Research Hub > HDD vs. SSD: Choosing the Right Hard Drive

November 25, 2019

Use Case
11 min

HDD vs. SSD: Choosing the Right Hard Drive

What are the differences between an HDD and an SSD? Learn how to choose the right hard drive for you and your business needs based on a number of factors.

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What's Inside

Which is Better: SSD or HDD?

Whether you’re in the market for supplemental storage, looking to replace a current hard drive, or you’re buying a new computer and need help with specifics, the question “which is better hard drive: HDD or SSD?” is as important as it is prevalent.

Choosing the right drive between HDD and SSD isn’t going to be done by flipping a coin. Considering usage, value, cost and size is only just the beginning. We’ll show you what you need to know and how to pick the right hard drive in this in-depth guide.

What is a Hard Disk Drive (HDD)?

Hard disk drives (HDDs) are known as the "traditional" hard drive and have been around for more than five decades. If a solid state drive is a digital music player, a hard disk drive is a record player. An apt analogy, given that hard disk drives use spinning disks (called platters) and needs to read and write data.

The technology has progressed over time, and hard disk drives today have increased storage capacity and decreased physical size. They remain an essential part of your technology ecosystem. That's because HDDs store everything from your entire operating system and applications you install to your files, folders and more.

What is a Solid State Drive (SSD)?

Though they are considered a newer storage technology, solid state drives (SSDs) have been around for quite some time - you just may not have known it. Do you remember using thumb drives or flash drives to store and transfer files? Think of those as your first experiences with a solid state drive.

As the name suggests, a solid state drive have no moving parts, unlike the "record player" hard disk drive. Instead, solid state drives use Negative-AND (NAND) flash memory. The more NAND memory chips, the more storage capacity.

NAND is a type of non-volatile flash memory that reads and writes data to the drive. It does not require power to retain data, instead saving data as blocks and relying on electric circuits to store it. There's a catch to this: NAND has a finite number of write cycles, leading to performance degradation over time. So, even though your solid state drive is physically more durable than a hard disk drive (shock resistance, can withstand high and low temperatures and submersion in water) it will eventually deteriorate. We'll talk about that more in this article shortly. 

What are the Best Use Cases for SSD and HDD?

The best use for a hard disk drive is mass storage. Whether you're looking to store years of company information and resources, or you need backups of all eight seasons for Game of Thrones, hard disk drives offer an abundance of storage at a fraction of the cost of solid state drives. You can easily acquire one or more HDDs over 1TB in size for a fraction of the cost of their SSD equivalents. The good news is that PC cases usually have space for more than one drive, allowing you to stack as much storage as you want (for two backups of Game of Thrones? Well, if you must).

The best use for an SSD is speed. Think of this not just in information retrieval, but also in writing. If you're working with high resolution images or 4K videos, do you want to wait for minutes on end for the media to load when you make edits? Of course you don't. SSDs reduce the time it takes to load and write those files.

Many SSDs come with SATA III ports and they can be easily installed in place of or in addition to an HDD. SATA will get the SDD handling information four to five times faster (read/write speeds of around 550 MB/s) than an HDD.

You can achieve even greater performance with a PCIe SSD. Though you will need to ensure that your motherboard can accept it. Average speeds for PCIe SSDs range from around 1.2 GB/s up to 1.4 GB/s, and for a significant price, you can get an SSD that reaches 2.2 GB/s.

Advantages and Disadvantages of SSD vs. HDD at a Glance

HDD Advantages

  • Least expensive choice (cost per GB)
  • Enormous storage space

HDD Disadvantages

  • Slower speed compared to newer technologies
  • Susceptible to damage from bumps or falls
  • Not energy efficient
  • Constant writing leads to fragmentation, which slows down the loading of files and programs

SSD Advantages

  • Incredibly fast read/write speeds
  • Less power consumption over traditional HDDs
  • Quicker boot times
  • Shock-resistant, water-resistant

SSD Disadvantages

  • More expensive than HDDs
  • Constant writing to NAND can lead to wear-out

SSD vs. HDD: Reliability

Wherever you keep your data, you’re going to want a few things. At the top of that list should be hard drive reliability.

Think about it this way: have you ever worked on a project for days (or even weeks) just to forget to hit “save” at the most crucial moment, losing all that hard work in a single blink of an eye? Imagine that feeling on a much larger scale, with years of information being lost maybe forever.

Yeah, you don’t want that. Nobody wants that. That’s why reliability in your hard drive is so critical.

So, is an SSD or an HDD more reliable? That’s a bit more ‘apples and oranges’ than you may think.

To understand, think about how each hard drive works. An HDD’s read/write functionality is based on physical movements. That’s because the drive is literally writing data on the hard disk platter inside the device. Components are moving back and forth, the hard disk platter is literally spinning. As with most computer components, these pieces are small and delicate – putting them at risk to be damaged. A dropped laptop with an HDD could be devastating. A bumped external HDD drive could be enough to knock a component out of place, or misaligned the disk, potentially causing irrevocable damage.

A solid state drive, on the other hand, has no moving pieces, hence “solid state or “flash storage.” While even a small drop could devastate an HDD, you could use your SSD as a hammer and the data would be fine because the data is stored in memory cells. Ironically, the solid state of the drive that makes it so durable is also the reason it degrades. SSDs degrade over time as the cells inside them fail or become less reliable over time. So while an SSD can withstand much more physical damage than an HDD, eventually it will fail from cell degrading.

SSD vs. HDD: Durability

Before we dive into this, there’s something important to note: drive lifespan is not fixed. SSD and HDD lifespan can depend on the quality of the drive, some of the factors that make the drive and the environment the drive is placed in. And that’s before you factor in one of the most important elements in measuring a drive’s lifecycle effectively: how often data is being written and how much data is being written.

That said, let’s think about SSD’s first. Solid state drives are measured in read/write limits, sometimes set by the manufacturer in their warranties. After a certain number of read/writes on the drive, it will start to deteriorate. These limits can be quite high – we’re talking about hundreds of terabytes – and calculated out can cause the drive to last years or decades depending on usage.

But that doesn’t mean it’s an exact science either. If an SSD has an 800TB read/write limit, it still may start running into errors at a quarter of that. This could be for a number of reasons, but like any product the warranty doesn’t always indicate how long it will last.

If you’re looking purely from a numbers standpoint, averages indicate an SSD can last about 20 years, whereas an HDD will last about six. However, these are numbers aren’t set in stone, and you may need to replace your HDD or SSD more or less often depending on a number of factors. Your best strategy is to monitor the health of your drives regularly to understand their own lifecycle based on usage and environment.

SSD vs. HDD: Speed

If speed is the name of the game, there’s no question that SSD’s move much faster than HDDs. As noted above,solid-state drives can read/write speeds of around 550 MB/s faster than a hard disk drive. SSDs can go even faster, provided your computer can handle it. A PCIe SSD can achieve anywhere from 1.2 GB/s to 2.2 GB/s - assuming you have a motherboard that can handle these speeds.

That doesn’t mean an HDD is going to take an eternity to get things done.The faster the hard disk drive platter spins, the faster it works, which can impact how quickly your computer responds to your commands. The platters spin at preset speeds (4200 rpm to 7200 rpm for consumer computers), and those speeds correlate to read/write rates. An HDD spinning at 7200 rpm usually has a read/write speed of around 150 MB/s. These drives also have SATA connections to your motherboard, the same as an SSD.

So, while your hard drive won't be moving as fast as the Flash, it won't drag either. Given the significantly cheaper cost of an HDD, this is a very good compromise. But when you’re looking for purely hard drive speed, an SSD is your move with the ability to read/write about nine times faster than an HDD, give or take.

Can I Replace HDD with SSD in a Laptop?

The short answer: yes, of course you can replace a laptop HDD with an SSD.

The slightly longer answer: yes, but you’ll want to be mindful of some things before you make the switch. First, you’ll want to make sure you get an SSD that can actually fit in your laptop so it’s not an external hard drive. That means doing a bit of manual work on your device – not always easy, nor always something people are comfortable doing themselves.

Second, you’ll want to consider that moving a hard drive isn’t just about taking your photos, games, and documents from drive A to drive B – you have to migrate your entire OS to the new hard drive. That means you might need to enter BIOS to change the boot order of the drive and find a new install disk for your OS, or clone the current drive to the new one. The cloning method is much more accessible – all you need is a SATA-to-USB cable – and works in the same spirit of copying folders from one location to another.

If you go with the cloning method, all you need to do is shut down the laptop and swap the drives. If you’re looking for a fresh drive, including installing your OS, you’ll need to go through a few extra hoops. But regardless of your method, this is a very doable project. Check out our guide on how to install an SSD.

SSD vs. HDD: Long Term Storage

Both SSD and HDD drives are god for long term storage. Based on what “long term” means to you and our earlier answer about lifecycles of each drive, you may find one more suited for the other. A couple other things to considerations may be things like potential risk of power failure – something that could adversely impact SSD drives – or how often you plan on moving your drives around – which could impact HDD – but both are suitable for long term usage.