There’s nothing short of a baker’s dozen when we look at the different types of hard disks, from SATA to SSD. But what do all the abbreviations, numbers, and letters mean when it’s time to purchase a new drive for your laptop, desktop computer, or gaming device?
Fortunately, there’s a massive selection of hard drive options. Rest assured, you’ll find a suitable device after some homework. (That’s why you’re here, right?!?)
We’ve owned a lot of hard drives over the years. The death rattle of a hard drive about to pass into “platter heaven” isn’t music to our ears. We’ve listened to “nothing” when our SSDs left us all alone without our data.
Yet, we’ve had far more success with drives than failures. We want drives with a good storage capacity, the ability to operate (spin) reasonably quietly, and ones that won’t shatter the piggy bank.
We have a lot of information to share with you about drives. Are you ready? We’re gonna chat about solid-state drives, hard disk drives, and drive interfaces such as PATA, SATA, PCIe, and NVMe. Rest assured, by the time we’re done, you’ll be an expert on the different types of hard disks. Let’s go!
Exploring Hard Drives from SATA to SSD: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Solid State Drive (SSD)
|Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
|Windows boot time
|Drive Rotational speed
|Random Data Rate Read (IOPS)
|Random Data Rate Write (IOPS)
|Sequential Data Rate Read (MB/s)
|Sequential Data Rate Write (MB/s)
|1,500G @ .5ms
|350G @ .5ms
|Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF)
|Storage Capability – Maximum
|6 cents per GB
|2.5 cents per GB
|Cost Example 2TB Internal HDD
Types of Hard Drives: What’s the Difference?
Fundamentally, there are two different types of storage for your laptop or desktop computer: a hard disk drive or a solid-state drive. To understand the difference, let’s examine the primary differences between these two types of hard disks.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
A hard disk drive (HDD or HD) is non-volatile data storage. The data will remain on the hard drive even when it does not have power supplied. Platters are constructed of ceramic, glass, or aluminum and coated with a magnetic medium.
When power is supplied to the HDD, the platters inside the device begin to spin inside an airless chamber. As the platters rotate, data is collected from the platters or written to the platters by a magnetic head.
Solid State Drive (SSD)
A solid-state drive is volatile data storage. Instead of spinning platters, an SSD is comprised of NAND flash memory used for data storage. As a volatile memory device, the SSD needs energy to store data. Industry experts believe that most SSD will retain data without power for 3-5 years.
Types of Interfaces: What’s the Difference?
Another layer of complexity to selecting between different types of hard disk options for your laptop or hard drive is the bus interface. Let’s take a look at the primary contenders.
Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment (PATA)
PATA devices initially used a ribbon cable with a 40-pin connection. The connections needed grounding, so there were challenges with the conductor cross-talk. The cable was modified to 80 pins, 40 pins for data transmission, and 40 pins for grounding.
- The maximum length of a PATA connection is eighteen inches.
- Energy consumption is approximately 5V.
- Data transfer speeds of approximately 133MB/s.
- Thicker (when compared to SATA) ribbon cable impedes airflow.
- One hard drive only.
- Hot swapping of drives isn’t allowed.
SATA cables replaced PATA connections, so let’s look at SATA.
Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA)
The SATA configuration is seven pins. The SATA cables are more flexible than PATA cables and can be used in longer lengths.
- The maximum length of a SATA cable can vary by HDD configuration, but an approximate estimate is three feet three inches. This length is crazy long. (Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.)
- Energy consumption is approximately 250mV.
- Data transfer speeds of approximately 600MB/s.
- Thinner cable (than PATA) allows better airflow.
- OK to use an external additional hard drive in conjunction with the internal drive.
- Hot swapping of drives is allowed.
Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe)
The primary advantage of the SATA configuration is that it allows older computers to use SSD drives. Similarly to the PATA configuration limiting hard drive capability and the industry switching to SATA, now SATA is making way for NvMe. But what is PCIe?
PCIe Layout vs. SATA Layout
The hard drive industry published standards (M.2) to update and replace the previous SATA standards. Previously, SSDs and HHD could be connected to the motherboard through a cable or ribbon. The new standard (M.2) stipulates that the SDD identifies the allowable dimensions.
Laptops will (typically) have the SSD attached directly to the motherboard for the power supply and data transfer. Desktops (generally) have the SSD connected with a power cable from the power supply unit and a SATA data cable attached to the drive.
Pro Tip: A SSD PCIe is a PCIe card that has been adapted by attaching an M.2 card. If your motherboard lacks an M.2 slot, you’ll need this adapter card. What’s an M.2? An M.2 is an SSD that plugs directly into a motherboard. Not sure what you need? Check here.
SATA connections transfer data on one lane. PCle can transmit data on four lanes. Let’s look at the specs for two similar-capacity drives, one SATA and one PCIe.
|Solid State Drive (SSD)+SATA
|Solid State Drive (SSD) +PCIe
|3.94 x 2.76 x 0.27 inches
|0.87 x 0.09 x 3.16 inches
|7 cents per GB
|11 cents per GB
|Cost Example 4TB Internal SDD
The chart above shows that the dimensions between the SSD SATA and SSD PCIe are pretty different. The SATA configuration is based on a physical HDD (the SSD replaced it!) and the SSD with PCle that was designed to connect to the motherboard.
To take advantage of the speed available through the PCle interface, the SSD must have an NVMe chip. Let’s dip our toes into the non-volatile memory express pond!
NVMe (Non-volatile Memory Express)
VNMe is a communication protocol specifically designed to work with the PCle motherboard bus interface. The SSD must be designed with an NVMe controller chip to use the NVMe configuration.
Different Types of Hard Disks: What’s the Difference?
Now that we understand the difference between HDDs and SDDs, let’s take a look at a few!
Hard Disk Drives (HDD)
|Seagate Internal HDD (Laptop)
|Seagate Internal HDD (Desktop PC)
|3.9 x 2.7 x 0.6inches
|5.8 x 4.0 x 1.0 inches
|6.7 x 1.8 x 5.5 inches
|Cache Memory Size
|4.5 cents per GB
|.2 cents per GB
|.2 cents per GB
While all three of the above-listed devices have hard disk drives (with spinning disks!), each serves a different purpose. Laptop HDDs have a specific size listing of hard disk form factor of 2.5 inches. HDDs for desktop computers have a hard disk form factor of 3.5 inches.
What HDD (or SDD) fits into which system is very dynamic. (Read the owner’s manual!) Many desktop configurations will also accept a hard disk form factor of 2.5 inches!
Solid State Drives (SDD) with SATA
SDDs are the bee’s knees for rapid data access; they crush HDDs’ transfer speeds.
|SAMSUNG 870 EVO SATA SSD (Laptop)
|Seagate IronWolf (Desktop)
|Crucial Portable SSD
|3.94 x 2.76 x 0.27 inches
|5.79 x 4.01 x 1.03 inches
|2.72 x 0.43 x 2.52 inches
|Data Transfer Rate
|560 Mb per second
|6 Gb per second
|4 cents per GB
|2 cents per GB
|5.5 cents per GB
A funny thing happened on the way to the office…the prices increased from HDDs! A great thing about HDDs is their cheap cost. Ya gotta love ‘em! The great thing about SDDs is that the file transfer speed is approximately 4X of the HHD SATA.
Another fun item to note is that the external SDD is smaller than the external HDD! SDDs are not popular for external or backup drives. The non-volatile memory and very low cost of ownership of HDDs make them an easy selection for a secondary external hard drive.
Solid State Drives (SDD) with PCIe + NVMe
SSD drives with both PCIe and NVMe are the fastest drives available today. Choosing a drive that’s compatible with your laptop or desktop becomes a bit more complex.
|SAMSUNG 990 PRO (Laptop or Desktop)
|SABRENT Rocket 4
|0.87 x 3.15 x 0.94 inches
|3.15 x 0.79 x 0 inches
|Data Transfer Rate
|7450 MB per second
|7100 MB per second
|9 cents per GB
|14 cents per GB
With a price tag of $1,100, or 14 cents per GB, the Sabrent Rocket 4 is almost the largest capacity drive and absolutely the most expensive drive we’ve evaluated.
Different Types of Hard Disk:11 Must-Know Facts
- There are two primary types of drives for data storage: hard disk drives and solid-state drives.
- Hard disk drives will be around for a while, unless something incredibly unforeseen happens. The high cost of computer chips for solid-state drives renders them highly impractical for large amounts of data storage.
- Hard disk drives revolve around SATA, not PCIe.
- Some (not all) solid-state drives function with PCIe and NVMe.
- Some (not all) solid-state drives operate with only PCIe.
- VVMe is a communication protocol specifically designed to work with the PCle motherboard bus interface.
- Check your computer (motherboard) documentation carefully before upgrading your hard drive. Some types of motherboards do not accept newer SDD configurations.
- If you have a motherboard that allows it, you can install both an SSD and an HDD. The SSD is perfect for operations and applications, and the HDD is ideal for long-term storage. (Determine if you need an M.2 SSD or a PCIe adapter.)
- SSDs are much more “hearty” than HDDs. You can drop a laptop with an SDD, and the odds are high that the SDD won’t break. (Something else might shatter or break, but not the SDD.)
- An SDD should last ten years, and an HDD is expected to last 3-5 years.
- Bonus: Back up your hard drive data. We mean it. Buy an external HDD and do it, or back up to a cloud server and handle it through their HDD. Just do it. Since we’re being bossy, might we also suggest that you not back up your hard drive onto your existing hard drive? Back up the current hard drive to a different media.
Different Types of Hard Disks: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Use?
Selecting the best theoretical hard drive is simple once you’ve sorted through the different types of hard disks. The challenge of choosing any component for individual users is that there are many different applications. The best drive for us may not be the best drive for you. Let’s take a look at a few practical recommendations.
- Hard drive backups: Go with a hard disk drive. HDDs are incredibly affordable and have gigantic sizes available for home use. We like the Seagate Desktop 8TB External Hard Drive HDD. (It’s been sitting on our desk for several years, automatically performing routine drive backups.)
- Gaming: Add a little boost to your FPS with a WD 1TB Game Driver. In terms of gaming, this is as good as you’ll find today. It’s compatible with Xbox, PlayStation, Macs, and PCs.
- An mSATA is a tiny SSD installed directly onto your motherboard by placing it in the mSATA connector. An mSATA card will only work correctly if the connector on the motherboard is configured for mSATA cards.
- An M.2 is PCIe or SATA capable. (M.2 is faster.)
- Video editing: Tricky! You don’t need a massive drive to edit videos, but you do need a big drive if you plan to keep the videos! As the GoPro revolution marches onwards towards 6K resolution videos, the size of the videos is increasing, as well. We’d suggest one SSD where the video data resides during editing and then a second (hard lean to HDD) drive to contain all the completed videos.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©zentilia/Shutterstock.com.