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Solid State Drive Buyer's Guide

But...Why?

Why buy an SSD? Not so long ago, we were still hearing major hard drive vendors who had yet to acquire their way into the SSD market proclaim that they were “keeping an eye on things,” that “the SSD market was “still only a slim fraction of the total storage market” and so on. You don’t hear that anymore. Those vendors have since purchased SSD companies, and if they haven’t released their first SSD products yet, they soon will. Solid state drives are no longer a trivial niche. Ryan Petersen, CEO of prominent SSD vendor OCZ Technology, recently noted that even with unlimited resources, his company couldn’t keep up with market demand for SSD drives. SanDisk CEO Eli Harari noted on his company’s last quarterly conference call that until “around 2011 to 2012, the industry will not have sufficient supply to meet the [SSD] demand” and will not be a mainstream product until that time. So if you wonder why SSDs remain so expensive per gigabyte versus HDDs, part of the reason is supply and demand.

If SSDs are so expensive, why buy them? Why so much buzz and hoopla? Perhaps we can get a clue from an August 2009 paper by Intel creatively titled “Enterprise-wide Deployment of Notebook PCs with Solid-State Drives." While intended for the enterprise business segment Intel so effectively targets with its current X25 SSDs, the company’s findings easily translate to the average notebook-toting consumer. According to Intel’s paper:

Based on Intel IT and industry data, SSDs are expected to have a 90 percent lower failure rate than HDDs over a three-year refresh period. As a result, we estimate a 90 percent reduction in employee time lost due to drive failures and a 96 percent reduction in IT support time for PC rebuilds. SSDs also provide much faster data access, resulting in user productivity improvements; we estimate an average 44 percent time savings for common tasks such as reboots and loading software. Other benefits include a lower thermal footprint; our tests showed that notebooks with SSDs ran about 12 degrees cooler.

According to a recent article in Barron’s, Intel’s three-year refresh estimate is nearly spot on across the entire PC market, citing a reasonable age for the average PC in service today of  “3 years or less.” If the hard drive in your notebook failed, what would the impact to your life be? If you merely keep a netbook on the kitchen counter to look up recipes and watch news headlines, your answer could be “not much.” But if you’re a student, tele-worker, or traveling sales professional who lives and breathes based on notebook uptime, the answer probably can’t be measured in dollars. A big chunk of your life suddenly comes to a grinding halt. The problem may not be the dollars to replace the drive but the intangible losses of time, data, and productivity.

To understand why the benefits that Intel touts exist in the first place, we need to look at how SSDs function and their differences compared to hard disk technology.