Tom’s Hardware asks: Is an SSD the best upgrade for a slightly old PC?

Not surprisingly, they find the answer is yes. Specifically, that a PC equipped with an SSD gets about a 30% across-the-board performance increase.

I don’t agree with everything Tom’s Hardware say in the conclusion, namely, that it’s pointless to put an SSD in a netbook. Indeed, when you put an SSD in a netbook, you get several benefits: improved latency, improved battery life, and much faster boot/resume times, all of which are useful.

I really have to wonder if part of the reason people are so enamored with tablets is because they have solid state storage and apps load fast. Seriously. But that’s kinda-sorta another question.

Yes, it’s a bit much to put a $400 SSD in a $230 netbook. So don’t. Put a $75 or $100 SSD in there. With fewer memory cells, it won’t perform as quickly, but even a low-end modern SSD will outperform whatever drive is in there now and make the system a lot more pleasant to use. Computers are a lot more dependent on I/O than people give them credit for. The Best SSDs for the Money series from the same source  is useful for making that purchase decision.

The same thing goes for an older desktop PC. Drop in a $100 SSD and you can reasonably expect to extend its useful life by a couple of years. My favorite tactic for extending a PC’s life expectancy since the late 1990s has been to install the fastest drive I could find for $200 or less. I remember in the 2000-2001 timeframe, putting 7200 RPM drives in Pentium-166s and people couldn’t believe they were using such an old computer.

Yes, even tasks like web browsing and running MS Office benefit greatly from faster disk I/O. I spent the first five years or so of my career finding solutions to that problem. In the mid 1990s, it was getting Office 97 to run tolerably on underpowered 486s. By 2001, it was getting Office 2000 to run tolerably on sub-200 MHz Pentiums. I had to find a way, because I’ve never worked for anybody who has any money.

And when you drop an SSD into an aging PC, it’s not like you’re throwing that money away. The drive will still be usable and useful when you come back and upgrade. If Windows 7 bloats past the drive’s capacity in the interim, drop in a bigger SSD to hold the OS and apps and use the smaller drive to hold secondary apps or user data. There’s a hidden benefit to that: If you lose one of the drives for some reason–NTFS corruption is rare but can still happen–bringing the system back is half the work. Restore the data drive from backup if you have it, or reinstall the OS to the system drive.

I’m building a PC right now. I have an old 16 GB Jmicron 602-based drive. It’ll be fine for holding my Word, Excel, and Visio documents.

But I do agree with the rest of the conclusion: If you have an aging system with at least two cores in it, it’s absolutely worth dropping an SSD in it. You can spend $200 or $300 putting a new motherboard, CPU, and DDR3 memory in it, but you’ll have a better all-around system if you spend that same amount of money on an SSD instead. When the CPU just doesn’t cut it for you anymore, you can still keep the SSD when you replace the rest.

6 thoughts on “Tom’s Hardware asks: Is an SSD the best upgrade for a slightly old PC?

  • August 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm
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    I think people are so enamored with tablets because they provide a visceral interaction with the machine, in the form of paws on glass. It’s a great feeling when things are slick and move across the screen, it’s the feeling of power.

    The reason I haven’t put an SSD into my netbook, even though I have an SSD in my main laptop and my main desktop, is because I actually find I need my netbook as a dumping area when I am on the move. So say at a friend’s house, I can copy 100 GB onto it, or just dump 16 GB camera dumps right onto it when travelling. Coupled with the 6-cell battery my Acer Aspire One D257 sports, and I have great battery life and good enough performance with Debian 6. With linux loaded in the form of debian, I can connect to any wifi and feel secure in the knowledge that I am not being insta-hacked.

    But definitely computers are IO dependent, in a big way. I did notice myself a huge increase when I went from a Sempron 3000+ with an 80 GB SATA 1 drive to a 60 GB sandforce ssd drive. Mind you that machine is loaded with apps, I mean loaded, stretching back to 2006, still running the original WinXP Home install. Of course since then I moved the OS installation to a newer AMD box sporting the X4 630. But that’s just me enjoying the raw muscle that was available for a nice price.

    7200 RPM notebook drives imho are too much like guesswork, will it overheat the laptop, will it just be plain old too noisy, yada yada yada? I say either move to an SSD or keep using the stock 5400 RPM drive.

    In regards to partitioning to mitigate the fallout from a corrupt NTFS volume, I say ignore the issue, and just make regular images of your machine using something like Acronis. End of story. Of course it helps if you can fit your data set and OS install into say, 80 GB.

    Your 16 GB jmicron 602-based drive sounds awefully small. I also have to admit being scared off by the whole jmicron stuttering etc issues. I have two sandforce drives and I’m real happy. YMMV, and standby (suspend to ram) doesn’t work with these drives. Good thing hibernate is so fast.

    In my opinion the rundown goes like this: make sure you have at least one modern core running at 2 GHz or more (Core 2 or Athlon II, even an Athlon K8 at 2.6 GHz), next make sure you have 1-2 GB of DDR2 or DDR3 (the amount depends on your apps), and then move to an SSD, if you can cut your working data set down to match. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    • August 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm
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      The documents I want to store on the Jmicron drive fit in perhaps 4 GB, so it’s plenty of room for what I need. Like any other piece of hardware, use it within its limits and it’ll be fine. I own it, it’s paid for, and would otherwise sit unused, so I might as well get some use out of it.

      Good point about using a large drive in a netbook as a portable storage repository. If that’s important to you, then of course a big 5400-rpm drive is probably the best option.

  • August 17, 2011 at 11:51 pm
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    One particular issue with the Tom’s Hardware test was using a mainboard with an ICH10 southbridge to host older processors from which to gauge SSD performance improvements in contrast to older Intel based systems far more likely to contain ICH7 based controllers not supporting AHCI or NCQ. Indeed, the majority of socket 775 desktop boards sold today continue to embrace their ICH7 heritage. Something that impacts more than TRIM support as lack of AHCI and NCQ degrades SSD performance across the board.

    The question becomes “how much?” Which is a reasonable question since we are giving up drive capacity in exchange for performance. In the case of Native Command Queuing we know that maximum IOP/s are cut in half when NCQ is not available for example and AHCI gives us multi-threaded DMI among other enhancements.

    All is not lost as the ICH7DH, ICH7R, ICH7-M, ICH7-M DH variants do support AHCI and NCQ. Most likely found in laptops which is also the case with ICH8 and ICH9 based systems. Nothing is a given until ICH10.

    It would have been nice if Tom’s Hardware in the grand equation had compared numbers with AHCI turned off as will be the predominate case with prior generation hardware, desktops in particular.

    • August 18, 2011 at 7:08 pm
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      I don’t know what it is with Tom’s Hardware and funky test methodology, but you’re right, they always manage to do something weird. Realistically, though, I’ve run SSDs under worse conditions than those. I’ve even put SATA-ATA adapters on them and run them as parallel IDE drives and I still see a significant improvement over platter drives. Under those conditions I lose not only NCQ but more than half my available bandwidth. But since seek times are so much faster, and random I/O happens so much faster, it’s still a big gain. Random I/O is something along the lines of 100x faster than a platter drive, so even if you cut that by 90%, you’re still going to notice the 10x improvement.

      I had an OCZ Vertex drive with an ATA adapter on it in a Pentium 4 for a while, and I much preferred that machine to the dual-core machine I have at work with a conventional HDD in it. Under those conditions, the drive may have been as little as 2x-3x as fast as a good platter drive, because the Vertex is a relatively unsophisticated SDD. But I noticed it. Did I ever notice it.

  • August 29, 2011 at 9:51 am
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    Wow. I agree wholeheartedly. ICH7 as a bottleneck? Not in my neck of the woods. IDE mode, as long as the SSD is aligned, is incredibly fast, as benchmarked with AS-SSD. And it’s a huge upgrade that I can see clearly and enjoy today.

  • August 29, 2011 at 9:52 am
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    Even the X4 630 cpu upgrade that I did I had to downgrade because of heating issues. So you tell me, why bother with CPU upgrades if it’s good enough when SSDs offer the real upgrade.

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