HDD vs SSD: Which is best for gaming?
Choosing between a hard drive and a solid state drive can be a difficult choice for first-time PC builders, especially if they don’t actually know the difference between the two. Some buy both, but even in that case, it’s important to know what sets the two technologies apart to determine how you’re going to use them. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about these storage technologies, and which might be right for you.
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What’s an HDD?
HDD is short for “hard disk drive”, or hard drive. Hard drives are composed of layers of spinning disks, packed securely in a metal casing and written to/read from at very high speeds. This entire process is a sensitive one, and because of this it’s important to keep drives in a safe, cool place where they don’t be subject to static shocks, strong magnetic forces, spills, or drops that destabilize their internal workings. Even slight damage to a hard drive can render it non-functional, but sometimes drives can persist through errors and lost data.
For many decades, the hard drive has been the primary form of storage for desktop and laptop PCs. Even today, hard drives push the highest storage capacities at the lowest prices, enabling relatively cheap prices for drives of 2 or more Terabytes of data.
What’s an SSD?
SSD is short for “solid state drive”. Solid state drives are known as “solid state” because they have no moving parts. While you should obviously avoid dropping them if at all possible, this lack of moving parts makes SSDs much less vulnerable to physical damage. A strong magnet can wipe a hard drive, but won’t have any effect on an SSD unless it manages to conduct an electric current, which are just as dangerous for SSDs as they are for HDDs. SSDs are normally quite small in comparison to an HDD, with a simple rectangular outside casing and a set of memory chips on the inside.
Over the course of the past decade or so, SSDs have begun pushing into modern consumer electronics with alarming speed. This is because they’re capable of, well...alarming speed, much faster file transfer and boot times than even the best hard drive. However, their storage capacity isn’t as great as an HDD’s: we’ll dive into that more below.
HDD vs SSD: Performance
Fortunately, quite a lot of speed comparisons already exist. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll refer to PC World’s 2013 comparison between HDD and SSDs. HDDs haven’t had any real speed improvements since this benchmarking was done- 7200 RPM was the standard then and is the standard now. SSDs, meanwhile, have only gotten faster...especially if you’re using a PCIe SSD or M.2 SSD, though those have diminishing performance gains and we’ll get into all that later.
Let’s look one of the most interesting benchmarks: boot time.
The 7200 RPM HDD being tested by PC World managed a 62.5 second boot time, which is just over a single minute. Depending on the age of your PC, this is either about what you’re used to or a good bit faster.
The SSD being tested? Well, that booted in 23.2 seconds. That’s over twice as fast. Just about ~2.6 times, actually.
While some Windows 8 and 10 machines added the ability for “Fast Boot” on HDDs via UEFI, this still isn’t enough to close the gap. Across-the-board, an SSD will always be significantly faster.
Anyways, that’s just for boot times, which is basically the longest loading time for any PC. What about other parts of your system?
Well, applications like your browser or favorite chat program will open just about instantly with an SSD, provided the rest of your system can keep up. The sheer responsiveness of an SSD versus an HDD makes it one of the best upgrades you can add to a PC- the difference is immediate and noticeable, and can even help revive old PCs that were held back by dying hard drives.
Most importantly for gamers, load times will significantly shorten. Getting matched into a new game of Overwatch, for instance, can take up to a minute on older, slower hard drives. On an SSD, this happens in a span of seconds, and will allow you to, say, instalock Genji before anyone else does.
In terms of performance, an SSD completely thrashes a hard drive. It’s not even a contest.
HDD vs SSD: Storage capacity and price
Here’s where things start getting interesting.
For the most value-oriented HDDs, how much do you think you’re paying per gigabyte? Usually, somewhere around $.022 per gigabyte. That’s barely more than two cents per gigabyte, and even hard drives with comparatively worse value don’t tend to go over three cents per gigabyte. This means you can spend $66 or less and get a 3TB HDD.
Now, how does this work for SSDs? The absolute best value you can get in per-gigabyte costs for an SSD is...25 cents. That’s a dollar for 4GB, which is ridiculous by desktop storage standards. And unfortunately, you really only get that kind of value for SSDs pushing the most storage- that’s the number for a 2TB Crucial MX500 drive, which costs a whopping $500. Spending $60-80, which is about as much as you’d pay for a hard drive, will get you a paltry 240-250GB at best.
So in terms of sheer storage capabilities and value, hard drives pretty handily beat solid state drives. They are much slower, but if you have a ton of games and media that you want to store on your system, hard drives are difficult to argue against.
HDD vs SSD: Size and noise
An oft-forgotten point in the HDD vs SSD is actually a more...physical argument. Specifically, the size of these drives and the noise they make. A 7200 RPM hard drive is typically very large and built for a 3.5 inch drive enclosure, while smaller, slower 5400 RPM hard drives are a bit smaller and can fit into 2.5 inch drive enclosures. SSDs usually come in 2.5 inch drive enclosures as well.
So, in terms of size...SSDs win. In fact, if you use an M.2 SSD, SSDs can be around the size of your thumb- about as long and wide, but nowhere near as thick. M.2 SSDs don’t even have a casing- you just plug them right into your motherboard.
So, SSDs are quite a bit smaller than HDDs across-the-board. This makes them perfect for laptops and other smaller devices.
SSDs also win handily in noise. No moving parts means no noise. An HDD’s moving parts creates noise by nature, and can be quite loud if the drive is aging or degrading. If you want the quietest-possible working environment, an HDD can be among the noisiest components in your system.
HDD vs SSD: Lifespan
Last but not least...how long do these drives actually last?
The short answer is...well, HDDs last longer.
The longer answer is...it depends on multiple factors. For instance, most drives don’t die to degradation over time: they usually die to being damaged or manufacturing defects. In these cases, an SSD will be the better choice, since they’re much more durable and are vulnerable to less forms of damage. Where a drive is kept in ideal conditions, with no defects, is used regularly and isn’t damaged...the HDD will eventually outlast the SSD.
The reason behind this?
Well, SSDs use NAND memory. The way NAND memory retains data is through electrical charges, as opposed to being written to a disk. This makes NAND memory worse for long-term data storage (by long-term, we’re talking decades), and also means that SSDs can’t handle quite as many read/writes as your common HDD.
As a consumer, this shouldn’t make a huge difference for you. Most people cycle out PCs every six years or so, and this is well before an SSD or an HDD will fail under normal circumstances. You can also look into software like CrystalDiskInfo, which will allow you to monitor the health of your drives and determine if they’re close to failing.
While this shouldn’t make a difference to consumers, HDDs win by technicality in this category.
Conclusion: Which is best for gaming?
And now, to answer the question that’s been on your mind since we started: which of these storage types is best for gaming? Does the SSD’s sheer speed make it the superior choice, or does the HDD’s incredible storage capacity put it on top?
The answer is...
Well, it depends.
If you can only buy one, an SSD will provide a much better overall user experience, but won’t allow as much room for your games. If you have a massive Steam library, you’re really only going to be able to fit a few of your favorite titles on an SSD. Meanwhile, an HDD will be much slower, but will allow you to store most, if not all of your Steam library if you’re buying a 2TB+ hard drive.
In the best case scenario, though, you won’t have to choose. Many enthusiasts opt for buying an SSD and an HDD. The SSD is used to store their operating system and main programs (web browser, etc), as well as a few of their favorite games. The HDD, meanwhile, can hold everything else they might want to play. This happens most often in the $700+ budget range, where an extra $80 won’t get you a better GPU but can get you a much better storage solution.
If you can only buy one, the answer will depend on your preferences. If you can buy both...just buy both. Feel free to check out our Best HDDs for Gaming and Best SSDs for Gaming if you’re looking for high-performance drives for your system.