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HDD vs SSD: which is better?

HDD vs SSD, so many choices
(Image credit: Future)

The storage battle between HDD vs SSD continues to grow. Solid-state drives (SSDs) have made tremendous gains over the past decade, reaching the stage now where it's hard to imagine using a new PC that doesn't at least include some form of SSD storage. Hard drives (HDDs) are the old guard, having been around since the first 5MB model in the 1950s, with sizes now reaching 20TB. HDD vs SSD: which should you use?

It's not an all or nothing decision, thankfully. Some of us may feel that the HDD is dead, but that's more of a personal take than a universal truth. When comparing HDD vs SSD, the main difference comes down to price vs performance. Even the best SSDs still cost 9 cents per GB or more, while HDDs start below 2 cents per GB. That's over four times the price for the same amount of storage capacity, but running Windows on an HDD makes your whole PC feel sluggish. SSDs are just so much faster for booting Windows and launching your favorite applications.

Thanks to decreasing prices, many prebuilt PC manufacturers are skipping the HDD entirely. Ship a PC or laptop with a 1TB SSD, and most users will have more than sufficient storage. For desktops, you can easily add secondary storage in the form of a spacious HDD if needed, while many laptops will have to look at external storage devices. Even for USB storage, however, the choice between HDD vs SSD isn't over. There are affordable high-speed USB SSDs that can still outperform an internal HDD, and newer NVMe SSDs promise even larger gains in performance.

That might lead you to think that, just like DVDs killed VCR and in turn were killed by Blu-ray and streaming, SSDs have put a stake through the heart of the HDD. Things aren't so cut and dry, however, and there are still areas where HDDs make sense, along with plenty of reasons to use an SSD for your primary storage device.

(Image credit: Steam)

HDD vs SSD: The growing size of games and other data

As anyone with a reasonable game library can attest, modern games' voracious appetite for storage continues to expand, with new games including updates and add-ons easily pushing up to and in some cases beyond the 100GB mark. We're looking at the launch of new consoles later this year, with the PlayStation 5 making a point of including fast SSD storage. However, new consoles will likely also result in another significant spike in the size of AAA titles. Games in the next generation will likely breach 150GB, and some already have.

Where 40-60GB install sizes used to be typical, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 weigh in at 123.6GB currently, and judging by GTA5 that could climb to more than 150GB in the future. That's one eighth of a 1TB SSD! The latest Call of Duty takes things even further, tipping the scales at 158.7GB with all the updates applied. The good news is that a 1TB-class SSD can be had for $100, so you're 'only' dedicating about $10-$15 of storage to even the largest games. But if you keep a large collection of games installed, that 1TB can go fast.

For roughly the same price as a 1TB SSD, you can easily snag a 4TB traditional HDD. The slower read/write speeds will cost you a handful of seconds of staring at a loading screens, and your teammates might bully you into buying an SSD, but your pain will be salved by being able to stash four times as many games on a single drive. Or maybe not.

It's not all just fun and games, however. Consider traditional backup and media storage. There's no need to back up your PC to high performance SSD storage. Should you actually need to restore from a backup, sure, it could save you several minutes, but restoring from a backup in the first place will be far more painful. Given the durability and reliability of modern HDDs, they're still the single best solution for backing up your precious data.

And what about that vast library of music, video, and photos you've collected over the years? For those, HDDs remain the better option, because you're not going to be chewing through hundreds of GB per second of data while viewing pictures or videos. Even the highest bitrate videos (eg, Blu ray quality) only needs about 6MB/s of read speed.

HDD vs SSD: Having an SSD for your OS makes Windows 10 much better

(Image credit: Microsoft)

HDD vs SSD: Having an SSD for your boot drive is essential

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 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, then wait for the right part of the platter to spin under the drive head. As files get written, edited, and deleted, over time this can really slow down access to files on hard drives, 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 slower than 7200 rpm drives), how long the drive has been used, the number of applications installed, whether a file defragmentation utility has been run, and more. Still, even the best HDD is worse than a modest SSD for booting up Windows.

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-worn 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 on HDDs, especially if there are a bunch of startup utilities scheduled to run. But on an SSD, booting in 10-15 seconds is still reasonable.

That applies to all the applications installed on your OS drive as well. Loading up Photoshop or Premiere Pro from an SSD only takes a few seconds. On an HDD, it can take two or three times as long.

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 (including most of us at PC Gamer) refuse to use a PC that doesn't have an SSD boot drive.

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HDD vs SSD: 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 isn't as mind blowing as the hyperbolic marketing copy from manufacturers would have you believe. It's certainly not imperceptible, 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 telling 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 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. However, a high end Optane AIC is ridiculously expensive, and we'd stick with something more reasonable like the XPG SX8200 Pro, which is nearly as fast. Contrast that with the WD Black 2TB: 16 seconds longer to load Metro Exodus, with twice the storage capacity and a lower price.

Results were similar when we compared one drive from each category (HDD, SATA SSD, and NVMe SSD) in Anthem load times last year. 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 difference between NVMe and SATA SSD load times, but as pricing gets close to parity for the two interfaces, NVMe SSDs certainly become attractive.

Testing reveals an even narrower gap when you consider indie titles. To gather some data from a lightweight indie game, we 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 have the 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 and QLC flash storage continuing to slip in price.

HDD vs SSD: having lots of storage to avoid repeat downloads is helpful

HDD vs SSD: Network considerations

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.

HDD vs SSD: you don't have to choose one or the other

HDD vs SSD: The hybrid storage solution

Budget will always be a major consideration 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, 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 you. AMD's StoreMI (a branded variant of Emotus FuzeDrive) takes 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.