What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

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oczssdthumb   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]Computer hard drives are often viewed as means of storing files. In my recent storage solution article I addressed them in this context. They are more than simple libraries, however. A computer’s performance can be significantly impacted by the speed of its storage.

So what is the fastest consumer hard drive solution both in practical and absolute terms? Solid state drives are likely the way to go, but are some options better than others?

Mechanical Drives – A Brief Dismissal

noharddrive   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

Before we talk about the obvious kings of solid state drives let’s first touch on their mechanical brethren. Have there been any serious improvements that make these drives more completive?

No. Some minor improvements have been offered but they are measured in a few megabytes per second of additional transfer speeds. To make matters worse, mechanical hard drive prices are still elevated in wake of the disastrous floods in Thailand that impacted numerous hard drive manufacturing plants.

Mechanical drives are still the cheapest way to store data. Performance, however, is woefully lacking.

Solid State SATA Drives – Still Improving

intelssd   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

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If you want fast storage a single new solid state drive is the first option you’ll likely consider. These drives are affordable, they connect via the ubiquitous and simple SATA interface and they’re quick.

How quick? A number of current solid state drives, such as the Intel 520 Series, the Crucial M4 and the Corsair Force GT, can manage sustained read speeds of over 400 megabytes per second and sustained write speeds of between 250 and 400 megabytes per second in benchmark. Real-world tests of these drives will offer read/write speeds of 200 megabytes per second or more.

If single-drive speed is your main concern you should also consider shelling out cash for a larger drive. Some (though not all) solid state drives offer better speeds with larger drive capacities. Take a close look at the manufacturer performance specifications listed for different capacities of any drive you are considering. Also be sure to Google for reviews, which can provide real-world examples of how extra capacity results in better performance among some drives.

Although prices have come down, you will still have to pay about $180 for a decent drive with a capacity of 120GB or more. As a solid state drive convert, I can say without question that it’s a worthwhile investment.

Solid State SATA Drives In RAID0

raiod0   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

If you are looking for maximum performance, RAID0 is the way to go. Combining two solid state drives into one logical unit creates an incredibly fast solution. In a recent review of an Origin gaming laptop, for example, I found that sustained benchmark transfer speeds of nearly one gigabyte per second were obtainable. Real world speeds were just slightly slower. As you might imagine, everything on that system loaded in a small fraction of the time required on other PCs.

The downside of using RAID0 is the potential for failure. Both hard drives in a RAID0 array need to be functional for it to work, and if either drive fails, all data is lost. And since you now have two drives involved instead of one, the chance of failure is twice as high as it would be with a single drive.

Cost is obviously high because you need two solid state drives, but RAID0 is not a bad value. An Intel 520 SSD with a capacity of 120GB is currently sold on Newegg for $180. The same drive with a capacity of 240GB is sold for $339. Buying two 120GB drives and connecting them in RAID0 will provide similar capacity and much better performance for about $20 more.

PCI Express Solid State Drives

revodrive   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

SATA is the standard for hard drives, but it’s not the only way to connect one. PCI Express is also a possibility. It has been adopted by some solid state drive companies, most notably OCZ, because of the higher bandwidth offered by a PCIe bus. This creates extreme performance potential.

Some reviews show examples of the OCZ RevoDrive 3 pushing transfer speeds as high as 1.1 gigabytes per second. This is only possible under certain workloads, but this is a limitation of the controller technology used in the drive, not PCI Express.

With that said, you can’t buy drives that don’t exist. OCZ isn’t the only player in the consumer market, so you have to buy what the company offers. It’s fast, but it’s not meaningfully better for a consumer than two SATA solid state drives in RAID0. The PCI Express drives are also incredibly expensive, with prices start at $200 for a capacity of just 50GB.

For certain servers and workstations these drives are great, but if you’re in charge of building such a system you probably don’t need me to tell you that.

Hybrid Solutions

intelsmartresponse   What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In]

Some hard drive manufacturers and laptop manufacturers are offering hybrid drives as a middle step between mechanical drives and solid state drives. These solutions pair a small amount of solid state memory (typically between four and twenty gigabytes) with a traditional mechanical drive. Examples include the Seagate Momentus XT and Intel Smart Response.

The solid state drive acts as a cache drive. It learns, via the user’s actions, what programs and files are most frequently demanded. Relevant data is then cached to provide a quick response the next time a user demands it.

This approach works to create the instant response of a solid state drive without sacrificing capacity or raising the price. It usually works. But it doesn’t offer the sustained transfer speeds of a solid state drive and you’ll only obtain SSD-like response times when you open commonly used files and programs.

Conclusion

If it was my money, and I wanted maximum performance above all else, I’d a make a RAID0 array out of two fast solid state drives. No question about it. Yes, it’s less reliable, but I can make up for that with an aggressive back-up schedule to another internal mechanical drive and a less aggressive schedule to an external drive.

However, I currently own a single solid state drive. It’s not as fast as a RAID0 configuration, but it’s as fast as I need and as much as I can practically afford. I think most people reading this article will be well served by going this route. It’s simple, and a bit boring, but also affordable and reliable.

What do you think? If you want maximum performance from a hard drive, what do you choose? How much are you willing to pay – and sacrifice – for insane transfer speeds?

Image Credit: Colin Burnett

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38 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

Vipul Jain

Not everyone can own server equipment, neither does everyone bath in cash.. :D
so a SATA drive at 7200rpm is an average good choice.. :)

This is until SSD can reach atleast 1-2TB.
Seriously what can you store in 256GB nowadays :p

Matt Smith

256 isn’t bad if you don’t store movies and only install ten games or so.

Not a lot, but you can make it work.

Ian Luo

It’s also a good idea to have your OS and programs on the SSD and additional non-performance essential files (i.e movies, photos) on a normal HDD.

Matt Smith

Yes, this is what I do, and it’s why I get by with a 60GB SSD.

likefunbutnot

You don’t need 1TB of solid state storage.
You NEED enough storage to load an OS plus whatever programs or games you play on a primary drive, and a secondary magnetic drive with support for either mount points or symbolic links such that user files can easily be relocated to that secondary drive.

Access to your porn or music library will be just fine on that secondary drive. The secondary drive should also store a full backup of the SSD, since they really do fail without warning.

In practice, you can get away with a Windows 7 installation on a $60 60GB drive if you’re willing to limit your application selection to a few simple things like Office; Linux users can get away with even smaller drives.

That being said, 250GB SSDs are really quite affordable now and really ought to be the target for a lot of mainstream users.

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shaurya boogie

which is the cheapest sata drive?

Matt Smith

Probably one you find at your local thrift shop or on Craigslist. Did you mean cheapest SSD?

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HildyJ

Depending on your budget and usage, RAID 5 should also be mentioned. It is much slower than RAID 0 for writes but it approaches it’s speed for reads and it provides data recovery. There is also RAID 1+0 (also know as RAID 10).

Morpheus Exegis

For each one of the choices listed you need more drives and more mounting space. plus in certain cases RAID controller. Overall the price is exponentially higher for each setup mentioned so unless you own a cash river or something like that you might not want to try that with SSD’s. Authors conclusion seems sane enough to follow. also see comment by Vipul Jain some wise comments between the two of them.

likefunbutnot

Given the nature of SSD garbage collection, wear leveling and some of the other features found in solid state drives, it’s probably not a good idea to RAID them at all, even for simple RAID1 mirror sets.

I suspect that most hardware RAID controllers aren’t aware of the special functions needed to support SSDs and abstract the nature of attached drives from the operating system; softRAID setups (this includes the stuff built-in to desktop motherboards, Windows dynamic disks and ZFS) are likewise basically least-effort setups that I do not believe handle solid state drives properly.

I’ve been using SSDs fairly regularly since 2008. Most of the drives I’ve had fail were configured in RAID0 or RAID1; even with much-more-durable SLC drives I’ve found that drives that have been RAIDed have shortened lifespans, even on operating systems that are theoretically SSD-aware.

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Nathan Kaufman

Are there controllers that support TRIM in RAID-0?

This was a deal-breaker for me, when i was building my computer last spring.

(P67, ICH10R)

likefunbutnot

I’m under the impression that Intel’s ICHwhatever SoftRAID will pass TRIM commands on to non-member disks for controllers in RAID mode, but ironically not to drives configured as members of an array. There was some noise about adding that support for RAID0 (but not RAID1) last fall. I don’t know what became of it.

Absent some compelling need (e.g. maximizing IO on a database server, for example), I don’t think it’s a good idea to use RAID0 for anything in the first place.

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Fábián Gábor

I own a Crucial M4 64 GB and don’t regret at all purchasing it. It’s perfect for the operating system and general programs, Photoshop, Lightroom and other softwares. I use an external Western Digital 1 TB usb 3.0 hdd for data storage.

My system is lightning fast with and I still have plenty of free space.

JediMaster

Did you create a “scratch disk” for Photoshop on SSD or on internal HDD?
It is possible to create a scratch disk on a Raid 0 pair of SSD, considering Photoshop needs a contiguous free space to work?
Do you have a page file for Windows?

If anyone else could answer please reply.
Thank you.

Fábián Gábor

I use a single SSD for everything. Because the Crucial M4 is one of the fastest SSD’s on the market (over 400 MB/s read, over 100 MB/s write speed), it’s perfect for scratch disk and for pagefiles too.

I think Raid 0 is unnecessary, because you won’t gain that much speed according to benchmarks.

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Ales Mole

Considering the prices of SATA drives…my home solution is like this:

1. For a system (WIN7-64bit) 120GB OCZ3 SSD Disk
2. For archive WD Green and Blue edition
3. For gaming WD Black edition
4. For NAS – WD blue edition

For now, this configuration suits my needs…OS runs very fast, games also..for storage I do not need huge speeds…altough I estimate around 70MB/s on network transfers (1Gb network)

Matt Smith

That’s a nice combination of drives. I use and OCZ Agility boot disk myself. Though I’ll be receiving something better soon :)

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TheProudNoob

The RAID 0 is not suited for installing an operating system (dynamic). It can only be used for installing games, programs, and placing media files. Load times aren’t as crucial when it comes to games (although it’s nice to have fast load times) because of the large amount of space they take up, and the high cost per gigabyte of SSDs.

I suggest a SSD for the main drive (OS/Boot) and a RAID of HDDs for games (where RAID will show the greatest performance benefit), and a large single HDD for media files.

Currently, I don’t have the money for a RAID HDD setup for my computer, so I just have a 120GB boot SSD with all programs minus my games, and everything else placed on my 2TB HDD.

Looking forward for PCM memory… C’mon IBM!!!

Doc

RAID 0 can be used to install an operating system (I’ve done it with Windows 2000 and Windows XP). You simply need to provide a driver disc and set up the RAID array in the RAID controller’s BIOS. It’s not recommended (a failure in either drive, or a misconfigured RAID array, and your OS is corrupted), but you can’t say “it can *only* be used for games, programs and media files.” – I’ve done it at least twice, and ran my systems stably until I wanted to reinstall the OS.

likefunbutnot

Of course you can use a RAID0 array to set up an operating system. The bigger question is, why would you want to bother? RAID0 addresses issues with sustained transfer rate, something that’s almost never an issue for everyday desktop computers. It doesn’t do anything to improve latency and it does plenty to increase the overall complexity of a built for configuration and troubleshooting purposes, let alone the multiplicative impact of RAID0 on potential data loss.

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Christian Demsar

The RAID 0 is not suited for installing an operating system (dynamic). It can only be used for installing games, programs, and placing media files. Load times aren’t as crucial when it comes to games (although it’s nice to have fast load times) because of the large amount of space they take up, and the high cost per gigabyte of SSDs.

I suggest a SSD for the main drive (OS/Boot) and a RAID of HDDs for games (where RAID will show the greatest performance benefit), and a large single HDD for media files.

Currently, I don’t have the money for a RAID HDD setup for my computer, so I just have a 120GB boot SSD with all programs minus my games, and everything else placed on my 2TB HDD.

Looking forward for PCM memory… C’mon IBM!!!

Doc

See my comment from before – I’ve installed Windows 2000 and Windows XP on RAID 0 before.

TheProudNoobth

Derp, sorry. Thanks for proving me wrong! Anyway, I’d correct it if it wasn’t for my double post.

Matt Smith

Yea, RAID0 is fine for operating systems, I’ve used OEM desktops and laptops with a factory RAID0 operating system install

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Susendeep Dutta

Nowadays,HDD companies are charging a year old HDD technology for 300% more than its original value.They’re also ripping people who purchase hybrid HDDs as their cost is not worth value.SSDs are the best in terms of speed but they still need to come down in pricing levels.

I would choose a HDD with 10,000 rpm if it were available for consumers at reasonable cost and without worry of getting it damaged for less than 3 years.

likefunbutnot

The incremental improvement of something like a Seagate X15 or WD Raptor vs. a typical 7200rpm desktop drive really isn’t worthwhile compared to the overall benefit of even a mid-range SSD.

I’ve been sticking decommissioned 300GB Raptors in aging PCs around my office but the subjective difference between those drives and the Samsung drives they replaced isn’t enough to even warrant comment from my users.

Danny Weiss

You’re correct about the incremental improvement of a 10,000 RPM vs. a 7,200 RPM drive. However, you can get noticeable improvements if you move to a 15,000 RPM drive and an SAS (SCSI) interface. It still may not match an SSD, but it will certainly give you the best performance possible in a mechanical drive configuration.

Yes, before you say it, I will agree that 15K drives with SAS are not that common in the consumer market, and they are costly configurations. My point is simply that there is a high performance mechanical alternative.

-Danny.

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Laga Mahesa

This was very informative, Matt, thanks. As a follow up, perhaps consider a purchasing guide – TRIM, alignment, all that mess. I’m sure a lot of your readers will find that extremely useful, especially when considering price and there is nothing immediately clear on the advertising blurb what the differences are between controller technologies.

Matt Smith

Yes, it would be useful, and I’ve been considering a piece on it

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Brayan Habid

The best solution is a SSD drive + a sata drive, and softlinks for the desktop, documents, images and downloads folders. This way I don’t need a huge backup.

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C. Gate

Your dismissal of mechanical drives due to low transfer rates would be more convincing if you had actually looked up some. For example, the Seagate Barracuda series has a Max Sustained Data Rate, OD Read of 210 MB/s. While certainly not as fast as the fastest SSDs, it’s as fast as some, and a lot less expensive.

theDude

It’s not just about the MB/s though, the random access time on a SSD is leagues ahead of the fastest HD it’s not even a competetition.
SSD for OS and important apps, media and everything else on a HD, and yes I run two 64GB SSD’s in raid0, cost me just over ÂŁ100. Would not use anything less now.

Matt Smith

*citation needed

So far as I can tell you’re just quoting the manufacturer data transfer rate and accepting it as fact.

I have not read any reviews that actually received that rate of transfer and you can only come close in sequential read/write benchmarks. Anything remotely random brings it way down.

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Damon Osborne

Vis a vie the Seagate hybrid. I have read their forum input and it’s a world of pain.
Maybe they will sort it out, maybe they have, but they’ve been using us for R & D.
Ruin and Disaster. They came to market with an unsorted product. No thanks never.

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Danny Weiss

The statement regarding a RAID 0 configuration that, “… since you now have two drives involved instead of one, the chance of failure is twice as high as it would be with a single drive.” is, I believe, incorrect.

I do not know the exact formula, but statistically, you will not see a two-fold change in reliability by using two devices rather than one. I have forgotten whether you need to multiply the two drive reliability figures by each other or do some other calculation, but I am pretty sure the result is not simply 2x, where x is the reliability figure.

-Danny.

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Robert42nato

Looks good, but I’m waiting for larger capacity.

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Add Huy

I have a macbook pro and I would like to place a SSD inside it. If I had a desktop machine I would definitely be looking at getting a PCI Express slot drive at lease for my OS and then some solid state drives in RAID 0 or some fast hard drives in RAID 0.

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