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Why You Should Buy a Solid State Drive

Steven Messner Posted:
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While they're slowly branching out, MMORPGs have long existed in the realm of PC gaming, which is a huge benefit to the genre but also comes at a cost with needed to update and maintain a decent computer to play the more recent releases. With the likes of Black Desert Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and even older games like Guild Wars 2 still demanding a decent rig, keeping everything up to date can be confusing if you don't know where to start.

Earlier this year I made the case for some different builds you could look into if you needed a whole new computer, emphasizing the components that are going to have the greatest impact on your experience like video cards, processors, and a decent amount of RAM. But today I want to focus on something that will have a much more subtle effect on your playing experience, but a huge one on just using your computer altogether: solid state drives.

Unlike a graphics card, in which performance gains are easy to comprehend because games simply just run faster (in most cases), measuring the performance of a solid state drive can be hard to parse if you don't know what you're looking for. Just about every gamer can understand frames per second, but sequential write speeds or IOPS can get a bit confusing.

Today we're going to be breaking down a great option for an SSD while also exploring a bit more in-depth of how they operate, what to look for, and wrapping up with some basic alternatives that might appeal to you more than the option I've chosen.

The Crucial MX200 500GB SSD

The price for SSDs has plummeted over the past year or so, making these drives more attainable than ever. A few years ago I sprung for a Crucial M4 128GB drive, which now barely holds Windows 10 and many of the applications I use on my computer. Video games and general storage had to be regulated to a secondary Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB hard drive, but while that hard drive has served me well over the past few years, having a sizeable SSD to store games on has been nothing short of a godsend. That's where the MX200 comes into play.

If you're unfamiliar with hard drive technology, I won't hold it against you. It's one of the more esoteric aspects of building a PC, but the basic gist is that solid state drives can run circles around traditional hard disk drives, and much of that has to do with the lack of mechanical components that HDDs need to function. In a traditional hard disk drive, a mechanical arm needs to rotate into position in order to read data from the platter (disk), and the time between those miniscule adjustments the arm is constantly making can really slow down how fast those drives can read and write data. Solid state drives, however, feature no moving mechanical parts, and handle the transfer of data electronically to and from the drive.

That's why my WD Caviar Blue can only read and write sequential data at around 130MB/s while the MX200 can handle upwards of 555MB/s for reading and 500MB/s for writing (though in practice it's a bit slower). Back in the day, that kind of performance gain came at a large cost, but right now the MX200 500GB and similar mid-ranged SSDs will only run you around $140USD. While it's true that my Caviar Blue 1TB is only $50USD, the huge performance gains make SSDs a must have for modern users.

What SSDs Do

It's important to understand that, when it comes to gaming, SSDs aren't going to impact how well games will run on your computer. You won't see an increase in FPS because you have a faster drive, but what you will see is drastically decreased loading times and a potential reduction of "hitching," both of which are actually incredibly relevant to MMORPGs in general.

MMORPGs are typically set in massive worlds, which presents a few challenges from an engineering standpoint. For one, many MMOs like World of Warcraft use a seamless open world where you can travel from one area to the next and only rarely need to see a loading screen. This works because as you travel through the environment, Warcraft is pulling the information from your hard drive that it needs to display new zones. While this is great for immersion, it also means that you typically have two major obstacles to overcome. The first is that MMORPGs with seamless open worlds typically need to pre-load a sizeable amount of data when you first log in. The other is that as they continue to pull more data to build the landscape around you as you travel, the slower read times on older hard drives can create a problem called "hitching," where the game momentarily stutters as it attempts to load new assets for the territories surrounding you. Both of these can be a pretty big annoyance when playing from older, slower drives.

That's where SSDs like the MX200 can deliver huge performance gains. These drives will rarely achieve the 555MB/s sequential read time that they advertise, because the nature of these benchmarks revolves around the idea that the information is neatly organized in a sequential block, which is rarely the case. But even if you're achieving read times of around 450MB/s, you're still looking at almost four times faster loading than your traditional 130MB/s HDD (which also reads slower than advertised).

While I won't vouch for the testing methodology in the video above, it is a great representation of why an SSD can have a big impact on gaming. In an MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV, where loading screens are only slightly more common than people playing miqo'te characters, this means you can shave quite a bit of time off how long you spend watching a loading screen. If you consider the hundreds of hours many players will invest in their characters, that can easily add up to over a day of your life.

Me Love You Long Time

If you've ever had a hard drive up and die on you, it's an awful experience. Of course, SSDs aren't impervious to malfunctions, but in ideal conditions they can also easily last for decades—which was never the case a few years ago. One of the major benefits over HDDs is that SSDs don't have any moving parts, so wear and tear doesn't happen nearly as frequently. Instead, SSDs are made from an array of flash memory chips and what's called a controller, which stores a processor, memory cache, and firmware needed to make the SSD function. The flash memory chips require a strong voltage in order to change their binary values, but each time a cell within the chip is changed, the insulator between it and other cells deteriorates more and more. This used to be a bigger problem, but the MX200, for example, supports up to 87GB of writes per day for five years, which is well beyond what most casual users will ever use. Furthermore, TechReport ran an amazing test that proved that many drives can handle writes to almost a petabyte of information (though it remains unclear of the MX200 could ever go this far), which is well beyond their advertised limits. The simple fact is, SSDs can last a long time.

Alternatives to the MX200 500GB

Of course, while I'm a bit partial to Crucial because it's a brand I've used for two separate SSDs now (both my M4 128GB and now my MX200 500GB) there's definitely some stiff competition on the market. If you're an average user, I can't stress enough that cheaper options (within reason) should be the ultimate deciding factor between two drives of similar quality.

For example, Samsung's 850 EVO 500GB is a superb SSD that offers slightly better performance to the MX200 500GB at a slightly higher cost. While you'll never notice the difference in day to day use, many people prefer the 850 EVO and I certainly don't blame them, especially when it's only marginally more expensive than the MX200 at $155USD (but then again, every dollar matters when building a PC).

The 500GB of space for the 850 EVO and the MX200 sits in a fairly awkward place depending on how you use your computer. It's more than enough to store an operating system, all your applications, and a few games, but you'll likely feel the squeeze unless you have a secondary storage drive. If space isn't a concern (or you have aforementioned secondary drive) and are absolutely on a tight budget, then the MX200 250GB drive is the way to go. It's $20 dollars cheaper than the 850 EVO 250GB, and offers the exact same performance as its 500GB sister, just with less useable space. Even cheaper is the SanDisk Ultra II 240GB, but again, I'd only recommend that if you're on an extremely tight budget.

Wrapping Up

The simple reality is that for average users, the differences between the 850 EVO, MX200, and any other comparable SSDs is going to be negligible—especially if your focus is on gaming. All of them are a considerable hardware upgrade that will reduce loading times and hitching, while also speeding up applications and the time it takes Windows to boot. While I still prefer the MX200 because of the slightly cheaper price point, the 850 EVO makes a strong case and is undoubtedly the more popular model, so it might boil down to what kind of deals you can find either online or in your local area.

While graphics cards and CPUs tend to steal all the thunder, if you haven't upgraded to an SSD yet, now is absolutely the time. Running games at higher frames per second is amazing, no doubt, but a graphics card will only affect a portion of the total time you spend on a computer, unlike an SSD which will likely impact everything you do on your computer.


Steven Messner

Steven is a Canadian freelance writer and EVE Online evangelist, spreading the good news of internet spaceships far and wide. In his spare time, he enjoys writing overly ambitious science fiction and retweeting pictures of goats. Speaking of retweeting, you should probably drop everything and go follow him on Twitter @StevenMessner