Life with a Solid State Drive

I'm totally finished with spinning drives on my ThinkPads. At least if I have anything to say about it. I was fortunate enough to be able to swap to a solid state hard disk drive in my ThinkPad this week. I had always derided the 64GB capacity as too small, but when the opportunity presented itself, it was too good to pass up. I have always been a fan of 7200 rpm HDDs in notebooks, long ago having rejected 5400 rpm as being way too slow for use in any system that does more than surf the Web. Thus, a 7200 rpm HDD has been a basic requirement for me in my last three notebooks. Let's look at the requirements of a PC running three years ago vs. today. Both may be running Windows XP, but today's PC has to contend with more personal firewalls, security scanners, management agents, and system utilities all running constantly in the background. Over the next 1 -2 years, plan on adding virtualization to this list. This is before you have even launched your first application. Worse, they all require care and feeding (i.e. processor cycles) in order to keep themselves up to date. In short, though your application load hasn't changed much in the last several years, your background computing load most certainly has – and not for the better. All of this activity is heavily disk bound, and I didn't realize just how much until I switched two days ago. To start the swap process, my first task was to prune away some disk usage. Since this is my work PC, it wasn't that bad. Honestly, did I really need presentations from five years ago anyway? Having done so, I was able to get my system down to 40GB of drive space used, well within the capacity range of an SSD drive. I also got rid of our service partition which saved me a few extra GB of space on top of that. I used our Ultrabay adapter and slid the empty SSD drive into my system as a second drive. Windows churned for a few minutes, loaded a driver or two, and then it automagically appeared as my D:\ drive in Windows Explorer. I formatted it just to be safe. Then my next problem was how to size and clone my hard disk partition so that it could be copied to the new SSD. I started with Partition Magic, but then after a bit of web research realized there was a much better solution available. I ended up using Acronis' Migrate Easy product. If there was ever truth in naming, this product certainly qualifies. I highly recommend this product, so much so that I'm giving them a plug in this blog. After answering a few simple questions, the product rebooted, did its job, and then was finished 30 minutes later. I swapped my spinning HDD out for my SSD, hit the power button, and as quickly and as easily as that, was up and running. The difference was immediate and dramatic. Boot time was cut in half. Our corporate email program and instant messaging program also load in one half of the time they used to. Even opening and closing large MS Office PowerPoint files is a much faster operation than ever before. Though all of those were enough to make me go "Wow!," here is the most surprising thing of all:  my web browsing has become noticeably much zippier. Pages literally just snap into place. I never thought browsing was slow before, so the difference is all the more dramatic. A few more observations:

  • This drive definitely runs cooler. I can't even feel it under my palm rest like I could with my old drive. Write times are definitely slower than read times, but still faster than before. I'm okay with that.
  • Battery life has definitely improved. When I am actively using my PC, I get about an extra 20 – 30 minutes per charge. When I'm doing something more passive (at least from a system perspective) like email, my battery life is now about an hour longer than before.
  • I'm glad I did this on my existing system vs. switching to a new system for two reasons. One, it gave me a definite point of performance comparison. On one boot I was using my spinning drive. On the next I was using an SSD. Nothing else changed. Two, it meant that I still had a normal voltage processor (Intel Core 2 T7700) instead of a wimpy ultra low voltage processor. I know there are plenty of people happy with ULV processors, but I consider them anemic at best. When I am on battery power (and allow my processor to throttle down), there is a distinct difference in performance on read/write times to and from the SSD. This isn't to say that my SSD suddenly requires 50% of system resources to operate. Rather, that for the first time that I can ever recall, my processor is the bottleneck, NOT the drive. That's pretty amazing if you stop to think about it.
  • My Active Protection System driver was up to date, and I was pleased to see that it automatically adjusted to the SSD drive. The driver is definitely still loaded, but it is smart enough to realize that I have an SSD drive and therefore will not pause the system if I move around. Why keep the driver, you ask? Well, for those times when I put a second spinning drive in the Ultrabay, I want to make sure it has APS protection. More importantly, I should still be able to play APS games.

All in all, I could not be more pleased with the whole experience. This is the biggest boost I have ever noticed in terms of system performance – more than getting a brand new system. I am one hundred percent convinced I had such a great experience because our engineering, product, and development teams picked the right drive to offer as part of our portfolio (the same Samsung drive as found in our ThinkPad X300). As I've said in past blog posts, not all SSD drives are the same. There are some real performance dogs out there. Do your homework. Make sure you have current backups. And if you have the money, definitely budget for one of these in your next mobile PC purchase.