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What is a Solid State Drive? 

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Article Number: 792 .1.0

Updated: 6/11/2012 6:04 PM
This article is aimed at introducing anyone who may be unfamiliar with solid state drives to the available technology.

What is a Solid State Drive?

Internally, a normal hard drive is composed of magnetic discs and many small moving parts that read and write data from those disc-like platters. Imagine a record player, where the arm moves across the spinning disc in order to read the music written upon it. This analogy offers a very similar scenario of how hard drives work; however some drives will actually stack multiple platters. These discs can spin anywhere from 4200rpm’s upwards of 10,000rpms. A solid state on the other hand, has no mechanical moving parts. It’s essentially the same type of storage you find in a common USB flash drive; both use a type of non-volatile memory that retains information even when not receiving power.

What Advantages Does a Solid State Drive Offer?

SSDs have several benefits when compared to the standard magnetic hard drive. The greatest advantage is that solid state drives lack any moving parts. The mechanical parts in a standard drive suffer greatly from both heat and vibration; over time these factors can cause damage to the tiny moving components and the drive will cease to function properly. Since the SSD utilizes onboard memory chips, there are almost no moving parts to be damaged from excessive heat, being dropped, or general vibration.

Another advantage is that SSDs require far less power to operate than standard drives. Again, the lack of moving parts plays a major role in this; there are no motors, spinning platters, or disc heads to be powered in an SSD. Requiring less power to operate is a huge advantage when using a solid state drive in a laptop or tablet.

The last major benefit SSDs provide us is the ability to access data much quicker than standard hard drives. The operation of disc platters, motors, and drive heads greatly increases the time it takes to find/write data with a conventional hard drive.  Since the SSD does not rely on such moving parts, access to read and write data is almost instantaneous. Not only will you enjoy much faster operating system boot times, generally speaking performance across the board will increase exponentially.

Why Aren't SSDs Standard?

The biggest limitation with solid state drives is cost. Although the price of these devices has been falling lately, generally speaking they’re still much more expensive than their traditional counterparts. This means you’ll actually get less storage for your dollar when purchasing an SSD.

Another factor limiting the widespread use of SSDs is their available capacity. Most computers today come equipped with hard drives ranging from 320GB to maybe 1TB or even 2TBs. The average solid state drive ranges from 128GB to about 256GB. While there are larger sizes available, they generally don’t exceed 600GB (yet) and are pretty expensive.

Lastly, while SSD drives are superior as far as mechanics, they do have a limited usage life. Each drive is manufactured with a fixed number of write cycles before the storage cells become unusable. However, an SSD should still last for several years with average to moderate usage. For extreme usage, there are enterprise versions of solid state drives that lose a little speed but gain a longer lifespan.