I recently finished building a gaming computer. It includes a SATA solid-state drive (SSD) for the operating system and an NVMe M.2 SSD for games — games like 2019’s Modern Warfare. Of course, I still have a large-capacity hard-disk drive (HDD) for data, downloads, and non-essential programs with low startup times. The SSD vs. HDD for gaming question is an important one, and as with many gaming PC questions, it comes down to performance vs. budget.
“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what’s an SSD? And how does it compare to the classic and time-tested HDD?”
Allow me to illustrate the difference with the best kind of story – a true one.
Modern Warfare added a new battle royale game mode in March of 2020 known as Warzone. My best friend and I have played just about every Call of Duty together, so of course, we shifted our CoD nights over from regular multiplayer to Warzone to give it a spin. He plays on an older setup at the moment using a standard HDD for storage.
A minute passed. Then two. The timer ticking down to the beginning of the match dropped to single digits. There was still no sign of my friend.
“Match is about ready to start. Where you at?”
My screen faded to black. The low drone of the AC-130 transport carrying us into battle filled my headset. The camera panned through the plane’s cargo bay, and I saw my character standing by himself as the rear bay door opened.
“In the plane now. About to drop. How’s it coming?”
“Should we back out, or—”
“Nope, still loading. It hasn’t crashed.”
“Alright, well maybe—”
“Oh wait, it loaded. But I don’t see the plane.”
Teammates show up on your HUD with a colored icon. I spotted his in the far distance, seemingly inside one of the skyscrapers that comprised Verdansk’s largest city.
“It looks like you’re on the ground already?”
“I don’t think I’m on the ground.”
Then I heard his character scream for a medic over the radio. His health dropped to nothing in an instant.
“Well I’m dead.”
“I don’t know.”
We didn’t win that match. Being honest, we don’t win many matches anyways. He still isn’t quite certain what happened while loading in during the match. But I have a theory. Barring any connection issues (which were not evident) its all about the drive. The hard drive, that is.
Under the Hood: SSDs vs HDDs
What’s the difference between a solid-state drive and a hard-disk drive? Don’t both names imply some manner of firm data storage?
Yes, but one of them moves. Let me explain.
With your tried-and-true HDD, the data is stored on a spinning magnetic disk within the case. A small arm moves back and forth across the disc as it spins to read and write the data. In this manner, programs are loaded from the drive into RAM during use, and then the data is saved back to the drive when you’re done. This is how internal data storage was chiefly handled through the 90s and 00s.
The spinning disk and arm are obviously going to be the bottlenecks for the speed of data transfer. When an HDD is specified to be 5400 or 7200 RPMs, that’s the number of revolutions-per-minute that the magnetic disk makes, and is therefore a good indication of speed. But you can only spin the disc and whip that arm back and forth so fast. There has to be a better way, right?
That’s a start, but the real question had yet to be asked. So engineers put their heads together to come up with the right question to produce the right solution. It wasn’t long before they landed on this: what if you could move data at close to the speed of light itself, all without any moving parts internally?
Great question, guys. And thus, the solid-state drive was born.
You know how I mentioned RAM before? That was pertinent. SSDs are rather like RAM with more of a focus on long-term storage than volatile memory. Like an awkward child of an HDD and a stick of RAM. And like RAM, they can access data in any arbitrary memory location dang near instantly.
This cuts load times down dramatically. As far as data read/writes are concerned, you could see an improvement by a factor of 10. Granted, many variables come into play when loading a piece of complicated software like a triple-A game, but I have yet to hear of a person who hasn’t seen dramatic improvements after switching to an SSD. Moving massive files from drive to drive can take minutes (SSD->SSD) instead of hours (HDD->HDD). Windows loads almost instantaneously; no more waiting around at the desktop for Windows to sort itself out – you can start using programs just about the moment you log in. The bottleneck when downloading games from Steam will shift from your disk to your internet speed if you have blistering fast cable or fiber. The improvements are as plentiful as the many different ways you make use of your computer.
Some caveats to note are that, like RAM, SSDs only have a limited number of read/writes to memory before they become “used up.” That number will likely translate for hundreds of years for the average consumer, so it isn’t something to be overly concerned about. SSDs are also quite a bit more expensive than HDDs when comparing the price to the amount of storage offered. You’ve got to be ready to pay a premium to cruise in the fast lane.
For those on a budget, there are “hybrid” drives, which grant the user the larger storage sizes of an HDD with the fast loads of an SSD. Generally, the SSD in a hybrid drive will only be large enough for the operating system and maybe one game, but it is something worth considering if you want the best of both worlds at a price that won’t break the bank.
Why Use an HDD?
The HDD really shines in a few key scenarios:
- Ready to provide large amounts (>2TB) of long-term storage.
- Non-stop read/writes are no problem; think surveillance footage or a home cloud setup.
- Price. It’s markedly cheaper as far as dollars per gigabyte go. For the computer builder on a budget, perhaps a good 7200 RPM drive is the ideal solution.
Why Use an SSD?
For the hardcore gamer or professional, however, the SSD simply can’t be beat:
- Boot up your computer in seconds instead of minutes
- Launch software faster than you can say its name
- No more data bandwidth bottlenecks, especially when moving data between solid state drives. Move gigabytes in a fraction of the time it would take with an HDD.
Solid State Drives vs. Hard Disk Drives: Verdict
SSDs are clearly the latest and greatest when it comes to data storage. But as the latest and greatest, they can come with a hefty price tag — especially if you’re looking for the most storage you can buy. Is the HDD obsolete? Not at all. There are still plenty of situations (servers, surveillance video, cloud storage/data backups) where HDDs make sense. But whenever the user’s experience bumps up against data bandwidth, the choice is clear: SSDs are the best and fastest storage solutions available right now.
If you’re a gamer — and especially if you like to squad up with your friends — consider picking up an SSD. Save yourself the trip to the Gulag. Drop with the rest of your team, and claim the crown you deserve!