The Right Hard Drive For You

So, all this storage talk has gotten you excited about upgrading your laptop's crappy old 120GB drive? It's about time, dammit.

Traditional hard drive have never been cheaper, and the advent of flash-memory based SSDs—that's solid-state drives—delivers a storage upgrade path that actually deliver solid, real-world benefits that you'll notice every single day. SSD-equipped PCs boot faster and are quicker to load applications. In fact, the only bad thing about SSDs is their cost—a 128GB solid-state drive can cost upwards of $400.

So what's the right storage solution for you? Read on, and I'll tell you what you need to know.

Option 1: The Cheapskate

The Right Hard Drive For You


SSDs sound pretty sexy, but you're running an old machine—say an Athlon 64—and you've got an immediate problem. Your porn collection has filled your old 500GB drive. You need more space, stat, and there's no reason to shell out more than your PC is worth for a 128GB SSD. Lucky for you, terabyte drives are cheap—$90 at Newegg for an awesome drive. There are a few key specs to watch out for when buying a hard drive for use as your system drive. The speed that the platters spin at has a direct correlation on the performance of the drive. Faster platters = faster data transfer. For an inexpensive, mainstream drive, that means you should be looking at 7200rpm exclusively. The number of platters is also relevant. The fewer platters there are in the drive, the faster the drive will be. For those reasons, I recommend Seagate's 7200.12 series 1TB drive. At $90, it's cheap, fast, and reliable.

Total Capacity: 1TB
Total Cost: $90

Option 2: The Budget-Conscious SSD Shopper

The Right Hard Drive For You


Today, the 128GB SSDs sit in the sweet spot for price to performance ratio. However, smaller SSDs don't necessarily sacrifice anything in terms of performance, just capacity. (The brand of controller used and configuration of the memory are much more important to SSD performance.) So, if you want to scrimp, you can buy a smaller SSD for Windows and your applications, and pair it with a traditional hard drive where you store your large files—like your music and video files. If you want to get really tricky, you can even use symlinks—special links that are invisible to applications but are between files or directories—so that your applications don't even realize your files are on different drives.

While Intel's mainstream 160GB SSDs cost about $500, the 80GB retail version comes in right around $220, and even includes a mounting kit, so it will slide into your 3.5-inch drive bays (most SSDs are 2.5-inch drives, sized for laptops and servers). That's not a ton of capacity, but it's more than enough if you just want to install Windows and your applications. You'll need to install games and store your media on a secondary drive, but for that you can use an inexpensive traditional drive, like the Seagate 7200.12 1TB. And, the quick boot and speedy application load times are more than worth the hassle. One caveat, when buying Intel SSDs, make sure you get the second generation drives (they'll have G2 in the model number). The first-gen models don't support TRIM, which is an important feature for maintaining the drive as you use it. We'll talk about TRIM in a moment.

Total Capacity: 1.08TB
Total Cost: $310

Option 3: Handy Laptop Upgrade

The Right Hard Drive For You


While it's definitely tempting to put a speedy SSD in your laptop—after all quick load times and a complete lack of moving parts does sound spiffy—if you use your portable machine like I do, you'd probably rather have some extra space. Lots of extra space. That's why I recommend the Western Digital 640GB Scorpio Blue drive. It's a 5400RPM drive, but its balance of price to space is excellent, and it shouldn't eat through your battery too quickly. When you upgrade the hard drive in a notebook, you need to know what height drive your computer can accommodate. The easiest way to find out is to look in Device Manager (in Windows) or in System Information (in OSX) and see what model drive you have currently. Then Google that model number to find out thick your current drive is. Anything that size or smaller should fit. At 9.5mm, the Scorpio is a perfect upgrade for my MacBook Pro.

Total Capacity: 640GB
Total Cost: $99

Option 4: Balls to the Wall

The Right Hard Drive For You


What's a truly nutty storage solution? How about a pair of 160GB SSDs paired with 2TB of the fastest traditional hard drive in the world? While there are some faster SSDs out there, they're either based on untested controllers or have had problems in the past. When dealing with bleeding edge, we'll take reliable and slightly slower in some situations over speedier with a chance to lose our data, which is why we recommend a pair of 160GB Intel's X-25MG2's running in RAID0, paired with a speedy and spacious 2TB Western Digital Black drive. This gives you 320GB of storage on the RAID, more than enough space for Windows and all your applications and games, plus an extra 2TB for your music, videos, and... yes... your porn collection. It's the best of both worlds, but with a pair of $500 SSDs, it'll cost you!

Total Capacity: 2.380TB
Total Cost: $1280

The Care and Feeding of SSDs

There are a few things you need to know about SSDs, before you shell out big bucks for one. First, because of the way flash memory works, either the operating system or a vendor-provided piece of software needs to do some occasional housekeeping to keep write speeds up. If your drive supports the TRIM command—as the second-generation Intel SSDs I recommended do—Windows 7 will take care of the scut work for you.

If you're running XP or Vista, you'll need to manually run the Intel SSD Optimizer every few weeks or months, whenever you notice write speeds slowing down. It's part of the Intel SSD Toolbox. Unfortunately, the SSD Optimizer doesn't run on RAID arrays, so it's a bad idea to RAID your SSDs, unless you're running Windows 7.

You should prevent defragmentation programs from running on SSDs—they're not necessary and can actually degrade performance. Windows 7 will automatically disable defrag, but you'll need to turn it off manually in XP or Vista.

Unfortunately, there's no way to properly maintain an SSD on OSX today. OSX doesn't support the TRIM command and there aren't any OSX-native tools for Intel drives. The only way to restore like-new write speeds on a Mac is to backup your drive, format it, then restore from your TimeMachine backup. If you frequently write large files, you'll definitely notice the performance hit. For that reason, it's not a great idea to buy a SSD to upgrade your MacBook Pro today.


Will Smith is the Editor in Chief of Tested, a new site for people who love technology. Recently at Tested, he's talked about Apple's first netbook, shown you how to disassemble a Flip camera, and tested condoms to see if they make good waterproof cases for gear.

Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions, and might truly live forever.