For years, the world of hard disk drives and the technology behind them hasn’t exactly moved on in leaps and bounds. While drive capacities have sky rocketed in the last few years thanks to the implementation of perpendicular recording and the price per gigabyte in mechanical drives has made even a terabyte of storage affordable, actual drive speeds haven’t made a great leap forward bar the improvements brought by higher data densities.
This is why the SSD (solid state drive) is such an important emerging technology in the world of home computers and one that promises to genuinely revolutionise data storage. By moving away from mechanical platter based storage to NAND flash memory chips, many of the long term problems of mechanical drives can be eliminated. Power consumption drops to comically low levels, heat output is practically nil and the threat of drive failure due to knocks or drive abuse is significantly reduced – with no moving parts there isn’t a whole lot to go wrong after all.
While these advantages have been firmly pitched towards the laptop and netbook market, where they’re of unquestionable value to travelling PC users, the use of SSDs in high performance PCs as a replacement to the trusty platter based mechanical drive is something that’s a bit more debatable.
Although the move from mechanical to solid state sounds like it should result in performance improvements across the board (what’s faster than the mighty electron after all) the reality has been very different. First generation NAND flash drives using the cheaper multilevel cell flash memory modules suffered from very poor write speeds and questionable real world read performance improvements over decent mechanical drives and did so for extortionately expensive prices.
There were, of course, some instances where the improved near instant access times and read speeds could be leveraged to produce superior performance, most notably in O/S boot times, but the overall use of an SSD for a boot partition was crippled by the languid write speeds in comparison to even a cheap mechanical drive.
However, we’re now seeing the second generation of solid state hard drives arrive at e-tailers and we’re keen to see if they’re any better than the previous generation.
Today we’re testing three of the best from the current crop of SSDs from Patriot, G.Skill and Intel. All three make use of multilevel cells rather than the more expensive but faster single level cell technology, but crucially differ in their specific memory modules, controllers and drive PCB layout.
Is this new generation of SSDs really capable of challenging the humble mechanical hard drive in the environment of high performance computing, and can they really justify the high cost per gigabyte? Let’s find out.