It seems like every six months or so, you see a newer, faster microchip processor hitting the market. My original Mac SE, which cost me $1800 (with educational discount) in 1989, ran at a whopping 8 megaHertz. Today, we have dual-core, quad-core, and even octal-core machines running from 2-3 gigaHertz. That’s fast. Memory is faster, graphics cards are faster, everything is FASTER! Except, that is, for your hard drive. Yes, while hard drives have gotten faster over the years, they now represent the weak link in your ability to load and process data. Let’s face it, most computers are not processor-limited anymore. Any halfway decent machine is going to run fast, and unless you are into hard-core video rendering, even the lower end of the processor line-up will be very good.
But back to those hard drives. They rotate. They have moving parts. They can fail. My wife’s hard drive failed after barely a year in a brand-new iMac. The good news is that I’ve seen the future, and it is amazing. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are computer equivalents of the flash memory we use in our cameras. No moving parts, and damn near instant read times. SSD’s have been out for a few years; I first saw them showing up as an expensive option in the Apple MacBook Air. I had no idea why anyone would want to pay such a premium for a drive that had less capacity than the standard HDD. Until I saw the light.
First of all, consider how we use our laptops. For many of us, the laptop is the “travel” computer. We have a primary desktop computer at home to do our heavy-lifting. A clean install of my OS (in my case, Mac OS 10.6) with my critical applications runs about 45GB. Even with a 120GB drive, that still leaves me a good bit of free space. On my laptop, I don’t need to store every NEF I’ve shot or my entire music collection (hello, iPhone), so a 128GB drive is actually plenty. Moreover, I usually travel with a 250GB FW800 drive to store my images on, anyway.By configuring a laptop with a SSD, the benefits become quite tangible. First, with no moving parts, an SSD is less likely to fail if it gets dropped or bumped. Second, SSD’s use significantly less power than standard HDDs. And lastly, the data read speeds of SSDs are just crazy. So crazy that you’ll become hooked if you see one in action.
Consider first, boot time. A new MacBook Pro boots pretty fast, but with an SSD the total boot time (from chime to fully booted) is reduced to 15 seconds (in native 64-bit mode). Holy cow. Wanna open Photoshop CS5? 2.5 seconds. Adobe Reader opens a 28MB PDF in 2 seconds flat. Other applications load darn near instantly. Talk about ZIPPY.
SSDs can be used as boot drives in your desktop PCs, too. If you move all your data files to a different disk (a good idea, anyway) and just use an SSD as a boot drive (OS & Apps), you’ll see tremendous speed boosts. Moreover, as SSDs become less expensive, they become viable options for scratch disks. Now that’s smokin’.
Right now, a 128GB SSD will run you about $400. That’s pricey, but as with all things, the price will come down. I’m seriously considering converting my boot drive to SSD in my Mac Pro tower. I feel the need, the need for speed!