Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Solid-State Drives Challenge Hard Drives in Speed, but Not Value

The hard-disk drive is so common that most computer users take it for granted as a natural part of a personal computer. But now, the hard drive has a challenger for its longtime role as the principal storage device in computers. It’s called the solid-state drive, or SSD, and it has begun to show up in some big-name notebook computers.

Hard-disk drives, or HDDs, are mechanical devices. They work by recording data on a spinning magnetic platter or platters. By contrast, solid-state drives are made of chips and have no moving parts. They are close cousins to the so-called flash memory used in digital cameras, cellphones and smaller-capacity music players. They record data to special memory chips that retain their contents even when the device is turned off.

Solid-state drives have some key advantages. Because they lack moving parts, they are faster, draw less power, are harder to damage and are quieter than hard drives. Unfortunately, today’s early versions of SSDs for laptops also have two big drawbacks when compared with hard drives: They offer much lower capacity and have much higher prices.

For instance, on the newly announced Apple MacBook Air ultrathin laptop, the HDD version costs $1,799 and stores 80 gigabytes. The SSD version costs $2,798, but actually stores less — just 64 gigabytes. On the Toshiba Portege R500 subnotebook, the basic hard-drive version costs $1,999 and stores 120 gigabytes. The cheapest SSD version is $2,699 and also stores just 64 gigabytes.

Despite these limitations, I believe SSDs are likely to become more common and more popular as their capacities increase and their prices drop. Samsung, which makes the 64-gigabyte SSDs in both the Apple and the Toshiba, has already announced an SSD with twice the capacity that costs much less per gigabyte of storage.

I’ve been testing the SSD models of the Portege R500 and the MacBook Air to see how they measure up to their HDD counterparts. My verdict is that the SSD does deliver on its promises, but, in some cases, just barely.

For the small slice of users who are deeply and constantly worried about hard-disk failures, it may be worth it to pay a huge premium today for an SSD that stores less. Because SSDs aren’t subject to mechanical failures, your data are probably safer on them. But for mainstream users, my conclusion is that it’s too early to take the plunge on SSDs, and the best strategy is to wait for prices to drop sharply and for capacity to rise.

In my tests, I focused solely on comparing the hard-drive and SSD models of each machine, which I had had already reviewed in earlier columns. On the same computer, I wondered, would the SSD make a significant difference in speed and in battery life?

To measure battery life, I conducted my usual harsh test, where I turn off all power-saving software, set screen brightness to maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music.

In this test, the SSD made little difference in the MacBook Air and, in fairness, Apple is making no claims of any significant battery-life gains on its SSD model. The SSD MacBook gave me just five more minutes of battery life. Apple says this is because its hard-drive model already uses a very low-power drive.

On the Portege R500, my first battery test with the SSD model actually yielded significantly less battery life than the hard-drive model. The reason: Toshiba ships the base SSD model with a battery with only half of the capacity of the hard-drive model.

When I swapped in the normal battery, which costs $117 extra, the SSD model gave me an added 1 hour and 21 minutes of battery life, about a 36% increase. That extra battery life likely would translate to nearly 2½ hours in more normal usage. It may be worth the huge price premium for some folks.

On both computers, the SSD was faster than the HDD models. The SSD version of the Apple booted up from a cold start, and rebooted with several programs running, about 40% faster. But the gain isn’t as impressive as it seems because even the hard-drive versions of the MacBook Air booted up in under a minute and rebooted in just a little over a minute.

On the Toshiba, which was running Windows XP, the SSD model knocked about 40 seconds off a cold boot time on the HDD version of 2 minutes and 7 seconds. On my reboot test, starting with several programs running, the SSD model was 80 seconds faster. I imagine that on laptops with the slow-booting Windows Vista, the improvements might be more meaningful.

I also tested launching Microsoft Word and Excel, and opening a couple of hefty PDF files on both machines. The SSD versions were faster. But in most cases, the gains were just a few seconds or even fractions of a second.

All in all, the SSD is a promising improvement over the hard drive, but now is not the time for most users to buy it.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online, free, at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.