The tech helper: Getting the most out of SSDs (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty May 25, 2010, 3:06 GMT
Washington - Solid state disk drives (SSDs) are this year's hot ticket item for computer users - and with good reason. SSDs can cut boot time in half, open bloated software applications in the blink of an eye, and save your files so quickly you'll wonder whether anything happened at all. In short, an SSD will probably add more pep to your PC or notebook than almost any other upgrade.
But with new technologies come new questions and concerns. In the case of SSDs, questions about insufficient storage space and how to properly set up and care for SSDs are common. Read on for some answers.
Q: I purchased a 32 gigabyte SSD to use as a boot drive. It's barely big enough to hold Windows 7 and the applications I use, so I frequently am on the lookout for files I can delete from it. Is there a tool that can help me pinpoint which folders are using the most space?
A: Folder Sizes (http://www.foldersizes.com) can be of great assistance in helping you to find out which folders and files on your SSD are consuming the most space. Just launch the tool, point it at your C drive, and it will start analysing the folders immediately, showing you with a bar graph exactly which ones contain files that are eating up the most space. You can also use the tool to generate reports about duplicate files and - most importantly - the largest files on your SSD.
While 32 gigabyte (GB) SSDs are certainly affordable, they're barely sufficient for a reasonably loaded Windows system. While the operating system itself and many applications will fit comfortably within that space, it's the additional files that get created - including media databases and search catalogues - that can add unexpectedly to space requirements. For that reason, it's important that you look carefully at where programs such as Windows Media Player, desktop search tools, as well as photo and video cataloguing systems store their databases. Move those databases to other, larger drives within your system, if possible. If you're buying an SSD for a notebook computer, which has space for only one drive, then consider 60, 80, or 120GB SSDs at a minimum.
Q: What is AHCI and does my computer have to support it to get the best performance out of an SSD?
A: AHCI is short for Advanced Host Controller Interface, an Intel-developed interface specification which controls how software communicates with storage devices - particularly hard drives. AHCI offers some advantages over the preceding Serial ATA (SATA) standard, including the ability to hot swap SATA hard drives, which otherwise would have to be installed with the machine powered down. AHCI also provides a feature called 'native command queuing,' which arranges incoming requests for data based upon where data is physically stored on a drive. The result is a reduction in seek times and therefore faster performance. AHCI mode is typically enabled (or disabled) in your computer's BIOS - the setup program that you access as soon as your computer boots up.
Whether your SSD will benefit from or even function with AHCI, however, is totally dependent upon the drive itself. Some SSDs will not operate properly with AHCI enabled. Others, particularly those from Intel, will perform marginally better. Keep in mind that the 'native command queuing' feature of AHCI will provide the most benefit to conventional hard drives, since the physical location of data on an SSD is not of great importance. Consult the SSD manufacturer's web page to find out whether the drive you own or are considering supports AHCI. And when in doubt, do without AHCI. In some cases having AHCI turned on will prevent you even from installing your operating system.
Q: I heard that defragmenting an SSD can damage it. Is that true?
A: There is or was a concern with the original solid state drives that defragmentation tools could shorten the life span of the drives. The concern arose out of the fact that there is a limit to the number of times data can be written to the memory 'sectors' in an SSD, and the original SSDs did not include any type of wear-leveling technology to ensure that data was written evenly across all of the sectors that made up the drives. Therefore, to ensure that some sectors did not wear out prematurely due to being written to intensely by defragmentation programs, the warning about defragmentation became common.
Wear-leveling is now a standard feature of many SSDs, so today there's not the same concern about some sectors wearing out before others. But defragmentation of SSDs is still not recommended, for one very simple reason: It won't improve performance. Data storage is fundamentally different with SSDs than it is with traditional hard drives, which include read-write heads that travel back and forth across the spinning platters in a conventional hard drive to write or retrieve data. In SSDs, by comparison, the physical location of data is irrelevant to how quickly the drive operates, so at best defragmenting an SSD is simply a waste of your time.
In Windows 7, an SSD identifies itself differently from a traditional hard drive, and the operating system is smart enough to turn off automatic defragmentation of these newer drives. In Vista, however, you should visit the defrag tool to turn off automatic defragmentation of your SSD. In Windows XP, just make sure that defragmentation is not scheduled to run automatically on any SSD.
-- Have a tech question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.