Tom Burt, Sun City Summerlin Computer Club
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have been around for quite a while. However, prices have come down while capacities and performance have gone up. As a result, adding an SSD to an existing system has gone from being a luxury to a practical way to increase the performance of a desktop or laptop significantly.
SSD capacities have grown from 32 GB to 64GB ten years ago to 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB today. So if you’re flush with cash, you can get a 2 TB SSD.
A majority of SSDs are sold as 2.5-inch drives with a SATA controller and power supply. These drives look to PC hardware and software just like a regular hard disk drive. Most SATA SSDs are rated as SATA III, which can deliver data between the drive and the motherboard at 6 billion bits per second.
Sequential read/write speeds are now up in the range of 500 Megabytes per second for top-line SATA III drives. In addition, for random I/O, high-end drives are rated at up to 100,000 input/output operations per second. This makes SATA SSDs about three times faster than hard disk drives.
Two new SSD PCIE card form factors have begun to supplant the SATA format in the past five years. One is a small card that combines flash memory chips and a SATA controller. It plugs into a special M.2 socket on the motherboard. To the PC’s CPU, it appears as a secondary SATA controller. These cards are recognizable because they have two notches (B+M) in the connector end. Performance is comparable to a 2.5 inch SSD, but the card takes up much less space and uses less power. As a result, these are now popular in laptop PCs.
The second new form factor is called NVME (Non-volatile Memory Express). An NVME SSD does not include a SATA controller; it is directly connected to the PCIe data bus of the motherboard via a simple memory controller interface. The NVME SSD card also plugs into an M.2 socket on the motherboard. The NVME SSD card only has a single notch (M only) in the connector end.
For more details on the M.2 slot, see the following: https://www.howtogeek.com/320421/what-is-the-m.2-expansion-slot/
Topline NVME SSDs like the Samsung 980 Pro above can read data at up to 7000 megabytes (56 gigabits) per second if installed on a motherboard supporting PCIe 4.0. This is about 12 times faster than a SATA hard drive. The 1TB 980 Pro unit retails for about $200. A mid-range unit like the 1TB Samsung 970EVO retails for about $140 and can read at up to 3500 megabytes (28 gigabits) per second.
The significant performance difference in SSDs is that they can instantly access a block of data anywhere in the drive’s memory. By contrast, a hard disk drive must position the read/write heads to the correct track and then wait for the desired block to rotate under the heads. This access time can take up to 10 milliseconds or more – easily 5,000 times longer than the SSD. In addition, the newer NVME SSD cards can transfer data 6 to 12 times faster than a SATA drive can.
Upgrading a PC to use an SSD can take either of two routes: adding the SSD to an existing desktop PC while keeping the PC’s original hard drive installed; the second is to replace the PC’s hard drive with an SSD. The second approach is the only practical one; there isn’t room in the laptop for two drives. However, the first approach may be more satisfactory for desktops since it combines high performance while not forsaking high storage capacity. For example, you can use the SSD to store the operating system, applications, and very frequently accessed data files and then use the much larger hard disk drive to store all your other documents, photos, music, videos, and such.
Most new motherboards come with at least one M.2 connector, so adding an NVME or SATA M.2 SSD is possible if you’re building a PC desktop tower. In the image at the left, there are screw holes for three different lengths of M.2 card. 80 millimeters (the one with the screw) is the commonest. For commercially-made brand-name desktops, you may have to go with a 2.5 inch SATA III drive connecting via a SATA cable to one of the SATA ports on the PC’s motherboard. In a laptop, that will also likely be the case; you will replace the laptop’s hard drive with a 2.5 inch SATA SSD. However, for a desktop without an M.2 connector, you can also buy a PCIe to M.2 adapter card that has an M.2 connector on the card and plugs into a PCIe slot on the motherboard. These adapters cost $10 to $15.
For a tutorial on installing an M.2 SSD, see the following: https://www.techradar.com/how-to/how-to-install-an-m2-nvmesata-ssd-on-your-pc.
In upgrading to an SSD, you will need to consider whether to reinstall your operating system (Windows, Mac OS, possibly Linux) and applications from scratch or attempt to copy (clone) your existing system to the SSD. If you wish to copy your current hard drive’s system, you will need an imaging or cloning tool such as Acronis True Image, Casper, or Macrium Reflect. The challenge is to get the size of your operating system’s hard disk partition to be no larger than the size of your new SSD. There are many complications related to this, and details are beyond the scope of this article. However, you might want to stop by our Tuesday Hardware / Software Repair SIG and get some advice before diving into an SSD upgrade.
If you’re now convinced, an SSD is the way to go, what’s the best size and make to buy? Lower-end SATA drives are often on sale for about 12 cents per gigabyte. These drives are OK but may not be as fast as the top-end drives. Higher-end drives are selling for about 20 cents per gigabyte. The Samsung EVO series drives get very high ratings and have some of the best performance specs at very good prices.
Other brands are good also but read the recent reviews carefully. A few years ago, some vendors got good initial reviews on their solid-state drives and then switched to cheaper, slower memory chips. Check the usual online stores (Amazon.com, NewEgg.com, TigerDirect.com) and watch for sales. A 500 GB drive is very attractive at current prices, and you will most likely not run into capacity issues.