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Until recently, PC buyers had very little choice for what kind of file storage they got with their laptop, ultrabook, or desktop. If you bought an ultrabook or ultraportable, you likely had a solid-state drive (SSD) as the primary drive (C: on Windows, Macintosh HD on a Mac). Every other desktop or laptop form factor had a hard disk drive (HDD). Now, you can configure your system with either an HDD, SSD, or in some cases both. But how do you choose? We explain the differences between SSDs and HDDs, and walk you through the advantages and disadvantage of both to help you come to your decision.
HDD and SSD Explained
The traditional spinning hard drive (HDD) is the basic nonvolatile storage on a computer. That is, it doesn't "go away" like the data on the system memory when you turn the system off. Hard drives are essentially metal platters with a magnetic coating. That coating stores your data, whether that data consists of weather reports from the last century, a high-definition copy of the Star Wars trilogy, or your digital music collection. A read/write head on an arm accesses the data while the platters are spinning in a hard drive enclosure.
An SSD does much the same job functionally (saving your data while the system is off, booting your system, etc.) as an HDD, but instead of a magnetic coating on top of platters, the data is stored on interconnected flash memory chips that retain the data even when there's no power present. The chips can either be permanently installed on the system's motherboard (like on some small laptops and ultrabooks), on a PCI/PCIe card (in some high-end workstations), or in a box that's sized, shaped, and wired to slot in for a laptop or desktop's hard drive (common on everything else). These flash memory chips differ from the flash memory in USB thumb drives in the type and speed of the memory. That's the subject of a totally separate technical treatise, but suffice it to say that the flash memory in SSDs is faster and more reliable than the flash memory in USB thumb drives. SSDs are consequently more expensive than USB thumb drives for the same capacities.
A History of HDDs and SSDs
Hard drive technology is relatively ancient (in terms of computer history). There are well-known pictures of the infamous IBM 350 RAMAC hard drive from 1956 that used 50 24-inch-wide platters to hold a whopping 3.75MB of storage space. This, of course, is the size of an average 128Kbps MP3 file, in the physical space that could hold two commercial refrigerators. The IBM 350 was only used by government and industrial users, and was obsolete by 1969. Ain't progress wonderful? The PC hard drive form factor standardized in the early 1980s with the desktop-class 5.25-inch form factor, with 3.5-inch desktop and 2.5-inch notebook-class drives coming soon thereafter. The internal cable interface has changed from Serial to IDE to SCSI to SATA over the years, but it essentially does the same thing: connects the hard drive to the PC's motherboard so your data can be processed. Today's 2.5- and 3.5-inch drives use SATA interfaces almost exclusively (at least on most PCs and Macs). Capacities have grown from multiple megabytes to multiple terabytes, an increase of millions fold. Current 3.5-inch HDDs max out at 6TB, with 2.5-inch drives at 2TB max.
The SSD has a much more recent history. There was always an infatuation with non-moving storage from the beginning of personal computing, with technologies like bubble memory flashing (pun intended) and dying in the 1970s and '80s. Current flash memory is the logical extension of the same idea. The flash memory chips store your data and don't require constant power to retain that data. The first primary drives that we know as SSDs started during the rise of netbooks in the late 2000s. In 2007, the OLPC XO-1 used a 1GB SSD, and the Asus Eee PC 700 series used a 2GB SSD as primary storage. The SSD chips on low-end Eee PC units and the XO-1 were permanently soldered to the motherboard. As netbooks, ultrabooks, and other ultraportables became more capable, the SSD capacities rose, and eventually standardized on the 2.5-inch notebook form factor. This way, you could pop a 2.5-inch hard drive out of your laptop or desktop and replace it easily with an SSD. Other form factors emerged, like the mSATA miniPCI SSD card and the DIMM-like SSDs in the Apple MacBook Air, but today many SSDs are built into the 2.5-inch form factor. The 2.5-inch SSD capacity tops out at 1TB currently, but will undoubtedly grow as time goes by.