The chances are high that the next time you go to buy a laptop, you’ll have the option of either a standard mechanical hard drive or an SSD. On the surface, the numbers would appear to favour mechanical drives; even the cheapest notebooks tend to pack in at least 320GB into a drive, whereas the SSD option is typically under 256GB, and often very small. That’s what you’ll see on the in-store sticker, but understanding what an SSD is, and why they’re becoming more prevalent in the consumer notebook market can help you make an informed buying decision, rather than just looking at the straight storage numbers.
SSD stands for Solid State Drive, and unlike traditional mechanical hard disk drives, they’re not a bunch of spinning platters and an LP-style read head, instead reducing all that moving clutter into a what is essentially a bunch of microchips. Why would that be a good thing? Well, for a start, because that makes them substantially more resistant to shock and bumps. Drop or bump a working laptop while the read head is spinning and you may lose data or crash the machine; with no moving parts this is no real issue for an SSD. The lack of moving parts also makes most modern SSD drives notably fast, leading to quicker startup times in particular, but also improved application performance in cases where the application can benefit from the SSDs write structure; not every application can.
No moving parts also means no whirring noises and a reduced heat footprint, which leads to fewer spinning fans and even less working noise in operation. An SSD-based notebook at the time of writing still won’t be silent, but it’ll often be a lot quieter than a mechanical hard drive based notebook. All that can also make SSDs more energy efficient, which for a notebook should equate to longer battery life. Finally, the lack of moving parts and reliance on chips rather than platters makes it possible to design SSDs that are smaller than traditional hard drives, although to date most manufacturers of installable SSDs have opted for traditional hard drive sizes in order to make them easier to fit. So what’s the downside? As mentioned, the price per gigabyte for an SSD is still a lot higher than for mechanical drives, which is why SSD options usually either invite a price bump or storage drop, and typically both. There’s some concern about the life cycles of SSD drives compared to their mechanical counterparts, although you’d be wise to be backing up all of your data in any case; any drive can fail, and it’s really just a matter of when.
There’s been a huge drop in the prices of SSDs in the past couple of years, just as the storage capacities of those same drives has gone up, and that’s pretty much exactly why they’re becoming a more commonplace option within notebooks. It’s worth considering the SSD option if the notebook you’re after needs to be thin, light and quick, but for the moment those who need large media libraries or primarily use a notebook as a desktop replacement are probably still a little better served with the traditional mechanical type.