HDD vs SSD: the pros and cons of each

HDDs vs. SSDs

Should you use an HDD vs SSD? It's a debate that continues, a decade after the first SSDs arrived (with exorbitant prices). SSDs continue to improve in terms of durability and affordability, but they're still not at a GB/$ ratio that can push HDDs entirely into obsolescence. Or are they?

The best SSDs for gaming continue to expand in terms of capacity, and as prices 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). Furthermore, 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.

All that may seem to lead to 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. Here's the breakdown of areas where HDDs make the most sense, as well as reasons to use an SSD.

The growing size of games 

As anyone with a reasonable game library can attest, modern games's 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 games are 40-60GB today, with an additional 2-4GB patch on day one. While SSD prices have continued to deflate, the prospect of spending $50-$170 on a 512GB-class SSD to stash three or four games remains really unappetizing. A 1TB-class SATA SSD for $100 is a better bet, but that's still a decent chunk of money.

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 are 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.

Having an SSD for your boot drive is extremely useful

There are multiple reasons SSDs are faster than HDDs. There are no moving parts or spinning platters, which makes access times substantially faster, almost instantaneous in some cases. That means SSDs don't suffer much from degraded performance due to file fragmentation (where a file gets placed in non-sequential sectors). On a hard drive, the heads have to reposition over the correct sector to read each fragment, and over time this can really slow down access to files, especially for things like booting Windows.

How bad is it? That depends on many factors, like the speed of your hard drive (5400 rpm drives are noticeably slower than 7200 rpm drives for boot times), how long the drive has been used, the number of applications installed, whether a file defragmentation utility has been run, and more.

With a clean Windows 10 build and a fast WD Black 4TB HDD, boot times (from the end of the BIOS POST sequence to being at the Windows 10 desktop) can take 20-30 seconds. On a slower WD Blue 2TB HDD, under the same circumstances, boot times are typically 30-40 seconds. And for just about any good SSD, like a Samsung 860 Evo 1TB, booting in 10 seconds is typical.

That's for a clean build, however. With a well-used Windows 10 installation—one that has been in use for a year, through a bunch of Windows and application updates—things get markedly worse. Boot times of a minute or more are possible and even likely, especially if there are a bunch of startup utilities scheduled to run. But on an SSD, booting in 10-15 seconds is still reasonable.

We've said it before: using an SSD for your boot drive is one of the most noticeable upgrades you can make on an older PC. Many people refuse to use a PC that doesn't have an SSD boot drive.

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SSD performance gains in games aren't that staggering 

Windows boot times are one thing, but games tend to behave differently. There's a lot of sequential data to read, and usually you're not running a ton of other stuff in the background that's hitting your storage. 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, but we're talking in terms of seconds rather than minutes, though of course lots of loading screens can add up over time.

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 40 seconds. On the SSD side, the pricey, top performing 480GB Intel Optane 900P add-in card delivered 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.

Results were similar when we 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 78-85 seconds, the SATA SSD in 59-60, and the NVMe in 58-60. The most fascinating element of those results is the extremely slight different between NVMe and SATA SSD load times, but as pricing gets closer to parity for the two interfaces, NVMe SSDs certainly become attractive.

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 SSDs 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.

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.

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.

The hybrid storage solution

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 among us, HDDs still have a place.

Even if you want an SSD for your boot drive (and you should), nabbing a cheap and capacious HDD for secondary storage is arguably the best approach to a sometimes complex discussion. Use it for mass storage, most of your games library, videos, and backups, and more. You can still put a few games on your SSD as well, but there are plenty of files that don't need SSD speeds. We'll be the first to welcome the solid state future with open arms, but keeping a large HDD handy still makes sense.

There are other alternatives to just a pure HDD or SSD setup. Intel Optane Memory provides for a fast SSD cache that supplements your HDD, and you don't need to worry about which data gets to reside on the faster cache—the software and drivers take care of that for your. AMD's StoreMI (and Emotus FuzeDrive) take a slightly different approach, with tiered storage so that you get the full capacity of the HDD+SSD, with the drivers and software managing where data is located.

In short, the debate over HDD vs. SSD storage isn't over just yet. SSD capacities are increasing, and there are enterprise solutions that can store up to 100TB on a single drive. That's five times larger than the current top HDDs. The price for such drives, however, isn't even worth mentioning (*cough* $50,000 *cough*). We're still a long way off from SSDs actually beating HDDs in price per GB, and until that happens, HDDs will remain a viable options for many people and businesses.