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Buy The SSD You Can Afford, Not The Fastest One

Upgrade Advice: Does Your Fast SSD Really Need SATA 6Gb/s?
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If you spend all of your time looking at predominantly synthetic storage benchmarks, which tend to frame storage workloads in the most taxing light possible, then you end up missing a huge piece of the storage performance picture.

Yes, those metrics are critically important in comparing SSDs. As you see in the real-world tests, it'd be almost impossible to determine a winner between OCZ's Vertex 3, Crucial's m4, or Samsung's 830 using mainstream workloads. Drilling down into specific profiles like 4 KB random writes or 128 KB sequential reads makes it much easier to draw conclusions about the idiosyncrasies of each drive's architecture.

But a relative strength in all of those benchmarks doesn't necessarily translate into a positive gain in user experience. Does an extra 25% jump in testable data throughput cut your Windows boot time or make backing up a game on Steam faster by a corresponding percentage? Does it even directly translate into file copies that finish that much faster? Not at all.

So, here's the thing. Yes, there are clear cases, particularly if you're a power user, where owning a motherboard with 6 Gb/s is going to allow your 6 Gb/s-capable SSD to shine. However, if a friend were to ask us if he should hold off on an SSD purchase until he could upgrade his old Core 2 machine to something newer with 6 Gb/s connectivity, we'd say no. For someone using a hard drive today, a fast SSD (even one artificially hobbled by a 3 Gb/s port) will yield massive and immediate gains in nearly every aspect of computing.

Snagging one that does work with 6 Gb/s link rates ensures you get the most out of it after an upgrade, sure. However even Intel's SSD 320, based on an older proprietary controller constrained to 3 Gb/s remains an admirable piece of hardware.

We've used this chart before, but it tells a compelling story. There's a huge gap between the cluster of SSDs, the high-end hard drive in the middle of the graph, and the low-end hard drive in the upper right-hand corner. You have to zoom in quite a bit, though, to distinguish between high- and low-end SSDs. At the end of the day, even if you're a fairly hardcore enthusiast, there's fairly little sense in agonizing over which SATA 6Gb/s SSD is the fastest. As we mentioned, even Intel's 320 still stacks up remarkably well.

So banish any thought that you must save for the newest, most expensive, and highest-rated SSD. If you have the money for a platform upgrade, there are certainly measurable gains to be had from upgrading to a SATA 6Gb/s-capable motherboard and the best solid-state drive. On a tighter budget, however, buying the SSD that everyone says is the fastest isn't as important as buying an SSD you can afford, particularly if it means replacing a hard disk as your system drive.

The subtle differences between high-end storage products remain important to us and our enthusiast audience, and we'll continue dissecting them. But it's just as important to us to consider the greater scope of things. In that context, you shouldn't let a 3 Gb/s storage controller stand in the way of an upgrade.

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