SSD vs HDD: what’s the difference and how important is an SSD for gamers?

SSD vs HDD: what’s the difference: If you need more storage space, you have fast, but more expensive SSDs and slower, but significantly cheaper HDDs to choose from. We clarify what players need.

If you like to play, you need a lot of storage space. There are only a few titles that go over the top as much as a Call of Duty with almost 200 GB, but sizes between 50 and 100 GB are no longer uncommon. This begs the question of which data carrier it should be, after all, there are sometimes big differences in terms of speed and price.

The purely electronic SSD (Solid State Drive) has almost replaced the mechanical hard drive (HDD, Hard Disk Drive) in many areas, even with current game consoles. In this article we clarify which advantages an SSD offers and whether an HDD can still be worthwhile for gamers.

What is the difference between HDD and SSD?

Hard drives have been used as persistent data storage for computer systems for more than half a century. Initially as big as a wardrobe and with only a few megabytes of storage space, they are now significantly more compact and available with up to 18,000,000 megabytes or 18 terabytes.

This is how HDDs work: The basic principle of rotating disks, on which the data is stored magnetically and accessed via a mechanical read / write head, has not changed. The data density per disk and also the data transfer rates have increased over the years.
The origins of the SSD also go back to the 1950s, but it was only with the flash memory invented by Toshiba that the technology gained in importance in the 1980s.

This is how SSDs work: The data is permanently stored in the said flash memory cells. This happens purely electronically instead of magnetically in combination with rotating disks – and therefore, unlike HDDs, silently and without a read / write head.
Similar to CPUs or GPUs, flash memory chips are manufactured in a semiconductor process and are now used in SSDs, USB sticks and memory cards, but also in smartphones. The lack of mechanics enables very compact designs, so that there are now also fingernail-sized SSDs.

What are the main advantages of SSD?

It wasn’t until around 15 years ago that the first consumer SSDs hit the market. Much more expensive per gigabyte than an HDD, they enable much faster data rates and file access, which noticeably accelerated the start of programs in particular.

The biggest performance advantage, however, lies in the latency: SSDs need less than half a millisecond for file access, conventional hard drives need more than 10 milliseconds for this. SSDs can also process considerably more commands per second as a result.

As mentioned above, they also work completely silently. HDDs, on the other hand, with their mechanical components, generate audible noises when accessing data as well as disruptive vibrations, which in the worst case can be transferred to the PC case. Countermeasures such as special hard drive housings for insulation and fastenings using rubber elements that are supposed to absorb the vibrations can only provide a limited remedy.

SSD are now standard for PCs and notebooks

In recent years, the technology has become a mass product and cheaper, so that SSDs are increasingly displacing the classic HDD due to their advantages in terms of speed, volume, energy and space requirements. In notebooks, HDDs play practically no role anymore.

The desktop PC also usually has an SSD, at least for the operating system. The usual storage capacities are between 250 gigabytes and 2 terabytes. But there are also special models for companies that offer more than 30 terabytes of storage space. However, due to the high prices for the memory chips, these are rare.

How important is an SSD to gamers?

Switching to an SSD is very worthwhile for gamers because of the advantages described. The faster file access is already so noticeable under Windows that no other technical novelty of the last few decades is so clearly noticeable in everyday PC life.

Programs often start more than twice as fast, with some applications the program window appears without a noticeable delay, while with an HDD you have to wait for seconds. The operation of the system is simply much smoother and more pleasant – nobody wants to go back to a hard drive.

Loading times can be halved with SSD

Applications that are accelerated by SSDs also include games. Although this means that they no longer achieve frames per second (FPS), because the graphics card and CPU are still crucial, but the faster file access ensures noticeably shorter loading times.

The advantage varies depending on the title, but it is not uncommon for the loading times to be halved with a comparatively slow SATA SSD compared to an HDD. It’s even faster with an NVMe SSD, but the lead over the SATA SSD is usually in the single-digit percentage range, as our following test shows, among other things:
In the medium term, however, NVMe-SSDs will replace the SATA-SSDs and are hardly more expensive in the entry-level class despite the increased performance and are therefore preferable, also with a view to DirectStorage (more on this in a moment).

What is the main advantage of HDD?

The price per storage space remains the major disadvantage of an SSD compared to an HDD: For example, an SSD with 1 TByte currently costs just under 70 to 80 euros. For this price you can get HDDs with four times as much storage space.

So per terabyte, SSDs are still clearly more expensive than hard drives. If performance is not important, for example for permanent storage of pictures or videos, HDDs are still a good archive storage medium that is generally also suitable for games. But you have to be aware that you will have to live with much longer loading times. At least titles that you play often should be stored on an SSD.

The software still slows down SSD

The fact that SSDs are not faster than HDDs by this factor in practical use, despite at least ten times as fast access times and significantly higher transfer rates, is due to the fact that they are slowed down elsewhere in the system.

Wherever the CPU performance does not limit, the software is often the bottleneck, which even these days is still mainly tailored to the older HDD technology. The actual potential of SSDs is therefore not used in all cases for a long time.

Are fast SSDs with DirectStorage and Windows 11 becoming more important?

In order to be able to use DirectStorage and technologies based on it, such as Nvidia’s RTX IO, an SSD has to be very fast. The widespread models with a SATA3 interface and a maximum of around 550 MB are not fast enough for this, instead it has to be an SSD with a PCI Express interface.

There are approaches that want to change the problem just described. This includes DirectStorage in the games area, which Nvidia also wants to take advantage of using RTX IO, as can be seen in the picture above. DirectStorage is a new programming interface for data input and output (I / O) that Microsoft introduced for the Xbox Series X, but which is also expected to find its way into gaming PCs.

With DirectStorage, game developers get a tool to adapt the resulting data stream to the performance of fast NVMe SSDs. Game files are broken down into many small data blocks and only those that are currently needed are loaded. This increases the number of I / O requests. In addition, the resulting file overhead should be reduced and data should be compressed more efficiently. The aim is to accelerate the path of data from the mass storage device to the graphics card and to relieve the CPU.

Games should benefit from further reduced loading times as well as a higher level of detail even when moving quickly through the game world, since more details can be used effectively thanks to the more efficient memory management. Not only are the corresponding (Windows) titles missing, but also an official release of DirectStorage.

The release of a developer preview was last announced in July 2021. It was also said that DirectStorage should offer the greatest advantages with the new Windows 11. But it will also come for Windows 10 and how big the differences between Windows 10 and 11 will be remains to be seen. You can also find out more about the importance of DirectStorage and Windows 11 in our expert assessment:

In summary, it can be said that fast SSDs are indeed becoming more important through DirectStorage. It will be a few years before this is really relevant in practice in a larger number of titles on the PC. In order to be prepared for the future, it is advisable to use a fast PCI Express SSD when buying a new one, as the surcharge compared to SATA3 SSDs is now quite manageable.

Which data carriers do you use in your PCs and when do you expect DirectStorage to play an important role on the PC? Feel free to write it in the comments!