Which HDD?
June 27, 2010 2:17 AM   Subscribe

Should I get an SSD, if so which one?

I have a pretty decent gaming rig, except for the hard drive. Its an old IDE drive so I know whatever I get will be an improvement but I still want to get the best, or at the very least, the best for my money.

I'm currently using about 300Gb of the 500Gb drive *but* that includes 2 copies of the OS a bunch of games/programs that I'm not using and all my data files for the last approx 5-8 years (whenever I got a new computer I plugged in a new hard drive along with the old ones and when I ran out of room I copied it all to this new 500GB drive... I'm a digital hoarder)

My main concern is loading times (which are just painful right now) but also performance. Installing anything feels like it takes forever - Sims 3 World Adventures took over an hour IIRC.

Load times have been a problem in most games I've played recently although performance has only really been an issue in Sims 3. For the most part Dragon Age ran fine on max settings (few problems in really big fights with lots of spell effects going off), Sim 3 performs like my virus scanner is permanently running in the background but I'm not holding my breath for that being much different with a faster hard drive. I think the problem is most the game itself.

I've been torn between the WD Velociraptor and an SSD for some time now but I just can't make my mind up on which or whether I should bother at all. Both options are rather pricey! Looking at Tom's Hardware the max read throughput on the 600Gb Velociraptor is 157Mb/s and the 160GB Intel x-25-m is 232Mb/s - on that basis I'd get the Velociraptor, its not as good as the SSD but its still magnitudes above my current 39Mb/s and its a 600Gb drive but the gaming performance charts are a whole different story. The Intel is listed at 129Mb/s and the Velociraptor only scores 23.2Mb/s. The SSD's weren't even twice as fast as the SATA drives on max read throughput but on gaming throughput they're nearly 6x as fast! If I tried to compare all the charts, I think I'd go insane.

On paper, clearly the SSD's have it but all these numbers don't mean a lot. Will there be a significantly noticeable difference between 7200rpm drive vs 10000rpm drive vs SSD and is that worth the cost/lack of drive space.

Obviously, whichever I choose I'm still going to keep my 500GB IDE drive in their too for general storage.

So, hive mind - which (if any) new hard drive should I get?

Also - I'm in the UK so bear in mind that things tend to cost more here than in the US and also stuff available in the US may not be available here yet.
posted by missmagenta to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just the move to SATA alone with any old drive will probably make life better. I think a big 7200 rpm drive is still the best choice right now e.g. 750gb Samsung Spinpoint F1 will set you back all of £56.

Admittedly it's probably half the theoretical performance of the 10k drive, but I find game load times are perfectly reasonable on a Barracuda 7200 can't-remember-the-rest-of-the-specs drive.

Buying a ninja-fast uber expensive drive now will make you feel great for at least 2 weeks, then annoyed for the next year when you keep seeing faster drives you can't afford now (at least that's how it works with graphics cards, but I can always toast marshmallows on my 9800gx2).
posted by samj at 2:47 AM on June 27, 2010

Two things that keep me away from SSDs: one if the price per gig, but the other is that they're heavily dependent on their firmware, even more so than physical drives. This has lead to some weird-arse performance problems and even data corruption problems. There are also claims performance will degrade over time.

Incidentally, peak performance isn't really a big advantage to the SSD - it's the number of reads and writes per second they can manage that lets them really shine. While the hard drive is moving its arms across the platter, the SSD is writing data.
posted by rodgerd at 2:53 AM on June 27, 2010

(That should read "peak throughput", not "peak performance".)
posted by rodgerd at 2:58 AM on June 27, 2010

I think you'll get much better performance out of a simple wipe/reinstall. It doesn't sound like hard disk speed is the issue. A simple defrag might make a huge difference also.
posted by wongcorgi at 5:03 AM on June 27, 2010

How much RAM do you have? Ideally you should have at least 2-4GB; if not, I'd make that your first upgrade.

If you already have the RAM, I'd recommend getting an Intel SSD (in your case, a 160GB). I've replaced Velociraptors with Intel SSDs in my home and in production servers for my work, and the SSDs are much, much faster in both scenarios, performing especially well during heavy use. They are also silent, use less energy, and are more reliable. In servers with extremely heavy I/O, I have to replace Velociraptors on a regular basis, whereas I haven't had a single SSD fail after more than a year.

There were some initial concerns about Intel SSDs in the past (and SSDs in general), but it seems that they've been resolved for a long time now.

Also - I'd strongly recommend upgrading to Windows 7 if you haven't already, not only for enhanced SSD support but for general performance.
posted by helios at 5:29 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in agreement with helios.

You could consider a smaller SSD than 160gb though. I would split your data. Put OS and installs onto a 40/60gig SSD and buy a cheap 500gb sata as a secondary/data/slave drive. Let your IDE rest.
posted by royalsong at 7:24 AM on June 27, 2010

I have to ask... does your PC support SATA?

Either way, if your 500GB IDE HDD is very old and used heavily it's probably about to fail.

My personal HDD setup goes like this:

1) Intel x25v 40GB SSD - OS goes on here, along with some personal files.
2) old spare 250GB old hard drive - temp files/downloads etc
3) new 1TB HDD - music, video, etc

The problem with a 40GB disk nowadays - at least on Windows 7 - is that you really need to keep it lean by moving stuff to your other disks, disabling hibernation (and hybrid sleep!), trim the page file, and a bunch of other things so if you aren't savvy then you can fill it up super quick.

I do have sick startup/shutdown/load times though which is what I wanted all along. From pressing power button, including my BIOS POST's, and typing in my windows password, etc it takes 30 seconds - google chrome loaded and all.
posted by glenno86 at 7:48 AM on June 27, 2010

To answer a few questions:

Yes my PC supports SATA. The IDE HDD isn't that old - just over 3 years - when I bought it I couldn't afford to upgrade to the rest of the system but I was out of disk space so I had to get a bigger drive. I don't think its about to fail, its working as well (at least according to PC Wizard 2008) as it was a year ago when I upgraded the rest of the system.

The rest of my system specs are :
AMD Phenom II X4 Quad Core 955 Black Edition 3.20GHz @ 3.83GHz
Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-UD4P Motherboard
Corsair XMS3 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 PC3-12800C9 1600MHz
Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 4890 1024MB GDDR5 PCI-Express Graphics Card

Currently on XP but will upgrade to Windows 7 if I get a new drive.
posted by missmagenta at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2010

If you want to know more about how SSDs work, you can really do no better than to sit down with Anandtech's articles on the matter. Start with the SSD Relapse and then browse some of the more recent SSD reviews to get a feel for what's what and who's who. Now that we have TRIM, the performance-degradation issue is no longer a problem. Most firmware issues are gone by the time you can purchase a SSD off the shelf. Price per gigabyte is still high, of course, but hey, markets.

I bought an 60 GB OCZ Vertex recently for about $150 and I love it. I give it to the OS and have separate disks for Games/Steam and media storage. It's 15 seconds from the back end of the BIOS to my Win 7 desktop. All my applications that live on that drive leap open. My game load times are the same as they always were though, because they're still on a 320GB 7200 RPM spinner. I would love to replace that with like a lowish-end 256GB SSD but they're just to pricey for me to afford right now.

If you're talking about the newest Velociraptor with SATA 6GB/S support, then you could get both a 60-80 GB SSD and a 1TB mainstream spinner for less than the price of the 'Raptor.

My only real concern for you is whether your motherboard has SATA already or will you have to add in a expansion card to drive SATA devices.
posted by BeerFilter at 8:42 AM on June 27, 2010

Failed to preview, I see you're good to go on SATA ports. Yeah, the PATA disk is totally holding you back there. Heck, you could just drop a modern performance disk like a WD Caviar Black and you'd see a world of improvement for not that much money.
posted by BeerFilter at 8:48 AM on June 27, 2010

I have an Intel SSD (80g) and a patriot TORQX (64g); the patriot has given me problems (sometimes it vanishes and I have to cold boot). My primary system has the Intel SSD as a boot drive. I have 6 gig ram and Windows 7 64 bit. It boots fast and runs great.
posted by jockc at 9:48 AM on June 27, 2010

One possibility is that your current drive has a bad cable, and is being set to a low-speed DMA mode or PIO mode, which are very slow. I'd suggest digging into the Device Manager to see what mode your hard drive is running in. It's possible that a $5 cable could improve your system manyfold. Note that there was also a big kerfuffle with one of the copy protection routines a couple years back, where it induced errors on your IDE bus, forcing your drives to lower-speed modes. Since you're clearly gaming, could definitely be worth checking out.

SSDs offer extremely low seek time and very fast transfer rates, and in some circumstances, they can make an amazing difference in performance. The biggest win is when you're on XP, particularly when you don't have a lot of RAM in the computer. If you've got the usual 3 or so gigs, that's enough to run pretty much anything, but any unused RAM just sits there, as XP doesn't do much caching. SSDs make a big difference in that use case. If you don't have enough RAM (2 gigs or less), and you're getting into swapping to drive, SSDs can make a gigantic performance improvement. But you have to have a good one; poor-quality SSDs degrade in terms of write speed very, very quickly as they fill up. As of last Christmas, the only two controllers that were really good were Indilinx and Intel. Indilinx are found in multiple drives from multiple manufacturers, but they're fairly expensive, so the cheapest drives will almost never have them. One line that has used them is the OCZ Vertex series. Intel controllers, of course, are on the Intel drives, and I think Kingston uses it on one as well.

Lesser controllers will give you the usual gigantic boost early on, and then will rapidly slow down, especially if you're swapping to the drive. TRIM support helps avoid this problem, but XP doesn't use TRIM.

The big downside to SSDs is that they are extremely expensive. For the same price as an SSD, you can put in 8 gigs, Win7, and a decent 7200RPM SATA drive. This will give you a large fraction of the speed boost of the SSD, because Win7 does a lot of caching. It actively learns what programs you use routinely, and tries to keep them loaded in the cache whenever possible. Plus, you get the various other improvements in Win7, like being able to use 64-bit mode, which will be a substantial speed improvement on your Athlon.

I have 12 gigs in my Win7 machine (i7 CPU/motherboard, fairly expensive), and I didn't see a huge performance boost in adding an SSD over my prior Spinpoint, because most of my routine working set fits comfortably in the eight gigs or so of cache. I bought that much RAM because I use virtualization regularly, but I was surprised and pleased at how much of a difference it made all the time.

I agree with helios upthread that you're probably better off with Win7, 8 gigs, and a new drive. The Samsung Spinpoints are fairly quick, inexpensive, and very quiet. I like them a lot, so I'd nudge you that direction. However, if there's a brand you prefer, pretty much anything should work well.

That should be fast and shiny enough to keep you pretty happy, and then in another year or so, revisit the SSD idea, as they should be cheaper, faster, and larger by then. At this exact moment, they can be a good purchase if you know precisely why you want one, but the good ones cost so much that delaying that purchase for now, and investing that money elsewhere, will give you more bang for your buck.

The rest of your system is very strong, and shouldn't need to be messed with. CPU and video card are fine. Troubleshoot your existing drive first, and if you can't find a problem there, go to Win7, more RAM, and a new SATA drive. That should bring you right up to snuff, and then an SSD next year sometime will give you another improvement.
posted by Malor at 10:04 AM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Turns out the drive was running in Ultra-DMA-2 instead of 6. Changing the cable improved my PC Wizard score from 39-81 but its still pretty slow. On the benchmark the random read and sequential read speeds were only slightly improved (30-50% increase) the buffered reading and writing are just under 4x what they were. In terms of real performance, the loading didn't seem much faster but the texture loading/rendering has somewhat improved but its still not brilliant. I've decided to get the intel SSD and a 1tb western digital caviar drive, which combined works out cheaper than the Velociraptor. They should arrive tomorrow so I'll try to remember to update the thread with how it works out... if I'm not too busy squeeing in nerd joy.
posted by missmagenta at 11:54 AM on June 27, 2010

Well, I would have suggested replacing the $5 cable first, since a forced slow mode is usually because of errors. If the source of the errors was the cable, you'd still be getting them, and you'd still be seeing slow performance, even if the drive benched better.

But it sounds like you've made your decision, so best of luck.
posted by Malor at 10:14 PM on June 27, 2010

I'd already ordered when you posted Malor ;) It was time I upgraded anyway, I only kept that drive when I upgraded everything esle because I didn't want to reinstall Windows, which I ended up having to do anyway. Very happy with the new drives, everything is running really fast and smooth.
posted by missmagenta at 6:29 AM on June 28, 2010

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