Increasing your computer speed with solid-state drives — an introduction

By Luke Tymowski, Systems Administrator, Calgary

Want, or need, a fast computer? Or an even faster one? It wasn't that long ago when you simply bought the one with the fastest central processing unit (CPU). While new CPUs have appeared every year for many years, performance improvements lately have been measured in steps, not leaps.

A hard disk drive uses spinning platters to store data

What about the hard-drive? This is normally slow, particularly if, like most of us in the last several years, you went from a desktop to a laptop. There were options when selecting a new computer for bigger, perhaps slightly faster hard-drives. But also small, very expensive options called solid-state drives (SSDs).

An SSD is the same physical size as a hard-drive, and has the same SATA interface. But it weighs almost nothing compared with a hard-drive. An SSD uses memory chips, not spinning platters, to store data. These memory chips aren't as fast as the ones used for RAM. But they do move things around pretty quickly. And unlike RAM, they remember things! (Turn off your computer, and your RAM forgets whatever it last looked at.)

How much faster are SSDs? Your computer can boot in 15-20 seconds instead of 3-4 minutes. You can compile Python 3.3 in 40 seconds instead of 5 minutes. You can launch Photoshop in one Dock bounce instead of'€¦ I lost count, let's try again.

Geeks love the speed of SSDs. They have been willing to pay dearly for them. More importantly, they have been willing to back up their data with almost religious devotion. Why? The dirty secret of SSDs, before the current generation, is that they weren't very reliable. It might have lasted two weeks. It might have lasted six months. But it probably wouldn't last three years until you were due for your next laptop upgrade. (This piece's editor suffered a failed SSD last summer, barely a month after her laptop's warranty expired.)

A solid-state drive uses memory chips to store data

SSDs have in the last year become more affordable, particularly so in the last few months, dropping to roughly $0.85 to $1.40 per GB for consumer models. You no longer have to check if your CFO is current with his blood pressure meds before presenting an invoice. Manufacturers have also begun offering three and five-year warranties. You can trust SSDs! Finally!

We mentioned earlier that every year brings a small, sometimes noticeable, boost in CPU performance. Perhaps 10-15%. But you can't upgrade your laptop's CPU. If you want a dramatic performance increase, though, you can replace your laptop's hard disk drive (HDD) yourself with just a screwdriver or two, and an hour or two of time.

In my next piece, I'll walk you through replacing the HDD in two laptops '€” one Linux, one MacOSX '€” with my recommended SSDs.