IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The best single upgrade for your computer

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 4, 2013

Do not throw away that noisy and slow laptop just yet.

Give it a new lease of life by swopping out the creaking hard disk drive for a quiet, fast and more reliable solid-state drive (SSD).

The SSD is the secret sauce that enables the latest ultrabooks to boot up in six seconds and resume from sleep in two.

"Apps start almost instantly and my Windows start-up time has been halved," said Mr Andrew Chan, 38, a tech enthusiast who saw improved performance on his seven-year-old desktop PC after switching to an SSD.

Companies, too, can give their old computers a much-needed boost by upgrading to SSDs. They can even save money by doing it themselves.

"We bought the cheapest laptops in the market and replaced the slow hard drive with an SSD," said Mr Michael Tan, a director at Convergent, a local distributor who carries a number of SSD brands.

Buying an SSD-equipped laptop would have been more expensive, as PC vendors offer the SSD options only for high-end models, which can be too costly for office use.

Mr Tan estimates that the company saved up to $1,000 on each computer.

While SSDs have been around for more than a decade, prices declined dramatically last year. They are arguably reaching affordable, mainstream levels.

In Singapore, prices of some models have dropped to around $1 per gigabyte. Just more than a year ago, SSDs cost as much as $2.50 per gigabyte.

The lower prices of SSDs, together with a new crop of easy-to-use migration software, mean you can now easily give your old laptop that much needed upgrade.

Speed demons

SSDs are fast because they use Nand flash memory, which is a type of storage used in USB flash drives, as well as in memory cards in digital cameras, MP3 players and mobile devices.

Unlike system memory (RAM) in computers, Nand flash memory will not lose its data when powered off, making it more suitable as a storage medium.

It also handles data at a much faster rate compared with traditional hard drives.

Read speeds (speed of accessing data) on the latest SSDs range from 400MB/s to 500MB/s, while write speeds, (how fast it takes to record data) are between 200MB/s and 400MB/s.

In comparison, a standard 7,200RPM hard drive would top out around 120MB/s for both read and write speeds.

As SSDs have no moving parts, they are completely silent compared with the audible clicks heard from normal hard drives.

The lack of moving parts also makes them more durable. Hard drives can fail due to the physical wear and tear to the tiny internal motors, which means they do not take well to shocks and bumps.

While these issues are moot for SSDs, they have limited lifespans. Data can be written on Nand flash memory for a fixed number of times and this is known as write endurance. Eventually, existing data on an SSD cannot be erased for new data. Data that is already on the SSD can still be read, but it would be unusable as a storage drive.

The good news is that modern SSDs offer between three and five years of warranty, which is fairly conservative. The actual write endurance varies between the type and make of SSDs, but unless you find yourself copying more than 100GB of data daily, you are unlikely to reach the limit in 10 years.

Heavy users can also choose enterprise-grade SSDs that offer longer lifespans.

Better and cheaper

Early adopters of SSDs faced issues of buggy firmware that resulted in data loss or poor performance. There was also a lack of support for SSDs on older operating systems. These problems have been resolved as the technology has become more mature.

Current SSDs are more reliable, while newer operating systems such as Windows 8 can detect an SSD unit and optimise performance for it. This reduces the amount of manual tweaking required.

"Falling SSD prices encourage people to upgrade to a higher capacity model," said Mr Tan.

In fact, SSDs with larger capacities are more cost-effective. You could buy a 960GB SSD for around $810, which works out to $0.84 per gigabyte.

Obviously, hard drives still provide superior value for storage purposes. A 2.5-inch 1TB drive, which fits most laptops, can be had for around $105, or $0.10 per gigabyte.

This price discrepancy explains why desktop PCs, which have sufficient room for more than one storage device, can have a dual-drive set-up.

The operating system and other frequently used programs can be stored on an SSD, while the other content can be stored on a slower but larger and cheaper hard drive.

While laptops do not have the luxury of a dual-drive set-up, older machines can benefit from a performance boost when fitted with an SSD.

If you have to choose between an SSD and a hard drive, those who desire performance should go for an SSD, or at least a hybrid hard drive (a normal hard drive with a small SSD cache).

Remember the adage about how you can never have too much RAM on a computer? The new version would be: you can never go back to a hard drive after trying an SSD.

Follow Digital Life's step-by-step guide on how to migrate to an SSD. It should not take you more than two hours to revitalise your machine.

vinchang@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 4, 2013

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