SSDs: The First Question You Must Ask Yourself

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When will you want a solid state drive?

Intel has just introduced its solid state drives

That’s nice, but they’re going to cost over $500.  You can buy a decent computer (w/o monitor) for around that much.

They generally outperform the best hard drives.  That’s nice, but they’re going to cost over $500.

The article talks about capacities doubling frequently due to Moore’s Law.  That’s nice, but no matter how big they get, not too many people are going to pay over $500 for one.

SSDs are obviously the wave of the future.  The only question is when the wave will hit the shore, or more precisely, when the wave is going to hit your shore. 

I think you can answer that question pretty easily by asking yourself another question: How much are you willing to pay for a plain old regular hard drive?

Whatever number you come up with, that’s your base figure.  No doubt, most people will adjust that figure upward, perhaps considerably upward.  But if you’re not willing to spend more than $100 for a hard drive, you’re not going to spend $500 for an SSD.  You probably won’t spend $300 for one. 

Notice I haven’t mentioned cost per gigabyte or overall size.  I haven’t because it’s a secondary consideration.  It may well be a make-or-break consideration after you decide “Yes, I’ll pay $XXX for a hard drive,” but if you won’t pay $XXX for a hard drive, it’s really irrelevant.  It’s like buying a Rolls Royce; there might be a lot of reasons why you might not want one, but unless you’re willing to lay out that much money for a car, they hardly matter, do they?

How much is the average person willing to spend for a hard drive these days?  If you look around at retail prices and OEM offerings, the figure is around $80-100.  Given that, I think SSDs need to cost less than $200 (and really, less than $150 for the truly average user) for them to get past that first hurdle, overall cost.  Then you’ll start thinking about size, often for the first time in a long time. 

Unless your PC is really an image/video personal server, hard drives today are grossly oversized for the average person.  Even with Vista, 50GB is plenty for the average light user, but the average OEM box comes with something closer to 500GB.  Why?  Because getting 500GB costs little more than getting 50GB.  Iron platters are cheap; adding a few extra platters doesn’t increase the base cost of the drive and its electronics very much. 

On the other hand, with SSDs, adding capacity isn’t cheap, the cost of memory modules is a much higher proportion of the cost of an SSD.  You can “waste” 450GB of a 500GB drive, and it only “costs” you a couple dozen dollars.  “Wasting” 450GB of an SSD would cost you a couple thousand dollars at today’s prices.

For all these reasons, the short- and medium-term future of SSDs is going to be in the smaller sizes, I would say 30-40GB.  That’s big enough for the OS and a reasonable number of applications/games, and the overall price ought to get low enough fairly shortly to start hitting the price points needed for a lot more fish to start biting. 

(I feel obliged to point out that while there are some SSDs that are already hitting these price points, the review linked about does document problems that occur with these drives, so don’t run out and buy one of these just because you can get one for $100 after rebates.)

If that’s not big enough for you, fine, the numbers (and performance) will go up over time, but maybe you need to start thinking about how much you really need rather than want.  While the case isn’t quite must-have yet, sooner rather than later, if you seriously care about performance, you’re going to have to get one, if only to keep all those multicores from waiting around.  Realistically, people who do make a serious dent in those big hard drives will end up with an SSD for the programs and a hard drive for the content the programs use (of course, that increases the storage budget, too, which will stall mainstream adoption, too).      

What’s “sooner rather than later” for the average person reading this.  I’d say a year-to-two. 

Ed

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