Technology compared? SSD vs HDD vs Hybrid – when what and why

In the world of data storage everyone loves a TLA (three letter acronym). But; what do they mean. Why should I care and when is it important to understand the differences.

One of the more common questions we get asked about here at our Cambridge Mac Repair centre is the difference between the storage options available for certain Macs. Our lovely serial number checker will give you our compatibility guarantee – but what are the main differences? First we’ll explain the main terminology, then give you some specific examples and our most popular options for some example machines.

Rotational Hard Disk Drives (HDD)

Traditional rotational hard drives (HDD) have been used in computers for decades and have been the main storage devices ever since. All Macs with Intel processors (upto the MacBook air and Retina machines) shipped with a standard rotational drive as the main storage device). The current protocol used by drives is SATA (Serial ATA), this was introduced to macs with the G5 and has been used up til the MBA and Retina machines.

Rotational hard drives consist of a series of metal platters (disc shaped rings) which are moved at high speeds by a motor inside a sealed case. On each platter, and each side is a head mechanism which could be likened to a stylus on a record player this moves across the platters and reads / writes data as it goes at great speeds.

Rotational drives are fragile bits of kit and contain fast moving parts, as such they are very prone to mechanical failure, whether that be from a physical drop or due to components wearing out over time. Like with all storage devices hard drives must be backed up all the time.

Rotational drives are incredibly inexpensive, at the time of writing a 1TB 7,200 RPM hard drive for all Intel Mac Laptops (pre 2012 and air) is £57 + Vat. About 5p per GB (Giga Byte) of data. At the time of writing the largest 2.5″ laptop drive is 2TB and the largest 3.5″ drives are 4TB (6TB options are on the way though).

For MacUpgrades purposes there are two main drive sizes (there are more) 2.5″ for Laptops, and 3.5″ for desktops (the 2012/2013 21″ iMacs are unique in that fact that they use 2.5″ drives instead of 3.5″ but i digress). Then there are the spin speeds these are most commonly 5,400rpm and 7,200rpm. For the most part, and for these purposes, the faster the spin speed the faster the drive will be. In years gone by 7,200 rpm drives used to be significantly more expensive that the 5,400 rpm versions, these days there is very little difference and unless every drop of battery life is important to you we strongly recommend 7,200 rpm in every case.

Unless specified as a build to order unit Apple used 5,400rpm hard drives in all its laptops until 2012. The 7,200 rpm was available at extra cost.

There are different type of SATA controllers, which limit the maximum theoretical speed at which data can be transferred. The lowest of which is a SATA 150 controller (these will be covered lower down the page) which is a theoretical maximum transfer rate of 150MB/s. Rotational hard drives (5,400 and 7,200 rpm drives) do in the region of 60-100MB/s. You can test your current drives speed using Black magic Speed test. So, the speed of your SATA controller does not matter for these rotational drives. See below for specific machine recommendations.

So if you have run out of space, or if budget is limited a rotational drive will do the job just fine, and if you are upgrading from an older slower, or damaged drive you will get a nice little speed boost too. We can supply you parts, or do the installation work for you. Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine. All recommended products have be qualified and tested by our team prior to being put on the website.

Hybrid Rotational Hard Drives (SSHD)

Hybrid drives are relatively new to the market and are an attempt to add some extra speed to rotational drives, where a pure SSD is too expensive, or not large enough for the task. Hybrid drives are not to be confused with what Apple call Fusion drives, these are different and are dealt with in its own section.

Hybrid drives work by having a small (8GB) sized integrated SSD (solid state disk) on the drive. This SSD portion is not available to use separately and the device is seen as a single volume in disk utility. The drives firmware determines over time the most used files in the system based on the file read count list, as such most used files are automatically moved onto the SSD portion for faster access, until the SSD is used up and then the rotational drive kicks in. This constantly changes and updates over time.

Hybrid drives seem to work best for people with fairly consistent repeating workflows – such as people in a non creative environment using the same OS and apps day in day out. In these cases the vast majority of the data is SSD based and achieves SSD speeds. If you works is varied and large then the benefits become less.

Macupgrades currently sells 2.5″ (laptop) and 3.5″ (Desktop) variants from Seagate, which they call a SSHD

Seagate Laptop SSHD

Seagate Desktop SSHD

So, if your budget won’t strech to an SSD then the hybrid is a good option for you. In the laptop world, unless you have a very closed workflow as explained above we recommend a stock 1TB 7,200 rpm drive over the 1TB hybrid – purely because the laptop varients spinning portion is only 5,400rpm. In the desktop version the drive runs at 7,200rpm so performs better overall.

Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine. All recommended products have be qualified and tested by our team prior to being put on the website.

 Fusion Drive

Fusion drive is a logical volume created out of two physical devices. It is often confused with a hybrid drive but they are physically different. Apple is currently the only company using the term Fusion drive at the present time in this context.

Fusion drives were introduced with the 2012 iMacs and Mac Minis. They use two separate storage devices, one SSD (solid state drive) and one rotational drive combined together to produce one single volume that all data is stored on. The operating system dynamically chooses which items go where, putting essential files and most used items on to the SSD portion and leave the rest on the rotational element. Most fusion drive machines shipped with a 128GB or 256GB SSD combined with a rotational drive of 1 or 2TB.

It is possible to create your own fusion drive in software (or have us do it for you) with any sized combination of SSD and rotational drive – for example we have created a 5TB fusion drive in a MacPro with a 1TB SSD and a 4TB rotational. These work very well when you don’t want to arrange your data manually over an SSD and HDD combination. Although most setups we do with a combination of SSD and HDD we setup manually.

Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine. All recommended products have be qualified and tested by our team prior to being put on the website.

Solid state drives (SSD)≠

A solid state drive is a long term data storage device, it stores all your information and allows very fast read and write access to it. From a machines point of view it is treated no differently to a normal rotational drive, only significantly faster.

SSD’s are comprised of memory chips, rather than rotating electro magnetic storage discs as are found in normal rotational drives – similar to a Memory stick. The benefits of this are that the drives can have vastly faster access and read / write times – and also that they are not prone to mechanical failure in the same way that rotational drives are.

Most new Macs such as the Macbook Air (2010 or later) or the Retina MacBook Pro’s come with SSD’s as standard. These are upgradable to larger SSDs through our website.

All Intel processor based Apple computers can be upgraded to have an SSD installed, whether that be as a replacement for the main drive or in some cases in addition to the main drive. With SSDs the speed of your SATA controller comes into play. There are currently 3 types of SATA protocol used in Macs (we are leaving Retinas and Airs out of this for the time being as they use very specific SSDs which dont fit nicely into this description).

SATA 150 (SATA I) This SATA protocol was introduced in the G5 power Mac and is present in the following machines:

PowerMac G5,

White iMac G5

White Intel iMac

White / Black Macbooks with removable batteries

MacBook Pro 15″ (silver keyboard)

17″ Pre Unibody (silver keyboards)

Mac Mini (Pre 2009).

Clicking on the links above takes you to the compatible drives for your machine!

This connection has a maximum throughput of 150MB/s, for these machines we have qualified and tested the OWC Electra 3G range of SSDs which will work at the full 150MB/s speed on these computers. When factoring in additional benefits such as queuing and latency benefits fitting an ssd would feel like a 4x increase in speed of the machine. So taking average boot times to about 20 seconds and apps launching in a couple of bounces in the dock. We’ll have some real world numerical pre and post shots coming to one of our next articles. The OWC Electra can run at speeds faster than 150MB/s but the limiting speed is of your controller, not the drive. Not all SSD drives work well in these machines but we have fully tested each of our products with each machine we state compatibility for. We can supply you parts, or do the installation work for you. Even at SATA 150 speeds it still gives a nice boost to an older machine.

SATA 300 (SATA II) This upgrade was introduced to machines starting in production in 2008 – machines which use this connection are as follows:

Mac Pro 2006 – 2008

Mac Pro 2009 – 2012 (yes there was no SATA III on any Pre cylinder Mac Pro Boo!)

MacBook Uni -body White / Silver

MacBook Pro 13 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

MacBook Pro 15 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

MacBook Pro 17 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

Mac Mini (2009/10)

Aluminium iMac (Pre 2010)

Clicking on the links above takes you straight to the drives for your machine!

This connection has a maximum throughput of 300MB/s, for these machines we have qualified and tested the OWC Electra 3G range of SSDs and the Samsung EVO range – which will work at the full 300MB/s speed on these computers. When factoring in additional benefits such as queuing and latency benefits fitting an ssd would feel like a 8-10x increase in speed of the machine. So taking average boot times to about 10 seconds and apps launching in a single bounce in the dock. We’ll have some real world numerical pre and post shots coming to one of our next articles. The OWC Electra / Samsung EVO can run at speeds faster than 300MB/s but the limiting speed is of your controller, not the drive. Not all SSD drives work well in these machines but we have fully tested each of our products with each machine we state compatibility for. With this faster SATA speed the benefit for going to SSD is doubled, and can make your mac absolutely fly. We can supply you parts, or do the installation work for you. Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine. All recommended products have be qualified and tested by our team prior to being put on the website. SSD’s work wonderfuly in these machines and really do change your life!

SATA 600 (SATA III) This upgrade was introduced to machines starting in production in 2011 – machines which use this connection are as follows:

MacBook Pro 13 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

MacBook Pro 15 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

MacBook Pro 17 UniBody (pre Thunderbolt – so pre 2011)

Mac Mini (2011/12)

Aluminium iMac (Post 2011)

Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine.

This connection has a maximum throughput of 600MB/s, for these machines we have qualified and tested the OWC Mercury Extreme 6G range of SSDs and the Samsung EVO range – which will work in the range of 500-550MB/s speed on these computers. When factoring in additional benefits such as queuing and latency benefits fitting an ssd would feel like a 10-20x increase in speed of the machine. So taking average boot times to about 5 seconds and apps launching in a single bounce in the dock. We’ll have some real world numerical pre and post shots coming to one of our next articles. Not all SSD drives work well in these machines but we have fully tested each of our products with each machine we state compatibility for. With this faster SATA speed the benefit for going to SSD is doubled, and can make your mac absolutely rocket. We can supply you parts, or do the installation work for you. Use our serial number checker for the best options for your machine. All recommended products have be qualified and tested by our team prior to being put on the website. SSD’s work wonderfully in these machines and really do change your life!

Hopefully this post will help you decide which route is best for you, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact us!