2012 Holiday Gift Guide: SSDs and External Hard Drives

After spending most of my life with solid disk drives, I’ve discovered two extremely important things: first, hard disk drives are terrible. They break too easily, they don’t last long, and once they’re broken that’s it; kiss your information goodbye or expect to pay a lot to get it back. Unless you’re using a desktop that doesn’t move or just don’t care if data is lost, there is never a time when a traditional HDD is better than newer solid state drives. This also goes for the best external hard drives for Xbox One.

And two, HDDs are great for storing large capacities. You can buy terabytes of space for almost nothing. It’s so absurd that internet storage is often unlimited because hell, it costs professional server companies nothing to pile on additional drives. However, owning personal drives for storage is a better and safer solution for almost any need, though perhaps if only to speed up your computer.

I recommend SSDs for laptops specifically; desktop computers can benefit more from other systems like Sandisk’s ReadyCache (read below) combined with a standard HDD. Laptop computers are typically thrown about and aren’t treated as well as perhaps they should. It’s safer and prolongs the life of the drive to have no mechanical moving parts, such as an SSD. For mass storage, HDDs are recommended.

Sandisk ReadyCache

You might not expect that a simple 32GB SSD cache would significantly improve your desktop’s performance, but it is a strangely efficient and powerful update for any computer. The ReadyCache is a two-part system, which you could say is similar to what Apple touted a few months ago with it’s Fusion Drive, though Sandisk created the technology before Apple announced it. The ReadyCache is a 32GB SSD that looks like any typical 2.5″ drive, but is much lighter because it isn’t as dense as a typical SSD. You can buy them for about double the price of an equivalent capacity flash drive or MicroSD card.

The second part is the ExpressCache software, which is the real killer app. It analyzes your computer use and moves more regularly used files and services — such as Windows operations — to the ReadyCache for faster loading. This increases the boot time significantly; I found that a normal 1-minute boot now takes 15-20 seconds. Opening certain applications, from benchmarking suites like PCMark 7 to image editing tools like Adobe Lightroom are much faster after several uses. Loading anything that you load regularly is much faster than before. After just a day of allowing the ExpressCache software to analyze my computer use, nearly every productivity tool and application I regularly use starts and runs faster.

It hasn’t drastically changed my workflow, but it does speed things up enough to make your computer seem almost fresh, like the day you first bought it. Even little things, like opening up the Device Manager or Programs and Features in Windows 7/8, are so much faster that it works like it should. For most functions, you would think that you have a high-capacity SSD in your desktop. And for the low price of $40 right now (price from Amazon), I can only recommend that you buy it before that price disappears. Even if you don’t, that kind of performance with little to no additional work is unprecedented.

Samsung 840 Pro Series SSD

Out of all of the latest SSDs to purchase, the 840 Pro Series is the highest performance device I’ve gotten to test, often by a longshot. It is blazingly fast; while I’m not done testing it yet, the PCMark 7 score for the drive is 5666, compared to 3048 for my 7200RPM HDD and the Sandisk Extreme listed below with 4983. That kind of performance is both incredible and, if you’re looking for a drive that works for anything from productivity to gaming, Samsung’s 840 Pro is your best bet.

I’d recommend either the 128GB or 256GB drives. Right now it’s about $1/GB, but if you count various deals available for the SSD like a free copy of Assassin’s Creed 3 or Far Cry 3 — both considered to be some of this year’s best games — then it works out to be an excellent gift.

Sandisk Extreme SSD

Sandisk doesn’t share the same speed as the competing Samsung SSD, but what it lacks in performance it makes up for in bundles when it comes to price. Sandisk’s competing drives are $50 and $100 cheaper at the nearly identical capacities (120GB vs 128GB, 240GB vs 256GB). The performance isn’t worth forgoing either; according to my initial tests the 120GB version of the Sandisk Extreme is over 60% faster than your typical 7200RPM HDD while only 14% slower than the Samsung equivalent drive.

For the price difference, especially for anyone on a budget or for holiday shoppers who aren’t going to buy you whatever you want, Sandisk isn’t only a safe choice for an SSD, it’s a good choice for performance and financially.

Seagate Backup Plus Portable Drive

Seagate has done an impressive job over the past few years with hard disk drives, especially external drives for backup storage. Their latest, the Backup Plus Portable Drive, is a USB 3.0/Thunderbolt drive that can be purchased as a standalone USB 3.0 drive or with a Thunderbolt attachment for Macs or Thunderbolt-enabled computers. It’s extremely fast over both connections, though the Thunderbolt adapter for the Backup Plus is fairly large, so it isn’t exactly easy to travel with compared to the extremely small USB 3.0 adapter.

Then again, if you use the drive for travel and use a Mac at home but not necessarily on the road, no problem. In fact, even if you forget any adapter, the drive will connect via SATA. With up to 1TB of storage (three sizes: 500GB, 750GB, 1TB), it’s a really convenient backup drive that’s both very slim and very fast. Access to both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt is just topping on the cake, especially if you own a Mac that doesn’t yet support USB 3.0.

Also why not check out:

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.

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