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Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Flashy New PC

Filed under: Hardware & Gadgets — Jan Goyvaerts @ 12:04

Actually, I’m still using pretty much the same setup you can see in my 2009 behind the scenes post. But my PC is a whole lot flashier now, at least on the inside.

I replaced the 320 GB hard disk that I was using as the system drive with a 256 GB SSD (solid state disk). Essentially an SSD is a flash drive just like those USB sticks you see everywhere, but with much higher capacity, performance, and price packaged into the form factor of a 2.5″ hard disk. Though 2.5″ disks are normally used in notebooks rather than desktops, you can install it into a desktop just fine. Since the device weighs almost nothing and has no movable parts, I didn’t even bother with a drive cage to fit the 2.5″ drive into a 3.5″ space. Two screws into one side hold it up perfectly well.

The main benefit of SSD drives is speed. Particularly when multi-tasking. When using a mechanical hard disk, you don’t want to do things like reverting a virtual machine to a running snapshot while at the same time launching Delphi 2010. Each of those tasks is no problem for the hard disk. Though the virtual machine may have a gigabyte of RAM, the file is read linearly, which hard disks excell at. Delphi 2010 loads lots of packages and DLLs, but it normally launches fast enough. But when your computer tries to do both, the hard disk’s head constantly tries to move between the virtual machine files and the Delphi files. That causes both tasks to take seemingly forever while the disk scrambles back and forth without getting much done. Seek time is killing performance.

SSDs have no mechanical heads and thus no seek time. Reading two sets of files simply takes the added time of reading each of those sets. Loading a virtual machine and an IDE at the same time takes about as long as loading them one after the other.

For me, the fact that SSD drives can multi-task is the killer feature. My quad core CPU easily runs mulitple applications. Now I have a storage device that can as well. I no longer have to worry that a lengthy 7-zip process is tying up my ability to quickly launch another instance of Delphi. And even when doing nothing, big applications that load lots of small files such as DLLs start much faster. That includes Windows itself. I haven’t run any formal benchmarks, but the difference between my old and new systems is very obvious, even though all I did was replace a hard disk with a flash drive, and upgrade from XP to Windows 7.

If you’re planning to install an SSD into your computer, you’ll need to make sure you have a drive that supports TRIM. When I bought my Crucial drive in November 2009 it came with old firmware without TRIM support. Upgrading the firmware was easy. I downloaded a .iso file from Crucial’s site to burn a bootable CD. Booting from that CD with the flash drive installed took care of the upgrade.

You’ll also need to upgrade to Windows 7 if you haven’t already to get TRIM support in the operating system. One problem with flash drives is that they can’t overwrite data. They have to erase the data first, and then write new data. While they can write data in small clusters (e.g. 4 KB), data can only be erased in large blocks (e.g. 1 MB). Obviously you don’t want your drive to move around 1 MB of data for each 4 KB page it writes. This is what caused early SSD drives to lose their performance as they filled up. What the TRIM command does is to tell the drive to erase the space that was used by files you’re deleting. Mechanical hard disks don’t do this. They just leave the old data in place and overwrite it when you save new files.

Today a 256 GB flash drive still costs as much as many people spend on a whole PC these days. But if you use your PC intensively and you’ve got a reasonably modern system already, replacing your hard disk with an SSD drive will do more for performance than buying a new PC with a traditional hard disk. If you keep the old hard disk as a second drive for storing large data files, one of the 128 GB or 64 GB SSD models may do the job just fine. 64 GB is plenty for a Windows 7 boot drive. The main reason I shelled out for the 256 GB model is that I use lots of virtual machines for testing my applications on various versions of Windows. Those take up a lot of space, and I want my virtual machines to boot as fast as my actual PC.

3 Comments

  1. Which virtualization tool do you use? VirtualBox, VMWare?

    Comment by Alexander — Wednesday, 3 February 2010 @ 22:12

  2. I have been thinking about buying a new 64 bit Windows 7 box with an SSD. I am curious about the most efficient way to partition stuff between the SSD and HD. Are you putting Windows and all your apps on the SSD and all your documents, data and backups on an HD? What about source code and object files?

    Comment by Andy Brice — Thursday, 4 February 2010 @ 7:27

  3. Alexander,

    I use VMware Workstation 6.5. I’ve been using VMware Workstation since version 4.0. I’ve never used any other virtualization tool.

    Andy,

    That sounds like a good topic for a follow-up blog post.

    Comment by Jan Goyvaerts — Thursday, 4 February 2010 @ 11:40

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