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Buying SSDs: Pluralsight's guide for consumers and companies

Updated on December 3, 2023

When it comes to computer storage, the landscape has seen significant changes in recent years, particularly in the realm of solid-state drives (SSDs). These high-performance drives have witnessed remarkable improvements in speed, capacity, and affordability. Gone are the days when hard disk drives (HDDs) were the default choice; SSDs have become the primary storage option for mainstream desktops and laptops. 

With many available options, you want to make sure that you get the right kind of drive for whatever you are trying to do. This article discusses the differences between types of SSDs and what their strengths and weaknesses are. 

Does anyone use HDD anymore?

In the realm of storage technology, remarkable strides in density and performance have been made over the years. For consumer devices, flash memory has largely supplanted HDDs, except for the most budget-friendly laptops and tablets. Contrastingly, within the enterprise storage sector, hard disk drives continue to command a significant share of the market.

The reason for the enduring reign of the older version of storage technology is simply that it is an essential - and the most cost-effective - solution for servers and large-scale storage environments. The eventual retirement of hard disk drives is anticipated to coincide with the widespread adoption of more efficient technologies. This shift is poised to bring about favorable outcomes for businesses, as the adoption of faster and sturdier storage alternatives will result in time savings and reduced risk.

What is a SATA drive?

SATA Hard Drive

Introduced in 2003, SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) was once the default interface for most desktop and laptop hard drives. Referred to as SATA hard drives, they are rotary hard drives with spinning platters and a moving needle that writes data to consecutive sectors on each platter. SATA hard drives were considered fast compared to their predecessor, the PATA hard drive, offering an interface rate of 6 Gb/s with a throughput of 600 MB/s.

These drives typically range from 500 GB to 16 TB and are still available at a lower cost than other discussed drive types. They are more often used by enterprise or business users requiring ample and affordable storage, or by consumers utilizing external drives for information backup.

However, it's crucial to note that the landscape has evolved, and SATA interfaces are no longer a primary choice and very few consumer computers ship with SATA HDD drives. Modern NVMe technology (more on that below) which utilizes the PCIe bus instead of the SATA bus provides consumers with stable and less risky options while also unlocking substantial bandwidth potential for storage devices. 

That said, SATA SSDs are still available for many consumers. When it comes to performance, SATA-based SSDs rank at the lower end of the spectrum, utilizing the same interface as traditional hard drives. Despite this, they boast three to four times the bandwidth when compared to their spinning disk hard drive counterparts. Currently, SATA SSDs are more accessible and budget-friendly, and are necessary if a device's processor and the motherboard only allow for SATA options. 

SATA itself isn't going away, it's still an affordable format for really large drives; however, as companies and business find ways to renovate their storage solutions, SATA hard drives will eventually become a relic of the past. 

Why are SSDs the new standard drive?

SSD Hard Drive

An SSD operates without any moving parts. Unlike HDDs, SSDs provide nearly instantaneous access times due to their lack of moving components. The data in an SSD is stored on microchips, resulting in enhanced performance. Additionally, SSDs are compact, smaller than their HDD counterparts, and can be directly mounted to the motherboard. In contrast to HDDs, which use a mechanical arm for data operations, SSDs rely on a processor (controller) to handle tasks like data reading, writing, storage, restoration, caching, and data cleanup.

The primary and most notable advantage of an SSD compared to an HDD is speed. Devoid of moving parts, an SSD can read data at a speed 10 times faster than an HDD and write at a rate 20 times faster. Additionally, while the copying process of an HDD typically falls within the range of 30 MB/s to 150 MB/s, a standard SSD achieves a faster rate of 500 MB/s.

Reasons why SSD Is better than HDD

There are other great reasons why SSDs are the current standard for most consumers and business users:

  • SSDs are more energy-efficient and consume less power, prolonging battery life.
  • SSDs are more heat-resistant when compared to their HDD predecessors 
  • An SSD surpasses an HDD in terms of durability, serving as a more reliable storage device that remains vibration-free and can withstand shocks—an attribute that traditional HDDs lack.
  • Size and weight - as technology develops faster and smaller processors, SSD size and weight shrinks, making them even more ideal. 

Understanding SSDs: NVMe, PCIe and M.2

NVMe Hard Drive

When looking at different types of SSDs, you may have come across terms like "NVMe," "PCIe," and "M.2." Fundamentally, the distinctions among these SSD types are primarily based on the connection interface connecting the storage unit to the computer or server.

Released in 2013, Non-Volatile Memory Express, or NVMe, is a type of SSD that's attached to a PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slot on a main board. These slots were originally designed for graphics cards, so they are incredibly fast. At the time of this writing, the fastest consumer NVMe SSD in the world for consumer purchase delivers up to a blistering 12.4 GB/s of sequential throughput and 1.5 million random IOPS over the PCIe 5.0 interface. That's an amazing level of performance from an amazingly compact device.

For as fast as it is, there are some drawbacks to NVMes. When comparing different data transfer and storage protocols, a notable drawback or disadvantage of NVMe is that it is more expensive than SATA, eMMC, and UFS protocols. This is the reason why flash memory storages or solid-state storages based on Non-Volatile Memory Express are often found in mid-level to top-tier consumer electronic devices.

Another note about NVMe SSDs - sometimes these drives clock in with shorter lifespans compared to their SATA counterparts. Why? Well, it all circles back to the intricate architecture of the entire hardware setup and its specific components. Toss in the zippier performance, and you've got a recipe for a bit more wear and tear.

For your everyday tech user, it's not really a biggie. The lifespan of these storage marvels is perfectly fine for your regular tasks. But (and there's always a "but"), for heavy-duty applications like servers and data centers utilized in cloud computing, you'll want to keep a close eye on performance and ensure viablity with routine hardware check-ups.

What is the difference between M.2 and NVMe?

While M.2 and NVMe may seem similar, it's crucial to understand that they serve distinct roles in the realm of SSDs, working seamlessly in tandem. M.2 refers to the physical form factor of the SSD, defining its size and shape, while NVMe is the interface responsible for connecting the SSD to the motherboard. M.2 drives can support various interfaces, including NVMe, SATA, and others. The speed of an M.2 drive depends on the specific interface it uses.

Think of it this way: M.2 sets the stage with the physical structure, and NVMe steps in to establish the high-speed connection between the SSD and the motherboard. When you bring these two together, the result is a powerhouse of a drive with lightning-fast performance.

SATA SSD or NVMe SSD: What to know

There are a lot of considerations when deciding between different components. You have to choose what fits your technical, capacity and budget requirements. Below are some guidelines that may help, and while they won't fit every situation, you may find them useful when planning your next laptop purchase or PC build:

Choosing a SATA SSD

  • Form Factor: Most commonly 2.5 inches, resembling thin HDDs found in older laptops.
  • Connectivity: Utilize the same power connector as traditional HDDs and fit into standard drive bays in desktops and laptops.
  • Speed: Not as fast as NVMe SSDs but provide a significant upgrade over traditional HDDs.
  • Compatibility: Suitable for PCs supporting only SATA, making it a worthwhile purchase in such cases.

Choosing a NVMe SSD

  • Form Factor: Primarily M.2 in consumer PCs, with add-in cards (AICs) being a less common option. U.2 SSDs exist but are rare outside of enterprise desktops.
  • Connectivity: Fit directly onto the motherboard in an M.2 slot without the need for cables.
  • Motherboard Compatibility: Modern motherboards typically come with at least one M.2 slot, with the best motherboards offering several for increased storage capacity.
  • PCIe 3.0 or PCIe 4.0: The choice between these standards impacts the speed of the SSD. PCIe 4.0 requires a compatible motherboard (X570 or B550 for AMD, Z590 for Intel) to unlock maximum speeds. Motherboards supporting only PCIe 3.0 can still run these SSDs but at half the speed.

Choosing between SATA and NVMe

  • Consider Compatibility: Check your motherboard specifications to determine PCIe support.
  • Future-Proofing: Opting for PCIe 4.0 and a compatible motherboard ensures maximum speed and future-proofing.
  • Usage Scenario: For casual users, SATA may suffice, but for resource-heavy tasks like gaming, video editing, or encoding, NVMe provides a noticeable and appreciated speed upgrade.
  • Affordability: Prices are comparable, making NVMe a compelling choice if your computer supports it.

More to consider when choosing an SSD

It's also worth mentioning that you’re not limited to buying just one drive; PCs can typically support several at a time. And whether you get the performance you want from it will depend on where you save files. For example, a common configuration for PCs that render video is to use a faster internal drive to run video rendering software (Camtasia, Adobe Premier, etc.) and then transfer the finished product to a cheaper, larger external drive.

Some other considerations when choosing a drive:

  • Storage Capacity: Power users, gamers, or those involved in heavy workloads may find 1TB SSDs to be the gold standard, but currently 2TB options offer a significant upgrade without a substantial increase in cost (consider capacities beyond 2TB only if specific space needs are identified). Users who aren't using demanding applications and who have budget concerns can find 512GB more affordable, but should consider that a minimum size. 
  • Read/Write Speeds: Form factor plays a crucial role in determining read/write speeds. When selecting an SSD, check the spec sheet for the highest available read/write speeds in your chosen form factor:
    • SATA SSDs typically peak around 500MB/s to 600MB/s.
    • PCIe 3.0 SSDs provide up to 3,500MB/s in read speeds.
    • PCIe 4.0 can surpass 7,000 MB/s in read speeds.
    • Upcoming PCIe 5.0 may offer theoretical read speeds up to 14,000MB/s.

Now that you've had a crash course on the common types and features of SSDs, you should feel confident making an informed decision. Take a good look at the reasons behind replacing your drive, the amount of space you need and how much you can spend. By doing that and applying what you've learned here, your SSD buying experience will be much easier.