If You Buy One PC Upgrade This Year…

…Make it an SSD. I am not making spurious claims or waving my silly little e-willy around here. It's the single most immediately noticeable system upgrade I think I've ever done, and as such I'm keen it isn't stranded in a techhead and rich-gonk ghetto. This is an upgrade for any PC gamer, not purely for the well-monied ‘performance enthusiasts' who get a bit worryingly sweaty when looking at bar charts.

To state the bleeding obvious for those to whom this has never been mentioned (because most of those who already know already know, and thus shouldn't be reading this), a Solid State Hard Drive is a hard disk made from memory. Rather than the traditional spinning magnetic platters, these are more akin to that in an SD card, but far faster and far more capacious. To use the kind of sweepingly generalised layman's terms that will result in someone pitching up and lecturing me about how offensively wrong I am, you're looking at something halfway between a memory card and your PC's RAM - a drive that can remember data like the former but shift it around at high speeds like the latter.

Net result: Windows, games, everything takes dramatically less time to load. Sticking one into my PC (without indulging any other upgrades) made it feel like someone had injected caffeine into its eyeballs, kicked it in the buttocks and told it the love of its life was right over them thar hills. I'm in Windows within less than a minute, and once I am I don't get that traditional bonus minute or two of post-startup slowdown as it tiredly loads various bits and bobs in the background. I'm not going to give you benchmarks because they're incredibly boring, but believe me that it flies.

There's a big difference in games, too. I picked up my drive (which I'm loathe to specifically name-check, as it isn't an especially good one in the grand scheme of things so I don't want to be perceived as having recommended it above others) mid-way during my Dawn of War II: Retribution review, and the loading time difference was frankly obscene. Even now, during my occasional pokes at Last Stand mode – something I'm trying to find a neat hook to lead to RPS-based documentation thereof – I get a tiny, naughty, nerdy thrill at the surely inaccurate but nonetheless pleasing map-loading screens that show how far along the process you are compared to the other players. I'm always loaded first, and left frustratingly attending the spinning platter boys as a result, but I always feel quietly relieved that at least I'm not frowning in annoyance at my own tardy system's wheezing and chuntering. Even smaller stuff like Fate of the World benefits immediately and noticeably.

The SSD doesn't mean I can make games look prettier or even run faster once they're loaded; you'll still need a new graphics card and/or CPU and/or memory if your PC's sputtering along painfully in that regard. The difference is I'm not spending so much time waiting for my PC to catch up, and the time between wanting to do something and doing it is impressive reduced. I can deal with in-game sluggishness, I know how to tweak and lower settings, I know and accept full well that some games simply don't run well. At least I don't have to wait bloody forever to find out.

Resorting, as I am right now, to my unpuny (but not mighty either) laptop, my patience for loading times and general system responsiveness is frayed to demolition point. Waiting for Word to load to write these words made me utter naughty swears which caused people at the adjacent table to glare at me. I shall be ramming an SSD into this slab as soon as I am financially able, trust me.

This isn't just empty platitudes to a new technology, trust me. I truly believe that every PC gamer should make an SSD priority number one for their system upgrades, far above and beyond a new graphics card or processor. That said, I'm acutely also aware that it's a terrible minefield of confusing numbers and inflated prices out there, shamelessly following the bewildering and cynical trends laid down by graphics cards and processors. So here's just a few things to bear in mind once/if you choose to embark upon the great shopping hunt.

• Check write speeds as well as read speeds. The latter is the more important number, as it dictates (at least in theory – more on which soon) how quickly stuff is going to load. However, if you're likely to be regularly copying data onto your hard drive, for instance by shifting large files onto it or installing stupidly large video games, you want a decent write speed too. I am generalising somewhat here, but make sure the quoted write speed is in excess of 100MB/s. The higher the better, but there are diminishing returns as matters get faster, so don't overspend. For read speeds, aim for 200 MB/s as a bare minimum, and closer to 300 MB/s as an ideal.

• Don't believe the numbers. You drive will not be able to read 300 MB/s. I won't go into the long and short of it here (I'm sure someone will), but just keep that figure in mind as a touchstone for decent performance. If you spy a particular drive that looks tasty, look up reviews of it and you'll quickly find some observation upon bullshit numbers if that is indeed the case.

• Your PC/motherboard needs to have SATA 2 ports at the least. The drives will work with SATA 1, but it'll introduce some pretty serious bottlenecks in performance due to having half the (theoretical) data transfer rate. SATA 3 is better still, but again – diminishing returns. If your PC already has it, all to the good (and make sure the drive you buy explicitly supports SATA 3) but please don't do anything silly like buying a SATA 3 PCI Express card purely to add support for it. 10 per cent extra on Really Fast is nowhere near as noticeable as 10 per cent extra on Quite Slow. For now at least, a decent SATA 2 SSD will do all you realistically need, and put your old hard drive to quivering shame.

• Saving money on buying a small drive is no saving at all. The 32 and 64 GB drives are a whole lot cheaper than the 128GB+ drives, but you'll be locked in constant battle for free space and will simply have no room whatsoever to install games. My drive is 128GB, which still isn't much but gives me enough to have around five large-size games installed at any one time, alongside a fair few svelte indie games, my most regularly-used apps and Windows – with a few gig still to to spare. You could install all your games on an additional, high-space traditional drive, but while Windows and general system performance will see the benefit, the games will be largely unaffected. Get 128GB or more, and pair it with a high-space cheapie standard hard drive (e.g. 500GB, 1TB or 2TB if you insist on keeping all of your Gentlemen's Relaxation Videos once you've watched them) for data like documents, pics, music and all those movies you steal.

• Some programs refuse to be installed anywhere other than the main system drive, which is a massive pain in the fleshy bits when you're as short on space as an SSD can make you. Steam is an obvious culprit here, as even after all these years it mystifyingly prevents users from installing games anywhere other than the drive it too is installed on, but if you're an eyeTelephone/Pad user you'll find your Apps defiantly lurk on the C: drive. I've not the space to go fully into it here, but research Symbolic Links – with a wee bit of pretty easy tinkering, you can trick programs/Windows into believing that stuff is installed on C: (or wherever), but in fact loading it from another drive.

• TRIM is a silly and slightly naughty-sounding word, but a vital one when it comes to SSDs. These little bastards can wear out as a result of long-term reads and writes, which in practical terms means a degradation in performance over time. TRIM can help to keep this at bay, kinda by wiping free space and restoring it to a virginal status. That sentence is factually wrong but conceptually valid. Only the more recent drives support TRIM, though some of the older ones can have their firmware updated to include it. If you've got an old drive, check its manufacturer's site and old man Google. There are third party hacks to enable it on a few drives that don't officially support it, but don't get your hopes too high.

• Update to Windows 7 if you haven't already. It's pretty good anyway, honest – it is the version of Windows I have complained about the least in my long, tiresome history of complaining about Windows. That aside, XP and Vista will play nice with SSDs, but 7 is a little more prepared for their vagaries. However, there's a bunch of Windows-default shit you should turn off to both improve performance and increase drive lifespan. Prefetch, search indexing, that sort of thing: anything that's prone to regularly bothering the drive with incidental read/write requests. The thing with having a very fast drive is that it doesn't need to do stuff like indexing – it can scour itself so quickly for whatever you're searching for that having a constantly-updated database of the contents won't bring much to the table anyway. Some drives (e.g. the pricey but sturdy Intel ones) ship with apps that auto-configure that sort of thing for you, but failing that try SSD Tweak Utility. There's a paid version if you want to get waist-deep in tweaker-filth, but the free one will sort out the most important stuff for you with just a couple of clicks. Hooray for other people making things for lazy people.

Grab a free program called CCleaner – it's remarkably good at sweeping unwanted crap such as temporary files, browser caches and leftover install/update data from your drive. Run it pretty regularly to free up a few gig.

• Windows System Restore can use a ridiculous amount of space. Turn it off if you're feeling brave (or use another backup program to save restoration data to another drive), and regularly use ‘delete all but the most recent restore point) and you'll find you have quite a few more gig back in play.

• An SSD will also save on power-consumption and reduce the noise your PC makes (they're silent in operation), so they're particularly handy for laptops. This doesn't even slightly mean they're irrelevant in desktops though – they're at their best when paired with a meaty processor, able to keep up with all the data they're throwing about. However, you will find that the vast majority of SSDs are laptop-sized, so you may need to buy a special caddy for desktop which essentially makes them the size of standard hard drives. Or you can just do what I do, which is have the thing dangling unprettily off its cables and occasionally falling off when I move my PC around.

• You'll get an immediate and impressive performance boost if you buy now, but be aware that the performance/price of these things is improving rapidly. Don't feel bad if you hear of far more wondrous, affordable SSDs within months or weeks of picking one up. C'est la vie in tech. Sure, upgrade again later (for instance, use your first SSD for games etc and whatever the new hyperdrive is for Windows and primary apps)

That is the end of my boring list. I am quite sure the gentlemen below will have far more, and more precise, recommendations to share with you. Some may even claim that you shouldn't get an SSD. They are quite wrong. It is the best upgrade you could possibly get for a PC right now.

From href="http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/">Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news.

Republished with permission.


Comments

    Agreed, I've got SSD's in all my systems at the moment.

    Steam games backup and restore in no-time at all, and loading games is a quick and painless process (Except certain games that are coded poorly, Quake 4 still took forever to load on a Vertex 2 SSD running on an I7 950 with 12GB of RAM). Warcraft 3 loads before the screen even appears. WC3 installed on my PC from the Blizzard download in under 2 seconds!

    Is the *only* benefit (in games) from an SSD faster loading times?
    Loading times haven't ever really bothered me, other than in certain cases (Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2, I'm looking at you) where the hard disk doesn't seem to be being accessed at all, so I doubt an SSD would help there anyway.

    The only thing that would be a welcome change is a faster Windows boot time, so I think a 64GB SSD for Windows only would be plenty for my needs.

    Yeah, seriously an SSD is the best damn thing you can buy. Your 4 year old PC will feel faster than the latest megamonster. Everything just works like you feel it should. I'd way rather use a 2 year old PC with an SSD on a daily basis than the latest PC running a HDD. It just feels like the Damn Computer and O/S finally get out of the way and let you get on with things, and it is bloody hard to go back to using a machine without one, you keep thinking it has something wrong because you get used to instant response to everything you do.

    SSD can't beat a CPU, decent GFX and some swoit overclocking if its FPS you're after, though.

    SSD's are great but the price is crazy high. I have 4 TB on my main rig alone for everything. Each category; windows/programs, movies, series and games each have their own drives and even if I wanted one just to replace my games drive alone I'd have to spend $2000 grand for a SSD big enough.

    I don't think I can justify that.

      So keep your 4TB and only install the games and apps you use daily. It's so crazy fast to install a game (like 2-3 mins) that you just install what you want to play and uninstall it when you're done. I have 80gb SSD and about 6TB on traditional hdd and it's the best thing since... overclocking was invented

        Other than Rift I have no regular gaming habits, each day it's different titles and as for apps the only common ones are firefox, vlc and winamp so SSD isn't practical for my situation considering the price and volume limitations.

          Seriously, everything you do gets faster. Way faster. Everytime you click on an icon, every website load, every interface button. Everything. You feel like you got a totally new machine. You don't think you are waiting much until you get one, then you realise that everything is sludgier than you thought it was. I have 8TB in my machine and a 120GB boot SSD, and i could never, ever go back to a standard drive again. I ended up putting an SSD in my laptop and removing the optical drive and putting the 750GB normal drive in the optical bay. You really don't appreciate one until you've lived with it for a day, and then you wish you had picked one up months ago.

    Less than a minute? My Macbook Pro has a traditional drive and it takes 30 seconds on a slow day...

      Yes, but can you play all the games on it the rest of us can?

        Sure can, if a gaming session is on the cards and the game is not available for OSX, I just boot into windows for it.

        I've been enjoying the hell out of dragon age 2 for the past two weeks, and I'm looking forward to buying portal 2 in a few. If I wanted, I could play the sims, starcraft 2, WoW, Assassins creed Brotherhood, and of the Valve games and a plethora of other stuff available on the mac app store and steam.

        Or, if I want to play crysis I can boot into windows and play it that way.

        Mac gaming is coming good.

      All well and good but what are your specs and what is the pricetag? :P

    Bought a Ssd the other week . Love actually being able to use my pc when the desktop appears . Game loading times also vastly improved .

    I have a 120gb SSD using sybolic junctions to traditional HDD to keep all my games (almost 1TB now....) installed and copy whater data hungry game I'm playing at the time to the SSD. Took a bit to get used to buts its ultimately a simple exercise of cut and paste.

    Faster game times are all well and good but I actually enjoy the responsiveness at boot and general application usage far more. The system screams with an SSD. My system was aging when I put an SSD in and it felt more like more of an upgrade then changing GPU's.

    Saw the exact same article on Rock Paper Shotgun......

      The last two sentences state that it was republished from Rock Paper Shotgun with permission from the author.

    I got one when I ordered my new PC because of the supposed increased reliability so I could use it as my windows partition and hopefully not have to worry about my system crashing because of my main hdd failing, as it had happened many times before. I had to pay a big premium to get it but I thought it would be worth it. And surely it was very fast (windows loaded in a few seconds) but...

    It failed on my first week!

    And yes, I know perfectly well, hard drives are like the lottery, but sorry, I expected a bit more average reliability. So if it is for speed, yes they are certainly faster, as for reliability, for what they currently cost I rather pay a fraction of it, get a normal hdd and just be careful with the backups.

    Any benefit to Photoshop?

      My Photoshop loads in about 2 seconds. Can't remember what it was like on a standard HDD.

    I have the G73 Asus laptop and promptly swapped out one of the HDDs for an A-RAM 128GB. Holy crap it was fast. Instantly in to outlook and FF, pull up work, excel etc instantly.

    It still takes a good 30-40 sec to boot up, which when I compare to my wife's 5 yr old 13" macbook (non-pro version) sux cos that boots up in 15 sec.

    Anyone have any experience with the momentus hybrids? They really look interesting as a best of both worlds option.

      I have a 500gb momentus XT hybrid. I purchased it roughly 3 months ago, as it was a cheaper alternative to SSDs and supposedly offered some good performance increases over platter drives.

      The problem - since switching to it I get random BSODs on a semi-regular basis (I am not alone with this either - http://tinyurl.com/3dn4rsw), and it is actually slower than the Samsung Spinpoint F3 I was rocking previously.

      If you have a slow platter drive, its worth upgrading to a Momentus XT, so long as you are one of the lucky ones that does not experience problems etc, which tbh is a bit too much of a gamble if you ask me.

      If I could go back, I would have invested in an SSD from the get go.

    With Steam, Install it on a storage drive and then install an app called Steamtool. It lets you designate a folder on your ssd and then lets you just click a button to move it to that folder and create a symbolic link. No effort involved whatsoever, and then when you're done with it you just open steam tool again and tell it to move back.

    honestly the one upgrade people should buy if they havent already is the fastest ram your motherboard can hold.

      Ram really doesn't benefit you all that much. It's actually probably one of the least important upgrade in terms of vital computer hardware. But hey, its cheap, so why not.

    Or, for a much lower price, you can raid up some fast platter drives and get similar to better gains per dollar.

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