Solid-State Drives - Worth it?

In my previous article "Understanding Solid-State Drives" I explained the history of the SSD and why (on paper) they should offer significant advantages over traditional hard drives. As I recently bought an Intel X25-M 160GB SATA Solid State Drive (34nm G2) for my Apple MacBook Pro (Revision G) I have now had the opportunity to complete some testing to see if the real world performance lives up to the hype.

The Test Setup

Before I installed the new SSD in my Apple MacBook Pro, I completed a number of tests with my existing traditional HDD and once upgraded I re-ran the tests. The hardware/software specifics can be seen below:

  • Mac OS X 10.6.4 (fully updated)
  • Intel Core2Duo 2.8GHz (6MB L2 Cache)
  • 4GB DDR3 (1066MHz)
  • nVIDIA 9400M & 9600M GT 512MB
  • Intel X25-M 160GB SATA-II Solid State Drive (34nm G2)

The previously installed hard drive (used for comparison) was a Seagate Momentus 500GB, 7200RPM, SATA-II (3Gb/s).

The Results

The easiest way to see real world performance improvements is the boot-up test. In each test the hardware specification and software configuration is identical, the only difference being the hard drive. The video below shows the results:

As you can see from the video, the existing Momentus 500GB hard drive took approximately 33 seconds from the moment I clicked the power button, to successfully loading OS X, with the menu-bar and Dock accessible. The Intel SSD on the other hand was fully operational after just 11 seconds. That is a phenomenal performance improvement (22 seconds) and actually means that my MacBook Pro can boot from cold before my iPhone or iPad!

My second test is using the popular Mac benchmarking tool Xbench. Below you can see the before and after results:

As you can see, my hard drive performance rating went from a score of 47.30 to 278.13! I think the results speak for themselves, although I suggest you check out the random writes (4K blocks) which jumped from 1.13MB/s to 83.78MB/s (yes you read that right) and the random reads (256K block) from 25.56MB/s to 177.92MB/s.

I have now had the SSD running for several weeks and I can confirm that these impressive performance results are also apparent in real world operation. My boot time continues to amaze me, while all applications are able to load in a single bounce. This includes the notoriously slow applications such as iTunes and Microsoft Office 2008. Apart from the obvious (file copying), I have also noticed a significant improvement when multitasking. I used to see significant performance issues (Mac OS X beach ball) when attempting to copy a large file, while continuing to work. This is no longer the case, I can now copy multiple files, listen to music and still work without feeling any noticeable performance impact (or Mac OS X grinding to a halt). To help get a feel for the real world performance I have taken a screen capture of my Mac straight after a cold boot loading applications from the dock. As you can see every application loads after one bounce, compare this to your own Mac for an easy comparison.

Overall I am very happy with the results of my SSD upgrade. With traditional hard drives being the major bottle neck in modern computers, I honestly believe an SSD upgrade will add significantly more real world performance to a modern computer (C2D+) than any other CPU or memory upgrade. Also when you consider the other secondary benefit such as better battery life for laptops and reduced heat, it all adds up to a convincing story.

Unfortunately SSDs are still very expensive and only offer limited capacity, therefore in the short term the ideal solution is to have a smaller SSD for your operating system and applications, while storing the majority of your data and media on external drives, such as a high capacity NAS (or Drobo). This can work well, as after fully loading my Mac with all the required applications and core data files (from dropbox), I am still only using 65GB (as shown below).

The main body of my data and media is stored across multiple 1.5TB drives, connected via NAS and USB.

So do I recommend an SSD upgrade? Although it looks like the answer should be an instant yes I would actually say it is worth holding of a while longer. My hope is that by Q1 2011 we should start seeing 25nm drives start to hit the market. As a result this should allow companies like Intel to be able to push the "G3" SSDs up to 420GB which will still be pricey, but should give you plenty of storage for modern applications. They may also take advantage of next generation SATA interfaces which could push performance even further. Therefore I definitely recommend an SSD upgrade, but suggest you hold off a few more months (if possible) before taking the plunge.