Every time we think about hard drives, we get all nervous. Hundreds of our favourite gigabytes sit on a silver platter that spins at thousands of revolutions per minute, and a tiny electromagnet writes our information onto the platter for safekeeping. But it doesn't feel all that safe, despite the fact that, in reality, it's very rare to suffer problems with traditional hard drives.
Solid-state drives should make us feel much more at ease then. They don't spin, they have no delicate moving parts and they generally feel more reliable than traditional hard drives, which have been around since the dawn of PCs.
So, when Kingston asked if we'd like to see its new range of budget SSDs, we were intrigued. How easy is it to move over to an SSD, and is it worth it? Will it speed up our system? We asked the company to send a cheap, low-capacity SSD so we could find out. The 64GB Kingston SSDNow V100 SSD is available for around £95.
Who should get an SSD?
This 64GB drive isn't aimed at people who want to store tonnes of data. Indeed, SSDs aren't really suitable for storing very large volumes of data at the moment. The largest capacity available, as we write this, is around 500GB. At a shade under £1,000, we can't see many of those being sold.
The 64GB V100 works in Windows or Linux systems with a small existing drive that handles only the operating-system install and your installed applications -- with games getting more and more enormous, we suspect the V100 won't be ideal for people who want to use it for gaming. Happily, our test PC currently has a 50GB Windows partition, so this 64GB drive is a modest improvement on that and a good replacement.
If you run your PC in this way, and you're happy to pay more for an SSD than you would for a 1.5TB HDD, then you're likely to be interested in this little gadget.
Kingston shipped this drive to us as a retail pack, which means you get a mounting kit to slot it into a 3.5-inch drive bay, even though this is a smaller, 2.5-inch unit. Aside from that, connecting this drive to your computer involves the same process as any other hard drive. If you're an avid computer builder, you'll have it hooked up within a few seconds. It took us a little longer, because our PC is stuffed full of traditional platter-based hard drives.
Every aspect of installation is a breeze, and our system found the drive immediately when we rebooted our computer. From there, we went into our existing Windows install to check the drive over, and then install a fresh copy of Windows 7.
Setting it up
Our Windows 7 build was working well, so we initially thought it might be best to move it over to the new SSD, and carry on using it as before. Sadly, Windows doesn't make this process easy.
Kingston supplies some software -- basically a Live CD of a Linux build -- that's intended to be used for mirroring the content of your current Windows drive onto your new SSD. We weren't able to get this to work. That didn't come as much of a surprise -- mirroring drives is a notoriously problematic process, and generally not all that worthwhile.
Instead, we just opted for a clean install of Windows. That will get rid of all those unused programmes you've installed that seemed like a good idea at the time. As space is at a premium on an SSD, it's almost certainly worth your while to undertake a clean installation, considering all the junk you tend to install and then just leave on your computer. There's also the alignment issue, which we'll come to in a moment.
Your mileage with the transfer-and-mirror software will vary, and we're sure it will work for some people. It's rather complicated, though, and it's really the sort of thing you'd need to be a true enthusiast to master.
The best things about SSDs are that they can operate at much higher speeds than traditional hard drives, they use less power and they generate less heat. They could also be described as more reliable. Certainly, they're far less likely to suffer a catastrophic failure than a platter-based drive, and they're much more rugged too.
When the 64GB V100 is idling, it uses just 1W of power, which we think is jolly decent. Set the rest of your disk-based drives to spin down when not in use and you'll save some power too, but SSDs are more efficient when idling.
On an SSD, there's another function we should mention. Known as 'TRIM', it's designed to help you get the best performance out of your SSD. Not all drives support TRIM, but all the Kingston SSDs do, which is very good news. TRIM's needed because, when your OS deletes a file, the SSD has no idea that it's been deleted -- under normal circumstances, the OS doesn't communicate that to the drive. With TRIM turned on, the OS communicates deletions to the SSD, which then spends idle time actually scrubbing the data from those areas. Without TRIM, the process of writing data would be slower, because the SSD must delete any data in the sector it's trying to write to.
In short, TRIM slows down deletions -- something you won't notice -- to speed-up writing -- something you may well notice. Windows 7 can handle this with no problem, but earlier Windows versions can't natively. Other operating systems have either added support recently, or will do soon.
Earlier, we mentioned an alignment issue. With an SSD, there are some speed benefits to making sure that your data is 'correctly aligned'. This is tricky if you're mirroring an old install onto your SSD, but the good news is that, with new Windows 7 installations, the OS can understand that it's being put onto an SSD and optimise itself. In short, a fresh install is probably worthwhile, even if it's a hassle to reinstall your favourite applications.
It's still true that an SSD won't last as long as a traditional hard drive. But it's more than likely you'll get at least one million hours of use out of it. How long it lasts depends on the number of times you write data to it. This is because, over time, the process that allows these devices to store data wears out. Built-in management means that the drive should be able to ensure as long a life as possible, but, as with everything, it will fail eventually.
It's possible that you'll get years and years out of one of these drives before it needs replacing. But in three years -- about the time we'd expect this drive to last a fairly demanding user -- you'll almost certainly be looking for an upgrade anyway. It's also reasonable to assume that high-capacity flash drives will have reduced in price by that point anyway, so replacing this one might cost £20 by then.
To get the retail pack we're reviewing here, you'll be looking at a cost of around £95. This is a significant amount of money for the storage capacity you get. But, with an SSD, you should see speed benefits immediately. You shouldn't expect Windows to boot more quickly, but, when you're using the OS, you should see it working at a greater speed, and that includes faster application load times.
With their reduced noise, heat and power consumption, and flat-out coolness, you may well think it's worth installing an SSD in your PC as a boot drive.
We had a reasonably easy time installing our 64GB Kingston SSDNow V100 SSD. The problems we encountered were to do with our PC and Windows being something of an oaf. The speed increase isn't immediately awe-inspiring, but SSDs are faster for certain jobs, and they offer plenty of advantages over traditional hard drives.
If you're strapped for cash, we'd suggest avoiding SSDs for the time being. Even these 'budget' drives are costly, and many people will find they don't provide the performance boost they expected. But, as a piece of hardware, the V100 is cool, easy to install and an excellent performer. We like it.
Edited by Charles Kloet