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Over the years, we've upgraded every nook and cranny of our rigs, from major parts like GPUs and CPUs, to minor things like trying different thermal pastes and swapping out case fans in an attempt to squeeze a few more degrees out of a rig's ambient air temperature. It's a bit OCD, we admit, but the point is, we've tried everything, and usually we're only able to see a small gain from our investment of time and elbow grease. That is not the case with SSDs, which deliver an eye-popping, profanity-inducing speed increase for relatively little cash outlay. If you've heard the hype about SSDs, we're here to tell you two things: First, the hype is real, and second, you need one in your system.
For the uninitiated, SSDs are solid-state drives, and they are like hard drives in that they store data, but instead of using slow, spinning platters, they are made from small slabs of quiet, fast memory. Adding an SSD to your rig can cut your boot time down to less than 10 seconds, and programs will open almost before you click the icon—they're that fast. In this feature, we'll tell you what you need to know to buy an SSD, how to upgrade, and how to take care of your new drive. An SSD will rock your rig's world, so let's jump right into it.
What to look for before pulling the trigger
The chip in the center is the controller, and it’s responsible for a drive’s performance
What truly differentiates every SSD is its controller, which is silicon with custom logic and firmware tailored by the manufacturer to meet specific performance and durability goals. Some manufacturers, like Samsung and OCZ, create their own controllers, while others, such as Seagate, Intel, Crucial, and Corsair (to name just a few), use a third-party controller along with their own custom firmware. We can't say that one approach is better than the other, but generally speaking, if a company’s controller is designed in-house, it’s not a stretch to imagine it would be able to more finely tune its firmware.
SSDs are available in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB, for the most part, and as a rule, performance increases with capacity. The reason why is that an SSD's controller has to erase a block before it can write to it, so if it already has data on it, the operation takes longer than just writing to an empty block. So, larger-capacity drives give the SSD controller a lot more “empty” blocks to work with, thereby increasing overall performance. It’s always nice to have some room to grow, too, so in general we recommend at least a 256GB drive, or a 512GB if you can swing it.
Over-provisioning is unique to SSDs, and is basically "missing capacity," for lack of a better phrase, that’s used to improve drive performance and endurance. When you see a drive listed as 240GB or 480GB instead of 256GB or 512GB, that’s because the extra space that is "missing" is being set aside. You cannot get this space back, nor can you ever access it. Instead, it's reserved so the SSD has a large block of relatively unused flash that it can use as a swap file, or for wear leveling. This is important since NAND flash has a finite number of program/erase cycles. In general, having an extra 16GB–32GB of NAND just for file management allows the SSD to better maintain its overall performance over time.
When you delete a file on an SSD, it doesn't really get deleted. Instead, the drive's controller marks the block as "garbage" and will delete it when it has time to do so, typically when the drive is sitting idle. If you have too many undeleted blocks of data on your drive, performance suffers, since each block has to be deleted before it can be written to. "Garbage collection" helps prevent this. It's supported on all SSDs natively that we are aware of, and runs on its own schedule. In addition, Windows will also periodically send the Trim command to the drive, which basically tells the drive to discard any deleted data. Windows 8 will let you manually Trim an SSD (right-click the drive and go to Properties > Tools > Optimize) but Windows 7 users just have to assume it's occurring. However, we'll tell you how to make sure it's working below.
It’s a little-known fact that some SSDs include extremely useful software that lets you monitor the drive’s health and optimize it. Granted, there aren’t a lot of times when you want to check in on your SSD, just like the hard drive before it. You just want it to work, basically, and not be bothered with the details. However, it can be useful from a performance perspective to be able to ensure the drive is operating in tip-top shape. Right now, the only SSDs with top-tier software are from Intel and Samsung, though Corsair and OCZ do have rudimentary software packages.
For the past year or so, all the fastest SSDs have been bottlenecked by the SATA 6Gb/s interface, so when you see a drive hitting 520MB/s or so in read speeds, that means it's saturating the interface. You can get around this by running a few drives in RAID 0, or by using an SSD that caches data to your system's DRAM, but generally speaking, we're all waiting for the next-gen interface to arrive. That interface is named SATA Express, and it's due to arrive sometime in late 2014 or early 2015 with Intel's next-generation 9-series chipset. Until then, we all have to hold tight, but we don't recommend waiting to upgrade until then.
Samsung and Intel offer excellent drive-monitoring software.
Click the next page to read what you need to know before you upgrade to an SSD.