Give The Gift Of Solid State

gift_of_SSD

For those who celebrate the holiday season with gift-giving (a common practice among American consumers), there’s one you probably haven’t thought of before that would make an excellent gift – or a very expensive stocking stuffer. And that is, of course, the gift of solid state.

Among the wide variety of gifts that will be bestowed upon friends and family during the holidays, it’s not uncommon for a gift giver’s intention for the gift to have meaning, provide enjoyment, or fulfill a need of the gift’s recipient. When a gift can can combine more than one of those elements, it’s all the better (and the trifecta is the “perfect gift” that meets all three). It would be silly to recommend an SSD as a gift on the grounds of “meaningfulness,” but for “providing enjoyment” and “fulfilling a need” an SSD might be a great gift idea.

Now, for anyone who has an interest in reading this blog probably already knows enough about the benefits of SSDs that I don’t need to elaborate them here. But for friends and family who own computers (probably a decent percentage) that are using traditional spinning hard drives as the primary storage device for the operating system, you could quite capably provide some added enjoyment to the experience and improved performance (read: doing more with less waiting). An SSD would make a great gift, right? So, why isn’t it common at all?

Well, here’s the real kicker: a lot of people probably don’t even know that they’d really enjoy and benefit from an SSD. As with a lot of forward-looking technology and innovation, sometimes you have to market something consumers don’t know they want yet. And so it is with an SSD. I have yet to meet or hear from anyone who’s used an SSD and not been completely blown away by the comparative performance differences. Yet, were those individuals never introduced to an SSD in the first place, their awareness of how much better the experience of using a computer could be is never realized.

Unlike traditional spinning hard drives, retail packages for SSDs typically include a USB adapter and cloning software to allow an easy drop-in replacement for an existing hard drive. Since SSDs are not the incumbent choice for most consumer laptops and desktops (with the exception of ultrabooks and Macs), it’s a good bet that an SSD purchase will be used to replace an existing hard drive. So while there are some steps involved with installing and cloning the existing data to the brand new SSD, it’s made much easier with the bundled USB adapter (used to connect the SSD to the computer for the disk-to-disk clone) and the cloning software.

Perhaps the only downside to giving an SSD as a gift is aligning expectations and preconceived notions of what a “big” storage amount is. An SSD can be multiple times faster than a hard drive and run circles around it in daily use, but if it ends up being smaller than the previous slow-spinning hard drive? That’s when the complaints of running low on disk space begin: “well, I used to have more room for all my media files.” And that is a fair criticism of the current state of solid state technology – gigabytes per dollar is still well in favor of traditional hard drives (even if those gigabytes are much slower).

But while there is certainly a recalibration to be made when moving to an SSD from a hard drive in terms of what “big” means for reasonable prices, there are also some hybrid solutions out there that offer a balance between the capaciousness of traditional hard drives and the speed of SSDs. The various versions of hybrid solutions are more than what will be discussed right now, but there are two ‘giftable’ options:

Seagate SSHD

Seagate SSHD

For a few years now, Seagate has been selling a hybrid 2.5″ (laptop) drive that combines a small amount of NAND flash (8GB) with a traditional hard drive (formerly called the “XT” version and now simply referred to as “SSHD”). The result is fairly impressive for the small amount of SSD DNA that’s embedded in these drives, and for light and moderate usage come close to providing SSD-like performance at hard drive prices. The great thing about the Seagate drives have been that their caching mechanism for storing frequently used files on the NAND flash (much quicker access speed) is completely filesystem and OS agnostic. This means you can install one of these drives in a Mac, PC, or linux system and get the benefits without worrying about any limitations or driver support.

wd_black_squared

Western Digital SSD+HDD Black Squared ‘dual drive’

Within the past two weeks, Western Digital has entered the hybrid market with their own approach to the problem. Unlike a true hybrid drive that melds NAND flash and magnetic platters, however, Western digital has taken a ‘dual-drive’ approach that crams a very thin spinning hard drive with a very thin SSD. It’s like a mixed storage open-faced sandwich. The pairing for Western digital is a 120GB SSD and 1TB hard drive (for $299).

This is not cheap, and if you’re using a desktop or laptop with the luxury of two drive bays (or an mSATA slot on a laptop), it’s actually less expensive to purchase a better-performing SSD and hard drive separately. The design for Western Digital is for scenarios such as a single-bay laptop which would normally force the question of SSD or hard drive. Unlike the platform agnostic Seagate solution, however, the Western Digital solution requires special software to “unlock” the hard drive part – which only works in Windows, by the way.

Apple's solution - simple and effective.

Apple’s solution – simple and effective.

The last easily-recommendable option for holiday gift giving really isn’t available by itself, but it’s probably the easiest recommendation to make for SSDs in recent memory. Apple takes a unified approach to SSD and hard drives using their Core Storage part of the operating system that seamlessly binds the hard drive and SDD in holy matrimony without the user knowing it’s there at all. Apple wasn’t even close to being the first to market with a hybrid solution (Intel, Corsair, and others had caching solutions well before), but it’s by far the most polished, robust, and best balance of SSD performance and hard drive capacity. If you’re looking to buy a new Mac Mini or iMac for a friend or family member, I can’t stress enough what a massive improvement Fusion Drive will be for that Mac. It’s not an expensive upgrade, and it makes a world of difference for the speed and snappiness of the system.

Taking into account the above hybrid options, they’re all good options for the budget-conscious and those just starting to get into SSDs. The Western Digital drive is brand new (I haven’t read any reviews of it yet, just press releases), so I can’t recommend any purchases of it at this time. The Seagate is closer to the hard drive end of the spectrum, but really makes the most of the onboard NAND flash memory for that added boost in speed and generally improved system responsiveness that helps transform the common computing experience to something oh-so-much better. Finally, if it wasn’t clear yet in the preceding paragraph, if you’re buying a new Mac Mini or iMac, you really need to opt for the Fusion Drive. Got it?  Good!

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