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Why You Should Buy an HDD Instead of a SSD (Sometimes)

Laptop Internal Storage
Jason Fitzpatrick / Review Geek

Solid State Drives (SSD) are better than old-fashioned hard disk drives (HDDs) in many ways, and plummeting SSD prices have led to many PC builders forgetting about HDDs completely. But despite SSDs being a better option in most cases, there are still times you should consider the humble HDD.

Considering an HDD instead could save you money and get you a bit of extra space. So if your circumstances permit it, it’s a smart option. Those circumstances vary a bit, but there are definitely still situations where an HDD does a very adequate job and an SSD is a bit too much.

What’s The Difference?

Samsung 850 EVO SSD with M.2 SSD and SATA hard drive 2
Corbin Davenport / Review Geek

An SSD uses integrated circuit assemblies to store data. This data is usually stored as “flash data,” — so little blocks of information are written and erased electronically as needed and stored on silicon. Because of their construction, SSDs have no moving parts and tend to be lighter, faster, and more durable than many alternatives. There are a few different types of SSD, SATA, and PCIe NVMe. SATA SSDs tend to be cheaper and connect in a similar way to a traditional hard drive. PCIe NVMe SSDs usually go into a slot on the device’s motherboard, can be significantly faster, tend to be smaller, and are usually more expensive than SATA drives.

An HDD is one of those alternatives. The technology is a lot older, and data is written and rewritten on a spinning disk by a magnetic head. Hard disk drives are mechanical, and their moving parts have the potential to cause issues. There’s also something called a “head crash,” where the arm responsible for reading and writing on the hard disk strikes it. This is usually caused by some sort of external force or shock that occurs while the drive is in use—like if someone drops the drive while it’s reading or writing.

To complicate things further, there are a few kinds of HDD, and they tend to be categorized by speed. This relates to how fast the disk can spin, and as a result, how fast the PC can read or write on it. The higher the speed, the better the drive’s performance. You’ll find most modern HDDs are stated at 7,200 RPM or 5,400 RPM. For the purposes of this article, we’re assuming you’re looking at a 7,200 RPM HDD — which performs significantly better than the 5,400 RPM version.

You Don’t Need SSD Speed for Everything

It’s hard to argue against the speed benefits of SSDs, which can read and write data around five times faster than some of the better HDDs — but you don’t need that kind of speed for everything. Archiving, basically storing your photos and videos somewhere, is the obvious example here. You can select a block of time to transfer them to your HDD and then do other things while the files are making their way over. Alternatively, if you transfer this kind of file over in small batches, say once every week or two, the time difference is unlikely to impact you.

Similarly, while SSDs are great for gaming and can drop boot and load times significantly, you don’t need this sort of speed with every game. Older games work just fine on an HDD, so if you’re still obsessed with Oblivion or Fallout: New Vegas, you can save a few GB of precious SSD storage by dumping them on an HDD.

You Can Save a Lot of Money

A 2TB SATA BarraCuda internal storage drive MSI Trident
Hannah Stryker / Review Geek

A 1TB HDD can be less than half the price of an equivalent SSD, and as the storage goes up so do the savings. If you need 10TB or more of storage, you’re looking at far less than $200 if you go the HDD route. A 4TB SSD, on average, costs around twice that.

HDDs have a far higher upper limit too. There are many around, at accessible price points, that are measured in the tens of terabytes. Some very large SSDs exist, but these tend to be specialist items that cost more than a car. If you see a “too good to be true” SSD on sale, like a 16 TB drive on sale for $100, then what you’re actually looking at is a scam.

If you’re building a PC and budget is a concern, you could opt for something like a 500GB SSD which will be responsible for your OS, video work, and the programs you use the most. Then spend a little bit on a large HDD that you can rotate the things you’re using less on to.

A Lot of the Problems Can be Mitigated

Some of the main selling points of an SSD are the drive’s slim profile, lightweight, and durability. However, you only really see most of these benefits in laptops. If you’re sticking together a desktop PC or a storage server, you probably don’t need to worry about dropping or damaging your hard disk.

I will emphasize that this only really applies to something encased in a tower that can be left alone. Portable HDDs, while they do tend to have outstanding shock protection, aren’t ever going to be anywhere near as reliable as an SSD. So if you’re looking for a laptop, or an external drive you’re going to take with you on the go, an SSD is still likely to be your best option.

It’s Potentially More Recoverable

SSDs have a reputation for being more reliable, and generally lasting longer, than HDDs — but a recent study by cloud storage company Backblaze casts some doubt on that. Although the study noted that the data it contained wasn’t conclusive, it did suggest the reliability gap between HDDs and SSDs was not as wide as we thought. Backblaze monitors and logs thousands of drive failures every year, and found that the percentage of SSDs and the percentage of HDDs dying on their owners was roughly the same.

Even if the study is wrong, and an HDD may be more prone to damage than an SSD, you also have a greater chance of getting data back from an HDD should the worst happen. It is possible to recover data from an SSD, but it’s a lot more complex and a lot less likely to happen than it is with an HDD.

Part of this involves how the drives themselves fail. An HDD is likely to show some symptoms when it is on the way out, which gives you a chance to back up important files. SSDs also come with something called a “TRIM” command, which totally erases data once it gets told to delete it. Data is harder to locate on an SSD, due to how SSDs tend to write and move pieces of information around. In the case of absolutely catastrophic damage, an HDD has still burned information onto a disk, and some of that could survive. An SSD isn’t structured like that. Even when an HDD “breaks” and doesn’t seem recoverable, a clean room can still dismantle it and get to the physical disk that contains your data. That isn’t something you can really do with an SSD.

There is a Middle Ground

Seagate Star Wars FireCuda Gaming HDD plugged into computer
Hannah Stryker / Review Geek

If you’re not prepared to give an HDD a chance, there is something that is firmly in the middle ground. “Hybrid drives” attempt to provide the best of both worlds when it comes to storage. They essentially combine a NAND flash module, like you’d find in an SSD, with a larger hard disk. Files are then managed on the drives to optimize speed, which ideally means you have the speed of an SSD with the size and lower price point of an HDD.

You’ll pay more for a hybrid drive than you will a standard HDD, but it is still a cheaper option than an SSD and can be a good choice if you only want one drive and are looking to balance out performance and capacity on a budget.

So, Don’t Forget About HDDs

It’s easy to write it an HDD off as a piece of old, obsolete, tech. SSDs are also continuously getting cheaper and better, which makes the old hard disk look like an even worse prospect. But a HDD does still have its place and it can be a smart option in the right circumstances.

In certain situations, the SSD is still better, but the difference in quality is all overkill. You will gain little, if any, advantage and an HDD performs those tasks well enough at a lower price point — so the extra money you’ve spent may have been wasted.

So next time you’re building a PC, or noticing a full disk drive and wondering what to do about it, don’t write the HDD off and weigh a few up with the other options you have available. You might save some money, and get a lot for the cash you do spend.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »