In the last 2-3 years or so, there’s been a lot of hullabaloo about SSDs and how awesome and ‘necessary’ they are for gaming. You may have noticed the quotation marks there because the truth is slightly more complicated than that and it’s annoyed me to no end how people insist on simplifying this debate.
SSDs are expensive, and sometimes they can be hard to get, so gatekeeping a gaming computer behind that kind of hardware isn’t right. However, some of the best gaming laptops actually use both the HDD and the SSD storage options.
But, putting politics aside for a second, let’s actually take a look at the specifics and figure out what actually is the best option.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s take a look at what HDDs and SSDs are all about.
What’s an HDD?
HDDs, or Hard Disk Drives, are exactly that: A spinning disk on a spindle that is read by a needle on an arm. They function exactly like your grandparents’ gramophone (or great-grandparents now… I’m so old). The only difference here is that the information on a gramophone disc is pressed at a factory and can’t be overwritten, whereas an HDD’s disc can both be read from and written to.
Alright, so you probably knew that already, but what you might not have known, is that HDDs can spin at a variety of speeds depending on what they are designed for. High-end HDDs for gaming and production tend to run at 7,200 RPMs, but HDDs made for archiving or as general storage might run as low as 5,800/RPMs. You can even find some commercial-grade HDDs that run at 10k-15k RPMs, although those are rare and incredibly expensive.
Ok, so what do the different RPMs mean for read/write speed? Well, that can vary wildly, even between two 7200 RPM discs. That being said, a general rule of thumb is that 7200 RPM HDDs can read/write at about 150MB/s vs 100MB/s for 5200 RPM HDDs. Or, in other words, 7200 RPMs is roughly 33% faster than 5200 RPMs.
What is an SDD?
SSDs, or Solid State Drives, are storage devices that have absolutely no moving parts. Instead, some of the best SSDs for gaming use flash memory in the form of NAND-Chips (just like a USB memory stick), where a semiconductor flips arrays to different charges. If that sounds complicated, just think of it as a tiny, microscopic switch, that can either be on or off.
So the SSD (or more technically, the controller in the SSD) will flip those individual switches (bites) into ones or zeros, depending on what is being written. When it wants to read that information, it just registers what position that switch is, and that’s it, it doesn’t have to wait for a disk to spin or an arm to move. There are no actual physical parts, and it’s all done electrically, ergo the name ‘solid-state’.
The big upshot of this tech is that you get much, much faster read/write speeds compared to HDDs. As a comparison to 7200RPM HDDs, which read/write at 150MB/s, SSDs can read/write at around 500-550MB/s. Yeah, around 3-4 times the speed and that’s only if you’re using the SATA II standard.
If you use the M.2 SSD or even a PCIe SSD, you could potentially get speeds up to 32GB/s! That actually leads us to the next part of this guide…
#1 HDD vs SSD: Which Is Faster?
Clearly, the answer here is that SSDs are faster, but faster isn’t necessarily better. You see, the issue with faster storage drives, regardless of whether they are HDDs or SSDs, is the expense. Sure, you could go for a PCIe SSD like the Intel Optane, but you’d have to pay $1.2k, and that’s only for 1 terabyte of storage. Yikes!
So, at that point, the question becomes, do you really need a faster storage device and the truth is, most of the time you probably don’t.
Alright alright, pick up your monocles from your drinks ladies and gentlemen, because there is a good reason for this.
When it comes to gaming, very few games actually read/write from the disk on an active basis. Most of the information tends to be drawn and stored from the storage device and placed on the VRAM, or on the regular RAM. So there’s really no need to have a fast storage device. If you have no idea about these terms, you should first check out how much RAM do you need for gaming.
The only caveat here is if you play A TON of AAA games like The Witcher 3, Battlefield V, COD, or things of that caliber. Then yes, maybe an SSD would help slightly, but if you can’t afford it, you’re not going to notice a difference if you go with something like the WD Black HDD.
There’s also one more caveat, which is if you do a lot of production work, such as audio/video editing or image manipulation. In that situation, you’d actually want one small SDD to install and run the program from, and another small SDD to store and save your project files to. Again though, unless you’re doing this at a professional level, you’ll be fine with the slightly slower speeds of a high-end HDD.
Ok, actually, I lied, there’s one final caveat (I swear!) and that’s the OS and your general day-to-day apps, like your firewall and anti-virus. These things actually do benefit from an SSD, and I would argue that having a small 128 SSD just for your OS and general apps is an excellent idea.
Well, you’d think the answer to that is SSDs, but actually, HDDs now also come in the form factor of SSDs, namely the 2.5” standard, such as the Seagate Baracuda.
But then you’d realize, probably in the middle of writing an article about storage devices, that SSDs can also come in the form factor of M.2 and that’s arguably smaller than the 2.5” standard. One example is the Samsung 960 Evo, which is actually a great choice and is going to be part of my next PC upgrade.
Finally, you have the PCIe SSDs which sit in the middle, since they are technically quite small, maybe slightly bigger than an M.2, but they do take up a whole PCIe slot which you could be using for a GPU.
HDD vs SSD: Which Has More Capacity?
Well, hands down that’s HDDs. The average HDD now doesn’t even go below 2 Terabytes, with reasonably well-priced HDDs for 6 TBs and even 8 TBs. You could even get Seagate’s most recent monstrosity, a 16 TB HDD.
Of course, that would all be very true, if you weren’t a complete and utter tech nerd like me, and knew about Nimbus Data’s 100TB SSD, and that’s only because I also knew about Seagate’s 60TB SSD. Ok, granted, these are a bit of a cheat since your average consumer (that means you) won’t be able to access, let alone afford one of these things. Truth is, you won’t find a consumer-grade SSD that’s bigger than 2 Terabytes, and even then it will cost an arm and a leg, so HDDs win easily.
If you haven’t guessed the theme of this article yet, the answer to this question is: It depends.
The thing is, HDDs are generally less durable because you do have a big spinning disc going around itself like a dog running after it’s own tail. That means any bangs, shimmies, or other sudden introduction of large G-forces can damage it. In fact, a whole host of different sets of things can go wrong from the disc plate itself to the arm and needle.
On the other hand, SSDs have absolutely no moving parts, which means you don’t have to be as gentle on them. I mean, you can’t use them as door stoppers or a hammer, but you can just stick them to the side of one of the case panels with some double-sided tape and you’re set.
Here’s the issue though: SSDs generally have shorter lifespans of 1.5 million hours compared to HDDs’ 2 million hour lifespan. That being said, SSDs have do have some special software that attempts to mitigate this issue, doing something called ‘wear leveling’. What that does is distributes the writing across the SSD so that the same switches aren’t being accessed over and over again, causing premature failure.
Still, while SSDs are durable in the day-to-day and do have mitigation software, they generally have a considerably shorter lifespan than HDDs.
Ok, you can breathe a sigh of relief because this one is simple: SSDs are quieter for the simple fact that they don’t have any moving parts. You also don’t have to worry about doing some kind of vibration dampening, which can certainly be an issue if you have lots of HDDs.
Of course, this is a rollercoaster of an article, so I will say that you’re more likely to know if an HDD is going to fail because of the sound it makes. Since SSDs are silent, they don’t have the traditional horrifying warning sounds of an HDD about to die. So, you gotta make sure you keep an eye on your SSDs.
So this is another simple one, and I mean it this time: HDDs are cheaper. If we’re talking cents to a GB, HDDs come in at $0.03 per GB, which is nothing compared to the whopping $0.20 per GB for SSDs. Of course, this will depend a lot on what HDD you get, with higher capacity HDDs generally getting cheaper per GB.
However, if you’re building your rig on a budget, you might be better off dedicating that extra cash to getting the best RAM for gaming first and foremost. Storage is less important for performance.
So What’s the TL;DR on HDD vs. SSD?
Simply put, it depends on what you need it for, but 100% of the time it should be a mix of the two.
For gaming, having an SSD won’t considerably impact your performance unless you play big games with large install files like The Witcher 3, Doom and Battlefield 3. Otherwise, if you play things like CS: GO, Overwatch, Fortnight, or anything in between those and the AAA games I mentioned, you’re better off going for a high-end HDD and putting the extra money into a better GPU or CPU.
If you do a lot of editing or production work, having an SSD will improve your performance considerably, especially if you have one dedicated SSD for the program to run off of, and a dedicated SSD for the project files. If this is the case, the question of different SSD types might trouble you. In that case, check out the differences between SATA and NVMe SSD varieties.
If it’s storage you’re interested in, such as somewhere to put your movies, shows, music, miscellaneous documents, etc. then HDD for gaming it has to be. There’s a reason that HDDs are universally used for archiving: High capacities are cheap, they are easy to come across, and as long as you don’t use them like a frisbee, they’ll last a very long time.
Finally, having a dedicated SSD for the OS and general day-to-day apps will benefit you greatly.
- SSD vs. HDD Shipments, Statista