SSDs vs. Hard Drives: What’s the Big Deal?

If you’ve shopped for a new computer or new hard drive recently, you’re probably aware of considerable buzz about a relatively new class of storage called SSDs.

SSD stands for “solid-state drive.” In a nutshell, it’s a hard drive with no moving parts. Much like a USB thumbdrive lets you store files quickly, silently, and portably, an SSD stores data without relying on the complex trappings of the traditional, spinning-platter hard drive.

SSDs operate in essentially the same fashion as those pocket thumb drives, relying on memory chips (in recent years, chips using what’s known as NAND technology have become the standard) to store data. This is extremely efficient, and it’s what gives SSDs their biggest advantage over spinning hard disks: Because they don’t rely on mechanical components and are purely electronic in nature, they are much faster, operate without noise or significant heat, and are more reliable, since they are far less susceptible to damage from jostles and drops. Even a slight bump can cause the read/write head of a spinning hard drive to slam into the platter it’s hovering above—an occurrence that was once so common it spawned the term “crash.”

How much faster are computers with SSDs? Benchmarks vary from machine to machine, but a typical computer might see performance improve by 10 to 20 percent by simply upgrading to SSD technology. As SSD prices come down and SSD capacities go up, that’s a compelling proposition.

SSDs aren’t perfect. In the long-term, SSDs can “wear out” much like hard disks can, but this takes so many years that it hasn’t been widely reported yet. They are also considerably more expensive than hard drives to date; you’ll probably pay twice as much for a drive that’s an eighth the capacity of a typical hard disk right now.

But SSDs are our inevitable future: Their performance, silence, light weight, durability, and low power consumption—among other traits—virtually ensure that a hard-drive-free world isn’t far off.

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