There’s no question that solid-state drives are the talk of the storage town. We’ve seen them enter into the laptop marketplace with a growing vengeance. And even the prices of the bare, plopped-into-your-drive-bays products are reaching tolerable levels. Excellent speeds at optimal pricing – what’s not to like about SSDs?
We should have put an asterisk next to the word “speeds,” because not all SSDs are the same. Nor do they interact in the same way regardless of what operating system you use. According to a recent Computerworld article, a Patriot Memory research project found that SSD performance was best in—you’ll never believe it—Windows 2000. Following that, Windows Vista came in second place at five to eight percent slower and Windows XP trailed a distant third.
So why is this the case? There are few reasons for the dramatic differences. Saeed Arash Far, an engineering manager at Patriot Memory, suggests that the removal of background applications in Windows 2000 catapults it into the performance lead. But in that case, one would expect to see a difference regardless of what hard drive is used in the testing – a lack of running tasks is an operating system issue, not an SSD benefit.
According to SSD manufacturer Micron, comprehensive performance testing between the Vista and XP operating systems revealed that XP doesn’t block the data for maximum SSD performance. Whereas XP will partially fill 4KB NAND pages seemingly at a whim, Vista attempts to reduce partially filled pages in a block as much as possible. This reduces storage inefficiencies and, according to Micron, translates into tangible performance benefits between the two operating systems.
"NAND [flash memory] fundamentally has native 4K block sizes. Anything that's not aligned to a 4K block creates extra challenges," said Justin Sykes, Micron’s Director of Marketing for SSD products, as quoted in the article. "There ends up being background operations to garbage-collect that empty space [in larger file blocks] that isn't fully utilized. And, so that activity is chewing up your bandwidth in the background, and it adds extra wear to the NAND [flash memory]."
SSD performance isn’t just tied to the software running on it. The two prevailing SSD technologies, single-level cell and multi-level cell, each offer different speed benefits. A majority of MLC drives offer poorer performance on their read and write speeds than SLC drives. And even the best of the MLC drives can look impressive on their reads, but still have yet to offer comparable write performance to an SLC drive. But there’s a reason MLC-based SSDs exist: they’re cheaper than SLCs by hundreds of dollars.
There are also interface issues with modern SSDs, but we’re starting to see a gradual phasing out of SSDs that run on SATA bridges to internal PATA interfaces. The problem being that a PATA-based SSD could conceivably fill its interface’s performance pipe. It’s the same reason why eSATA is a better connection choice, speed-wise, than USB: the latter simply can’t handle as much bandwidth as the former.
Where does that leave SSD consumers? Apparently in the hands of Windows Vista as an operating system, provided the performance metrics are correct—unless you really miss the glory days of Windows 2000. But as for the specific type of SSD that provides the fastest performance, that’s more a question for benchmarks to answer. Modern manufacturers aren’t always up to list the exact specifications of the product being purchased. You might not know you’re getting an MLC or SLC product until you test the performance yourself!