Performance showdown: Flash drives vs. hard drives

The test results will likely surprise you

Solid-state disks (SSD) are probably some of the most talked-about new gadgets of late. They easily distinguish themselves from the mechanical hard drives of the Jurassic period because they have no moving parts. Like USB drives, they use nonvolatile flash memory to store data, but SSDs are wrapped in an enclosure the size of a 2.5-inch mechanical laptop drive and have a SATA interface for an easy connection to the internals of your portable.

Having no moving parts is, naturally, important. There's no platter rotation or read/write head motion so SSDs -- in theory -- should use less power than equivalent mechanical hard drives. They should also (again, in theory) be faster than a mechanical hard drive at just about anything. Working off an electrical grid, there's no time wasted positioning the read/write head and then waiting for it to settle down and start doing its thing. SSDs just do it. (That's a bit of an oversimplification, but it's fair.)

So have you ever wondered if it's really worth it to plunk down the extra US$1,300 for an SSD-equipped MacBook Air? Or have you been tempted to swap the current mechanical hard drive out of your portable and slide one of these high tech bad boys inside? I did.

I sweet-talked Advanced Media and Crucial Technology into loaning me their 32GB SSDs and convinced Seagate Technology to hand over a sample of its 3.5-inch desktop and 2.5-inch laptop mechanical hard drives. When I got back to the lab and checked my pockets, the official list looked like this:

  • 32GB Crucial Internal 2.5-inch SATA Solid State Drive

  • 32GB Ridata 2.5-inch SATA SSD

  • 250GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 3.5-inch SATA hard drive

  • 200GB Seagate Momentus 7200.2 2.5-inch SATA hard drive .

To make sure I was working from an even playing field, I installed a fresh copy of Windows Vista Home Premium on the 3.5-inch desktop drive, fully updated the installation and then cloned that drive to each of the SSDs and the 2.5-inch mechanical Seagate drive using Apricorn's DriveWire hard drive adapter and Easy Gig II hardware/software package. The software uses dynamic partitioning, making the differences between the 250GB, 200GB and 32GB devices irrelevant. Vista Home Premium occupied about 12GB of space.

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Bill O'Brien

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