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2/2/2009
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Solid State Disks, Demystified

The HP Mini 1000 netbook, MacBook Air, and Vaio TT all sport solid state disks, a technology that's still evolving. Our hardware expert explains where SSD is today -- and where it's going.

Now that all of the hoopla has basically died down, perhaps we can have an honest discussion about the state of solid state disks (SSDs).

In theory, you should already be aware that SSDs are not the next best thing to sliced bread. (Peanut butter is, except if you're allergic.) However, they do provide interesting -- and worthwhile -- transitional points for our current crop of netbooks and notebooks. Let's dive in and examine the genre, and bust a couple of myths while we're at it.




Sony's Vaio VGN-TT190 comes with a 64-GB SSD.
(click for image gallery)

Myth 1: A solid state disk will boot faster than a mechanical hard drive. This is true, but it's partially smoke and mirrors as well. When SSDs first appeared, they were rather pathetic 8-GB and 16-GB devices. Not much fits in that size. Even at 32 GB, you'll still be somewhat cramped if you have hardware drivers and applications.

In fact, that's where SSDs got their initial reputation for fast boots. With no drivers or background software to load, most of what you had to wait through was your portable's BIOS, which probably took about 20 seconds, and then maybe another 35 seconds or so for the operating system.

But when you get to 64 GB or 80 GB or 128 GB -- and you have some room to feel confident about carrying the additional software you need around with you --you start to add time to the boot process. Depending on just how much you're loading, you'll probably be waiting at least an extra 15 seconds. To be fair, a similarly stocked mechanical drive can carry on for an additional 20 to 30 seconds, and that's what you're paying to avoid with an SSD.




Don't overestimate the impact simply having an SSD will have on your power lifestyle.
(click for image gallery)

Myth 2: A solid state disk will extend your battery life. This has to be a no-brainer. There's no way that an electronic device would use as much power as a mechanical device. Just starting a mechanical hard drive up from a dead stop draws power on the ampere level rather than the more modest milliamp power draw that just idling the drive requires. And because you're moving physical read/write heads back and forth across the mechanical drive's platters, sending data through an electronic trace to a memory cell on an SSD is the all-around winner in overall low-power draw.

Here's the but: Many pundits treat a hard drive as the only component that uses electrical power. Au contraire! It is, in fact, a minor component, overshadowed by the power draw of your screen, CPU, memory, and GPU. The brighter your screen, the more intense your calculations or your display rendering, the more acutely do those four components suck your battery dry. And if you have an optical drive, let's not forget all the spinning it does while you're watching Twilight.

So while it might be a no-brainer, don't overestimate the impact simply having an SSD will have on your power lifestyle. You just don't use a hard drive that much in most applications. And if it is longer run-time without the need to plug in that you desire, be prepared to cut back in other areas as well -- like screen brightness -- and use the toughest power-saving options you can set through the control panel.

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