SSDs come of age?

Intel released its first-generation SSDs this week. I haven’t seen one and I don’t plan on rushing out to buy one just yet, but what I’ve read makes it sound like this is going to be big. Not big like the release of Windows 95 was, but frankly if what people are saying is true, it should be as big of a deal. This is the first disruptive technology I’ve seen in years.The best analysis of this drive and other SSDs is this Anandtech article. It doesn’t just discuss the Intel SSD; it also goes into detail talking about earlier SSDs, and, to my amazement, it talks about what’s wrong with them and does in-depth analysis as to why.

Frankly it’s been years since I’ve seen this kind of objective analysis from a hardware site. I’m used to hardware sites being shills for vendors, so this is exceptional.

The problem with inexpensive SSDs like the Supertalent Masterdrive and OCZ Core is that they’re usually fast. Blazing fast. But under certain circumstances, they just sit there and hang. Not for milliseconds, but a full second or more. Usually the problem happens when writing small files.

So when you go to Newegg and see the customer reviews of these drives and you see people giving them either 5 stars or 0, this explains it. The people who are just using them to load game levels or Photoshop CS3 love them because they mop up the floor with even a 15K conventional drive, so they give them five stars. The people who can’t get Windows to install on them because it hangs when writing some small but critical system file give zero.

Intel seems to have solved most of these problems, mostly with buffering and command queuing. The result is a drive that beats conventional disks in performance almost all the time, and when it doesn’t win, it’s close.

The problem is price: about $600 for 80 gigs. Some enthusiasts will pay that for their video subsystems, but that’s a lot of money considering one can build an awfully nice computer these days for around $200 (using a $70 Intel Atom motherboard, 2 GB of Kingston or Crucial memory for $30, a $40 hard drive, a $40 case, and a $20 optical drive).

But I think Intel made the right bet. The people who won’t pay $159 for a 32 GB drive from OCZ won’t pay $159 for one from Intel either. So crank up the capacity to 80 GB (pretty much the minimum for any enthusiast to take seriously), crank up the performance, and market it as an enthusiast product at an enthusiast price and wait for the technology to make it cheaper. It’s the same strategy Intel has been using for CPUs for nearly 25 years (since the 80286), and it’s worked.

I see a lot of criticism about the capacity, but it’s pretty much unfounded. The people who need capacity are the people who have large collections of JPEGs, MP3s and movies. None of these uses of a computer benefits at all from the SSD. Pretty much any conventional hard drive made in the last decade can stream that kind of data faster than the software needs it. So store that mountain of data on a cheap conventional hard drive (500 GB costs $70). Meanwhile, 80 GB is enough SSD capacity to hold an operating system and a nice selection of software, which is where SSDs excel.

Before I saw this review, I was pretty much ready to pull the trigger on a first-generation OCZ Core. Newegg has the 32 GB model for $159 with a $60 rebate. But now I know precisely what’s wrong with the Core and similar SSDs (and pretty much all of the similarly priced SSDs are based on the same Samsung reference design and have nearly identical characteristics). I know what I do tends to generate small files from time to time, and I know those 1-second delays would be maddening because avoiding delays is precisely the reason I want an SSD in the first place.

Intel has fired its first shot. Now Samsung and anyone else who wants to play in this arena is going to have to answer. Once that happens, prices will come down. Meanwhile, performance-minded people will buy the Intel drives, and increased demand will mean increased production, and therefore driving prices down.

It’s going to take a little while for SSDs to gain mainstream acceptance, kind of like LCD monitors. But I really think in five years, we’ll wonder how we lived without them.

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