To SSD or not to SSD

This is not a post that will make up the series of backlog items I want to write about, but I learned something just this past weekend that I wanted to make a quick post about with the intention to make a longer post that includes video evidence of the effect changing a magnetic hard drive with an SSD had on the performance of a computer.First, in keeping with my overall theme for this blog, I want to try and explain things in a simple way here.  My wife tells me to put it in “normal people” terms.  This is a little harder for me to do on the particular topic because this is one of those things that crosses over from my new DSLR/photography/video hobby into my professional life where I do know a lot more about the subject. I explain a lot more about my professional life in my post on how to choose a dslr, so I won’t go over that again here.  Anyway, SSD stands for solid state drive, and refers to a relatively new kind of hard drive for computers that is made up entirely of flash technology.  That same flash technology that is in CF and SD cards for your DSLR camera (and a number of other electronic devices).  Same flash that is in those “thumb” drives as a lot of people like to call them.  The hard drives that have been used for years are now referred to as magnetic drives because the base technology in those drives utilizes platters and heads with magnets to read and write data.

So what is the big deal with and SSD?  Why would anyone care what kind of hard drive they have in their computer?  There are two primary reasons why SSD drives may be preferable to magnetic drives, and there are two reasons you may not want an SSD at all.  Let’s go over the reasons in favor first.

Speed – The first reason to get an SSD for your computer is speed.  These drives are really fast.  Even better, the cost to read every part of the drive is exactly the same.  This is not true with magnetic drives where there are spinning platters inside and it takes time for the heads inside the drive to spin over the top of the area that has to be read or written to.  You have probably heard about utilities on your computer to “defrag” your hard drive.  What this does is move the files around on the drive so that the ones your system needs most frequently are put in the spots on the drive where they can be read the fastest.  With an SSD you don’t have any of that.  I have been reading for a long time just how fast these drives are, but hadn’t seen any real head-to-head comparisons documented.  I guess I never looked very hard for them, but that is what I did just recently.  So I will be putting into a new post what happened to boot up time and the time to launch a few applications when I replaced an older magnetic drive with an SSD on a 5 year old slimline HP desktop PC.

Energy – The second reason to use an SSD may end up being more important, especially if you use a laptop.  SSD hard drives use far less power than magnetic drives do.  Going back again to those platters inside the drive that have to spin and the heads that have to be moved over them to read and write data, all of that takes energy or power to do.  Those drives have to be spinning at a pretty high rate (the higher the rate of spin the faster the drive can perform) all the time they are in use, something your laptop battery is having to do.  SSD drives still need power in order to read and write, but they don’t have platters to spin or heads to move, so it is far less.  Unfortunately the real-world test I just completed is on a desktop so I can’t give you any head-to-head comparison here on what kind of a difference I found here.  I do have another SSD for my son’s laptop and plan to do this kind of a test at some point in the coming weeks though, so stay tuned for that!

OK, so those are two good reasons to upgrade your hard drive to an SSD, but how does any of that apply to photography?  Glad you asked.  If you are like me when you first start you are getting better pictures than you were with your point-and-shoot, but most of them are still not great.  If you are just starting out then you need to know that enhancing your pictures on the computer is pretty well going to be a must.  It is something I see termed a lot online as “post processing”, and even if you understand perfectly how to setup the right settings to get the perfect shot you still have to touch it afterward to get the best out of it.  I plan to write a few posts on the subject of what I have learned about post processing, but for now let’s just leave it at my preference being the LightRoom product from Adobe.  As I have used LightRoom on my computers, there are times the software feels quite slow.  While my computers aren’t the latest and greatest, they aren’t too shabby, and LightRoom can get slowed to a crawl.  Slowness in software can be caused by a lot of things, but in this case (I know something about computers), I know that the issue has been the speed of the hard drive.  I have magnetic drives in my computers, pretty speedy drives (7200RPM Sata II in case you are more technical), yet I wait for quite a while to export a touched up photo to the hard drive.  So this is where I am absolutely confident an SSD could greatly enhance how fast this stuff works for me, decreasing the amount of time behind the screen, and increasing the time behind the lens.

Now for the two reasons not to get an SSD:

Cost – These things are not cheap.  You can easily buy magnetic drives that are two or three times bigger than an SSD for a third the cost.  The only reason I got one for this test I ran was an Amazon sale that had some for 60% off for one day.  I have been wanting to replace this aged slimline PC that my wife uses in the kitchen for a while, and when these drives went on sale I thought it might be a way to make it faster without spending the full amount on a new one.  After doing the switch, I can tell you it worked.  The computer is quite a bit snappier now, I am sure we can get another year or two out of it.  I still won’t use it for any photo or video editing, but for email and Internet browsing, it should do great now.

Size – This is where it could be a problem for photographers again.  Those pictures take a lot of space, and SSD hard drives are short on that.  The bigger they are the more expensive they get, and it seems more than in a linear fashion (more the 2 times the cost for 2 times the space).  This slimine desktop had a 250GB hard drive, and I got a 240GB SSD to replace it (took some fun gparted and clonezilla work to do that).  There are 512GB drives available, and some a little larger, but as I already mentioned for the cost you can get far more space in magnetic hard drives than SSD.

I have seen it recommended from several sites that the ideal photo and video editing machine uses an SSD as the boot drive and where all of your software is installed, then a fast magnetic drive for storing your pictures and video.  Even better would be to use a fancy RAID configured set of magnetic drives for your pictures and video, but that is another subject and more $$$.  So, is this something you need?  I recommend that as you are starting out not to worry about it yet.  Better to spend the cash on other things like lenses and a better graphics card or processor in your computer.  I am a believer that an SSD can make a big difference, but you would sure have to do a lot of photo editing to make it worth spending the cash on it.  If it is your job, I do believe it makes a difference based on the actual experience I had with this SSD swap.

Stay tuned to the blog to see the video evidence of the speed improvement.

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