When the hard drive in Chris Anderson’s MacBook started to go bad last year, he began researching the feasibility of swapping it out for a solid-state drive, or SSD.

“I saw people mention how upgrading to an SSD could make your computer run like new,” says Anderson, a 26-year-old from New Orleans. “I didn’t even know what an SSD was before then.”

More on Laptops

Compared with a hard-disk drive, or HDD, a solid-state drive can significantly improve the performance of a laptop, speeding up everyday tasks such as launching programs and copying large files between different folders.

But isn’t the CPU the key to laptop speed? Not necessarily. Consumer Reports has found that a solid-state drive can often do more for performance than, say, an Intel Core i7 processor over a less expensive Intel Core i5.

Unless you have specialized needs—high-end gaming, for instance—combining a solid-state drive with 8GB or more of RAM will make your new laptop seem turbocharged. 

How SSDs and HDDs Are Different

Solid-state drives and conventional hard drives do the same thing: store data for later retrieval, whether that’s when you launch an application like Microsoft Word or Google Chrome or sift through the thousands of digital photos and videos you’ve taken over the years. What sets the two technologies apart, and ultimately what makes one faster than the other, is how they go about retrieving that data.

“A hard-disk drive uses spinning platters and a mechanical arm to read and write data,” says Antonette Asedillo, who oversees Consumer Reports’ rigorous laptop testing. “Solid-state drives have no moving parts and store data on microchips, which give them a significant speed boost. While an HDD is less expensive and tends to have larger storage capacities than an SSD, you’ll notice much faster start-up times and application performance with an SSD.”

As Asedillo notes, HDDs tend to be much larger than SSDs, which means they can store more data. In fact, even some budget laptops are equipped with a 1TB hard drive. Solid-state drives rarely ship with more than 256GB of free storage space. (Really big external drives are typically HDDs as well.) 

But while an HDD might offer more raw storage, accessing that data will likely take far longer than accessing it on an SSD.

Think of it like the difference between a hulking big rig and a speedy sports car: They will both get you from Point A to Point B, but the sports car can travel a lot faster, albeit without as much cargo.

Why Speed Matters

Every time you turn on your laptop, it has to load the operating system from its drive, whether that’s an HDD or SSD. And no matter whether your machine’s CPU is a budget-oriented Celeron or a new quad-core i7, that loading process will take about the same amount of time.

So once you hit the power button on a computer with an SSD, you’ll spend less time waiting around until you can get to work.

The difference is easily noticeable.

Adam Taylor, a computer engineering student from California, recently switched from a computer with an hard-disk drive to one with a solid-state drive. “A while back I had my Windows 10 set to automatically log into my account on start-up, and I could have the computer functioning and ready for work within around 30 seconds of pressing the power button,” he says. It used to take much longer. 

The college freshman noted that games that took several minutes to load when they were installed on a computer with a hard-disk drive took as little as 30 seconds to load. “Never more than a minute,” he notes.

“For files you use on a daily basis, an SSD will absolutely make your life easier,” adds Greg Jameson, a member of a popular Reddit group dedicated to PC gaming. “My cat actually unplugged my computer the other day, and I plugged it back in, restarted, and joined back up to [the chat app] Discord before the group I was talking to really even knew I was gone. They’re just that fast.” 

Speed Isn’t the Only Advantage of an SSD
Because solid-state drives don’t have any moving parts, they’re quieter than HDDs, which means an end to that familiar gnashing sound as you navigate your computer. The lack of moving parts also means that SSDs tend to last longer than HDDs, so you’ll be less likely to suffer a disastrous crash.

“The fact that they’re far less prone to mechanical failure than your average HDD is just icing on the cake,” Jameson notes.

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But HDDs Still Have Their Place

Old-fashioned hard drives still can’t be beat when it comes to raw capacity.

Even modestly equipped laptops will come with an HDD that has copious amounts of storage. The Acer Aspire 5, for example, which scored reasonably well in Consumer Reports’ testing, comes with a 1TB HDD standard. It costs only about $420. Laptops with a 1TB SSD typically go for more than $1,000.

But the price of storage is less of a concern in the era of inexpensive cloud-based storage. Meaning you don’t need to buy an SSD laptop with a ton of storage.

“Yes, hard drives are good for mass storage, but I’d much rather use cloud storage,” Taylor says. “My standards of computer hardware have risen since I first tried an SSD, and it’s hard to go back. I continually find ways to eradicate hard drives from my life.”

As for Anderson, his experience has gone so well that he has only one thing in mind the next time he buys a laptop.

“If I were to buy a new laptop,” he says, “I would probably upgrade it to an SSD.”