Friday, May 20, 2011

Solid state

My university is finally, after four long years, buying me a new Mac. They'll give me the bare-bones Macbook Pro, but I can pay for upgrades. And now I notice that Apple will install a solid state hard drive instead of a standard mechanical spinning-wheel one, if I'm willing to pay for it. Is it time to make that jump?

Needless to say, I've been excited about the prospect of going solid state since my great hard drive crash of 2007. But I've been researching the topic a little bit, and now I'm not sure I should make the switch.

The pros of going solid state come down to durability and speed. I doubt I'd notice the speed so much, since I don't do too many hard-drive-intense activities like video editing, although my computer would surely start up more quickly. Durability's the big issue. Solid state chips can handle getting bumped around and dropped. I've dropped my iPhone enough to know how important durability is.

But one of the major down sides of solid state is that the chips don't age all that well. As Mark Chinsky writes,
Flash memory quite simply has a limited number of times that information can be written to a location (a bit). Most consumer drives on the market today can handle about 10,000 writes to a bit. Once that spot is used up, it can never be used again.
Now, it's quite possible that this wouldn't really affect a user like me. Given how I use computers, the flash memory might not degrade for at least five years, which is beyond the lifespan of a typical laptop anyway. And some estimates suggest that solid state memory could last decades. But there is some chance of degradation. So near as I can analogize, standard hard drive failures are like aneurisms (rare, but they can kill your brain suddenly and without warning) while solid state drive failures are like senility (slow but pretty much inevitable if you last long enough).

Another concern is that solid state drives might be prone to sudden crashes, as well. The research done here isn't very scientific, but it reports a disturbingly high incidence of solid state failure. The author justifies their continued use simply for the speed, but I don't think that's enough for me.

The final concern is price. I'm generally an advocate of buying as much computer as you can afford, at least in terms of processor speed and hard drive space. But solid state drives cost significantly more than standard spinning drives, and that's not about to change. 512 gigabytes of solid state drive space costs over $1,000 more than the same amount of standard hard drive storage. From what I've read, the dollar-per-gigabyte costs of solid state drives are dropping at about the same rate as the costs of standard spinning drives, so half a terabyte of the former will always cost a lot more than half a terabyte of the latter.

It's sounding like solid state memory is great for those who do disk-heavy computing and for those who expect their laptops to get bounced around a lot. Basically, if you're a war correspondent and you do your own digital video editing, you want solid state. But for me, I'm not sure it's worth the price.


Eric McGhee said...

Seth, I'm pondering getting a Macbook Air, which uses flash memory. I'm definitely *not* an expert, but it seems like flash memory is also lighter. I really, really hated a laptop I had a few years ago, because it was very heavy and felt like I was carrying around a desktop (and maybe even the desk it sat on). Lightweight is looking pretty good to me right now.

Seth Masket said...

Eric, not only are the chips lighter than the spinning drive, but as I understand it, you don't need as much fan power to keep the solid state chips cool. So that's even less weight right there.

Macbook Airs look very cool, but I wonder about their durability. I feel like I could break one of those in half and dip each piece in salsa.

Protonk said...

Don't worry too much about lack of TRIM support causing file degradation. 10.7 is going to include TRIM support and there are some tests which suggest that the way Apple manages their file system is slightly less problematic for SSDs. Like any other drive you'll want to keep it backed up, but it shouldn't matter too much.

As far as the choice to use an SSD over a standard HDD: do it. The performance gain you get is dramatic and if you know what you are doing (or have OWC do it for you) you can use slightly cheaper drives than Apple installs. The performance gain you will see is a reduction in friction for everyday use. Time to wake from sleep, time to reboot, time to open large applications--all dramatically reduced with an SSD. I know this sounds corny, but even though it is as fast as my old MBP, my macbook air is the most responsive machine I have ever owned--due in large part to quick disk access.

BSR said...

Don't forget besides the lighter weight, the SSD will be easier on the battery, so your battery life should be better. Whether this helps you depends on how much you use it away from power sources, but factor that into your equation.

Personally, I'd go for it. Just remember to always have a good backup plan in place, no matter the technology.

Any computer can be stolen or completely destroyed by all sorts of things (power surge, liquid, high speed impact, etc...). So make sure your important work is backed up regularly and preferably in multiple locations (including one that is physically far away).

Good luck!

Steve Greene said...

Despite our budget crunch, NCSU sprung for the solid state for my new Dell laptop. I love it. Cuts way down on the heating issues and battery life is awesome. When it comes to hard drive failure, gradual senility certainly sounds preferable. Probably would not have done it, though, if the extra expense was on me.