It's not like hard drives aren't prone to failure after a harrowingly short time, but the price tag on SSDs makes it a bit scarier. Intel's X25 makes a lot of strides on the longevity front and should trade blows with any mechanical hard drive, but be prepared for cheaper SSDs to wear out in a few years.

We're still in the earliest flushes of this tech, so chances are you'll want to upgrade to a faster, higher capacity unit in a year or two anyway.

The hard way

Meanwhile, back in platterland, matters ain't exactly simple, either. For all the cosmetic similarities between drives, a spade is not a spade here. While it's true that the degree of variance in hard drives over the last few years has been nowhere near that of, say, processors and graphics cards, careful shopping is still required.

Capacity – the go-to stat for a great many folk – is only half the story. Space is easy. Space is space, and you can always just add another drive if you need more (so long as your power supply's up to it, anyway). For docs, MP3s and movies, any old drive will do. For games and big apps though, speed matters more than space.

So, if you're shopping for a new hard drive and those are beyond your means, ensure the drive you choose is SATA-II not SATA-I, and has at least a 16MB cache – less than that and you'll be hanging around for a while. WD's Raptor and Velociraptor drives, incidentally, achieve their extra nippiness primarily through their increased rotational speed – 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) compared to the standard 7,200RPM.

Many laptops still go even lower than this, opting for 5,400RPM to keep the power consumption down; if you're after a portable gaming machine, a faster HDD is one upgrade well worth making.

Change's sake

And so we come back to change, and the inevitability thereof. SSDs will only get faster as the years roll on, which means the future's not looking bright for the geriatric platter-based drive.

Playing games off the SSDs was a joy, especially when we were trying to join chums already on a TF2 server and every second we weren't yet in the game meant points lost. Going back to playing from a hard drive felt like swapping lightbulbs for candles.

Unfortunately, only those most flush with cash will be able to break out of the dark ages into the enlightened SSD age. For now, olde worlde hard drives, unquestionably, remain the smarter buy, as looking to the bigger-picture, more space is more important to a desktop system than the speed gains SSDs currently offer.

The price of 500GB + SATA II drives are incredibly low these days, and between that and the unbelievably low prices of RAM, upgrading an existing PC is more bargainous than it's ever been.

As soon as the price of SSDs drops, however, they're going to become an essential upgrade. Aside from the ludicrous £400 price tag, the Intel X25 is particularly the most desirable hard drive of all time, though, of course, its slim capacity means it's still only really worthy as a boot drive in its current form.

If it can drop down to around the £150 to £200 mark soon enough it's possible we'll start seeing Intel dominating the storage market, in the same way as it does the processor market. That's a terrifying future monopoly-wise, so hopefully the wealth of competition (mainly from manufacturers best known for RAM, now branching out looking for more revenue streams as memory margins are sliced) will both drive the prices down further and ensure a much wider, healthier range of purchasing options.

Today though, the olden-tech Velociraptor may hit the sweet spot on the price/performance/capacity Venn diagram, but tomorrow SSDs will unquestionably reign supreme.

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First published in PC Format, Issue 221

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