SSD myths

SSD myths

SSDs, like most disruptive technologies, face some questions and resistance. People will grasp at any straw to avoid adopting them. Thanks to this resistance, a number of SSD myths arose. Here are the myths I see repeated over and over again, and the truth, based on my experience actually using the things.

Note: I originally wrote this way back in 2010. The drive technologies I speak of as state of the art are rather aged now. But the principles still hold today, and will continue to do so. Hard drives have gotten better, but SSD have gotten better at a more rapid pace.

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Who needs an SSD anyway?

So one of my coworkers asked about my SSD today, and two others followed up with questions after I talked about how fast it is.

Any time a new technology comes out, there are objectors, of course. Unless it’s something they’re used to seeing. SSDs aren’t. I believe SSDs will go down in history as a disruptive technology, and as such, they’ll be misunderstood for a while.One person asked what I do that I need that kind of speed. Well, the same things everyone else does with a computer. What does he do that he needs anything faster than a Rage 128 video card, or a dual-core CPU? Truth is, I’m sure he has a faster video card than me and its capabilities sit there unused all the time.

Finally I answered. Once you’ve used it and gotten used to the speed, it’s very hard to live without it. In a way, it’s a cop out, but it’s true. Back in the early 1990s when people would ask Amiga owners what they do that they need multitasking, they got the same answer. Eventually the rest of the world figured out those Amiga guys were right, and PCs and Macintoshes got pre-emptive multitasking.

The other guy asked what it cost. I said around $130 for 30 gig. "That’s an expensive 30 gig drive," he said. Well, he’s right. But consider this. The drive consumes perhaps 20% of the power that a conventional drive does. That cuts your electric bill. It generates minimal heat, so it’s not heating up the inside of your computer. That extends the life expectancy of the other components, and therefore the computer. The drive has no movable parts, so there are no disk heads to crash and lose your data at some unexpected time. Put an SSD in a computer, and barring a really bad power surge or filesystem corruption, there’s every reason to believe your data will stay intact, not just for three or four years, but more likely a decade or more.

To me, all of that’s worth something. Not to mention that some people think absolutely nothing of spending $300 extra for a faster CPU or video card.

In a way, an SSD is a luxury. But let’s think about it rationally. People who need $100 1 TB drives need them because they have boatloads of multimedia files. Whether it’s pictures, movies, or music doesn’t matter. None of them need fast access, so putting them on an SSD is fairly pointless. So buy that $100 1 TB drive to hold that stuff. Then spend $130 for a 30 GB SSD, or $160 for a $60 SSD, and store the stuff that does need speed–namely the operating system and applications–on the fast drive. Then you’ve paid $160 extra for what was an impossibly fast drive just two years ago, and spent less than the difference in price between a mainline video card or CPU and an enthusiast model.

And you do notice the difference, even in routine things. Beyond the computer booting in 20 seconds and applications loading in 1-2 seconds, routine stuff goes faster. Web browsing is noticeably quicker, because writes to the browser cache happen quickly and they don’t interrupt the task of actually displaying the pages. Reads from the cache happen several times faster, so when you visit sites that you frequent, the static, unchanging elements of the page pop up immediately while the browser downloads the day’s new content. The difference isn’t quite like the difference between a fast, modern web browser and Internet Explorer 6.0, but that’s the closest thing I can think of to describe it.

And on those insane days when there’s a ton of stuff going on, and you have 14 browser tabs open, 12 documents open in Word, a couple of worksheets open in Excel, and a couple of other applications running, each with multiple documents open? Well, maybe only I have those days, but I doubt it. You know what normally happens when you get into that situation. You may have a couple of gigs of RAM, but the disk just keeps grinding away under that load anyway, and any time you switch applications, the disk light flashes and you get that noticeable pause while you wait for the application to switch? That doesn’t happen with an SSD. Whatever data the system feels the need to swap out to disk happens in an instant. Sure, there’s still a delay, but if you blink, you’ll miss it.

I already want another one. Two, actually. One for the other desktop computer my wife and I use, and one for my server. The question isn’t whether I get another one or two. The question is whether I wait for a sale.

Yeah, I’m obsessed.

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.

A super-cool Mozilla extension

I’m about to get you to dump Internet Explorer for good.

And no, this has nothing to do with the latest security exploits (there were only four revealed this week, right?). This has to do with functionality.

Super Drag & Go is what I call a disruptive technology. It’s like multitasking. You won’t understand what the big deal is when I explain it to you, but once you try it out, you’ll find it impossible to use a computer that doesn’t have it.It’s dead simple. You’re using the Web for research. You’re tooling along, finding lots of information you didn’t know about ancestors, obscure toy train manufacturers, or whatever it is you like to use the Web to research. You hit upon a name or phrase or topic or book title that’s useful, so you highlight it with your mouse, copy the text, then open a new browser window, go to Google or Amazon or Dictionary.com or Wikipedia or whatever the appropriate research tool is, paste it in, and keep on going, right?

Wrong. That’s what you used to do.

What you do is you install Mozilla Firefox, then you click on that Google icon and install the interfaces for whatever search engines besides Google you like (there’s plumbing that hooks you up with Wikipedia, Amazon.com, Dictionary.com, and everything else you can possibly think of). Then you install Super Drag & Go. Then you instantly become about 40 times as productive as you were 20 minutes ago.

How? I tool along the same way I always did. Then, when I find reference to, oh, say, Voltamp, I highlight it like I was going to copy and paste it, but instead of hitting copy, I just drag it with my mouse over to some blank area on my browser window.

Boom-shakalaka, a browser window opens with that phrase punched into Google for me with my results. So then I can read the three–wait, now it’s four!–webpages that make mention of the first company that made an electric toy train that used a transformer plugged into a household AC wall socket.

(You can thank me later for putting that song in your head. Change browsers and I promise I won’t do it again.)

Of course, if you’ve changed your default search engine to something else, then it’ll go to that other page. Now you know why it might be useful to set your default search engine to Wikipedia or Amazon.com. It changes back easily–it’s just a matter of clicking the icon in the browser’s search bar.

Next time I see him, I’ll have to thank Todd, the coworker who showed me how this works. I’d read about it and dismissed it, until he showed it to me. And now?

It’s not a habit, it’s cool. I feel alive. If you don’t have it you’re on the other side. I’m not an addict…. Maybe that’s a lie? –K’s Choice, Not an Addict

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