You might think the technical properties and real-world performance of your PC’s hard drive is pretty tangential to your gaming experience. After all, games are not rendered on hard drives. And yet you would be wrong. I view a decent solid state drive as one of the most important cornestones to any half-decent PC. And that includes half-decent gaming PCs. As why-you-needs go, then, this one is awfully easy.
In theory, the case for solid state drives or SSDs in a gaming context is tricky. Like I said, games aren’t rendered on hard drives. They’re rendered on processors and graphics chips. In practice, it’s pretty much a slam dunk in favour of SSDs.
But first, a quick recap on the basics of solid state and why it’s so much better simply as a storage technology. A lot of it is down to what SSDs are not. They’re not magnetic platters spinning around with read heads desperately trying to keep up.
Conventional hard drives are both marvels of engineering and a fundamentally batshit idea. We’re talking about a device with preposterously delicate moving parts that require quite phenomenal precision to operate correctly.
Think about it. Billions of tiny magnetic anomalies across the surface of a moving plate, which have to be located individually by a read head in order to be interpreted as data. It’s a recipe for both cataclysmic levels of reliability and catastrophically slow data recall.
That hard drives developed into something so reliable and relatively speedy in spite of all this is quite marvellous. In that sense, it will almost be a pity when they’re gone. Hard drive internals are quite beautiful if you’ve an eye for exotic engineering.
And yet magnetic hard drives with spinning platters only happened for one reason. It’s because, until fairly recently, the transistors in computer chips couldn’t be made small enough to allow a sufficient quantity for mass storage at a price mere mortals can afford.
But now they can and that has changed everything. I don’t want to be overly dismissive about what can be significant quantities of cash depending on your ongoing economics. But in the context of what any truly gaming-capable PC is going to cost you, current pricing of around $100 / £80 for a circa 250GB SSD is pretty piffling.
Beautiful, but basically borked…
Anyway, the point about SSDs is that they are storage done right. In simple terms, an SSD is mostly agnostic about where data is located in the drive. It’s all effectively equidistant, unlike a magnetic drive where attempting to pick up data from disparate parts of the drive is a major headache.
That’s why the very best solid state drives are perhaps 10 times faster than a magnetic drive at spewing out large sequential lumps of data, but more than 100 times faster at picking up little bits of data from here and there, otherwise know as random access. The typical random access speed of a decent magnetic drive is normally in the region of a single megabyte per second. Grim.
But how does this all square with gaming? Isn’t it the case that your hard drive really only has an impact when it comes to loading level data? Once that’s done, isn’t the game rendered on CPU and GPU and independent from of mass storage? If you can put up with slower level load times, isn’t an SSD redundant in terms of in-game frame rates?
There’s some truth to that. But it’s also not the whole story. Apart from the simple fact that glacial level loads can be a major bummer, drive performance can niggle away at gaming enjoyment in other ways.
For starters, if there’s any disk activity at all going in in-game, you are far better off with an SSD. In theory, Windows is bright enough to suppress non-game disk activity when you’re in full flight and full screen. But the reality is that even today’s sleeker Windows builds are pretty complex beasts and there is inevitably some disk traffic from time to time. If you’re running Vista, God help you in that regard.
Games themselves can also generate some disk traffic. For some that can be admittedly quite limited. For others – open world shooters, for instance – there can be level data being loaded on the fly.
What’s more, I generally find that in terms of overall responsiveness and feel, the subjectives of what your PC is generally like to use, the impact of an SSD comfortably outstrips the objective metrics. That’s especially true as your OS installation ages and your magnetic hard drive becomes fragmented. In that context, your storage tech becomes ever more likely to occasionally bork your in-game frame rates.
As things currently stand, one slight snag to all this involves some ongoing SSD tech developments I’ve covered previously, namely PCI Express SSDs and something called NVMe. But these are more concerns for those considering an upgrade from an existing SSD. If you’re running magnetic tech, it’s irrelevant. Do not stop. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 boxed copies of Windows ME. Just go directly to your nearest online or bricks-and-mortar outlet and buy an SSD. My most recent SSD buyer’s guide is a decent enough starting point if you need specifics. Things haven’t changed hugely since.
The odd exception aside, picking a half-decent SATA SSD is easy
As for the specifics of buying an SSD, they’re all much more reliable than before and there are few real duds out there. But drives from Crucial, Samsung, Intel and SanDisk are easy to recommend regards buying a no-brainer on the reliability front, notwithstanding the odd inevitable glitch, such as ongoing issues with the Samsung 840 Evo.
Having said all that, I don’t actually want to overstate my case. There very much are limits to the impact an SSD can have on gaming performance and enjoyment. Put it this way. The choice between, say, having Nvidia GTX 980 graphics and a magnetic drive versus Intel integrated graphics and an SSD would be no choice at all. But then you can contrive scenarios to make almost any basic proposition look ludicrous.
In short, it’s about setting priorities. You still need to heavily favour components like graphics, CPU and system memory when it comes to gaming performance. But the key point is that SSDs are now so affordable, you can have solid state storage without materially compromising your budget and overall component balance.
The impact on your gaming may not always be overwhelming. But you and your PC in general will be so much happier. That much I can promise you.