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How to choose the right storage for your computer – 2020 edition

When you’re deciding what storage to use for your personal computer, it comes down to two main categories.

computer solid state drive storage
Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Whether you’re a seasoned builder or putting together your first computer, picking the right storage components is crucial to get optimal performance from the rest of your rig. Storage has long been looked at as “bigger is better”, but that’s not the full picture nowadays.

Things like super-speedy NVMe or PCIe storage and the relatively low-cost of SSDs, coupled with new technologies in caching and tiering has meant that you can get some pretty impressive system performance without having to shell out the big bucks. We’ll walk you through the main points to know while you’re shopping for storage, and give you some tips for optimizing performance.

A couple of questions to keep in mind:

  1. What are you planning on using this computer for? 
  2. What is your budget? Storage is one of the easiest places to save a few bucks on the overall cost of your build, by compromising a bit on things like name brands, speeds, or capacity

Internal or External?

network attached storage box on desk

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

When you’re deciding what storage to use for your personal computer, it comes down to two main categories:

  1. Internal storage: This is the drives that you put into your computer’s chassis, so they’re physically attached to your system at all times, and aren’t usually shared with any other devices. They’re most commonly connected via the SATA connectors on your motherboard, but they could also be in other form factors, such as PCIe cards or M.2 drives.
  2. External storage: This could be as simple as a USB drive, or an external enclosure, NAS or server connected via USB, Thunderbolt, Ethernet, or other means. Doing the bulk of your storage in this way means its easier to share that data between other devices as well as your computer. It also means that you can make your computer take up less space on your desk, while not sacrificing storage space you’ll want for backup

The simplest test for this is if you want the fastest read and write speeds available, you need internal storage, while if you prefer a smaller footprint, you weight towards external options.

Internal storage types

For the longest time, the only internal storage option was the humble magnetic hard drive. That all changed with solid-state drives (SSDs), and now there are multiple other options on the market for long term storage of computer data. We’re going to focus on internal options today, but if you want to know about options for your NAS (Network Attached Storage), head on over to our guide for choosing the best NAS drives.

Hard Disk or Drive

computer hard drives

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

At the simplest explanation, your hard drive uses magnetized tracks on a spinning disc to store data. Think of it as a high-tech record player, that’s also rewritable and you’re not far off the mark. It hasn’t really changed all that much since the earliest models in the 1950’s, just with refinements that allow more data to be stored and that data be read faster.

These come in 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch sizes, depending on if they’re for desktop or laptop use.

Solid-State Drive (SSD)

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

The invention of the solid-state drive in the late 80s, early 90s, ushered in a new age of faster storage choices. They were initially created to be faster and more reliable than the spinny hard drives. See, as SSDs don’t have any moving parts, they’re less prone to physical damage than spinning hard drives.

They’re also faster, for the same reason – no platter to spin, data can be read from any part of the SSD at the same speed as any other part, without moving the part that does the reading.

western digital sn750 nvme

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

SSDs have two main parts, flash memory chips that actually store your data, and a flash controller which remembers where the data is stored, decides where to store it, and retrieves it when needed.

Modern SSDs come in a few form factors, 2.5-inch is the most common (like this SK Hynix 1TB model), then there’s mSATA and M.2 form factors that remove the enclosure, making the SSD very small indeed, or there are PCIe versions that look like slimmer graphics cards and go in your PCIe slots. PCIe versions can also be found in the M.2 form factor, as a type known as NVMe, like this Adata XPG S40G.

pcie 4.0 ssd

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Now that AMD has added PCIe 4.0 to its motherboards, in both the X570 and B550 ranges, there are now new PCIe 4.0 NVMe drives, such as this one from Silicon Power that can power through at 5,000 MB/s in reads and 4,400 MB/s in writes, that can take advantage of the increased speeds of the PCIe 4.0 interface. Expect more of these to arrive in the months ahead, as both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 use the newer PCIe 4.0 storage.

Hybrid Hard Drives (SSHDs)

As you would expect from the name, these drives use a small SSD component to speed up the read and write speeds of a normal spinny hard drive. As configured by the factory, specialized firmware learns your most loaded files over time, storing copies of these in the SSD portion, so they can be accessed faster by your system. Everything else gets left on the slower hard drive section, so you get a balance of fast access and long term storage for a reasonable price.

Nowadays, you can also achieve this speed up with what’s known as tiering, with programs like Fuzedrive that blend two drives in your system, an SSD and a hard drive into one hybrid arrangement.

Recommendations for use

Okay, so now we know a little bit more about the tech used for storage in modern computers. In terms of speeds, Hard drives > SSHD > SSD > NVMe > PCIe is pretty much the order of things. We recommend using an SSD for your operating system drive at a minimum, with at least one hard drive for the bulk of your storage.

For example, having your operating system installed on an SSD will make your boot time shrink, giving you less time to twiddle your thumbs every time you turn the computer on. You’ll want at least 120GB for this drive, as Windows 10 can take up to 40GB on its own once updated fully, and that’s before you factor in things like Microsoft Office, Adobe apps, and other programs. With the price of SSD storage nowadays, it’s worth getting 500GB or 1TB as a minimum, so you don’t have to juggle things like temp folders and programs to make space.

Then it’s on to long-term storage, and really the minimum you want here is 1TB. You can go bigger if your budget will allow, just don’t go lower than this. All your music, documents, and other digital memories will get stored on this drive, and it will fill up fast.

That combination gives you some speedy storage to make your system faster, some space for your most-used games, and then all your important documents, music, videos, and other data are stored on a separate, slower drive. That’s important, as if everything goes wrong and your operating system install gets corrupted, you can just reinstall or reimage that drive, while your important files are not touched.

What do you think? Do you plan on upgrading your storage in the future? Did this guide help you? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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