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Laptop Hard Drives and Solid State Drives - Component Guide

Selecting the proper drive can be the dividing line between a snappy PC and a lethargic one.

by Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director on September 10, 2009

hdd-ssd_sh.jpgYour notebook’s storage drive (hard drive or solid state drive) holds your operating system, your programs, and your data. But it’s not merely a bin for your data; it’s a vital component that determines how quickly your computer operates. A slow storage drive can bog down your computer, and a fast one can make an otherwise-underpowered system seem snappy.

Hard Drive vs Solid State Disk

While most notebooks sold today come with standard hard drives, an increasing number are available with solid state drives (SSDs). Standard, mechanical hard drives have moving parts that rotate a metal head over a magnetic surface. SSDs, on the other hand, store data on non-volatile NAND flash memory chips. Because they have no moving parts, SSDs are much faster, more durable, and incredibly power-efficient. However, they also cost quite a bit more than standard hard drives, with vendors such as Lenovo charging as much as $380 to upgrade from a 250GB hard drive to a 128GB SSD.

But upgrading to SSD will make a dramatic difference in everyday tasks such as opening applications and documents, copying files, and booting. If those tasks are important to you, you’re better off splurging on an SSD, rather than a faster processor.

How Much Capacity Do You Need?

If you don’t play a lot of games, or plan to store a large library of high definition video, on your notebook, you can easily get by with as little as 120GB of disk space. To calculate your needs, assume that your drive will actually hold about 10 percent less than its specifications, because disk formatting information takes up that space. Also assume that you will need 25 to 30GB for your operating system and virtual memory files. Even if you install Adobe’s Photoshop, the entire Microsoft Office Professional suite, and a host of other applications, 5 to 10GB should be enough for most applications, excluding games.

So how much space do your games, media files, and documents need? Each gigabyte can hold, approximately:

  • 16,000 10-page Word documents (assuming .doc format, .docx format is even smaller)
  • Approximately 1,000 minutes of digital music
  • 320 digital photos
  • 1 hour of standard-definition, digital video
  • Approximately 30 minutes of a DVD movie 
  • Approximately 17 minutes of Full HD Video (1080p)

High-end games such as Crysis or World of Warcraft take between 10 and 15GB of disk space. However, simulation games such as The Sims 3 tend to use 5 to 7GB.

So, with a 128GB drive (a common size for SSDs), for example, you can fit all of this with room to spare:

  • Operating System (depends on your operating system, including virtual memory, hibernation files, etc.)--20 to 30GB
  • Applications: Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, etc.--10GB
  • Music: 5,000 Songs (approximately four minutes each)--20GB
  • Photos: 3,200 images--10GB
  • HD Video: 5.5 hours (approximately)--20GB
  • One Large Game--15GB
  • Total Memory Used--105GB

So unless you’re the kind of person who works with a ton of video or edits photos or video professionally, a small storage drive will suffice. That said, the smallest notebook hard drive these days is 160GB, and it’s not difficult to find a low-cost notebook selling inside a 250 or 320GB unit.

What to Look for in an SSD

Despite their strong potential, not all solid state drives are created equal, and some are downright slow. What really separates the good from the bad are the interface it connects with and the controller inside the drive. Any notebook that comes with an SSD connected via the SATA port should have plenty of speed. However, all netbooks that come with SSDs, and a few ultraportables, use a slower PATA interface that are actually slower than hard drives. Make sure your SSD-based notebook uses a SATA, not a PATA port.

Before upgrading your notebook’s hard drive to SSD, read reviews of any drive you may be considering. Look for a model with a good quality controller chip. If you’re buying a new notebook with an SSD built-in, you may not know the exact make and model of the SSD your notebook comes with, unless you have the notebook in front of you, or read a review from an objective source. Fortunately, most current notebook vendors use quality SSDs that have high-speed controllers from Intel, Samsung, or Toshiba.

What to Look for in a Hard Drive

If you’re getting a notebook with a regular hard drive, speed is key. If given a choice, pick a 7,200 rpm model over 5,400 rpm, because the higher rotation speed means data transfers that are approximately 25 percent faster. Modern 7,200 rpm drives also have solid power-saving features, which means they won’t significantly impact your notebook’s battery life. Even if you don’t need all the storage space, we recommend a hard drive with at least 320GB.

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