I've installed an SSD as my boot drive

6 Jul, 2009 | ComputersTdp

So I've had my Mac Pro for quite a while now and it more than meets my needs, but the one thing that bothered me was how long it took to get to a usable desktop, I timed it as:

Time to logon screen:2:01
Time to usable desktop:2:58

As you can see, nearly three minutes to get to a usable desktop, plus time waiting for the apps to load once there. The other issue was that when the disk was in use it made a fair old racket as it churned away, as the rest of the machine is silent it was somewhat annoying. The Pro I have came with a 500GB 7200 RPM Hitachi drive, not a slouch, but not the fastest thing on the market, or the quietest. One of the things that may have impacted was I was running bootcamp to have OS X, which I never used, and Vista x64.

I stumbled across a post by Jeff Atwood about the benefits of a fast boot drive. Jeff, who writes some of the best stuff about hardware I've read, not many people go into the level of detail as he does, which is very useful, highly recommends a two disk strategy if you're building a PC: one small, fast boot disk and a second larger data disk. Jeff tends to mention the 10000 RPM Western Digital Velociraptors (previously the Raptor) as his preferred boot drive, but looking around I noticed that you could get a 128GB Solid State Disk (SSD) for not much more than the 150GB Velociraptor.

For example, over at Novatech, a 150GB Velociraptor is currently £127.90, while a 128GB Corsair will cost you £178.24. Looking around at various studies I saw that while the Velociraptor beat it on write, the Corsair won on read by a nice margin. It also had the benefit of being totally silent. So one option would be to use the SSD as the boot drive.

I was intrigued by this idea, as was a colleague, who ordered a new bespoke machine not long after as went the route of an SSD for his boot drive (the same Corsair, which seems to be much cheaper than many others and doesn't use the dodgy JMicron controller). He was very pleased (exact words escape me, but he said it was the best single upgrade he's done to a machine, and this is a man who was running 6GB of RAM and a quad-code i7 CPU).

So I took the plunge and bought one, stuck it in the Pro (I didn't bother buying a sled, just stuck it onto the controller in one of the bays and taped it in place). I backed up and transferred all my data and was soon running on the SSD.

I wasn't massively impressed. It was far from the near-instant on I was hoping for. I persevered and installed all of the applications I wanted, all those Windows updates and patches. The drive is far from full (it currently says 73.2GB free from 119GB). I then measured the boot times:

Time to logon screen:53 (shortest)
1:03 (longest)
Time to usable desktop:1:24 (shortest)
1:36 (longest)

Not blistering by any stretch of the imagination, another article at Jeff's site says a machine he built boots to desktop using Vista x64 in 22 seconds, even with a clean install mine wasn't booting that fast, but it didn't seem to increase as I added my apps either.

One the plus side, once into Windows my apps now load instantly. Firefox used to churn the disk and take several seconds to load, now it springs to life the second I click the icon, the same it true of most of my other apps. The noise of a churning disk has all but gone too, now the machine boots and general runs almost silently.

There are limitations to SSDs, most notably limited writes. This generally doesn't pose a problem, most new OSs spread writes across the disk to share the wear, so it'll be a long time before you encounter the problem, so long most people will have long since bought a new computer (some tests were putting it up to 100 years). To take any stress off the disk though, I did migrate whatever User folders I could to my data drive and shifted the page file and the temporary file location for the OS and apps like IE, Firefox and Chrome onto my data drive too.

Now I could just sleep/hibernate the machine and wake it up, and I do if I know I'm going to be using it again in an hour or so, but generally I shut it down when I go to work or to bed as I know it'll be off for eight or so hours at least, there seems little point keeping it on.

All in all I'm quite impressed. A fairly pricey upgrade, but one that saves me time. Sure, I'd like to see it boot faster still (sub-30 seconds), but prices will come down on SSDs and performance will keep increasing, so a fast boot drive it well worth considering.