Speedy Storage

HDDThere are many ways to help speed up any computer, not just a Mac. When thinking about the speed of a computer, the first thing you think about is probably the processor, or CPU. There are other factors involved such as the bus speed, RAM (type and speed), graphic processor (video card), and I/O ports. This two-part article will cover the one I didn’t mention – storage.

Spinning Storage

In any computer, when you think memory you are actually talking about RAM. When you think of storage, you are talking about hard drives. For many years the typical hard drive had spinning platters that are 3.5-inches in diameter, hence the term 3.5-inch hard drive. Laptops came along and hard drives shrunk down to 2.5-inches. But these still had spinning hard platters inside. For most applications, a spinning drive is more than fast enough.

landscape-1440797569-hard-drivesSoon users started running Apps that either required space for massive amounts of data, or they needed to access that data as fast as possible. One way to get more speed is to spin the platters inside the hard drive faster. Back in the stone age of computers, in the late 80’s/early 90’s drives spun anywhere from 3000-5500 rpm. Then we got faster storage by spinning at 7200 rpm. When we get into the next century, about 2003, hard drives could spin at 10,000 rpm and later they hit 15,000. These were mainly used in servers where several users are accessing data at the same time. But some gamers found that by using a faster spinning hard drive their game data would launch and load levels faster.

Solid State Storage

Then the computer industry started to change. Smart phones and tablets started becoming more popular. These devices are so small and so thin that a spinning type hard drive was impractical if not impossible to be used as storage. This is when we started seeing ‘flash’ type storage come of age. Sure, Flash storage was used in digital cameras and other devices, but once we started getting into mobile computing, the Solid State Drive (SSD) really took off.

s ssdAn SSD uses Flash Memory chips to store the data instead of a platter with a magnetic coating. Flash memory can have very fast access speeds, plus, you don’t have to wait for data that is moving around on a spinning platter. Since there are no heads reading data there is no ‘seek’ time. It takes the same amount of time to read data from the beginning of the drive and the end of the drive.

Using memory for storage is nothing new. I remember back on my Atari, before I had a hard drive, you could create something called a RAM Disk. This took a small, and I really mean small, portion of RAM and used it to emulate a drive. This allowed you to access the data stored there extremely fast, especially compared to a floppy drive.

At first, SSDs had a very limited amount of storage since Flash Memory was very expensive. Typical drives were 32GB or maybe as big as 60GB. The one thing that still holds true in the computer industry is that things get better, faster, and cheaper as time goes by. Today, you can get a 128GB SSD for under $50 and a 250GB for under $80. Storage sizes on SSDs keep getting bigger, but the best part is that they keep getting faster.

The Interface
Today the SSD can come in many shapes and sizes. The first ones look just like a 2.5-inch laptop hard drive. This meant that you could easily replace most laptop hard drives with a SSD. The computer industry is on a thin and light kick trying to make computers as small a possible. Since there is no real technical reason that an SDD has to look like a laptop hard drive, let’s remove the shell and just have the memory chips on a thin board.

m.2There are two major flavors of this type of SSD. First is the m.sata, or what I call mobile SATA (SATA is the drive interface used on modern hard drives). This type of SSD is about the size of a credit card. More recently the manufacturers have come out with m.2. These look more like the DIMM type memory cards found in desktop computers. The difference is that the interface is on the narrow dimension not along the length of it. The m.2 can have a SATA interface or with the newer ones, a pci-e interface.

The PCI-e is the fastest of the bunch. While m.sata may have data rates in the 400-600 MB/s (megabytes per second), the newest m.2 drives can have data rates over 2000, some even saying they can do over 3000 MB/s. Compare this with a spinning hard drive that may get 70 or 80 MB/s.

Modern Macs currently use the PCI-e interface for SSDs. All of the currently shipping Mac laptops have very fast SSDs for storage along with the Mac Pro. The only Macs that still have spinning drives are the iMac and the Mac mini. The iMac and Mac mini have options for a spinning drive, a Fusion drive (spinning and SSD combined), or SSD alone.

There is no reason not to have at least one SSD in your Mac for the OS and applications. Having an SSD means that your Mac will boot in seconds and Apps load almost instantly. If the SSD is big enough, then you could have your data there too. If you take lots of photo, shoot and edit video, or have lots of movies, then having a fast external drive (or second internal drive) is pretty much a requirement. The external data drive should be connected to the fastest port available on your Mac.

Here are the ports from slowest to fastest – I’ve included some legacy ports.

USB 1.1 = 12 Mbit/s

Firefire 400 = 400 Mbit/s

USB 2.0 = 480 Mbit/s

FireWire 800 = 800 Mbit/s

USB 3.0 = 5 Gbit/s

USB 3.1 = 10 Gbit/s

Thunderbolt = 10 Gbit/s

Thunderbolt 2 = 20 Gbit/s

Thunderbolt 3 = 40 Gbit/s

Next time…Combining Hard Drives for Speed and/or Reliability.


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