Are HDDs dead? A look at the present and future of storage

HDDs vs. SSDs

SSDs continue to improve in terms of durability and affordability, but they're still not quite at the capacity (or the GB/$ ratio) to push HDDs entirely into obsolescence. Are they? Traditional platter hard disks continue to be an extremely cost effective way to stash massive stockpiles of data, and while they'll never equal the speed of SSDs, especially for random access times, for cheap storage en masse they remain the king of the data backup hill. 

That said, with the way the best SSDs for gaming continue to expand in terms of capacity, and as prices continue to tumble, there's a convincing argument to be made that a traditional HDD is no longer required for most modern, consumer-level PC builds. In fact, a number of prebuilt gaming PC manufacturers are eschewing platter drives entirely and only including single SSDs, both as a way to mitigate dreaded loading times in PC games and productivity, and to push down the overall cost of their builds (as compared to including both SSD and HDD alternatives). Even SATA SSDs are continuing to yield market share to NVMe alternatives, with a report from DigiTimes suggesting that NVMe SSD sales will equal SATA SSDs sales in 2019.

With all that in mind, it may seem like there's a fairly obvious conclusion for gamers: the time has come to abandon HDDs and properly embrace the solid state future. But the reality isn't so clean cut, for a number of reasons.

The growing size of games 

As anyone with a reasonable Steam library can attest, modern games' voracious appetite for storage continues to expand, with new games including updates and add-ons easily pushing up to (or in some cases beyond) the 100GB mark. Given that we're winding down a console cycle, we're also due for another significant spike in the size of AAA titles, meaning that games in the next generation could easily breach 150GB. Most are 50-60GB today, with an additional 2-4GB patch on day one. While SSD prices have continued to deflate, the prospect of spending $80-$180 on a 512GB SSD to stash three or four games remains really unappetizing. For roughly the same price, you can easily snag a 4TB traditional HDD and, while the slower read/write speeds may cost you a handful of seconds of staring blankly at a loading screen, your pain will be significantly salved by being able to stash almost eight times as many games on a single drive. 

There's also traditional backup and media storage to consider. If you've got a vast library of music, video, and photos that you need a home for, HDDs remain the best option, both in terms of cost and privacy. Online solutions remain capped at lower capacities and in many cases unreliable, with better solutions costing a quickly scaling premium. Given the durability and reliability of modern HDDs, they're still the single best solution for backing up your precious data.

The performance gains aren't that staggering 

Image 1 of 2

Image 2 of 2

Speaking of ‘a handful of seconds gained’ in load times raises our next point: the practical difference for gamers between SSDs and HDDs aren't as mind blowing as the hyperbolic marketing copy from manufacturers would have you believe. They're certainly not imperceptible, for sure, but we're talking in terms of seconds rather than minutes. 

Testing a range of top SSDs, including add-in cards, NVMe, and SATA drives, against the best of a crop of 7200 RPM HDDs in Metro Exodus produced some fairly eye-opening results. Using the RDY ELIBG205 as a test bed (packed with a powerful Geforce RTX 2080 Ti and Core i9-9900K) and loading into the Taiga section of the main campaign, the slowest of the HDDs (a Western Digital Blue 1TB)  took just over 48 seconds to get us in game, with the most fleet of the HDD pack (Western Digital's 2TB Black) loading gameplay in 41 seconds. On the SSD side, the pricey, top performing 480GB Intel Optane 900P add-in card delivered the Taiga in just over 22 seconds, while the slowest of the SSDs we tested, the 500GB Western Digital Blue 3D SATA took just clear of 33 seconds. 

Those results might look pretty stark if you're just considering the best result against the worst. But bear in mind, a high end Optane AIC will cost well north of $350 for the lowest capacities, and 280GB just isn't feasible for a serious gaming library. Contrast that with the fastest HDD in our pack, the Western Digital Black, which can be had for a quarter of that price and provides nearly fourteen times the storage space, and took a scant 16 seconds longer to load Metro Exodus. Obviously, if you're flush with cash and want top performing hardware, SSDs will always be the better solution, but if you're more interested in value, HDDs look pretty attractive even with TLC flash storage continuing to slip in price. And those price decreases (around 20% over the last year) will inevitably slow and flatten out as demand stabilizes and companies adjust their manufacturing processes.

Results were similar when our own Jarred Walton compared one drive from each category (HDD, SATA SSD, and NVMe SSD) in Anthem load times back in February. The HDD loaded the game in between 78 and 85 seconds, the SATA SSD in 59-60, and the NVMe in 58-60. The most fascinating element of Jarred's results is extremely slight different between NVMe and SATA SSD load times, but as pricing gets closer to parity for the two interfaces, it's hard to recommend a SATA SSD. 

Testing reveals an even narrower gap when you consider independent titles. To gather some data from a more lightweight indie game, I tested all eight drives against loads in the first episode of Life is Strange 2, and even the fastest of our SSD roundup shaved a mere ~5 seconds off loads compared to the slowest HDD. If you're primarily playing smaller indie or 'double-A' games, upgrading to an SSD is unlikely to markedly impact your play experience.

Network considerations 

Of course, if you're living under the tyranny of a data cap, this decision has likely already been made for you. Having to constantly redownload games in the shuffle that's inevitable with just a single, limited capacity SSD vastly expands the value of capacious HDDs if you're working with finite bandwidth. The same is true if you live in an area with poor internet connectivity—if a single AAA title takes an entire night to download, it can be a real deterrent to jumping back into older titles or taking a chance on new ones when it means having to clear drive space. 

Even if you live somewhere with sturdy, reliable, blindingly fast internet, when you compare the length of time it takes to download titles against the slender moments you save in terms of load times there's not a lot of difference, particularly in shorter or well optimized games. Naturally, you may weigh that time differently, doing something else while a game downloads compared to the time you're restlessly sitting, controller/mouse in hand while you're waiting to play, but in terms of raw time saved there's not a tremendous overall difference.

We come not to bury HDDs, but to praise them

Budget will always be the biggest considerations when you're choosing whether or not it's time to shift completely to an SSD lifestyle—in a world where you have access to unlimited discretionary income, of course SSDs are the obvious option, as you can afford to stack them in multiples and surround them with the hardware to support them. But for the financial mortals amongst us, HDDs still have a place, at least for the next few years, and ironically, the SSD boom has actually been a boon for platter hard disks because they've depressed the prices of traditional storage as well. While I'll be the first to welcome the solid state future with open arms, for the moment I keep a pair of expansive HDDs in my own personal machine to supplement the speedy SSD where my OS lives.