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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Adventures in SSD ownership (part two)

Welcome back. Yesterday I cloned an existing system onto a new SSD drive (which I won in a PC Gamer competition). Today I'm going to install Windows from scratch and see how it performs with a more optimal setup. I'm also going to go into some technical details and run some tests to see if the drive matches up to speeds in the specifications.

I'm going to set up the new system in exactly the same way as the old one. That means running the 64 bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.

Yeah, they're pretty small
One of the first things I'm interested in is just how much free space there is on the drive. Are they going to use the normal hard drive makers trick of counting a megabyte as 1,000,000 bytes rather than the 1,048,576 bytes that everyone else knows it as? Well, the drive shows up in Windows as 111.79GB, so it looks like they're going for the standard sizing conventions.

Flash memory (as used in SSDs and other stuff) has a limited lifespan and wears out over time. To combat this, the drives use wear levelling which involves setting aside spare capacity which will be used in place of any areas that wear out. A chip keeps track of this wear and maps any swapped areas.

The Intel-supplied utility is quite handy, but not spectacular. It displays the health of the drive and allows you to check that your system settings (eg ReadyBoost, pre-fetch) are correct for SSD use. There's also the "optimize" function which deals with TRIM - it's something you're advised to run once a week, but it has a setting which allows it to be scheduled to run automatically.

So what's TRIM? Well, the way that SSD drives work at a low level is very different from conventional hard disks. Data is saved in blocks. When data is written to the disk, it's stored in these blocks. If some data only partially occupies a block, the block can't be used again until that data and any other data in that block is erased. TRIM is just a command that allows the operating system to deal with this "garbage collection" so the drive's free space is maintained.

Okay, so I've installed Windows and applied every patch and update. Time for a bit of benchmarking.

Well, my old conventional hard drive comes in with an average speed of 63.5MB/s and an access time of 14.6ms. But the SSD manages an average of 230.6MB/s and an access time of 0.079ms. Although manufacturers tend to boast about their read and write speeds, access time has a massive effect on the actual speed of operation. Intel claim 300MB/s for this drive, so a 230 average is pretty much what I'd expect in real life.

Soluto now reports a boot time of 32 seconds for my system which is just phenomenal. If I delayed the start of a couple of applications, I could get it down to 19 seconds. Even after I've installed all my normal software, the boot time doesn't go above 34 seconds.

But what about more subjective testing? Microsoft Word and Excel now load instantly and even heavyweight video editing software that normally took a while to start up now open as quickly as though they'd just been minimised. About the slowest application to start on my system is Photoshop (because on my system it uses some non-SSD drives as scratch disks and checks them on startup) and even that only takes a couple of seconds.

Some people have suggested that games would run at a higher frame-rate, but any discussion of this online has been quite difficult as legions of people who haven't tried it line up to rubbish any suggestion that SSDs could improve frames per second. I moved a couple of games over to my SSD to see what would happen. There was a minute improvement in frame-rate, but this was entirely due to decreased loading times. An SSD won't make your game run faster, but it might just make it run more smoothly.


Overall, I have to say I'm pretty pleased with my SSD drive. It's certainly made for a massive performance boost and it's far more noticeable than any other upgrade one could make. Most of the problems faced by early adopters have been solved and it pretty easy to add a drive and just as simple to run it. I haven't done a thing to the SSD in my wife's laptop and it's still running perfectly.

Although SSDs are a lot more expensive than a conventional drive, they're really not so bad. A 120GB drive is about £120-£130, but  you only need one - they're not really suitable for storage, just as a system drive. Thanks to the floods in Thailand, conventional drives are currently costing two or three times as much as they usually do, so SSD drives are looking more attractive than ever right now.

Yeah, I'd recommend an SSD to pretty much anyone. The difference in the responsiveness of any PC is just amazing. There isn't any other upgrade that will improve your computer by as much.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. Something worth mentioning though, since I don't think you did, is a major reason why SSDs are faster: They don't fragment. Ever. Or if they do, it's irrelevant because there's no motor skimming across the surface of the drive to load an entire file.

    Running a defragmentation tool on an SSD will, or so I've read, potentially destroy your data. Don't do it.

    Dunno about you, but I'm more than cool with that.