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How to Double or Triple Your Computer's Speed

Electronic solid-state drive prices have fallen to the point where it makes sense to consider one for your PC or Mac.

Do you have a "cup of coffee" computer? Start it up, and while it's booting you might as well go to the kitchen and brew a cup of coffee. The computer may not even be that old, and it may not have even been that cheap when you bought it, but it just takes forever to do things.

Because of recent changes in the electronics marketplace, in many instances for $50 to $80 you could make that computer fly, be it a PC or a Mac. It will boot up and run your programs in one-half to one-fourth the time or even less.

We're talking SSDs here. Solid-state drives. They've been on the market for years, but as a maturing technology they have been limited in size and too expensive to be practical. Times are changing, and these speedy alternatives to traditional hard disk drives are priced far more competitively than just a year ago.

A study a few days ago by The Tech Report, a trade journal, found that SSD prices at Newegg.com, one of the larger online computer retailers, have been in steady, substantial decline since March of last year. Prices per gigabyte vary with sale pricing, manufacturer and capacity, but a typical price per gigabyte for an SSD early last year would have been in the range of $1.50 to $2.25; now a shopper can find several drives for less than $1 per gig, with some name brands around 80 cents.

Even if you can't afford to replace that 1-terabyte HDD that's in your desktop computer with a similar-size SSD, you likely can afford to plunk down, say, $70, for a 64-gigabyte or 80 GB SSD and move your computer's operating system and program files onto it. With some PCs, booting to a Windows desktop in 20 seconds or less is not out of the question with a solid-state drive.

A traditional hard disk drive is mechanical, consisting of magnetic platters spinning, typically, at 5,400 or 7,200 revolutions per minute, with heads hovering over them that move back and forth across the platter to write and read magnetically encoded data. The time it takes for a head to move to the correct position on the platter to access a file is called access time.

Being mechanical, HDDs will wear out over time and otherwise are susceptible to mechanical failure. The motor that spins the platter or the spindle the platter revolves on can wear out. Parts of the platter might no longer reliably record the magnetic changes. and are mapped out by disk-check software (which usually runs periodically behind the scenes on a PC these days) as a bad sector for the head to avoid. Or the PC might take a nasty bump (particularly a notebook), causing the head to hit the platter and damage or destroy it (the origin of the phrase "My hard drive crashed").

A solid-state drive uses electronic flash memory to store information and has no moving parts. There is no head that has to move to a location on the platter, then wait for the platter to spin around to the correct spot to read data. So SSDs are very fast at retrieving information in comparison with HDDs, and in general are stable and durable, although they are not completely infallible.

Your computer's hard drive is very often the biggest bottleneck hampering its performance. You can see this for yourself if you have a Windows Vista or Windows 7 PC by clicking the Start menu and typing "Windows Experience Index" in the search box. A window should pop up with your computer's hardware performance score, ranging from 1 to 7.9. The score is limited by the weakest link on your computer, with sub-scores for your PC's processor, memory, graphics, gaming graphics and primary hard disk.

If there's a substantial gap between how your hard drive is rated vs. the rest of your system, you're a good candidate for an SSD.

Good sources for an SSD include large online computer retailers like Newegg.com, TigerDirect.com or Amazon; or local computer stores, including Fry's.

Physically, most internal SSDs are the size of a notebook hard drive, 2.5 inches; some come with adapter hardware to fit into a desktop's larger 3.5-inch hard drive bays, or the hardware can be purchased from a computer store for a few dollars. Mounting one inside a computer case consists of a few screws and plugging in two cables.

If you need a large storage drive and your computer only has room for one drive, i.e. a notebook, a good solution are the hybrid drives from Seagate, called the Momentus XT, which receive positive reviews. The drives combine a small SSD with an HDD as one, and move frequently accessed files to the SSD portion for excellent performance.

Moving your operating system and programs over usually means reinstalling them. The good news is that with the speed of your new SSD, the task will go much more quickly. You can research the ins and outs on the Web, or have it done professionally at a computer store.

In the end you will have a computer that runs faster than many higher-priced computers on the market even now, and extend its useful life so that buying a replacement can be put off.

You also may drink less coffee.

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