If you haven’t been paying attention to the latest hard drive technology that has recently hit the market, now is the time to take notice. For the last few years, one of the easiest ways to get a substantial yet economical boost to your current rig was to swap the hard disk (HDD) with an SSD. The user experience between an HDD and even a cheap SSD can be quite a revelation. With an SSD, programs and apps open remarkably fast, the operating system boots and wakes from sleep in seconds, and moving files around takes a fraction of the time.

Early adopters of SSD technology paid dearly for these speedy drives, with the dollar-per-GB an order of magnitude greater than traditional hard drives. As prices fell, enthusiasts and power-users began to transition to SSDs, at least as a primary drive. While the price of SSDs have fallen dramatically, the cost of larger SSD drives (1TB+) is still cost prohibitive. Many power-users today use a simple solution; a snappy SSD as a primary drive for their operating system and applications, and a standard hard drive for the rest of their data.

A quick review - SSDs VS HDD.
Let’s compare modern SSDs with the traditional HDD to see how far we’ve come. An SSD is essentially a series of memory chips, hence their name ‘Solid State Drive’. Contrast to the older HDD technology, which is essentially a series of metal platters, spinning like an insanely fast, high-tech record player. SSDs have a variety of benefits, but their access time, throughput, and IOPS are what set them apart.

Standard HDDs usually spin at 7200 RPM and have an average access (or latency) time of around 5-10 milliseconds. This indicates how long it takes for a storage device to start a task. Compare this to an SSD with the average access time of 0.1 milliseconds. When a user opens a document or program on an SDD, it opens roughly 50 times faster than would an HDD. With solid state drives, almost every little interaction with your PC is dramatically faster.

The speed of file transfers on SSDs are usually where the user sees some big gains. The average HDD has a write speed of about 120 MB/second compared to an SSD with an average 450 MB/second. If you regularly move large files around your PC, an SSD can make short work of an otherwise lengthy task.

Particularly important to enterprise users is the overwhelming advantage that SSDs have with IOPS (Input/Output Operations per Second). IOPS indicate how quickly a drive can process IO (input/Output) requests. On a standard spinning disk hard drive, a drive may have 75-100 IOPS. A decent SSD can have closer to 100,000 IOPS. Of course this blazing speed only occurs with certain file sizes and requests but you get the picture.

Add that SSDs use less power, are more resistant to vibration, and make no noise, they have the clear advantage in every category except cost.

The new kid in town – NVMe SSD.
Just as I’ve finished successfully spreading the gospel of SSDs to all my friends and family, a new SSD technology has arrived that has opened up a whole new world of performance.

NMVe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is a relatively new technology that bypasses the standard hard drive connection and utilizes some of the fastest ports available on your PC. Instead of a SATA connection (using AHCI), NVMe uses PCI Express slots on your desktop or laptop. Using the PCIe interface dramatically increases the available bandwidth between this SSD and the rest of the hardware components in your PC. SATA (Gen 3) supports up to 600 MB/s while PCIe 3.0 x4 supports up to 4 GB/s.

While the new NVMe drives have been in development since 2011, they’ve only recently hit the US consumer market. Manufactures have been working quickly to develop this new standard and it can now be found in some of the latest high-end devices.

Now for the good stuff. NMVe drives have simply astonishing access times and file transfer speeds. Average access time is close to 0.02 milliseconds. File transfers can reach 2500 MB/s (read) and 1200 MB/s (write). This means access time is several times faster than current SSDs, read speed five times as fast, and write speed twice as fast. IOPS can reach 460,000/290,000 (read/write) or more! Holy cow these drives are snappy.

Taking the plunge.
If you are considering upgrading your hard drive, definitely check to see if your system is compatible with the new NVMe standard. Only a handful of current laptops can utilize this drive type, typically in the M.2 format. Thankfully, most modern desktop PCs have at least one empty PCI Express slot available. PCIe slots have different speeds so make sure the slot is PCIe x4 (Gen 3.0) for the best performance.

Here’s the best news: prices for memory are falling fast. This includes memory of all types - HDDs, SSDs, NVMe SSDs, and even RAM and flash memory for phones and tablets. Prices for several memory types are expected to drop 30-40% in the next year, meaning that even the fastest hard drives will be more reasonably priced and current SSDs will have a much better dollar-per-GB ratio. Expect phones to come with more RAM and hard drive space (I’m looking at you Apple). Expect even cost-effective laptops and desktops to come with a decent size SSD.

Users who move large files around will see the biggest benefit of the newer NVMe SSD drives. Enterprise users can an immediately see benefits on high-usage servers but will be hit with remarkable costs for server-grade NVMe drives. For home and office use, pair one of these drives with a newer Intel processor and your PC will be flying. If you can’t make the plunge now, plan to upgrade next year and take your system to the next level.

Topics: Technology, Storage, Hard Drive Technology

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ABOUT Greg Nesteruk

Greg is a System Engineer at Xtreme’s Enterprise Technology Center (ETC). He celebrates all things geeky and is a busy volunteer with the Issaquah Community Emergency Response Team. When not tinkering with gadgetry, he can often be found hiking the hills and mountains of the Northwest.
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