SSD vs HDD: What's the difference between flash storage and traditional hard drives?

Pick up an internal or external drive for your computer today and your choice is between a solid-state drive (SSD) and a more traditional hard disk drive (HDD). So what are the differences? And which one should you pick?

Here we’ll explain the ins and outs of SSD and HDD technology in simple terms, so you know exactly what they entail, whether you’re actually buying one or just want to be more clued up on the technology.

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SSD vs HDD: the basics

It’s the “solid” bit that’s the key term in SSD: these drives are made up from fixed flash memory that has no moving parts, like the storage inside a smartphone or USB stick (it’s not exactly the same technology, but it’s similar). Access to data is controlled by an integrated processor built into the drive.

A classic HDD, meanwhile, uses rapidly spinning, circular platters and a read-write head that physically moves across them, scanning for the right pieces of data as they’re needed – that’s all the whirring you can hear when your computer’s disk is busy.

While the newer SSD technology offers a lot of benefits over the older HDDs (see below), until recently it’s been significantly more expensive for the same amount of storage. That’s starting to change, which is why more and more laptops and desktops now come with SSDs installed.

SSDs are now typically used inside most laptops and high-performance desktops, because of their advantages. In other cases, like external drives, HDDs are still more popular, though SSD options are available too.

SSD vs HDD: speed and performance

Speed is the main benefit of an SSD, which can work perhaps twice as fast an HDD – the exact speed bump really depends what you’re doing with your computer at the time, and how you’re accessing your data.

Data needs to be written to and from disk on a constant basis, so whether you’re opening apps, encoding video, browsing the web or listening to music, you should notice everything goes faster with an SSD installed.

Some computers use a small SSD holding the operating system alongside an HDD for general storage, because boot up times are so much faster with the solid-state technology. Upgrade an older HDD to a newer SSD, and the difference is noticeable.

If you want the fastest computer that money can buy then you need one with an SSD inside it, though bear in mind that the hard drive is only one component, and it can get held back if the other internal hardware isn’t up to the same level.

SSD vs HDD: other considerations

With no moving parts, SSDs are also more durable than HDDs, should you happen to knock your laptop off the table on to the floor. They tend to stay operational for longer, though they do have a finite number of read/write cycles in them (these cycles will usually last years, so you don’t have to worry too much about them).

SSDs are also more compact too, which has made them the perfect choice as laptops have continued to get slimmer and slimmer. What’s more, they’re also less of a power draw than HDDs, which means your laptop battery lasts for longer.

So with all these positives for SSDs, why are the older HDDs still around? Two reasons: storage capacity and price. You can get traditional hard disk drives with much more storage on them (think 4TB and higher), whereas solid-state drives tend to struggle at that limit and above. HDDs are great for big desktop computers, external drives which have to have a lot of capacity, and networked NAS drives.

Then there’s price, which we’ve touched on before: HDDs are still in the lead when it comes to price-per-gigabyte. With more of us storing our files in the cloud now, local storage isn’t as important as it used to be, but HDDs keep your data for less money.

SSD vs HDD: our verdict

There’s no doubt SSD is the superior technology right now: it’s faster and more reliable, and it uses up less energy than the HDD alternatives. Most modern computers get built with at least some SSD technology inside.

You’ll also come across computers that have hybrid drives installed, utilising a little bit of SSD storage for the most important (or regularly accessed) data, then leaving the rest to a HDD component. As far as the operating system is concerned, it’s just one drive.

HDDs continue to stick around – if you need the most storage for the cheapest possible price then they’re worth looking into. Say you’re wanting a huge external drive for your computer: in that case a traditional disk drive is probably your best option. HDDs are still usually the best choice for external drives where capacity is more important than speed.

However, SSDs are quite clearly the better option nowadays, and are the future of computing in the years ahead. Watch for prices continuing to come down, and for lifespans of SSDs to increase at the same time.

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