The Complete Guide to Solid State Memory Drives [SSD]

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Judit Llordés
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Adding a solid state memory drive (SSD) to your computer is simply the best hardware upgrade / enhancement available to you, capable of speeding up your computer in ways you never thought possible. But as with any new technology, there is a lot to learn. Here's everything you should know about your SSD, whether you're interested in upgrading or want to know the ins and outs of your hardware.

What is a solid state drive (SSD)?

A solid state memory drive (SSD) is a data storage device for your computer. In everyday use, it offers the same functionality as a traditional hard drive (HDD), the standard for computer storage for many years.

In fact, you wouldn't be able to tell if you're using an SSD or HDD if it weren't for the differences in how they work.

HDDs store their data on rotating metal platters and whenever your computer wants to access some of that data a small needle-like component (called a “head”) moves into the location of the data and feeds it to the computer.

Writing data to a HDD works in a similar way, where parts are in constant motion.

SSDs, on the other hand, don't move at all. They store their data in blocks. When the computer wants some of this data, the SSD simply says "ok, here it is". This is a simplified explanation, of course, but you may have noticed that the SSD process feels a little more straightforward and efficient.

Speed ​​is the main advantage of an SSD over a traditional HDD. This makes an SSD the best upgrade for your computer if you're looking for a way to make it run faster.

Read also: HDD vs SSD: differences and advantages of both types of hard drives

A new SSD can speed up your computer in several ways:

  • Boot times will be significantly reduced.
  • The launch of the applications will happen in a moment.
  • Saving and opening documents will not be delayed.
  • File copying and duplication speeds will improve.
  • Overall, your system will look a lot snappier.

SSDs have their downsides, however. For starters, an SSD is more expensive than a HDD. For the same $ 100, you can buy a 120GB SSD or a 2TB HDD. This means you're paying around 83 cents for every gigabyte of an SSD versus five cents per gigabyte for your HDD.

This is a huge difference in cost, and the gap widens when comparing larger units. In the days of cloud storage and media streaming, SSDs offer a lot of space for most people. For those who need more storage space than is convenient with an SSD, SSD and HDD can coexist on the same system (and we'll discuss them in more detail below), so you can enjoy the speed benefits of an SSD without. sacrifice storage space.

In this post, we'll walk you through everything you need to know about getting started with your first solid state drive, from buying the one that's right for you to setting it up and running most efficiently on your computer. We'll also take a look at some advanced techniques for those of you who are ready to do even more with your super-fast storage device.

Read also: Tips and advice for buying SSD

How to choose the right SSD

Choosing a solid state drive that's right for you isn't difficult, but the process can be a bit difficult with so many brands available. In this section, we'll show you what you need to look for when choosing a drive and offer you some recommendations that have worked well for me.

All SSDs are fast and are a great upgrade over a HDD, but when you have to spend more money on a drive that provides less storage, you want it to be one of the best. You also want it to be reliable, and these are both quite difficult values ​​to evaluate if you have little experience with the technology. Here are the qualities you need to look for in an SSD when shopping:

  • High top speeds: the maximum speeds of reads are around 400MB / second and maximum write speeds are around 300MB / sec (note: that's mega bytes per second). These numbers don't have to be exact. A little faster or slower won't make a significant difference.
  • Good speeds in the real worldSSD manufacturers generally do not provide real-world read and write speeds, as they are guaranteed to be slower than the maximum values. Fortunately, many online reviews contain speed test results. On Amazon, you can often find users who have posted screenshots of their test results. Seeing this data can often be daunting because the real world values ​​are a bit lower. If the test results reveal read and write speeds of approximately 2/3 of the maximum (in sequential tests and 512KB blocks) you are good to go. If you apply it to our maximum speeds, this results in read speeds of around 265MB / sec and write speeds of around 200MB / sec. If you want to figure out if a more expensive SSD is worth that money, its real-world test speeds will be more than 2/3 of its maximum reported capacities.
  • Multi-level NAND flash memory (MLC): When you buy SSD, you will come across two types of memory: multi-level cell (MLC) and single-level cell (SLC). The main difference is that MLC memory can store more information about each cell. The benefit here is that it is cheaper to produce and SLC is often prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. The downside is a higher error rate, but an SSD with error correction code (we'll discuss this shortly) can help prevent these problems. (You can read more about the MLC here.)
  • SATA III support: Most SSDs use Serial ATA (SATA) interface, but not all use the latest version and this can limit the performance of your SSD. This is because SATA I can transfer data at 1,5Gbps, SATA II at 3,0Gbps, and SATA III at 6Gbps. To ensure your SSD has enough bandwidth to transfer data as quickly as possible, you want it to be SATA III compatible. We also recommend that you make sure your computer is SATA III compatible as well. Otherwise, SATA III compatible drives will continue to work as all versions of SATA are backwards compatible. Just know that you may not get the most out of your SSD if your computer doesn't support the latest SATA specifications.
  • ETC memory: the the memory Error Correction Code (ECC) does what the name implies: it provides your SSD with the ability to detect and fix common types of data corruption so you don't end up with unusable data on your drive. An SSD with ECC memory is more reliable. (You can read more about ECC memory here.)
  • A history of reliability: Reliability is a very difficult thing to assess, but there are some tricks you can use to get a good idea. First, look for an SSD made by a manufacturer that has been in the business for a while (I like OCZ and Crucial). The technology is fairly new, so you can't pick just any company that recently decided to jump on the solid-state bandwagon. Also, look at the rating each SSD receives in online shopping reviews. If it is rated 3,5 out of 5,0 or higher, it often indicates a reliable drive. When ratings are lower, you should look elsewhere. Even reputable companies produce unreliable SSDs at times, so keep an eye out for reviews to avoid buying a pack.

Here are four quick tips, followed by our detailed answers to many frequently asked questions:

  • Know your home computer: Find out if there are M.2 drive slots on the motherboard and space in the chassis. If not, you may need a 2,5-inch drive.
  • Capacities from 500GB to 1TB: don't consider buying a drive with less than 256GB of storage. 500GB offers a good balance between price and capacity.
  • SATA is cheaper but slower: If your computer supports NVMe-PCIe or Optane drives, consider purchasing a drive with one of these technologies. However, SATA drives are more common, cost less, and still offer excellent performance for common applications.
  • Any SSD is better than a hard drive: even the worst SSD is at least three times faster than a hard drive in the most common usage scenarios. Depending on the workload, the performance delta between a good SSD and a great SSD can be slim. 

What form factor do you need?

SSDs come in three major form factors, plus an uncommon outlier.

  • 2,5-inch Serial ATA (SATA): the most common type, these drives mimic the shape of traditional laptop hard drives and connect on the same SATA cables and interface with any bay. If your laptop or desktop has a 2,5-inch hard drive bay and spare SATA connector, these drives should be drop-in compatible (although a bay adapter may be required if installing in a desktop with only larger 3,5-inch hard drive bays for free).
  • Scheda add-in SSD (AIC)These drives have the potential to be much faster than other drives, as they operate on the PCI Express bus, rather than SATA, which was designed well over a decade ago to handle spinning hard drives. AIC drives connect to slots on a motherboard which are most commonly used for graphics cards or RAID controllers. Of course, that means they're just an option for desktops, and you'll need an empty PCIe x4 or x16 slot to install them.

If your desktop is compact and you already have a graphics card installed, you may be out of luck. But if you have space on your desktop and a spare slot, these drives may be among the fastest available (take the Intel Optane 900p, for example), thanks in large part to their extra surface area, they allow for better cooling. Moving data at extreme speeds generates a lot of heat.

  • SSD M.2: About the shape of a RAM stick but much smaller, M.2 drives have become the standard for thin laptops, but you'll also find them on many desktop motherboards. Some cards also have two or more M.2 slots, so drives can be run in RAID.

While most M.2 drives are 22mm wide and 80mm long, there are some that are shorter or longer. Four or five digits can be said in their names, with the first two digits representing the width and the others showing the length. The most common size is labeled M.2 Type-2280. Although laptops only work in one size, many desktop motherboards have anchor points for longer and shorter drives.

The largest M.2 drives are 1 to 2 TB. So, if you're on a generous budget and need a lot of storage, you should consider other form factors.

  • SSD U.2: at first glance, these 2,5-inch components look like traditional SATA hard drives. However, they use a different connector and send data over the fast PCIe interface and are generally thicker than 2,5-inch hard drives and SSDs. U.2 drives tend to be more expensive and larger in capacity than regular M.2 drives. Servers that have many open drive bays can take advantage of this form factor.

How to install your SSD

Your SSD installation will differ depending on your computer, so we highly recommend that you seek a guide for your specific laptop or desktop model.

Read our tips: How to install an SSD

More important is understanding where all your data will go. Most HDD owners are used to having at least 500GB of storage, if not more than 2TB. Downsizing to 120GB or 240GB, the most affordable and popular SSD size, can be a tough job. If you are using a desktop, you can use your SSD for your operating system and another hard drive for your data. If you are using a laptop, you can try to fit everything on the SSD or use an external drive for data that doesn't fit (like music and movies).

Once you've come up with a plan, it's time to actually upgrade to SSD. Here are two options to do:

Option 1: Start Fresh and copy the essentials

When upgrading to an SSD, the most obvious option is to start over with a fresh installation of the operating system. While this may take a long time, you'll have everything set up perfectly when you're done. Here are the steps you need to follow:

  1. Install your favorite operating system on the new SSD.
  2. Copy the root folder contents from your previous HDD to your new SSD. If you can't fit everything, start with essential system files and settings, then migrate the media you have space for.
  3. Go through the application list on your old HDD and install them on your new SSD. Make any updates or save time by downloading the latest versions from their respective sources. Windows and Linux users can use Ninite to get the latest versions of the most popular free software titles for their computers. OS X users can log into the Mac App Store to download the latest versions of their previous purchases.
  4. Copy any important documents (or other files) that you have space on your SSD.
  5. Put the old HDD in an external container, if you haven't already, and keep it handy for a month or two. This will help you see which files you use often and which you don't. If you find that you are using something often, copy it to the SSD. If not, leave it on the external HDD for occasional access.

Again, this method takes more work but it also handles the cleaning task of the system at the same time. It can be more boring, but it's an effective way to solve two problems at the same time.

Option Two: Migrate the data from the old hard drive

Advice on ... how to copy windows installation to an SSD

If you don't want to start with a fresh install of your OS, you can always migrate your OS (and other data) to your new SSD. Chances are, however, that you won't be able to carry everything with you. This means you'll need to start deleting files on the main drive until it's small enough to fit on your SSD. If you don't want to lose that data forever, start by making a backup of your drive. Once you have a full backup, you are ready to go.

Regardless of the size of your SSD, it will never beat the storage capacity of a HDD. If you don't have a secondary hard drive installed on your computer, you'll need to store the excess data elsewhere. An external HDD and the cloud are two of the best ways to bypass your SSD's storage limits.

Unless you have huge collections, an SSD with a capacity of 240GB (or higher) should be able to house your operating system, documents, music and photos without any problems. 

It's when you step into the business of music creation, video editing, professional photography, and other work that produces large files you'll regularly run into the storage limit wall.

An external drive is often the simplest solution, so we recommend getting one with a large enough capacity to meet your needs. If you are looking for a portable drive, the Seagate GoFlex series is worth a visit as it not only works with USB 3.0 but can be connected to other ports such as Firewire 800 and Thunderbolt via adapter. This also provides some guarantees of compatibility with future technology.

When an external drive doesn't solve the problem and you really need to scale your space-hungry media collection, the cloud can come to the rescue. Most of the best solutions come from Google because they are both simple and free. 

Google Play Music allows you to upload your entire audio collection, and by doing so, you can delete all the songs you rarely listen to (or at least transfer them to a storage hard drive) while still maintaining direct access to them from anywhere. you have an internet connection. 

Picasa can do the same for your photos. (Personally, I prefer Flickr, but it's not free.)

When it comes to other data, you have a lot of options. 

Google Drive is great for various files, Simplenote for text, and Evernote for rich text and PDFs. 

It doesn't really matter what services you use, but rather you have to start using the cloud if you have heavy data needs that cannot be adequately served by an external or secondary internal drive.

Optimize your SSD for optimal performance

For the most part, there isn't much you need to do to optimize your SSD. It is already very fast and should do its job without any adjustments. That said, you can get better performance and longevity with a few tweaks.

Enable TRIM

The first thing you should do after installing and setting up your SSD is to enable TRIM. What exactly is TRIM? Wikipedia offers a concise explanation:

The command TRIM allows an operating system to indicate blocks that are no longer in use on a solid state drive (or “SSD”), such as blocks freed after deleting one or more files. Generally in the deletion operation performed by an Operating System (OS) the data blocks are marked as not in use. TRIM allows the OS to pass this information to the SSD controller, which otherwise would not be able to know which blocks to clear.

Basically, it prevents your SSD from being abused. Just like any component, SSDs have a limited lifespan. TRIM helps keep the solid state drive healthy a little longer, so you need to enable it if the drive supports it.

Don't defrag your SSD

When data is stored on a drive, it often ends up in various parts that aren't all in the same place. This is called data fragmentation. Slow down the HDDs because the drive head has to move from place to place to read all the little information.

This can be fixed using a process called defragmentation, which is built into recent versions of Windows (7 and later) and OS X.

Since the location of the data on an SSD is practically irrelevant, as it can quickly access any of them no matter where they are, defragmenting an SSD is not only unnecessary but also harmful to the drive.

SSDs have a limited lifespan determined by how much they are used. While most will last as long as necessary, disk defragmentation results in unnecessary reading and writing of data, and such actions will shorten the life of your SSD.

OS X and Windows should know when an SSD is being used and disable defragmentation automatically. That said, it's important to remember not to defragment the solid state drive. It offers no real benefit and can shorten your life.

Further Reading:

  • How to update SSD firmware
  • How to improve and speed up your PC?
  • How to defragment hard drive on Windows 10
  • How to clone HDD to SSD with Windows
  • Problems with memory cards and how to fix

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