I’ve discussed this before but having upgraded a few computers recently, and seen the difference it makes, I thought I’d revisit the topic.  Solid State Drives (or SSDs) can make an older computer feel like a brand new one, and the prices for these magical upgrades are continuing to fall.

First a little background recap.   A hard drive is the long-term store in your computer.   It’s where you save all of your photos, documents etc.   But it’s also where Windows and all of your programs are stored.    When your computer starts up it has to read all of the files necessary to get up and running.   And this is a lot of files!

Similarly, when you open a program – such as your web browser, or your word processor, the computer has to read all of the files associated with that program and load them into memory.

So, the memory only holds information about what’s currently running, but it’s much faster than a hard drive.   For example, memory speeds are in the GigaBytes per second, where as hard drives are in the MegaBytes per second – much slower.

Hard Drives have two advantages over memory.   Firstly, when the power goes, you don’t lose what’s stored on them.   This is why when you lose power, the computer has to boot up from scratch again, reading what’s on the hard drive back in to running memory.

Secondly – hard drives are a lot larger than memory.   Whereas you might have 4GB of memory, you’ll maybe have 500GB of hard drive space.

And this is where the amount or memory your computer has comes in to play.   Once you’ve used all of that 4GB with running programs, the computer starts to slow down a lot.   It has to keep shifting information between the disk and memory to make room for the programs you’re currently using.  This shifting around really slows things down and it’s why you can hear the disk churning away when things are slow.    If this is the case, then a memory upgrade (8GB or more) can make a big difference to how fast programs run.

However, the biggest difference I’ve been finding recently is when I’ve upgraded from a normal hard drive to an SSD.

A regular hard drive consists of a number of glass platters.  A head hovers over the surface of each platter, somewhat like a head on a record player.   This head has to physically move to different points on the surface of the platter to read the data.   Because of this, it’s relatively slow, even though disks can rotate at up to 7200rpm – quite a bit faster than the old 45rpm record players!

Instead of moving parts, SSDs, use chips to replace the platters – hence the name Solid State.   Nothing moves!  They’re effectively memory that doesn’t lose data when the power goes.   Much faster than hard drives, but with similar capacity.  Great – so what’s the downside?!  Price.   Hard drives are a lot cheaper per MB than SSD, however the prices are getting lower.   As an example, a 500GB SSD can now be bought for around $160, and the upgrade is fairly straightforward.   In comparison, a 1TB Hard drive (twice the size) can be had for around $60.    The SSDs come with software that will take a copy of your existing drive and replicate it on the SSD.  It’s then just a case of swapping the drives over.

Although there is a price premium, I find 500GB is enough for most people, and the speed increase makes a huge difference.   In fact, it feels like a new computer, especially when combined with a memory upgrade.

There is another advantage to SSDs too – because they have no moving parts, they’re less likely to fail.   In-fact hard drives are often the first thing to fail, given how fragile and accurate they have to be.

So, if you’re thinking about a new computer, maybe consider upgrading what you have first?