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Dec
6
2011

SSDs and Gaming Performance

Is it really worthwhile to purchase an expensive Solid State Drive (SSD), will it really make a difference while gaming?

That is a question we get asked so often by our customers I felt it necessary to take some time here at DS unlocked to try and do my best to answer it. SSDs are after all, one of the hottest topics among gamers, whether to adopt or use their money elsewhere in their rig.

Early on, SSDs were so expensive and saddled with such limited storage space that normal gamers couldn't even imagine purchasing one for their gaming pc but now, SSD prices have dropped and storage space has increased. You can now get a good sized 120GB SSD for a reasonably good price, however, you can still get a lower priced mechanical hard drive (HDD) with a whole bunch more storage, so what do you choose?

When you compare the two formats solely on speed, you'll find that SSDs can have up to a 3x faster read/write speed than normal HDDs. But the "ownage" doesn't stop there; check out the table below from Wikipedia to see how many more advantages SSDs provide over HDDs.

 

SSD

HDD

Advantage To

Spin-Up Time

None

Several Seconds

SSD

Random Access-Time

Average 0.1ms.

5-10 ms.

SSD

Read Latency Time

Low, data read directly from location

High, mechanical components take time to align

SSD

Noise Level

None

Yes, moving parts

SSD

Mechanical Reliability

Very reliable no moving parts

Moving parts can break down over time

SSD

Cooling

Requires no cooling

Needs air ventilation to maintain reliability

SSD

Magnetic Interference

Does not affect data

Magnetic surge can alter data

SSD

Parallel Operation

Can read and write different data at the same time

Must do read/writes one at a time

SSD

Write Reliability

Limited Number of writes over the lifetime of drive

No limitation

HDD

Software Security

Overwritten or erased data can still exist on drive. Need special "Secure Erase" procedures

Overwritten cannot be retrieved

HDD

Capacity

40-256GB, Cost $0.90-2.00/GB

1TB-2TB, Cost $0.05/GB for 3.5" HDDs

HDD

Block Availability and TRIM

SSD performance decreases with no availability of free data blocks. TRIM command resolves this issue significantly

No issue with block availability

HDD

Power Consumption

1/2 to 1/3 the power of HDDs

Generally 12-18 Watts for 3.5" HDDs.

SSD

*Taken from SSD Wikipedia Page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid-state_drive)

To us gamers, yes what's listed above is important, but what we are most concerned about is gameplay, gameplay, and gameplay. Would it really make any sense for me to invest more money in an SSD if I can use the money I save getting a regular old HDD to buy a better video card, more memory, or a new CPU?

Well it really depends on how you look at the big picture, is an SSD right for your gaming computer or even gaming laptop or should just continue with a regular hard drive?

The Big Picture and Overall Better Performance

There is a saying that really applies to general PC performance, "you are only as strong as your weakest link." Translation: your PCs performance is only going to be as good as its weakest component. So if you have a blazing fast processor combined with a border-line MIA video card, then expect a bottleneck in performance because of that video card.

So where does your hard drive sit in this survival of the fittest ecosystem? Consider the common situation of upgrading, you've upgraded the CPU, video-card, memory, motherboard, and even your case, but you keep that mechanical hard drive. You figure, hey it's just a hard drive; I've upgraded the important stuff, the stuff that is really going improve my PCs performance.

Now let's say for the first time you boot up that fully upgraded system, after re-installing Windows which surprisingly takes nearly the same time to boot as your old system (as long as it wasn't full of bloat ware), and everything looks good. You fire up SkyRim since that's why you spent the money and the load time isn't impressive, but hey it's all about the graphics right? SkyRim looks awesome! Fluid gameplay, incredible detail, it was all worth it.

You finish your SkyRim session 6 hours later and go to sleep bleary-eyed and slightly unsure of the purpose of your life. Later on you turn-on your rig and you want to load some files onto it, hmm-transfer rates are slow, but hey once it's done your good to go.

But this performance deficiency becomes noticeable because everything else in your system is so much more responsive. This is how that slower component can affect your entire system, it's not debilitating, but you notice how ill-equipped your older HDD is.

What's important to key in on is that you can function with a slower HDD in your computer, but you won't know or be able experience the full performance of your upgraded rig until you have an equally performing hard drive, especially an SSD.

With their incredible read/write performance, SSDs will allow for demanding applications to run more fluidly and respond quicker. By installing an SSD you'll also experience a significantly faster Windows boot-up time and overall zippy user experience

SSDs provide such a strong improvement that the bottle-neck is no longer the HDD, but probably one of your newly upgraded components. It has that strong of an impact on leveling out your system's overall performance. But you won't know until you experience one personally.

Brass Tacks, Gaming Performance and SSDs

I gave that example above about playing SkyRim and if you were paying attention you noticed I didn't mention any negatives when it came to game-play with an older HDD, that's because there are none. To be more exact, there aren't any significant improvements in FPS (frames per second) that are brought about by upgrading your HDD to an SSD. 

We've run countless 3DMark/Heaven synthetic benchmarks on computers with SSDs and we've run more realistic FRAPS tests and the conclusion is always the same, a minimal improvement in performance. Sometimes we'll see a 3-4 FPS increase, but it's never consistent and is within the margin of error for those tests.

When you play a pc game, it utilizes components like the CPU, video card, and memory with very little resources being dependent on your storage. An SSD may allow for you to load levels slightly faster, but is that really worth the investment if it means that you will not be able to get a better video card?

Conclusion

As I stated in the beginning of this article, buying an SSD should really depend on the big picture, i.e. what do you plan on doing with your rig? If you plan on it being a gaming only rig then it really isn't important for you to get an SSD.

I wouldn't recommend getting one if you're on a budget and if it's preventing you from getting the next essential video card or processor upgrade. If you plan on using your computer for work and play or just multi-tasking, then an SSD may be something to consider.

An SSD will provide your demanding applications with the type of responsive and stutter free behavior you have to witness to believe. By improving those brief moments of lag, the cumulative effect will be a much more enjoyable PC experience that is not bottlenecked by an older mechanical hard drive.

Consider also the table in this article, the numerous advantages of the SSD makes it a significantly better technology than older HDDs. In fact, the only real negatives for SSD performance are not really its fault. Without getting too technical, a lot of the issues on that table are due to an operating system's write procedures. Basically the way that Windows or any OS writes data is based on the mechanical drives, but SSDs write data in a completely different way. The fact that OS's haven't evolved to write data to SSDs is the only reason that the table isn't a clean sweep for team SSD.

The reason I bring this up is that in the future as newer version of Windows come out, they will begin changing the way they write data to match SSDs and when that happens, owning an older HDD will really be like having an albatross living in your computer.  

Purchasing an SSD like every component on your computer, it comes down to you, what you want to do, keep this in mind and this article when you are debating whether or not to adopt this new technology.

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