When building or upgrading a PC, one of the most common questions is whether you need both a solid state drive (SSD) and a hard disk drive (HDD), or if you can get by with just one or the other. In most cases, the answer is that having both an SSD and HDD is the ideal setup for a responsive system with ample storage capacity. However, depending on your specific needs and budget, you may be able to optimize your system in other ways.
The quick answer is that an SSD and HDD combo is recommended for most users. Here’s a brief rundown of the benefits:
- SSD – Faster boot and load times, better performance for most daily tasks. More expensive per GB.
- HDD – Much higher capacities available. Cheaper per GB. Good for bulk storage.
- By combining an SSD and HDD, you get the speed of SSD with the large storage capacity of HDD.
- Ideal setup is a small SSD (250GB to 1TB) for Windows, programs, and games paired with a larger HDD (1TB or more) for documents, media, etc.
However, depending on your budget and needs, you may be able to get by with just one or the other:
- Budget gaming/general use – A large HDD (1TB+) is fine on its own.
- Light computing needs – A moderate sized SSD (250GB – 500GB) may be sufficient.
The Advantages of an SSD
SSDs provide huge improvements in speed and performance compared to traditional hard drives. This is because SSDs utilize flash memory rather than magnetic platters to store data. The key advantages of SSDs include:
- Faster boot times – SSDs can boot in 10-25 seconds rather than 30-90 seconds for HDDs.
- Faster load times – Programs and files load almost instantly with an SSD.
- Faster access times – Data can be read and retrieved much quicker on an SSD.
- Better responsiveness – Everything feels more snappy and responsive with an SSD.
- Quieter – SSDs have no moving parts, so they run silently.
- Less power draw – SSDs are more energy efficient than HDDs.
- More durable – SSDs are less prone to damage due to drops or bumps.
For most computing tasks like booting the system, launching programs, loading files, or just browsing the web, an SSD provides a significant speed advantage over an HDD. Daily workflow feels much smoother and snappier with programs launching instantly. An SSD makes a huge overall improvement in responsiveness and interactivity for both desktop and laptop PCs.
The Benefits of an HDD
While SSDs are faster, HDDs have the benefit of much higher capacities at lower costs. HDD capacities range from 500GB to over 10TB per drive, while SSD capacities max out at around 4TB for mainstream consumer models. The key strengths of HDDs are:
- Lower cost per gigabyte – HDDs provide abundant storage for less money.
- Higher maximum capacities – HDDs range from 500GB to 10TB+ per drive.
- Good Sequential speeds – HDDs can provide high sequential read/write speeds.
For tasks like editing large multimedia files, managing archives or backups, storing photo/video libraries, or gaming with massive file sizes, HDDs work well thanks to the huge amounts of storage space available. While HDDs are slower at random access, their sequential speeds can still be quite fast. You can store 5X to 10X as much data on a hard drive compared to an SSD of the same cost. Overall, HDDs are a very cost-effective solution for massive storage needs.
Ideal Combination: SSD + HDD
The ideal setup for most users is pairing an SSD with an HDD. With this combo, you get the responsiveness and speed of SSD, along with the high capacity and cheap storage of HDD. Here are some examples of how you can utilize SSD and HDD in your system:
- SSD (250GB – 1TB) for OS, programs, and active games.
- HDD (1TB+) for documents, media files, backups, archives, etc.
Or if building a higher end system:
- Smaller SSD (120-250GB) solely for Windows and select programs.
- Larger SSD (500GB – 1TB) for active games and apps.
- HDD (2TB+) for general storage and infrequently accessed data.
With the SSD, your system will boot in seconds, launch programs instantly, and load levels/matches quickly in games. The HDD provides ample room for all your other files and data. This balance of speed, performance and storage capacity makes a dual drive setup highly recommended for most users. The only real downside is the extra cost compared to a single drive solution.
Example SSD + HDD Combinations
|1TB 7200RPM HDD
|2TB 5400RPM HDD
|1TB NVMe SSD
|4TB 5400RPM HDD
When Only an SSD Will Do
In certain situations, you may be fine with only an SSD without a secondary HDD:
- Light computing needs – Basic web browsing, office work, streaming. A 250-500GB SSD has enough space.
- Ultimate portability – Ultrabooks and tablets may only have room for one small SSD.
- Silent operation – Noise sensitive applications require SSD only.
For light computing and general workflow, a moderately sized SSD from 250GB to 500GB can provide enough capacity. Ultraportable laptops and tablets frequently use small SSDs as their only drive due to size and weight constraints. Certain audio recording or noise-sensitive environments may require an SSD over an HDD as well.
While an SSD only configuration is possible in some scenarios, the limited capacity means you’ll have to keep a close eye on usage and may need external drives for additional storage.
When an HDD is Sufficient
On the other hand, there are also cases where you may be fine sticking with just an HDD:
- Budget system – An HDD allows allocating more money toward other components.
- Gaming PC on a budget – A large HDD can store a sizable game library.
- Media server – An HDD has huge space for multimedia storage.
If budget is a significant concern, going with just an HDD allows you to maximize storage while spending less money overall on your system. This is a common tactic for budget gaming builds, as large HDDs provide ample room for installing dozens of games. For media servers used for streaming high bitrate videos and music to multiple devices, capacity is king so HDDs work well.
The downside to an HDD-only system is slower general performance. But for applications focused on large sequential throughput as opposed to random access, an HDD gets the job done satisfactorily.
Choosing the Right SSD
If you’ve decided to go with an SSD for your system, either alone or paired with an HDD, it’s important to pick the right model. Here are some factors to consider:
- Capacity – Aim for at least 240-500GB for your OS drive to provide room to grow.
- Interface – SATA III for basic needs, or NVMe for max performance.
- Form factor – 2.5″ for desktops and most laptops, M.2 for ultrabooks and mini PCs.
- NAND type – TLC NAND offers the best bang for buck. Avoid QLC drives.
- Brand reputation – Stick with recognizable brands like Samsung, Crucial, WD.
- Controller and caching – These impact real-world performance. Do research before buying.
For capacity, a minimum of 240-250GB is recommended to provide breathing room for Windows, software, updates, etc. 480-500GB models offer a good balance of price versus capacity. For interface, SATA III SSDs provide sequential reads up to 550 MB/s, while NVMe drives offer up to 7000 MB/s for vastly improved performance.
For form factor, 2.5″ SSDs are the most common, fitting in both desktops and laptops. M.2 SSDs are smaller and used primarily in ultrabooks and mini PCs where space is at a premium. As for NAND, TLC is current-gen tech that balances cost and endurance. Avoid QLC drives as they tend to be DRAM-less and use slower controllers.
When it comes to brands, established names like Samsung, Crucial, WD, SanDisk, and Adata are safe bets that make quality, reliable SSDs. Lastly, don’t neglect to research the specific SSD’s controller and caching implementation, as these can significantly impact real-world sustained performance.
Picking the Right HDD
For HDDs, many of the same considerations apply when it comes to factors like capacity, brand, and interface. However, there are some additional things to keep in mind:
- RPM speed – 7200 RPM offers the best performance. 5400 RPM prioritizes silence and energy savings.
- Cache size – Larger caches improve performance, especially for faster 7200 RPM drives.
- Advanced formatting – Go with 4K sector drives over older 512 byte ones.
For RPM speed, 7200 RPM HDDs provide better performance with sequential reads up to 160MB/s. But 5400 RPM drives are quieter and cooler. For a performance HDD or gaming, 7200 RPM is recommended. For external backup drives, 5400 RPM is fine.
Cache size also makes a difference – 64MB is standard for 1-2TB drives today, but 128MB or 256MB caches provide a nice boost for 7200 RPM drives. Advanced Format with 4K sectors improves drive efficiency over the older 512 byte standard. Overall, combine high RPM, big cache, and 4K sector formatting for best HDD performance.
Example HDD Specs
Pairing an SSD and HDD together provides the ideal blend of speed, responsiveness, and high capacity storage. The SSD delivers excellent performance for daily tasks and applications, while the HDD provides abundant storage for games, media files, backups, and more. With SSD prices declining, a dual drive setup is within reach of most system builders today. For those seeking the ultimate computing experience, or who work with large datasets and games, utilizing both SSD and HDD is highly advised for fully balanced performance and robust storage.
However, depending on budget and exact needs, it is possible to build a reasonably responsive system using only an SSD or only an HDD. For light computing and web browsing, a 250GB SSD may suffice for some users’ needs. On the other end, budget gamers and media enthusiasts can take advantage of high capacity HDDs for affordable big storage. While combining SSD and HDD is best where possible, picking the right single drive can still accomplish many users’ goals.