Inside your PC lurks some form of storage. It must be there, because without it, when you pressed the power button, precious little would happen. Your storage is not only your own documents and files, but also where your applications and computer operating system lives.
However, there are multiple types of storage, and it can be handy to know what they are and the differences between them, whether you’re in need of new storage, replacement storage, or even when you’re shopping for a new laptop.
When we talk about storage in a computer, we’re typically talking about what’s called a hard drive. This is the device (in various forms) where the actual storing of data, all those ones and zeroes that your computer understands, takes place.
Mechanical Hard Drives: Inexpensive, but not cutting edge
For most of personal computing history, if you had a hard drive, it was a mechanical type that used rapidly spinning disks within a solid enclosure.
If you think of an old-school jukebox that flipped between LPs, you’re a million miles away from the way that a mechanical hard drive works. It too has a reading head that can flip between disk layers to read individual segments of a much more solid disk than your typical vinyl LP.
Mechanical drives still have a place today in computing, largely because they’re still – just – the most cost-effective models on a price-per-gigabyte level. However, that’s offset by the fact that, because there is a mechanical moving component to this type of hard drive, they’re slower than the other prevalent form of storage for your computer
SSDs: Super-fast, Super-Flexible
The other competing memory standard for hard drives – and other storage media – are SSDs, or Solid State Drives to unpack that acronym for you. SSDs have no moving parts, storing all the data electronically on silicon chips in essence.
SSDs can be massively faster than mechanical drives within a PC, because – again going back to my LP analogy – there’s little of the same seek time waiting for a needle to hit just the right part of a track.
SSDs are also quite a bit more flexible, because the shaping of the silicon wafers can encompass smaller or larger storage devices. That’s not just a question of capacity but also physical volume. Switching to external drives, an external SSD will typically be quite a lot smaller than an external mechanical hard drive of the same storage capacity.
So why isn’t everything SSD?
SSDs are faster, quieter and more energy efficient than traditional hard drives, but there are some challenges that mean that mechanical hard drives still have their place.
For a start, while SSD prices have dropped in recent years, they’re still comparatively pricey, so those on a budget still tend to flock to mechanical drives, especially for higher capacity drives.
The other factor relates to the core technologies within an SSDs. Most are rated for a set number of reading and writing cycles, but critically when an SSD fails, it’s considerably harder to recover any data from it. It’s not exactly easy from a mechanical drive either, which is why specialised data recovery is so pricey, but in many cases of SSD failure, it’s downright impossible.
Where do USB Flash drives fit into all of this?
USB Flash drives – those near ubiquitous “thumb drives” count as storage too. They’re broadly using the same technologies as SSDs, but with simpler control interfaces and typically much lower speeds.
If you’re after a simple and cheap way to transport file, a USB Flash drive is a great option, because they’re very inexpensive. However, the flip side of that is that they’re not as well built as most external SSDs or mechanical hard drives, and even harder to recover data from in the event of a disaster.
Why is my hard drive so slow?
There’s a couple of reasons why you might hit less-than-stellar speeds on a hard drive. As noted, mechanical drives are the slowest of the species, so if you’re using one of those, they’ll be a little less nippy.
If you’re using an external hard drive, the interface you use also matters a lot. While USB is the standard here, and most simply use a rectangular USB A type plug, the speeds of different USB ports on your computer end will also influence your overall speed. Plug a super-fast SSD into a USB 2.0 port, and you’ll get much slower speed than if it’s USB 3 or better. Look for ports with a small blue strip edge connector within or check your computer’s specifications to avoid using slower ports.
It also matters what you’re copying to or from an external drive. Computers can handle single larger files with better overall speed than lots of smaller ones, even if the combination of those smaller files amounts to less data!
Think of it this way: If you had one big box to shift across a room, you might move slowly shifting it, but it all goes at once, so the rate of movement is quite regular. That’s our single large file. If you’re copying thousands of files in a directory, it’s like there’s thousands of tiny boxes, and each one must be picked up individually. Easier to carry as singles, but lots of journeys across the room before you’re finally done. The relative age, quality and condition of your computer counts as well, too.
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