What you need to know about hybrid laptop hard drives

hybriddrives1When you thought about hard drives just a few years ago, it was all about size.  Do you want 320GB or 500GB?  Silly question! 500GB of course, you can never have enough!

Then SSDs happened.  SSDs (solid-state drives) first hit the mainstream with the first Macbook Air models, and more recently with the sexy new Ultrabooks running Windows.  These SSDs are light, fast, and easy on power.

The catch of course, is that they don’t store as much as standard drives, and they are brutally expensive.  In fact the price per gigabyte can be as much as 10 times as much as your standard hard drive.

What does that mean for travelers who are working or maybe even living on the road?  The 128GB SSD drives out there won’t be so great for holding your media.  Your audio, video, and photos will quickly eat up any space that isn’t used by OS and programs.

So what is a hybrid drive?

 It is essentially the best of both worlds.

A hybrid drive uses a standard platter hard drive, and sticks a small amount of SSD memory on board. The idea is that you get all of the same cheap storage using the old technology, and a decent speed boost from adding the new technology.  By learning what files and programs you use most often, the hybrid drive will cache them in the fast SSD memory on board to load them in a blink.  Don’t sweat the details though, as all of this happens in the background.  As for the price, it’s a little bit more than the old tech, and still a fraction of the cost of the new tech.

Seagate released the first consumer hybrid drives in 2010.  The Momentus XT found its way into a few OEMs (Dell, Asus) but mainly made its mark in the aftermarket – nerds wanting to upgrade.  In fact, both of the editors of Too Many Adapters added them to our last notebook purchases.

What do you get?

What you get for your money is faster boot times, faster program launches, and all that hard drive space you love.  What you don’t get is the all-around fast file transfer speed of SSDs, or their power sipping advantage.

So is it worth it?

 Here’s a break down on the cost (Jan 2012):

500GB 7200RPM Seagate Momentus 500GB Seagate Momentus XT Hybrid Crucial 128GB SSD Crucial 512GB SSD
Cost $109.99 $149.99 $179.99 $686.99
Cost / MB $0.22 $0.30 $1.41 $1.34

Cost: Cost per GB, the standard hard drive wins out. It’s cheap!

Speed: There is no question. If you want the fastest thing around, SSDs are the way to go.

Best Value for Everyday Usage: Here it’s all about the hybrid drive. Don’t worry about the hard drive in your notebook filling up, and get near-SSD performance during bootup and application startup.  My Windows 7 notebook boots to the password screen in about 25 seconds. By the 55 second mark, all of my background apps at startup are fully loaded and I’m ready to go. My browsers, photo software, and other applications I use start in a flash. With 300GB in photos alone, an SSD drive is just not an option for me.  If you want more benchmarks to tell the story, check out Anandtech.

Momentus XT vs Macbook Air vs Intel SSD vs 5400RPM

Conclusion:

A hybrid drive like Seagate’s Momentus XT is a fantastic way to make your laptop run like an all-star, without the storage constraints of an SSD. If you’re looking to upgrade your laptop, it’s a no brainer to put a hybrid drive on the list to check out.  Without a doubt, a digital traveler’s best friend!

One final note.  Seagate has just recently released the 2nd generation drives, now going up to 750GB!

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