No Moving Parts!

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A 5 Megabyte computer hard drive in 1956

From the dawn of the computer age, files have been stored on hard drives consisting of spinning platters made of magnetic material; not too different from the way magnetic tapes work. As you can see from the photo, the size has gone down from tons to ounces, and the capacity has gone from megabytes (millions of bytes) to terabytes (trillions of bytes), a factor of over millions in about 40 years.

In the 1980s, Toshiba invented a form of computer memory originally called simultaneously erasable EEPROM, and later called simply flash memory. You’re probably most familiar with flash memory in the form of “thumb drives” or “flash drives,” those tiny USB devices that can store a ton of stuff on your keychain. The salient feature of both hard drives and flash drives is that they can store data even when they have no power; That’s why your computer still has all your stuff even after a power failure.

Flash memory, until recently, had two disadvantages compared to hard drives: The cost per megabyte was very high, and they weren’t very fast as far as read/write was concerned.

As with all other things in the technology world, data density and speed goes up and price goes down over time. For the past few years, flash-memory drives for computers have been available, and are now entering the mainstream. Usually called solid-state drives (solid-state is a buzzword from the early transistor era, it originally meant no vacuum tubes but now means no moving parts), these drives are still a bit expensive for the storage you get, but have many advantages, particularly for mobile devices.

A solid-state drive (SSD) is more robust mechanically, uses less power, generates less heat, often takes up less space, and reads faster (although still often writes slower) than a spinning hard drive. This of course translates into higher drop resistance, longer battery life, and faster boot times. I installed a solid-state drive on my main computer a few months ago, and boot times were cut in half with the exact same software.

Many modern thin-and-light laptops are now using SSDs, as well as almost all tablets.

The only thing that might give pause to the average user, other than cost, is the fact that factory-installed SSDs are usually on the small side (in terms of storage space), if you’re used to terabyte drive sizes. I’ve never seen anyone yet that can fill up a terabyte hard drive, so unless you have truly massive storage needs, the SSD would probably fill the bill. On a desktop computer like mine, (most desktops have room for several hard drives) I just installed a 2 terabyte regular drive to hold all my data, and used the smallish (256 GB) SSD only for Windows and my programs.

In case you’re one of the few people who actually do regular maintenance on their computers, there is one thing you need to be aware of when it comes to SSDs: They should not be defragmented. De-fragmenting is only useful on spinning hard drives, because the data is stored in physical locations on the drive, and the read/write head has to move in order to find those fragments. Since an SSD has no moving parts, this does not apply, and in fact will shorten the life of the drive. Modern versions of Windows are SSD-aware, and will not run any automatic defragmenting. You should also not launch any defragmenting utility manually. All other computer maintenance is the same.

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