The hard drive is the home for all of the data that runs your computer. But you may not know that there are two different types of hard drives. Modern laptops and bulkier gaming PCs have embraced the solid-state hard drive (SSD). Older computers and a small handful of budget-friendly machines still rely on hard disk drives (HDD).
If you are troubleshooting or looking to upgrade, you will need to know what you have before you can decide what you want. Let’s take a look at how to identify hard drive components in your current setup.
How to Identify a Hard Drive
So, you need to know what type of hard drive you have but aren’t sure where to start. Assuming that you have long since thrown out the manufacturer box from your computer, there are a few ways to identify your hard drive.
Here are the most common ways to find the information you are looking for:
- PowerShell command
- Windows System Information Tool
- Drive Optimizer (Disk Defrag Tool)
PowerShell Command Method
The simplest way to find the information that you are looking for is to ask your computer for it using the command input.
- Go to Run > PowerShell (this will open the PowerShell entry box)
- Enter the command: PowerShell “Get-PhysicalDisk | Format-Table -Autosize”
The type of hard drive will be displayed under the heading “media type” as either SSD for solid-state drive or HDD for hard disk drive.
Windows System Information Tool Method
The Windows system information tool is the user-friendly interface designed to provide information on the machine’s specs, so it is natural that you would be able to find the information that you are looking for here.
- Open the tool by going to the run command and entering > msinfo32 or navigate to the system info tool through the Microsoft menu.
- The tool displays in a new window. From here, you are looking for Components > Storage > Disks in the left-hand pane menus.
- The right side of the window will display detailed information about your selections, including the hard drive identifier.
Drive Optimizer (Disk Defragmentation) Tool Method
If the Windows System Information tool gives you data overload, there is a simpler way to identify the hard drive using tools already built into the system. The Drive Optimizer tool is meant for disk defragmentation, but it conveniently lists hard drive details as well.
- Find the drive optimizer tool in the Windows navigation menu and open it (content displays in a new window).
- All of the storage components, including hard drives, will be displayed in a list format. The media type identifies the component by type (either hard disk drive or solid-state drive).
All of these methods are intended for Windows-based PCs. But what if you are running an Apple computer or Chromebook?
Apple Mac Computers, Laptops, and Tablets
Apple provides a system menu similar to the Windows System Info tool. Start by turning on your device, then navigate to:
- From the Apple menu, navigate to About This Mac > System Report
- Under Hardware > Storage
- From the list of storage options displayed in the top pane > select Macintosh HD
- Detailed system info will be displayed in the primary pane, including each disk drive with an identifier listed as HD or SSD.
The simple answer here is that Chromebooks run on solid-state drives rather than hard drives. This is good for the lightweight speed and portability. But if you need more details on your Chromebooks SSD, here is how to find what you are looking for.
- From the app menu > Go to Files
- Click on the More menu (3 vertical dots) in the top right corner
- At the bottom of that menu will be information on available storage
There are also several third-party tools that can help you identify your specs. These tools can help you assess the health of your system and components, as well as troubleshoot problems. Some of these tools are provided by Windows, some are offered from hard drive manufacturers, and others from tech-savvy developers who had a problem to solve.
Windows Drive Fitness Test
Western Digital Data Lifeguard Diagnostic
Bart’s Stuff Test
Fujitsu Diagnostic Tool
Free EASIS Drive Check
Microsoft Error Checking
What’s the Difference?
The difference between the two types of hard drives lies in how they store data. A traditional hard drive (HDD) contains a spinning metal disc with a magnetic coating that holds the data. When you perform a command to open a file, a read/write arm retrieves the selected data from the disc and makes it available to the user.
An SSD stores data on a flash-memory chip. Although it is similar to the type of memory that a flash USB drive utilizes, it is typically faster and more reliable. A solid-state hard drive is more stable, faster, and smaller than a traditional hard drive. These are all big pros for computer manufacturers who need to keep up with technology trends to make slimmer, lighter, sleeker models.
History of Hard Drive Technology
Hard drive technology has come a long way since the 1956 IBM 650 RAMAC that used a total of 50, 24-inch wide discs for a capacity of 3.75MB. By modern computing standards, you can’t even run a single app on a smartphone with this amount of data. So, hard drive technology has come a long way since its inception.
At the time, this technology was so coveted that it was limited to special applications in government and industrial uses. Even if the average consumer could get their hands on it, it would take up the space of a good-sized closet.
The first hard drive that resembled a modern piece of tech didn’t come onto the market until the 1980s. These hard drives featured the 3.5 in size for desktops and 2.5 in size for laptops. There have been several iterations of cable interfaces for these hard drives over the years. Today, most HDD and SSD models use the SATA interface. Although SSDs are moving towards the superior PCI Express interface. And the capacity of these drives has rapidly increased from a few megabytes to multiple terabytes.
The Introduction of Solid State Drives
SSD is a much newer technology by comparison, although it may be older than you think. The idea of bubble memory that blipped on the technology radar in the late 70s and early 80s was an early precursor to the solid-state drive. Early models of the modern SSD first appeared in the 2000s as an answer to improving mobile technology, like the explosion of netbooks that were popular at the beginning of that decade. As the future continued to lean hard towards mobile technology, manufacturers invested heavily in developing flash memory and SSDs to create the technology that we know today.
The Future of Storage
Hard drives, and to a lesser extent, solid-state drives, are becoming a thing of the past. For one thing, cloud computing is drastically reducing the demand for local storage. Pair that with quantum computing that will radically speed things up, and there will be an almost insatiable appetite for faster, better storage options. One possible solution is the helium hard drive. Helium is six times less dense than air, allowing optical discs to spin with almost imperceptible speed.
How Storage Technology Measures Up
Traditional hard drives are on their way out and will likely become obsolete in the next several years. Yet, the basic technology is still being explored for future application. Why? There are some upsides to traditional hard drive technology. Let’s take a look at how they compare side-by-side.
Without considering any other factors, a traditional HDD is cheaper than an SSD with the same amount of storage by about half as much. Since hard drives use older technology, the price gap should continue to favor HDDs as the lower-cost option. Although technology sometimes takes an innovative turn, and since we know that the same technology is being explored to develop the helium hard drive, this may change.
Although SSDs are seemingly everywhere, consumer-brand drives hover in the 500GB to 1TB range, with high-end models going up to 2TB. Budget-friendly SSD models may have 128GB or 256 GB, but it should be noted that 500GB is the lowest bar for a decent SSD. For media-intensive applications, the minimum is 1TB with performance models ranging up to 8TB. HDDs are keeping up with similar storage capacities, but at more economical (and slower) speeds.
Speed is hands-down where SSD gets a clear-cut win. A traditional HDD takes a significant amount of time to boot up and retrieve data. By comparison, an SSD can boot up in a matter of seconds. That means that apps open and files are retrieved at lightning speeds, keeping users occupied.
When it comes to portable technology like laptops, SSD is a clear winner here too. A traditional hard drive has moving parts, including an optical disk and a read/write arm. While powering off, the device should stop movement, they are still prone to damage from movement. SSDs use flash memory which means they have no moving parts.
Another drawback to the moving parts in an HDD is size constraints. It takes more room to create an HDD than it does an SSD. That means that solid-state drives take up very little space while HDDs are stuck in the 2.5 in or 3.5 in size. SSDs using the M.2 form factor come in lengths like 42mm, 60mm, 80mm, and 120mm lengths.
Yet another drawback to the design of the moving parts of an HDD is noise. Although it may be quiet, an HDD will always make some amount of noise. However, an SSD is on-mechanical and does not create any noise at all. The main drawback to SSDs (where HDDs have an advantage) is longevity. Flash memory has a finite lifespan. This type of memory can only be written and erased a limited number of times before giving out.
Overall, traditional hard drives still hold some advantages over the newer SSD technology—namely in price and capacity. In most other categories, solid-state hard drives hold the advantages. Specifically, SSDs are faster, more stable, sleeker, and quieter.
An HDD is a good choice for multimedia lovers who need large capacity storage. They are also good for anyone who likes a bargain. In the professional world, content creators like graphic artists use and wear out storage faster than the average user and can benefit from longer-lasting HDD technology.
By comparison, an SSD is a great choice for mobile users. Also, anyone who relies on speed to get work done will enjoy the benefits of a solid-state drive. That includes engineers and digital creators who have a tough decision to make between longevity and speed.
Hybrid Drives and Dual-Drive Systems
As computer systems get more advanced, manufacturers are trying out ways to maximize storage and offer users a “best of both worlds” type of experience. Some computer manufacturers have taken the path of combining both HDD and SSD technologies into a single, hybrid unit. Other manufacturers, particularly Apple, are opting for installing one of each to create a dual-drive system.
Hybrid drives strike a balance between the storage capacity of a traditional hard drive and the speed of a solid-state drive. These drives are larger in size than most SSDs and feature an optical disc and arm with flash modules added to the optical unit. The hybrid drive is called an SSHD. Although a hybrid drive offers both types of storage, the operating system will only recognize a single SSHD drive.
The biggest drawback to a hybrid drive is the cost to replace it if one of the modules stops working. And if that happens, it is much more difficult to recover data on a hybrid drive, so you can expect additional costs there as well. With the potential for failure, it is extremely important to back up your data regularly. Sometimes it is simply not possible to recover data from a non-functioning hard drive.
Dual Drive Systems
For the average user, either HDDs or SSDs offer ample storage for everyday tasks. Even for gamers and professionals who are a little more media-intensive, one or the other does a fine job. So, what is the point of a dual-drive system other than promoting the consumption of more technology than you need?
Ability to run multiple operating systems (useful for developers).
Ample scratch space (useful for graphic designers and photographers).
Keeping file storage independent from the OS.
Developers, graphic designers, and content creators face a conundrum. They need the high-volume storage and longevity offered by a traditional hard drive, but the speed of a solid-state drive. It makes choosing between the two pretty difficult. Dual drive systems are exceptionally well suited for these multimedia-intensive users.
What You Need to Know About Choosing a Hard Drive
If performance or capacity has you in the market for a new hard drive, it can be helpful to know what you are looking for. We have covered a good primer on the differences between HDDs and SSDs, and now we are going to move on and discuss what to look for when replacing your drives.
Size and Interface
In the tech world, this is called the “form factor.” And the good news is that there aren’t too many options to overwhelm you. Aside from choosing between HHD or SSD, your system typically dictates the form factor that is compatible.
Hard disk drives for PCs come in two sizes: 3.5 inches and 2.5 inches. In most cases, the larger size is used in desktop PCs and the smaller size in laptops. If you are choosing an SSD, the most common size is 2.5 inches. The flash memory design of an SSD allows for greater storage capacity in a more compact size.
And as far as interfacing goes, nearly all modern drives (both SSD and HDD) use SATA connectors. Older models may use IDE connectors, but SATA has been the standard since 2008. External hard drives usually connect through a USB port.
Specs and Performance
Like every other piece of computer hardware, there is a range of models from different manufacturers that offer consumers a variety of choices between budget-friendly and high-priced performance.
Right now, consumer solid-state hard drives max out between 5-8TB of storage space, while some high-end HDDs go all the way up to 18TB. So total storage capacity is the first spec that you should consider and weigh the options against your needs. To put it into perspective, for average users who aren’t storing lots of media, 1TB of storage is plenty of space.
As a broad assertion, solid-state drives are generally faster than traditional hard drives of the same capacity. However, a high-end HDD could easily outperform a budget-friendly SSD. Another thing to watch out for is fancy marketing claims about SATA speeds. Some manufacturers like to advertise the theoretical transfer speeds of their SATA connections because the numbers look good. However, the drive is unlikely to match this speed, making it a moot point.
All hard drives operate by moving memory from one area to another. Think of it as the short and long-term memory storage capabilities of the human brain. When data is temporarily moved, it is stored in a cache. So, a larger cache typically means it can hold more data, making the transfer process quicker. Most modern HDDs range from 8MB to 256MB, with higher numbers generally equalling faster speeds.
It’s hard to think about the potential failure of a new purchase, but it is an important consideration. Keep in mind that HDDs have moving parts and are more likely to fail from defects. Some models are even prone to failure within as little as 12 months. Don’t skip the step of checking reviews. For most quality models, the average lifespan should be five or six years. By the time they fail, you have probably long since moved on to an entirely new system.
SSDs tend to last longer for average users and shorter for data-intensive users. The average failure rate of an SSD is 2 million hours, which is 25% longer than most average HDDs. Plus, with the absence of moving parts, SSDs are a safer bet. However, if you are frequently saving, erasing, and rewriting data, then an SSD may not provide the longevity that you need. Flash memory has a finite life and can only be rewritten so many times before it wears out.
In the end, everything comes down to money. You can stick with low-cost models that tend to offer slimmed-down performance, or you can invest in higher-end models that may offer more than you need. Value is the sweet spot between price and performance that perfectly aligns with your specific needs. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t the same for every user. If it was, there wouldn’t be options to choose from.
With some models, the price per gigabyte of storage space gets more economical with scale. That means that if you buy a 2TB hard drive instead of a 1TB hard drive, you pay slightly less (fractions of pennies) per gigabyte of storage space. But, be careful because that is not always the case. And, paying for more memory than you will ever reasonably use is just another way to overpay for something.
The Bottom Line on Identifying Hard Drives
There are two main types of hard drives: HDDs and SSDs. While HDDs are older technology and are being phased out in favor of SSDs, they still offer some advantages. Particularly, high-end HDDs for professional use can offer storage capacities and longevity that an SSD cannot touch. But for mainstream consumers, an SSD is almost always a better option with clear advantages across the board