How I learned to stop worrying and love SSDs
An upgrader writes ...
When, last year, the price of decent SSD drives veered towards £1-a-gigabyte, I decided this was no longer the enviable domain of the hot-rodder. Concerns about data integrity were enough to keep me hesitant. But finally, I took the plunge. It was a revelation.
Currently an upgrade for most laptops, SSDs are destined to become standard issue
In twenty years of trying to eke a bit of extra performance from my machines, nothing has made quite such a dramatic difference, although there have been some reasonable performance boosts along the way.
I'm often called out to fix something, and for the last 15 years it's been fairly easy to fix somebody's ailing machine. If it's on fire, grab a damp tea towel. If it's clicking, they need a new hard disk. For the rest of the time, adding a bit of memory to a grinding system has usually made the difference between torture and comfort, and been doable on the cheap.
Apple in particular had a period where it moved to a much more demanding OS, but chronically under specified the amount of memory shipping by default. It didn't help that the Motorola-supplied chips were way behind the market (and we realised how much when it moved to Intel), and that the demanding Quartz compositor really needed a decent GPU, which, of course, the consumer laptops didn't have.
The technically savvy punter would place an order for the extra memory alongside the order for the new Mac, and may not have noticed these shortcomings. However, much of Apple's vast consumer market – ordinary people who expect the computer to just work – simply took it on trust.
I recall one teacher whose six-month-old iBook G4 was taking five minutes to get a usable desktop. It was struggling in 128MB of RAM, but somebody had helpfully dropped Microsoft Office into the Startup Items, so it was trying to load those concurrently, too.
RAM upgrade: the time-honoured performance enhancer is not an option on many ultraportables today
So although the modern OS sucks up memory, adding more has been a relatively cheap fix for a very long time.
But a modern OS also gratuitously accesses the hard disk much of the time. Mac OS X sprays thousands of XML files around the disk. Meanwhile the last two versions of Windows like to keep themselves busy by doing a lot of housekeeping.
I'd say two thirds of these improvements to Windows come from what I'd call the "Palm reset button" school of design. Palm had a very usable but very flakey handheld, but the device couldn't multitask, and frequently required a hard reset.
Instead of fixing the underlying flaw, a great deal of thought was put into accessing the reset button. Palm designed the stylus to unscrew easily and quickly, just so you could reset it. So Windows has dozens of housekeeping tasks going on in the background.
Naturally the sprawl has also extended to applications.
Who needs to sleep?
So the SSD is a revelation. Firstly, I find myself using different applications. On a four-year-old MacBook, Photoshop opens almost as quickly Preview – the default Mac OS X image viewer. There's little point in associating Preview with images now. And since a cold boot takes 10 to 15 seconds, there's little point in putting a PC to sleep either.
SSDs specifically cured one feature I used out of necessity, that was a real speed handicap: disk encryption. The performance penalty of FileVault is now negligible. I don't even remember it's on, until I log out, and see the clean-up screen.
This is most impressive, considering that the e-mail client creates hundreds of thousands of individual files. Thousands more files are scattered around the disk. I'd expected to see performance improvements on large reads and writes, but this is where it really pays off.
I also find myself using Virtual Machines much more than I expected. Installations probably take half as long - and reviving a sleeping VM is almost instant. If you find yourself regularly using Windows on a Mac, you'll want an SSD.
Kingston's approach to SSD transplants includes an enclosure for the old HDD and cloning software
Since tasting the first hit, I've gone on to give three machines the upgrade, largely because of the convenience of Kingston's SSDNow bundle, which includes all the bits and bobs and a nice USB enclosure for the drive you're swapping out, and a case design held together by a slider rather than the screws.
For pure performance, and if money is no object, it has to be an enterprise SSD. But most users won't require a "100 per cent duty cycle" - that some servers do - and won't need the guarantees that come with such kit. Most of us don't have SAS (aka SCSI) interfaces, for that matter. And for an enterprise SSD, you're looking at around £3/GB - nearly three times the rate of regular SSDs. But for value and practicality, Kingston is a good bet, and I'm a Kingston convert. You can find a 128GB V+100 kit for under £120 on eBay, or a 256GB for around £300. But you can judge the capabilities and choice available from our recent SSD roundup, where the latest Samsung came out on top.
The SSD conversion has meant a few compromises, and arguably, pushed discretionary spending (somewhat reluctantly) in other directions. 256GB is just enough for a my basic music and photo collection - and doesn't leave room for my clippings archive or backpages, or any game files. So I've been using shared and off-line storage much more and looking for the perfect home NAS. The search for the latter isn't a happy story, but I'll save that for another day.
Fly in the ointment
Of course, for desktop users with spare drive bays, this storage shuffling isn't so much of a problem. At this stage, though, grabbing an SSD as a desktop boot drive is a no-brainer – and a 64GB unit will suffice.
Apple's new MacBook Air has a distinct lack of customer installable parts
There's just one fly in the ointment – the age of the upgradeable computer is vanishing. Desktops are becoming superseded by laptops, and laptops are becoming increasingly hard to service. The options, and documentation, is disappearing.
Ten years ago Compaq, Toshiba and IBM released service manuals as a matter of course – allowing you to do a full tear down. Lenovo still does, bless 'em, with its ThinkPads. At the other extreme, with Apple's latest Air laptops, for example, there are no upgradeable parts – battery, memory, and HD are locked down – and require, at the very least, an exotic set of screwdrivers. This trend is moving into the professional range. And the demand for thin and light means little other than the memory is upgradeable, if at all.
As for reliability concerns, these are answered in the old-fashioned way: make lots of backup copies. Kingston says a typical MLC unit has a write/erase cycle endurance of approximately 10,000 per cell, compared to 100,000 cycles per SLC cell, which means SSDs use a number of different techniques to spread the wear across the drive.
A heavy user writes about 5GB a day to disk, and if they use autosave and hibernation features, perhaps up to 9GB. The Kingston drives I'm using are rated up to 20GB per business day for three years. If you're a heavy user, then, a six year lifespan isn't too unreasonable given the hammering it's getting. Give a conventional drive six years of punishing use, and you should be looking at a new one anyway.
So I haven't stopped worrying entirely ... but given the performance improvement, the cost, and the new lease of life on my old machines, it's a trade-off I'm delighted with.
And I back up, constantly. As should you. ®