By Matt Safford
It’s been years since I was willing to work on any PC that boots from a mechanical hard drive. Once you get used to the snappy response times and speedier gameload times of an SSD, going back to a hard drive feels like computing through a thick layer of molasses.
And with the release today of the fast and surprisingly affordable Intel 660p, the first quad-layer-cell (QLC) SSD, we may be near a point where hard drives don’t make a whole lot of sense for the majority of PC users—even budget buyers. At the very least, I don’t think I’ll ever buy another hard drive, and that’s not just because of cutting-edge SSD tech.
To be fair, I own an 8TB Seagate hard drive that’s served me well for a couple of years. And I just carried it over to a new Ryzen 5 2600X-based build which serves as my main home productivity/gaming PC. That drive has a few terabytes of files on it, including thousands of irreplaceable photos and videos that I use as part of my travel writing and Scotland-focused Facebook page.
Office 365 Is All the Backup I Need
If that drive suddenly died in the coming days or months, I might be tempted to replace it, given that 6TB hard drives look to be headed toward the $100 price point at some point this year (external 6TB drives currently hover around $120). But the truth is, even at $100 or less, I don’t really need that much space.
All my can’t-lose files are backed up on the 5TB of OneDrive space (technically 1TB per user, though you can share folders between users) that I get from my $80-per-year Microsoft Office 365 subscription. With that also comes the benefit of having all my work files and photos available from any connected PC that I care to sign in to with my Microsoft account. Oh, plus the ability to install Microsoft Office on up to five PCs.
That said, even if I didn’t have an online backup option, I wouldn’t trust a hard drive with my can’t-lose data, because I’ve had several mechanical drives die unexpectedly on me over the years. And after nearly a decade using SSDs, I’ve experienced exactly one solid-state death.
Plus, my hard drive really isn’t speedy enough for my data storage needs anyway. I’m not great at properly sorting my photos, and so when I open a folder of thousands of files on my hard drive, it can take several seconds for the drive to spin up and thumbnails to show up, or for files to re-sort by date or size. Yes, I know I should be more organized and use something like Lightroom for image handling, but I’m not there yet and I honestly don’t know if I ever will be. You can pry Windows Explorer and a basic folder structure from my cold, dead mousing hand.
Bulk SSD Storage Is Already Surprisingly Affordable and Prices Will Fall Soon
If I had to buy a new drive for bulk storage today, I’d probably opt for an SSD. Micron’s 1100 drive, for instance, is arguably a steal at its current selling price of just under $300 for the 2TB model (opens in new tab).
It’s based on fairly recent 3D TLC flash, and it sells for $100 less than most competing SSDs of the same capacity. Sure, 2TB can’t compete with 12TB hard drives. But given that I’m using a 512GB Samsung NVMe SSD as my boot drive, I could probably live with “just” 2TB of bulk storage, especially given it would be much faster than my comparatively pokey hard drive.
Micron’s 2TB drive is a bit of a fluke right now, and once QLC drives become increasingly common and the cheap China-made NAND we saw at Computex starts flooding the market, SSD prices will drop precipitously once again. Barring any major natural disasters affecting production (always an unfortunate possibility) or other major market disruptions, by the time my existing 8TB hard drive starts to give up its mechanical ghost (hopefully a few years down the line) I should be able to pick up an affordable 4TB-or larger SSD. Heck, an 8TB SSD might even be an option for a few hundred bucks by then.
Sure, mechanical drives will likely be cheaper and vastly more spacious for several years to come. And for those who truly need several terabytes of cheap storage—particularly for server and bulk backup setups where capacity and price matter much more than speed—hard drives will remain staple products.
What About External Backup Drives?
There’s no denying that external drives are enticing for those who need cheap portable storage and backup for their files. But I’d argue even harder these days against using an external drive for backup. Sure, they’re cheap, but an external hard drive powered solely by the USB port is, if anything, going to be even slower than an internal drive. And much worse, it’s all-too-easy to knock over an external hard drive, or drop it. If you do this while the drive is powered up, there’s a very good chance you’ll lose your data on the spot as the drive head crashes into the platters or the platters crash together.
If I needed an external drive today for a laptop or desktop that doesn’t have the space for an additional internal drive, I’d buy the above-mentioned Micron SSD and slap it in a cheap 2.5-inch hard drive enclosure, like this $9 Sabrent model (opens in new tab) that claims to be optimized for SSDs. I’ve had two portable drives die on me in the last decade or so, one after a just few months without ever dropping it. I don’t trust hard drives with important data in general, but I trust portable hard drives even less.
Hard Drives Are Starting to Feel Like a Niche Product
For the first time today—at least for me personally—SSDs have gone completely mainstream, and hard drives, once unquestionably dominant, have started to feel like niche products.
I wouldn’t recommend a hard-drive-based PC to anyone at this point, even budget buyers. The savings just isn’t worth the very real performance you’ll gain from running an SSD boot drive. Even for backup and bulk storage, so long as your file libraries don’t stray into the several-terabyte range, I’d recommend paying for an online solution (perhaps one that lets you encrypt your files and offers two-factor authentication if you’re worried about security) for a year or two.
By that time, you’ll likely have gotten accustomed to the conveniences of available-anywhere online storage and you may want to stick with your service of choice (I’m personally very happy with OneDrive and Office 365).
Even if you decide you want to go back to having all your files backed up locally, by that time a cheap, roomy SSD may be a real option. There will always be people with huge media libraries who won’t want to part with their massive hard drives. But for me, I think my current 8TB Seagate Barracuda drive will be the last mechanical drive I’ll ever own. And I doubt I’m alone.
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After a rough start with the Mattel Aquarius as a child, Matt built his first PC in the late 1990s and ventured into mild PC modding in the early 2000s. He’s spent the last 15 years covering emerging technology for Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Consumer Reports, while testing components and PCs for Computer Shopper, PCMag and Digital Trends.
External Hard Drive