I'm taking a departure from writing specifically about photography and delving into a bit of computer geekiness. Don't worry – there is a photography angle here, as this will be about computer technology that can significantly improve the efficiency of your image editing. It also enhances all the other everyday tasks for which people use their computers. Even better, this tip applies regardless of the kind of computer (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc) that you happen to use!
In brief, this is a summary of things I've learned recently about solid state hard drives – commonly called SSDs. Due to a recent motherboard failure, I decided to purchase a new PC. While investigating my options, I discovered that the latest higher-end systems today often make use of these super-fast drives. While SSD drives (yes, I realize that's redundant but it looks better than SSDs), have been around for several years, only recently have they become truly affordable and practical for general use.
Conventional hard drives are mechanical devices that rely on fast-spinning magnetic platters to store data. This basic drive design has been with us since the 1950s! Because a drive head, analogous to a needle on an old record player, must travel to read data at various locations from these spinning platters, hard drives have always been a performance bottleneck on any computer. Because they're mechanical, conventional hard drives are also fairly susceptible to failure – commonly called “crashes.”.
SSD drives, by contrast, are fully electronic, with no moving parts, and thus operate at speeds several times faster than even the fastest conventional hard drives. (There are various technical factors that may limit just how fast an SSD will run on your computer, but let's just say they're really, really fast regardless.) Data in an SSD drive is stored on non-volatile memory and hence can be accessed with lightning speed. While SSD drives are not immune from failure, they're generally regarded as more reliable than conventional hard drives due to their non-mechanical construction.
Since SSD drives run so much faster than a conventional hard drive, simply replacing an older conventional hard drive with one of these can dramatically improve performance.* I'm composing this blog entry on a Toshiba laptop that I bought new in 2008 for around $500. It's the kind of computer most people would consider destined for the junk heap – or maybe a beater to let the kids play on. I've made several upgrades over the years that have extended its useful life. But the most dramatic is the upgrade I performed this weekend: I replaced the slow, aging hard drive with a brand new, 120GB SSD drive. My 6 year old laptop now screams to life where it used to yawn and search for coffee when I turned it on.
The difference in performance is dramatic. The time it takes to boot up before reaching the login prompt has dropped about 50% (from 46 to 22 seconds). After logging in, Windows 7 finishes loading and becomes fully available to use within a few seconds. Small programs open almost instantly, while larger programs (like Adobe Lightroom) now open in a respectable 12-15 seconds. Lightroom in particular was a real dog on this machine previously – so slow in loading image previews as to be practically useless. While the dated on-board graphics adapter remains a small bottleneck, the laptop is now suitable for casual editing when I'm away from my main PC. The cost for the new drive was a little less than $100, including tax and shipping. Drives in the 500GB range will cost about $200-250; anything larger than 500GB is currently fairly pricey. As prices drop, much larger drives will become affordable.
In brief, installing this SSD drive has given my aging laptop a new lease on life. If you have an older computer that still works but seems a bit sluggish, consider installing a new SSD drive. If it's a desktop PC or Mac, you can always install an SSD drive as your main system drive and continue using your old drive as a secondary data storage device. SSD drives generally come with “cloning” software that, with the right hardware adapter (an external, USB 3 drive adapter will set you back $20-30), will let you precisely duplicate your existing hard drive. Then all you have to do is physically swap in the SSD drive and you're up and running with very little time and effort. Of course if your operating system hasn't been reinstalled in several years, you may decide to skip the cloning process and perform a fresh install from your recovery media.
For a relatively small investment you can get a few more years out of your current system while realizing drastic performance gains.
*SATA interface drives were first introduced in 2002, so if your computer is really ancient, you should check to see what kind of drive interface it uses before investing in a SSD drive. My laptop uses SATA 1, which does limit the speed at which data can be transferred. Newer computers that use SATA 2 or 3 will see an even more dramatic speed increase than I am currently enjoying.