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If You Buy One PC Upgrade This Year…

…Make it an SSD. I am not making spurious claims or waving my silly little e-willy around here. It’s the single most immediately noticeable system upgrade I think I’ve ever done, and as such I’m keen it isn’t stranded in a techhead and rich-gonk ghetto. This is an upgrade for any PC gamer, not purely for the well-monied ‘performance enthusiasts’ who get a bit worryingly sweaty when looking at bar charts.

To state the bleeding obvious for those to whom this has never been mentioned (because most of those who already know already know, and thus shouldn't be reading this), a Solid State Hard Drive is a hard disk made from memory. Rather than the traditional spinning magnetic platters, these are more akin to that in an SD card, but far faster and far more capacious. To use the kind of sweepingly generalised layman’s terms that will result in someone pitching up and lecturing me about how offensively wrong I am, you’re looking at something halfway between a memory card and your PC’s RAM – a drive that can remember data like the former but shift it around at high speeds like the latter.

Net result: Windows, games, everything takes dramatically less time to load. Sticking one into my PC (without indulging any other upgrades) made it feel like someone had injected caffeine into its eyeballs, kicked it in the buttocks and told it the love of its life was right over them thar hills. I’m in Windows within less than a minute, and once I am I don’t get that traditional bonus minute or two of post-startup slowdown as it tiredly loads various bits and bobs in the background. I’m not going to give you benchmarks because they’re incredibly boring, but believe me that it flies.

There’s a big difference in games, too. I picked up my drive (which I’m loathe to specifically name-check, as it isn’t an especially good one in the grand scheme of things so I don’t want to be perceived as having recommended it above others) mid-way during my Dawn of War II: Retribution review, and the loading time difference was frankly obscene. Even now, during my occasional pokes at Last Stand mode – something I’m trying to find a neat hook to lead to RPS-based documentation thereof – I get a tiny, naughty, nerdy thrill at the surely inaccurate but nonetheless pleasing map-loading screens that show how far along the process you are compared to the other players. I’m always loaded first, and left frustratingly attending the spinning platter boys as a result, but I always feel quietly relieved that at least I’m not frowning in annoyance at my own tardy system’s wheezing and chuntering. Even smaller stuff like Fate of the World benefits immediately and noticeably.

The SSD doesn’t mean I can make games look prettier or even run faster once they’re loaded; you’ll still need a new graphics card and/or CPU and/or memory if your PC’s sputtering along painfully in that regard. The difference is I’m not spending so much time waiting for my PC to catch up, and the time between wanting to do something and doing it is impressive reduced. I can deal with in-game sluggishness, I know how to tweak and lower settings, I know and accept full well that some games simply don’t run well. At least I don’t have to wait bloody forever to find out.

Resorting, as I am right now, to my unpuny (but not mighty either) laptop, my patience for loading times and general system responsiveness is frayed to demolition point. Waiting for Word to load to write these words made me utter naughty swears which caused people at the adjacent table to glare at me. I shall be ramming an SSD into this slab as soon as I am financially able, trust me.

This isn’t just empty platitudes to a new technology, trust me. I truly believe that every PC gamer should make an SSD priority number one for their system upgrades, far above and beyond a new graphics card or processor. That said, I’m acutely also aware that it’s a terrible minefield of confusing numbers and inflated prices out there, shamelessly following the bewildering and cynical trends laid down by graphics cards and processors. So here’s just a few things to bear in mind once/if you choose to embark upon the great shopping hunt.

- Check write speeds as well as read speeds. The latter is the more important number, as it dictates (at least in theory – more on which soon) how quickly stuff is going to load. However, if you’re likely to be regularly copying data onto your hard drive, for instance by shifting large files onto it or installing stupidly large videogames, you want a decent write speed too. I am generalising somewhat here, but make sure the quoted write speed is in excess of 100MB/s. The higher the better, but there are diminishing returns as matters get faster, so don’t overspend. For read speeds, aim for 200 MB/s as a bare minimum, and closer to 300 MB/s as an ideal.

- Don’t believe the numbers. You drive will not be able to read 300 MB/s. I won’t go into the long and short of it here (I’m sure someone will), but just keep that figure in mind as a touchstone for decent performance. If you spy a particular drive that looks tasty, look up reviews of it and you’ll quickly find some observation upon bullshit numbers if that is indeed the case.

- Your PC/motherboard needs to have SATA 2 ports at the least. The drives will work with SATA 1, but it’ll introduce some pretty serious bottlenecks in performance due to having half the (theoretical) data transfer rate. SATA 3 is better still, but again – diminishing returns. If your PC already has it, all to the good (and make sure the drive you buy explicitly supports SATA 3) but please don’t do anything silly like buying a SATA 3 PCI Express card purely to add support for it. 10% extra on Really Fast is nowhere near as noticeable as 10% extra on Quite Slow. For now at least, a decent SATA 2 SSD will do all you realistically need, and put your old hard drive to quivering shame.

- Saving money on buying a small drive is no saving at all. The 32 and 64 GB drives are a whole lot cheaper than the 128GB+ drives, but you’ll be locked in constant battle for free space and will simply have no room whatsoever to install games. My drive is 128GB, which still isn’t much but gives me enough to have around five large-size games installed at any one time, alongside a fair few svelte indie games, my most regularly-used apps and Windows - with a few gig still to to spare. You could install all your games on an additional, high-space traditional drive, but while Windows and general system performance will see the benefit, the games will be largely unaffected. Get 128GB or more, and pair it with a high-space cheapie standard hard drive (e.g. 500GB, 1TB, or 2TB if you insist on keeping all of your Gentlemen’s Relaxation Videos once you’ve watched them) for data like documents, pics, music and all those movies you steal.

- Some programs refuse to be installed anywhere other than the main system drive, which is a massive pain in the fleshy bits when you’re as short on space as an SSD can make you. Steam is an obvious culprit here, as even after all these years it mystifyingly prevents users from installing games anywhere other than the drive it too is installed on, but if you’re an eyeTelephone/Pad user you’ll find your Apps defiantly lurk on the C: drive. I’ve not the space to go fully into it here, but research Symbolic Links – with a wee bit of pretty easy tinkering, you can trick programs/Windows into believing that stuff is installed on C: (or wherever), but in fact loading it from another drive.

- TRIM is a silly and slightly naughty-sounding word, but a vital one when it comes to SSDs. These little bastards can wear out as a result of long-term reads and writes, which in practical terms means a degradation in performance over time. TRIM can help to keep this at bay, kinda by wiping free space and restoring it to a virginal status. That sentence is factually wrong but conceptually valid. Only the more recent drives support TRIM, though some of the older ones can have their firmware updated to include it. If you’ve got an old drive, check its manufacturer’s site and old man Google. There are third party hacks to enable it on a few drives that don’t officially support it, but don’t get your hopes too high.

- Update to Windows 7 if you haven’t already. It’s pretty good anyway, honest – it is the version of Windows I have complained about the least in my long, tiresome history of complaining about Windows. That aside, XP and Vista will play nice with SSDs, but 7 is a little more prepared for their vagaries. However, there’s a bunch of Windows-default shit you should turn off to both improve performance and increase drive lifespan. Prefetch, search indexing, that sort of thing: anything that’s prone to regularly bothering the drive with incidental read/write requests. The thing with having a very fast drive is that it doesn’t need to do stuff like indexing – it can scour itself so quickly for whatever you’re searching for that having a constantly-updated database of the contents won’t bring much to the table anyway. Some drives (e.g. the pricy but sturdy Intel ones) ship with apps that auto-configure that sort of thing for you, but failing that try SSD Tweak Utility. There’s a paid version if you want to get waist-deep in tweaker-filth, but the free one will sort out the most important stuff for you with just a couple of clicks. Hooray for other people making things for lazy people.

- Grab a free program called CCleaner – it’s remarkably good at sweeping unwanted crap such as temporary files, browser caches and leftover install/update data from your drive. Run it pretty regularly to free up a few gig.

- Windows System Restore can use a ridiculous amount of space. Turn it off if you’re feeling brave (or use another backup program to save restoration data to another drive), and regularly use ‘delete all but the most recent restore point) and you’ll find you have quite a few more gig back in play.

- An SSD will also save on power-consumption and reduce the noise your PC makes (they’re silent in operation), so they’re particularly handy for laptops. This doesn’t even slightly mean they’re irrelevant in desktops though – they’re at their best when paired with a meaty processor, able to keep up with all the data they’re throwing about. However, you will find that the vast majority of SSDs are laptop-sized, so you may need to buy a special caddy for desktop which essentially makes them the size of standard hard drives. Or you can just do what I do, which is have the thing dangling unprettily off its cables and occasionally falling off when I move my PC around.

- You’ll get an immediate and impressive performance boost if you buy now, but be aware that the performance/price of these things is improving rapidly. Don’t feel bad if you hear of far more wondrous, affordable SSDs within months or weeks of picking one up. C’est la vie in tech. Sure, upgrade again later (for instance, use your first SSD for games etc and whatever the new hyperdrive is for Windows and primary apps)

That is the end of my boring list. I am quite sure the gentlemen below will have far more, and more precise, recommendations to share with you. Some may even claim that you shouldn’t get an SSD. They are quite wrong. It is the best upgrade you could possibly get for a PC right now.

Tomorrow: I shall talk about games instead of hardware again, promise.

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