Like your choice of CPU and GPU, your storage drive can have an impact on your gaming experience.
A fast SSD can reduce loading times and improve system responsiveness, while a slow HDD can add minutes of wait time to every gaming session.
When you’re weighing the choice of HDD vs SSD for gaming, it’s key to find the right storage drive for your goals and budget. We’ll break down the advantages of HDDs (traditional hard drives) and SSDs (solid state drives) below.
SSD Vs. HDD: Performance Vs. Price
In a nutshell, the choice of HDD vs SSD comes down to whether you prioritize performance or capacity.
Solid state drives (SSDs) typically use flash-based memory to store data and thus have no moving parts. They have faster read/write speeds than HDDs, lower access times (less latency), and a higher cost per gigabyte of storage.
Hard disk drives (HDDs) use spinning magnetic media to store data, which is accessed by a read/write head on an actuator arm (much like a record player). They have slower read/write speeds, higher access times, and a lower cost per gigabyte of storage compared to SSDs.
Understanding Storage Performance
The most common benchmarks for judging a storage device’s performance are its read/write speeds — the time taken to retrieve or save data.
Sequential read/write speeds are the most commonly used performance metric and represent usage where large blocks of data are moved sequentially — for example, copying and pasting large files to a desk. They are measured in megabytes per second (MB/s).
Random read/write speeds use data located in random blocks around the drive, which take more time to read or write to than sequential blocks. This is a good reflection of daily use because games and other applications commonly read and write small files to the disk and access data that is not found in sequence. These speeds are measured in IOPS (input/output operations per second).
Synthetic benchmarks are often used to market storage drives, but these tests should be taken with a grain of salt — they don’t always reflect real-world performance. Manufacturers may showcase the drive’s best performance by testing at a high queue depth (the number of actions done in sequence), such as 32, even if a queue depth of 8 or less would be more realistic for most users.
SATA SSDs Vs. NVMe SSDs
When shopping for SSDs, you’ll likely come across two different connection formats: SATA III and NVMe. NVMe is quickly becoming the standard, but it’s still useful to know the difference.
SATA III (Serial ATA) is a cable that works with the SATA protocol to connect many older SSDs and HDDs to the PC’s motherboard.
NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is a newer protocol that allows direct connection to the motherboard’s PCIe lanes, providing higher throughput and lower latency. PCIe 3.0 and 4.0 drives can transfer data at thousands of megabytes per second — significantly faster than SATA III — with PCIe 4.0 drives roughly doubling the bandwidth of 3.0.
Older motherboards and BIOS may not support NVMe, so be sure your system supports it before upgrading. You can do this by checking your motherboard documentation or by searching for your motherboard’s specifications online.
What’s the Difference Between SSD Form Factors?
Different form factors are more than just physical distinctions. They also dictate how the drives will connect to and communicate with your motherboard.
2.5-inch SSDs visually resemble 2.5-inch mechanical drives. Consumer drives typically use SATA III protocol and require separate power and data cables. NVMe, however, is quickly becoming the new standard for consumer SSDs.
M.2 drives are shaped like small, thin rectangles, often compared to sticks of gum. They plug directly into an M.2 slot on the motherboard. They typically use the NVMe transfer protocol, though some older devices may use SATA. Additionally, M.2 connectors are keyed differently to avoid use with incompatible sockets.
M.2 slots may be located under thermal shields or even on the back of Mini-ITX motherboards. If you’re having trouble locating M.2 slots, check your motherboard’s documentation.
AIC (Add In Card) SSDs connect to a PCIe slot on the motherboard for power and data. They use PCIe lanes to communicate directly with the system, just like an NVMe M.2 SSD.
If your system lacks a free M.2 slot, AIC SSDs may also work as PCIe-to-M.2 adapters.
Other Form Factors
There are other SSD interface types and form factors, such as NVMe-based U.2 SSDs. These are usually used in professional/server environments rather than gaming builds.
Why Use an HDD?
HDDs are generally slower and less durable than SSDs. But there’s still one great reason to get one: Capacity. When used as a secondary storage drive, an HDD can cheaply provide terabytes of extra space to store everything that doesn’t fit on your primary SSD.
Look for the following when comparing HDDs:
Spindle speed is the primary factor in determining read/write speed. It’s common for high-performing drives to feature 7,200 RPM, but speeds can vary from 5,400 to 15,000 RPM. Higher speeds usually mean better performance.
Form factor may be 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch. In consumer devices, both a SATA III cable, and require a separate cable for power and data.
Enhancing HDD Storage with Intel® Optane™ Memory
One of the major downsides of using an HDD is speed. Intel® Optane™ memory provides a solution: SSD-like performance from an HDD you already own.
A 16-64GB Intel® Optane™ memory M10 module will work in the background to learn your most frequently used applications and files, keep them handy for quick access, and remember them even after you power off the PC.
Should You Choose an HDD or SSD?
Switching to an SSD from an HDD is one of the most notable upgrades you can make. If your budget allows, we recommend one of the options below.
An Intel® Optane™ memory H10 with Solid State Storage drive provides high-speed Intel® Optane™ memory and high-density SSD storage in one package. Your system benefits from the low latency and high performance capabilities of Intel® Optane™ memory when loading applications, as well as up to 1TB of space for games and files.
An Intel® SSD 665P provides 1 or 2TB of SSD capacity, ensuring that you have room for large game installs while also experiencing the other benefits of an NVMe SSD. Read more about how storage impacts gaming here.
Another popular option is pairing an SSD for quick boot and load times alongside a larger capacity HDD for files you don’t access as frequently.
Your own storage solution might look a little different depending on factors like budget, hardware, and how you use your system. Regardless of where you land on the question of HDD vs SSD for gaming, consider the impact that a fast, dependable storage solution can have on your PC.