• Beginners guide to choosing your first SSD (Solid State Drive)

    Almost everyone knows what (Solid State Drive) SSD's are, everyone wants one, we've had plenty of articles showing how to change your drive to an SSD but the real question that keeps coming is "Which one?"

    What is an SSD?

    Firstly, for the people who don't understand SSD, lets look at it from from a non-technical perspective. An SSD is the same as ram, but its the same as having an entire hard drive of it. Ram is faster than a normal spindle style hard drives because your machine doesnít have to spin a drive to find all the little pieces of the file to access it. With a conventional drive, you file can be split up all over your hard drive depending on how full the drive is. This may not be an issue with small MS Word files but when youíre opening a file or application thatís 100MB+ (your operating system can be anything from 1GB to 6GB depending on the version), having to find all the parts of the file can take a long time, which is one of the reasons a machine can take 45 seconds to a minute to boot up. With the current range of SSDís, accessing the files is so quick that the only current limitations are how quickly the file can be transferred to your machine which is currently limited by the transfer interface (SATA2 or SATA3 depending on your machine)

    There are a couple of options when you look at putting an SSD in. If you buy a brand new MacBook Pro, then you have the option to buy a BTO (Build to Order) SSD but if you already have your MacBook Pro, you're stuck looking at aftermarket models like OWC, Intel or OCZ. Surprisingly enough, Apple still don't offer SSD's for the MacBook range so if you're looking at a new MacBook, BTO SSD's are not an option and you'll need to look at third party drives. The new range of MacBook Air's come with SSD's as standard so there is no option to upgrade them.

    Factor 1 - The price illusion

    If price is your sole factor in looking at an SSD, don't discount the Apple BTO options simply because Apple has a history of charging higher prices for some of the peripherals. In some cases, Apple can offer one of the cheaper SSD options on the market, but it does depend on which model of laptop you buy and what size of SSD you're looking at. As an example, the 512GB SSD sells for $1600 in the 13" MacBook Pro's and only $1470 in the upper spec 15" due to the default drive differences but mysteriously enough, it sells for $1730 in the lower spec 15" although it has the exact same drive as the 13". Don't ask me to explain it, I can't and I doubt anyone at Apple can. In comparison, the 480GB OWC sells for about $1700 and the $1700 for the OCZ Vertex 2. Looking at the upper spec 15" with a 512GB, you could probably get an Apple SSD cheaper than most of the aftermarket drives and save yourself the hassle of changing drives, but on the converse, by buying a third party drive you have a spare backup drive to carry around with you if you buy an external case.

    Factor 2 - Performance

    If pure performance is your goal and by that, we mean the best possible performance rather than just any SSD performance, you want to skip the Apple drive altogether. Apple drives generally run at about 215MB per second while after market drives perform at a more respectable 280MB per second. Thatís about 30% faster and a substantial improvement in performance considering that could wipe up to 8 seconds off a 25 second boot time. If you're fortunate to own one of the latest 2011 MacBook Pro's, you also have the privilege of looking at SATA3 options like the OCZ Vertex 3, which is due for release shortly. With SATA3 SSD's you're looking at a smoking hot 500MB per second, which is twice as fast as the existing SATA2 drives. I'd love to see what performance this equates to in boot time so I'll be adding one to my MacBook Pro quiver when I put it through its annual upgrade. To put some performance comparisonís into perspective, I did a ďDeath by AdobeĒ comparison between a 7200RPM spindle drive and a 240MB/s Gskill drive. The test involved opening 5 Adobe Applications at the same time and Adobe professional applications are large which is a good test of the speed. Solid state took 25 seconds to open them while the 7200 spindle took nearly 2 minutes. Now imagine the same test with a SATA3 drive which is twice the speed and you could be looking at 12.5 seconds against 2 minutes.

    Here is the original comparison for your reference:

    Factor 3 - Long term degradation in drive performance

    Most of the newer drives have managed to resolve the long term degradation with write speeds found on early generation drives but even some of the newer drives are known to have their drop speeds drop by half due to the problems with overwriting data on sectors. As an example, the Samsung (the OEM drive for Apple) has no drive degradation but OCZ are know to drop by half for their write speeds (which has been resolved on the more recent Vertex 3 drives due for release shortly). Ultimately you shouldn't have problems with machine slow downs on read speed but if write speed is critical, select your SSD carefully.

    What drive do I actually buy?

    If you want to know what a particular drive is really like, the only place to get the detailed information of almost every SSD is Anandtech but OWC and OCZ are two of the popular brands in Australia that you can't go wrong with.

    Anantech spend an incredible amount of time with their reviews and provide the sort of detail that is more than the average person could ask for. They also provide benchmarks against other drives so if you want to check how your drives rate, this is a good place to do it. Here is a sample of their benchmarking data.

    Drives to Avoid

    Not sure how these drives perform more recently but my experiences with Kingston and Gskill have been dismal. In the case of Gskill I had two drive failures in less than 3 months with a 2 month wait between replacements. Iíd be happy to relook at them if someone from Kingston or Gskill want to send me something but Iím sure as hell not putting down my own hard earned cash for one.
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