Week In Tech: Are SSDs Really Reliable?

By Jeremy Laird on January 30th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Oh hell, it’s happened again. But this time it’s induced not only frustration but a sudden pang of guilt. Another of my SSDs has gone titsup.com and my borderline breathless fanboyism for SSDs is flashing before my eyes. What have I done? Have I been wrong all along? Are SSDs still not fit for public consumption? At the very least, it’s reason enough to re-examine just how reliable the latest solid staters are and whether the reward is worth the risk.

My latest offender is a Crucial C300. A couple of generations old, perhaps, but very much a modern SSD complete with TRIM support.

More importantly, this drive had until recently led a pretty pampered life. It was one of my test drives that was woken up once or twice a month to benchmark a motherboard, GPU or whatever – unlike the previous failure involving a Kingston SSDNow effort of similar vintage that wilted under the onslaught of some heavy duty torrenting.

The irony here is that I pressed the C300 into regular duty in one of my secondary PCs on the back of the Kingston’s failure. To be fair, the C300 hasn’t totally died and I haven’t gotten properly stuck into the trouble shooting yet. But it has started locking up horribly on occasion. Not good.

Good company
I could simply view myself as being in good company. Last year, Linus Torvald’s SSD reportedly screwed the pooch, bringing development of the Linux 3.12 kernel to a standstill.

Of course, the real difficulty here is getting hold of proper stats with decent sample sizes based on a well-designed survey from an independent source. Because as an individual, it’s tricky enough to test a single drive for long term reliability, much less a significant sample of said drive or multiple competing models. It’s a bit of a mare.

Dig really deep into the subject of SSD reliability and in my experience brainache is a more likely outcome than true enlightenment. It’s a painfully tricksy subject.

One of the better surveys of SSD reliability dates back to 2012 and generally lines up with prevailing prejudices in terms of which are the most reliable SSD brands out there, with Samsung and Intel looking pretty clever. More recent returns data from a French e-tailer does likewise, though it notably puts Crucial drives rather lower down the pecking order.

The TechReport has also been busy for the last six months or so hammering away at a selection of the most popular drives. Overall, the drives seem to have held up reassuringly well as they passed the 500TB test mark, though a few chinks have appeared in the armour of the hallowed Samsung 840 Pro.

Power-loss panic
Extremetech, meanwhile, has some detail on how sudden power loss can hit SSD reliability and performance. It’s slightly unnerving stuff, but interestingly Intel once again rises to the top.

If it came down to life or death, you’d choose Intel

Then there’s the broader question of how SSDs compare to traditional hard drives. Lest ye forget, failures of those spinning platters are far from unheard of. According to a researcher at electronics market intelligence outfit IHS, annual failure rates of SSD run around 1.5 per cent with HDDs nearer five per cent. If true, that does rather blow SSD reliability concerns out of the water.

That seems to tally with Intel’s reported claims of warranty return rates below one per cent. Perhaps part of the confusion is that SSDs have a wider range of functionality than hard drives in the sense that the latter tend to be a bit more binary – either working fine or dead and not a lot in between.

But what to make of it all, especially in a gaming context? Firstly, the usual advice applies. Back important things up. SSD or traditional HDD, these drives routinely die.

Personally, I’m a big fan of treating your primary OS drive as expendable and disposable. Keep everything important elsewhere, use cloud-based profiles where possible and reinstall frequently.

For me it’s typically a case of installing Windows from a USB key, which takes no time at all, adding a GPU driver, installing Chrome and Steam and letting the cloud do its work. OK, there are a few more specialist apps I stick on. But you get the idea. It’s really not that painful.

You also have the option of using various tools to shunt your Steam library around, either to save space on your SSD or to back up your games for swift resinstallation.

The terrible ‘t’ word
But overall, a gaming-biased install oughtn’t be too hard on an SSD. What I would advise against is torrenting heavily on an SSD. I have no hard proof here. Just my anecdotal experience. And it’s that SSDs don’t take kindly to 24/7 torrenting.

Those provisos and the intermittently worrisome reliability data aside, I still think SSDs are well worth the downside. They may not be super critical in-game in performance terms, though god knows anything that speeds up level load times in some games is worth it.

But the impact on all-round PC responsiveness is just so overwhelming, I would personally put up with SSDs even flakier than most of those currently available. And the good news is that there’s just enough solid info out there to help you choose a really reliable drive if that’s your main priority. To cut a long story short, out of the big brands choose Samsung or Intel and favour the latter if your life depends on it.

With most of the latest SSDs delivering very decent performance, reliability is certainly my number one concern when choosing an SSD. I reckon it should be yours, too.

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134 Comments »

  1. DigitalSignalX says:

    My 256MB samsung SSDis only for gaming – my OS is on a pretty fast platter drive. The main issue I have is initial game play stutter – things load great and fast, but during game play it seems like there is weird load lag or display stutters that I never had on the other drive. This persists for around 10 minutes or so, then clears up and works fine. If I exit the title and restart, bang – another 10 min or so of weirdness then back to normal.

  2. edwardh says:

    Man… I hope people actually follow the link and read that:
    “Just power cycling the drives while no read/write operations were occurring was no problem, but power cycling them during the read-synchronize-write cycle was incredibly problematic. After 1600 power cycles, the M4 was recording up to 40,000 CRC errors.”

    No shit. If you live in a region where you get 1600 power outages in a year or so, maybe SSD isn’t for you.
    Or just get a UPS?
    I doubt that any of this is much of a concern for average users with a power outage of once a year or so. Although it’s probably still worth checking that the SSD one buys has some sort of a power outage safety system built in – for that rare sudden loss of power.

    Aside from that – like mentioned in the article, it’s not like traditional HDDs never fail. You wouldn’t believe the amounts of TB I’ve lost by now which weren’t really important enough to back up but still… not exactly data I wanted to lose either. A lot of stuff is in the gray area in between. And so now I do use RAID1. With fucking Intel Rapid Storage bullshit UI that started crashing constantly a couple of weeks ago. GAH!!

  3. buxcador says:

    I’m on the same boat. AVOID SANDFORCE CONTROLLERS.

    Your Crucial C300 has a Sandforce controller, and even when it only needs a software unlock, Sandforce refuses to allow consumers to unlock these bricked SSD, to protect his “secrets”.

    Anandtech made a review here:

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/3812/the-ssd-diaries-crucials-realssd-c300

    And the same drive failed on Anandtech.

    I also have a Vertex 2, Sandforce based SSD bricked (it bricks just because the PC goes on suspend mode. It is bricked in “panic mode”, and only needs a software signal to be recovered, but OCZ refused to provide it), so I was forced to buy a Samsung 840. Unfortunately I could not afford the Evo or Pro.

    I dream that as a Rock Paper Shotgun writer, you have the leverage to make pressure over Sandforce to give a DIY solution to his customers.

  4. Universal Quitter says:

    My fears about my SSD have simply motivated me to be more diligent with backups and external hard-drives. Yeah, it could fail with zero warning. That’s why you back things up. Multiple times, and regularly.

    Couldn’t we get around this by having much smaller, much more numerous hard storage? It only has to fit in a traditional hard disk slot because that’s the shape we’ve been using for years, and people don’t change things for no reason, as that costs money. Couldn’t we have twenty smaller drives, with the same total memory, so if one goes out, it’s more like losing a single LED light in a newer car’s headlight?

    I would think it would help with heat distribution, too.

  5. doodadnox says:

    In the process of returning my 2nd SSD (Crucial m4 256gb). One was a personal PC and used it primarily for my windows installation. The other was for my work PC and acted as my primary drive. Both died within a 1-year window.

    They both died in a similar manner – It took me months to figure it out, but my audio started emitting an audible screech that sounded like a CD skipping. Then I noticed when the audio screeched my video/screen would flicker as well. I ran so many tests on my RAM, processor, video card, speakers, I even replaced the sound card since I only noticed it while audio was playing. Someone suggested I try a program that measured some sort of electricity pull, I can’t recall anymore, but at the moment my PC screeched I’d get a massive spike in power draw. Eventually I got a windows “hard drive dying” error and removed the drive. The power spikes immediately stopped! A few months later my 2nd PC started screeching.

    Both were in warranty and both have been(are being) replaced. I hate how unreliable these things are because the benefits are tremendous! I didn’t think twice before installing the replacement. With light use I can get 4+ years with an HDD – hope we hit that mark soon with SSDs!

    Side note: Apparently the faster processing results in more “traffic jams”. Many models have a “garbage cleanup” feature to fix these jams(think defrag). Make sure it’s set to “never sleep” and unplug the data cable, but leave the power plugged in. Give it 6-8 hours to cleanup. Doing this frequently can extend the life.