In the previous 5 parts of our builder’s guide we have covered many of the key components needed to build your own computer. One area we are yet to cover, however, is storage and this will be the focus of the sixth and penultimate part of our guide.
Storage has gone through one of the biggest changes of all PC components over the past few years. For the last 50 years PC storage has been dominated by the traditional spinning disk drive or as many people will know it the hard disk drive (HDD). While the capacity of hard disk drives has continued to go up their speed has somewhat plateaued with most high end drives running at 7200rpm and only the most extreme of hard drives daring to run at 10,000rpm. Fortunately the last two or three years have seen the rise of the solid state drive (SSD). SSD’s contain flash storage which is up to four times faster than the traditional spinning disk drive. Not only is it faster but also consumes less power and creates less heat. In fact the only things preventing solid state drives from becoming the de facto storage device in every PC have been their notoriously poor price per GB ratio and their somewhat flakey reliability. Both of these issues have become much less of a problem over the last six months, however. Before discussing our budget, mid-range and enthusiast storage solutions it is first important to explain the importance of your hard drive and also explore some of the problems with SSDs.
The hard drive is possibly one of the most boring PC components and up until the advancement of SSDs probably the component that people spent the least amount of time choosing. However, SSDs have shown how big a speed increase a fast hard drive makes especially when used as a boot drive (where your operating system is stored). In fact we’d even go as far as to say that upgrading your hard drive to an SSD will make a more noticeable impact on your system’s performance than any CPU or RAM upgrade ever could. One of the computers we currently use runs Windows 7 on a Crucial M4 SSD and boot times are regularly between 12-18s. SSDs allow the computer to access data that much faster and while they still do not come in as high as capacities as HDDs this is not really a problem as there is no reason that you cannot store your music and photos on a slower, larger capacity and cheaper HDD.
While we may have been singing the praises of SSDs it would be wrong to not explore some of the problems they have had in recent years. SSDs are still a relatively new technology and therefore in the past three or four years they have suffered from reliability problems and exorbitant prices. However, many of these problems have been firmware based as opposed to defective parts and most of these problems have now been completely resolved. If you are still worried about reliability though we would suggest sticking to Intel, Crucial or Samsung branded drives as these are the ones that are generally regarded as the most reliable and well as some of the best performing. Pricing is also no longer an issue with many online retailers now selling 120GB SSDs for less than £100 something that was hard to imagine even last year. Even though SSD prices have come down greatly all of our suggestions will still include a traditional spinning disk drive for mass storage.
Budget: 60GB Kingston V+ 200/OCZ 64GB Agility 4 and 500 GB Western Digital Green
You may be thinking that even suggesting using an SSD in a budget build is madness. Thankfully due to Intel’s SRT caching solution it is possible to purchase a small (32/64GB) SSD which can be used as a cache. An SSD cahce works by keeping a cache of the data you access most frequently in the SSD which allows much faster operation of those programs such as booting yur OS. Therefore there are two different options for a budget build, either an SSD caching solution or just using the SSD as a boot drive. Using the SSD as a traditional boot drive is faster than a caching solution but also leaves less space on the SSD for applications and games. It is also important to note that Intel’s SRT caching solution only works with the Intel motherboard chipsets Z68 and Z77. Therefore if you are basing your PC around an AMD CPU you will have to go with the SSD as a boot drive. For those of you wanting to go with a caching solution we suggest the £46 60GB Kingston V+200. While not a small drive you still won’t be able to get more than your OS and a couple of applications stored on it Fortunately when used as a cache there is ample space here to allow Intel’s SRT to speed up your OS, applications and games. For just a standard boot drive however, we suggest the £55 OCZ 64GB Agility 4. While it doesn’t have much more capacity than the Kingston it comes with much better performance and when used as a OS boot drive will dramatically improve the speed of your computer.
The Western Digital Caviar Green drive costs only £55 and is a wonderful mass storage drive for a budget build. The Caviar Green Drive might not be as fast as other HDD offerings on the market but fortunately you don’t need a mass storage device to be that high performing, as waiting a second or two for photos or videos to appear is unlikely to affect your everyday activities. The Caviar Green also runs at 5400rpm which should make it slightly quieter compared to other high performance drives.
Mid-range: 120GB Crucial M4/ 128GB Samsung 830 and 1TB Western Digital Black Drive/ Green Drive
Buying a mid-range system is all about maximising the cost to performance ratio and for that reason we believe a 120GB SSD is the ideal purchase. As SSD performance increases with the size of the drive most 120GB drives are significantly cheaper than the 256GB drives on the market whilst also having a slight performance increase over 64GB drives. Manufacturers have latched onto the fact that for many consumers the 120GB capacity is the sweetspot as it is both well performing while also having enough storage for more than just the operating system. For that reason it is relatively difficult to suggest any one 120GB SSD. However, we believe that due to their reliability and performance you will struggle to go wrong with either the Crucial M4 or the Samsung 830. Both of the drives are SATA III 6GBs which means there is a noticeable performance increase over the previous generation of SSDs which were only SATA II 3GBsmeans you won’t be losing any performance due to their connection type. The Crucial M4, costing £86, is slightly slower than Samsung 830 but is famed for its excellent reliability. The Samsung 830 on the other hand costs around £80 and is probably the better alternative out of the two especially as it is a 128GB drive and so contains an extra 8GB of storage.
We also suggest going with one of Western Digital’s (£87) Caviar Black Drives as they are widely praised by system builders as being both fast and reliable. If you feel you do not need the performance of the Black Drive, especially as it will only be used for mass storage, you can always go with the £67 Caviar Green Drive, also by Western digital.
Enthusiast: 256GB Samsung 830 and 1TB Western Digital Black Drive
The Samsung 830 256GB SSD at only £150 is incredibly well priced for an SSD that is widely regarded as both the best performing and most reliable on the market. In a first for SSDs all components that make up the Samsung 830 are actually produced by the manufacturer itself. Whereas Intel make most of their parts they still use the Sandforce controller for example. By manufacturing all their SSD parts Samsung is able to make sure all of its components work well together, to increase its reliability, as well as fine tune them so that performance is also excellent. Indeed the Samsung 830 has sequential read speeds of 520mb/s and write speeds of 400mb/s. We feel that 256GB is an ideal amount of storage for an enthusiast build as it allows you to store as many applications and games as you could realistically want. The 1TB Black Drive, as we have previously stated, is also a superb drive and would be a perfect accompaniment to the Samsung 830.
Top photo credit Intel
Bottom photo credit Downhilldom1984