W HDD typical power consumption), and produce less heat, which greatly expands the life and battery performance on laptops and other portable devices.

Disadvantages of Solid-state Drives

But Solid State Drives have their downsides, too. One is price. As of early 2012, solid-state drives are currently much more expensive than HDDs. SSDs cost anywhere from $1.50 to $5.00 per gigabyte, while a HDD can range from $0.07 to $0.30 per gigabyte.

HDD prices vary by manufacturer, and greatly depend on speed (5400 RPM vs. 7200 RPM) and connectivity (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Firewire 400, Firewire 800, eSATA, and Thunderbolt). Regardless, video or photo enthusiasts looking for a compact external hard drive for storage will find the new SSD devices to be much more expensive than virtually any hard disk-type drive – again, as of early 2012.

An important clarification: The limited number of write cycles for SSDs gives them a limited life span. Typical users write 1.4 GB/day, and a heavy mobile computer user may write 5.2 GB/day. Considering a conservative endurance limit of a 64GB (MLC NAND-based) SSD, a heavy mobile user would have to write approximately 22GB of new data per day, every day, for five years to reach the technical life span of that drive. With a 128GB drive, the wear would be spread over a larger storage area, doubling the average daily limit to 44GB.

Therefore the endurance limit is so far beyond the likely usage of a typical user that life span of these recent solid-state drives may not be a realistic cause for concern.

Remember, ALL Drives will fail and die. It is not a matter of IF but WHEN and a backup strategy should be in place regardless which device you chose for your workflow.

HDDs vs. SSDs Comparison Chart
Characteristic Hard Disk Drive (HDD) Solid State Drive (SSD)
Sensitive to Magnets Magnets can alter or destroy data. Magnets have no effect on data.
Power Consumption 7 Watts average 2 Watts average
Time to Spin Up Up to 2 seconds before HDD can read/write to drive. Instantaneous, able to read/write immediately.
Read Speed (SATA) Roughly 100MB/s. Depends on level of fragmentation. 250MB/s
Write Speed (SATA) 50-70MB/s. Depends on level of fragmentation. Up to 118 MB/s on some models. 200-250MB/s
Lifespan May fail due to vibrations or impact, usual MTBF of 1,500,000 hours (171 years)
No finite number of writes.
MTBF of 2,000,000 hours, (228 years).
Limited write cycle.
Encryption HDDs can overwrite new encrypted data over old data. Cannot overwrite data. Need a secure erase feature or total partition encryption.
Cost $0.07 to $0.30 per GB $1.50-$2 per GB
Sound HDDs typically make noticeable sound during read/write and spin up times. Solid-state drives have no moving parts and make no sound.
Heat Very little heat produced, but still 3 times more heat than SSDs. Only produce about 1/3 the amount of heat of an HDD.
Sensitivity to Shock Very sensitive, hard disk drive heads and disks may break due to shock or vibration. Solid State drives have no moving parts, and are very resistant to shock and vibration. Ideal for location shooting.
Fragmentation Level of fragmentation of an HDD will significantly reduce read/write speeds. No need to defragment.

We certainly aren't suggesting that the newer solid-state drives are ideal for every user, and every circumstance. For instance, users on tight budgets, or photographers or videographers who need to store terabytes worth of data on a single drive will probably find conventional HDDs are their best option. But these new SSD-type drives open the door to new options for photo and video enthusiasts, whether as a primary built-in drive in a compact laptop computer, or as a durable and very compact external storage device. Expect even more Solid State drive options to become readily available in the coming years.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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