Tech

SSD vs HDD: Speed & Lifespan Comparison

Updated 15/05/2024

In this blog, we’re diving deep into the nitty-gritty of storage tech and comparing hard drives and solid state drives. From performance and capacity to cost, lifespan, and use cases, we’re breaking it all down. Whether you’re a tech enthusiast or a casual user, this guide has everything you need to know about choosing the right storage solution for your needs. Let’s get started.

What is a Hard Drive?

Hard drives (HDDs) are mechanical storage devices. As in, they’re made up of multiple moving pieces. Data is stored on a spinning magnetic platter that’s driven by a motor. To read data from and write data to this platter, a magnetic read/write head on an actuating arm has to align itself with a track on the platter, much like a vinyl record player.

What is a Solid State Drive?

By comparison, solid-state drives (SSDs) are comprised entirely of digital integrated circuits. You can think of them like big USB flash drives. Crack open the housing of a solid-state drive and you’ll find that there’s no moving pieces – just flash memory modules, a storage controller chip, and optionally some DRAM cache attached to a mainboard. As we’ll explain below, this has multiple advantages when it comes to not only the performance of a solid state drive, but also its durability, size, and more.

HDD (left) vs SSD (right)

Are SSDs Faster Than HDDs?

Moving the pieces of a hard drive takes time, known as the seek time. The average hard drive has a seek time of around 9ms. This may not sound like much, and when data is stored in a sequential formation on the hard drive, it’s not that much of an issue. However, trouble arises when data is scattered randomly all over a hard drive’s platter. Games, for instance, contain hundreds of assets: textures, models, sound files, and so on. When a gaming is running, it could request a piece of data that’s stored on an inner segment of the platter, then on an outer segment, then back again. This forces the read/write head to waste time jumping back and forth across the platter – time that could’ve been spent actually reading and writing data. Multiply this for all the assets a game has to load in and the seek time quickly becomes a bottleneck, slowing down the performance of a hard drive. And, crucially, these seek times are just a measure of how long it takes to find the data – not to read and write the data itself. This part of the process is limited by how quickly the platter can spin. Most hard drives on the market operate at either 5,400 or 7,200 revolutions-per-minute (RPM). So once everything’s factored in, the real-world transfer rates of hard drives cap out at around 180MB/s.

On the other hand, seeing as solid state drives have no moving pieces, they effectively do not have seek times. There’s still a bit of latency, or response time, with accessing data on a solid state drive, but we’re talking between 0.08 and 0.16ms here – even on the most run-of-the-mill drives. This is nothing compared to the traditional seek time of a mechanical hard drive. As data can practically be accessed right there-and-then on a solid state drive, rather than waiting for pieces to move into place, these storage devices feel snappier and more responsive. A solid state drive isn’t going to boost the performance of your PC in the traditional sense. It’s not going to increase your frames-per-second in games or anything like that. That’s the job of the CPU and GPU. But a solid state drive will help with anything to do with reading and writing data, like loading the operating system or a video game level.  

SATA HDD vs SATA SSD vs NVMe SSD

There’s more to performance than just mechanical versus digital operation. The electrical pathway along which data is carried on a motherboard, known as a ‘bus’, also affects performance. Be sure to check out our blog What is a Motherboard for more information. In short, a motherboard has multiple buses for different types of storage devices. Hard drives utilise the SATA (Serial AT Attachment) communication protocol. The latest version of SATA, SATA III, maxes out at a transfer rate of 600MB/s. SATA is fine for hard drives as they’re not fast enough to hit this limit in the first place. However, there’s also solid state drives which use SATA. These will bump right up against the bandwidth limitation of SATA.

So, if you want a solid state drive with performance faster than 600MB/s, you need to look into drives that utilise the NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) communication protocol. Unlike SATA, NVMe was explicitly designed to leverage the full potential of solid state drives’ high-speed flash memory, reducing latency and increasing performance. Notably, NVMe uses the PCIe bus for data transfer (the same bus as your dedicated graphic card), making NVMe SSDs significantly faster than their SATA counterparts. While SATA HDDs cap out at around 180MB/s and SATA SSDs at 600MB/s, the latest-and-greatest PCIe Gen5 NVMe SSD can reach eye-watering speeds of up to 14,000MB/s. The performance hierarchy is pretty clear: hard drives are in dead last, SATA-powered SSDs give a decent boost over HDDs, and NVMe-powered SSDs blow everything else out of the water.

PCIe Gen3 SSD vs PCIe Gen4 SSD – PCIe Gen5 SSDs are on another level still. Speed test done using CrystalDiskMark.

How Do Storage Capacities Compare Between HDDs and SSDs?

It’s no contest when it comes to performance – solid state drives have hard drives beat. That said, it’s not all negative for hard drives. They’ve got their fair share of advantages, too, especially in their capacities. As an older technology, the manufacturing process for hard drives has matured to a to a very late stage. Now, hard drives can be produced with enormous stage capacities, all at low prices. Head on over to ebuyer and you’ll find solid state drives in capacities up to 8TB. This is a huge amount of storage – more than most people will ever realistically need. In the world of hard drives, however, 8TB is a middle-of-the-road capacity. There’s hard drives out there with 18TB, 20TB, and even 22TB capacities.

Who’s Buying These Extra-Large Capacity HDDs?

Let’s say you’re a content creator who’s looking to put together a network-attached storage (NAS) server for backing up terabytes of images and videos. Even if you pick up a compact four-bay NAS enclosure, you could still achieve a whopping 88TB of storage if you take advantage of these 22TB drives. There are decently large solid state drives out there, but they’re nowhere near as large as what hard drives can offer. Plus, ultra-high-capacity solid state drives tend to cost a pretty penny – more on this below. Alternatively, if you’ve got a small form-factor computer case with room for only one hard drive, an extra-large-capacity model will help you squeeze as much storage into as little room as possible.

Are SSDs More Expensive Than HDDs?

Hard drives are cheaper per gigabyte than solid state drives. The former uses magnetic storage while the latter uses pricier flash storage. As its technology is decades old by this point, it’s gotten incredibly cheap to produce a hard drive. Prices for hard drives have essentially bottomed out; they’ve remained at a consistently low price for years now. So if all you need is mass storage for back-up purposes (i.e. speed isn’t a factor), then it’s hard to beat the price-per-gigabyte of hard drives. That being said, solid state drive prices are continually falling. While solid state drives haven’t quite hit the price-per-gigabyte of hard drives, they’re certainly getting there. If you need speed as well as capacity, it may be worth forking out a little bit extra and going all-in on solid state storage.

HDD & SSD Prices Compared

To illustrate out point, let’s head on over to ebuyer and look at the actual prices of hard drives and solid state drives. Without doing too much digging, you can easily pick up a 2TB 7,200RPM HDD for under £60. To get the same capacity in solid state storage, you’re looking at spending just shy of £100. Of course, the latter is much faster since it’s a PCIe Gen4 SSD with read/write speeds of 3,500/2,800MB/s. But if all you’re after is pure storage capacity, this demonstrates that HDDs still have their place. FYI: these prices are accurate as of the time of writing (15/05/2024) and are subject to change.

What’s the Lifespan of an HDD vs SSD?

Hard drives and solid state drives have different lifespans due to their distinct technologies. HDDs feature motors and spinning platters which, like any mechanical components, wear out over time. Under normal usage, HDDs generally have lifespans of around five years. Factors like heat, vibration, and intense usage patterns can reduce a HDD’s lifespan faster. On the flipside, they can last for many more yeas if properly maintained and used within their specified operating conditions.

SSDs, with their non-mechanical design, are more resilient to shocks and vibrations. This makes them ideal for portable devices, like laptops and portable SSDs. You can chuck an external SSD in a bag without much worry – you can’t do the same with a HDD. However, SSDs have a finite number of write cycles before they start to degrade. This is due to the nature of flash storage, where each flash memory cell can only ensure being written to a certain number of times before it becomes unreliable. To combat this, modern SDDs boast advanced wear-levelling algorithms which help distribute write cycles evenly across the drive, maximising their lifespan. Expect to get a five-year lifespan out of SSDs, too. Overall, while HDDs can achieve a longer theoretical lifespan, SSDs offer better real-world durability and reliability.  

Size, Noise, and Power of HDDs and SSDs Compared

As there’s no moving pieces to a solid state drives, they can be incredibly small. Most SATA-powered solid state drives come in a 2.5” form-factor – the same as a the smallest hard drives. If you want to go ever smaller, there’s solid state drives in the M.2 form-factor. These drives aren’t much bigger than a stick of gum, yet they’re available in multi-terabyte capacities. And unlike SATA SSDs and HDDs, M.2 SSDs slot directly into an M.2 slot on your motherboard – no power or data cables required. This makes it super-easy to upgrade a compatible desktop or laptop with an M.2 solid state drive. Since you won’t have to worry about cable clutter and management, it’ll only take a couple of minutes to install a M.2 solid state drive – even if you’ve never built a PC.

What’s more, the all-digital design of solid state drives makes them completely silent. So with an SSD, you can say goodbye to the distinct ‘ticking’ noise of a hard drive. SDDs consume less power than HDDs because they don’t require electricity to spin disks and move read/write heads. This not only prolongs battery life in portable devices but also reduces the risk of overheating-related issues. Overall, SSDs provide a more reliable, portable storage solution compared to SSDs, making them the preferred choice for modern computing needs.

M.2 form-factor SSD

M.2 vs NVMe

SATA, NVMe, PCIe, M.2 – all this technical jargon can get overwhelming when looking at hard drives and solid state drives. So, it’s important to reiterate that M.2 and NVMe are not the same thing. We often see people accidentally conflate the two. M.2 is a form-factor, whereas NVMe is a communication protocol. You can think of it like this: not all M.2 solid state drives are NVMe, but effectively all NVMe drives are M.2. So when shopping for a solid state drive, don’t assume that just because as drive is in an M.2 form-factor that it’ll be super-fast. Be sure to check whether it’s a SATA or NVMe drive and its actual speeds.

What’s Better for Everyday Computing: HDD or SSD?

While a solid state drive isn’t a necessity for everyday computing, it’s definitely a nice-to-have. And given how cheap they’ve gotten, skipping out in a solid state drive is cost-cutting gone too far in our opinion. Really, a solid state drive is one of the most bang-for-buck upgrades you can make to a computer.

Over at ebuyer, you can regularly find 256GB 2.5 SATA solid state drives for under £20 – sometimes closer to the £10 mark. 256GB is more than enough to store your operating system on. Granted, it won’t be the fastest SSD around, but it’ll still be considerably faster than a HDD and will make navigating the OS feel that bit snappier and more responsive. See how much faster SSDs are than hard drives in the below video from the memory and storage experts at Crucial.

Nothing’s stopping you from running both SSDs and HDDs in your system, either. You could, for example have a small-capacity but lighting-fast SSD for your OS and a few of your most-used programs, as well as a hard drive (or multiple) for all your other files, downloads, and back-ups. Mixing and matching hard drives and solid state drives in one system is a great way to maximise your budget. Though given the fact that the price-per-gigabyte of SSDs is getting ever closer to that of HDDs, many people are biting the bullet and going all-in on solid state storage for their whole PC.

 

What’s Better for Gaming: HDD or SSD?

Take a look at the minimum specification requirement for any modern triple-A game and it will almost certainly call for a solid state drive. There’s even games like Starfield which outright require a SSD to function. In fact, Cyberpunk 2077’s system requirements were updated to require a SSD at with the release of its Phantom Liberty expansion.

In the last console generation, you could get away with a hard drive for gaming as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (which represented the baseline hardware for game development at the time) used hard drives. But now with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, all the latest-and-greatest games are being designed with these consoles’ solid state drives in mind.

Unlike a console, PC is an open platform with no fixed specification. As such, there’s often a fall back in PC games to accommodate those who still use hard drives. However, while you can technically install new games on old hard drive technology, it won’t make for a good gaming experience.

For many modern games (particularly those with a richly detailed open world), hard drives simply aren’t fast enough. Their slow mechanical operation struggles to keep up with all the high-quality assets these games constantly pull off of storage, leading to stutters, hitches, and sometimes even glitches. If, for example, you traverse an open-world map too fast on a hard drive, textures may be slow to load in or may not load in at all.

By this point, a solid state drive is pretty much a necessity for modern triple-A gaming. It wouldn’t be wise to build a brand-new gaming PC without one. That said, with how big game downloads and installs have gotten, having a few terabytes of cheap hard drive storage could be useful for backing up games. This would save you from having to redownload potentially 100GB-and-larger games, which is a big deal for those with a painfully slow internet connection.

Image: CD PROJEKT RED

What’s Better for Content Creation: HDD or SSD? 

Content creation is one of those use cases where it’s beneficial to have both SSDs and HDDs in one system. When you’re working on a project with hundreds of gigabytes’ worth of assets, a solid state drive will let you access everything at the fastest possible speed. This will help ensure that your time is actually spent creating – not waiting for your computer to play catch up. If you’re a video editor working in Adobe Premiere, for example, massive project files will be much quicker to load off a solid state drive, and importing high-bitrate 4K footage will be faster, too.

Once you’ve wrapped on a project, however, you no longer need to store its assets on your limited and relatively expensive solid state storage. Rather, it’s standard practice to transfer anything archival over to long-term hard drive back-up storage. Again, this could be a dedicated network-attached storage (NAS) server or even just a computer case full of extra-large capacity drives. This frees up space on your solid state drives for new work, while also ensuring that everything’s backed up in case you ever need it again in the future.  

SSDs & HDDs at ebuyer

While NVMe solid state drives are by far the best where raw speed is concerned, we believe that SATA-powered SSDs and HDDs aren’t obsolete just yet. Yes, hard drives are slow – so slow that they’ll cause stutters and judders in many modern triple-A games. But as an older, more matured technology, you can pick up terabytes’ worth of storage on the cheap with hard drives. This makes hard drives ideal for redundancy and back-up, as opposed to your PC’s primary storage device. If you want to ditch antiquated hard drive technology entirely, SATA solid state drives aren’t that much more expensive. Chucking a cheap 256GB SATA SSD in an old, HDD-equipped a installing the operating system on it is a great way to boost the OS and system’s overall responsiveness.

So whether you’ve got your eye on a top-of-the-line PCIe Gen5 NVMe SSD, a cheap-and-cheerful SATA SSD, or a hard drive for back-up, you can shop for all these storage devices over at ebuyer. We stock an wide range of SSDs and HDDs in all sorts of speeds and capacities, all at great prices.

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