Guide to Laptop Storage Drives

How to choose a laptop based on HDD, SSD, CD, DVD and Blu-ray options

Most modern laptops are moving away from mechanical drives in favor of more durable and smaller solid-state options. As laptop form factors continue to decrease in size, optical drives become increasingly rare and these SSDs proliferate.

Hard Drives

Hard drives are still the most common form of storage in a laptop and are pretty straightforward.

A 2.5" hard drive that has been opened, exposing its inner workings. This is a 500GB Western Digital Scorpio Blue hard drive with SATA connections. This 2.5" hard drive is common in laptops.
Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Generally, the drive will be referred to by its capacity and rotational speed. Larger-capacity drives tend to perform better than smaller ones and faster-spinning drives, when compared with ones of similar capacity, are usually more responsive than slower ones.

However, slower-spinning HDDs do have a slight advantage when it comes to laptop running times because they draw less power.

Laptop drives are typically 2.5 inches in size and can range from 160 GB to more than 2 TB in capacity. Most systems will have between 500 GB and 1 TB of storage, which is more than enough for the standard laptop system.

If you're looking at a laptop to replace your desktop as your primary system that will hold all your documents, videos, programs, etc., consider getting one with a hard drive that's 750 GB or larger.

Solid State Drives

Photo of a Crucial MX100 512 GB SATA SSD

Solid state drives are starting to replace hard drives in more laptops, especially the new ultrathin laptops.

Some systems, especially desktops, offer two drives—a smaller SSD for the operating system and a larger HDD for data, to offer the speed benefit of SSDs and the lower-cost storage capacity of HDDs.

These types of hard drives use a set of flash memory chips rather than a magnetic platter to store the data. They provide faster data access, lower power consumption, and higher reliability.

The downside is that SSDs don't come in such large capacities as mechanical hard drives. Plus, they usually cost a lot more.

A typical laptop equipped with a solid-state drive will have anywhere from 16 GB to 512 GB of storage space. If the SSD is the only storage in the laptop, it should have at least 120 GB of space but ideally around 240 GB or more.

The type of interface that the solid state drive uses can also have a significant impact on the performance but many companies do not overtly advertise it. Most inexpensive systems like Chromebooks tend to use eMMC which isn't much more than a flash memory card, while high-performance laptops use the new M.2 cards with PCI Express.

Solid State Hybrid Drives

If you want higher performance than a traditional hard drive but don't want to sacrifice storage capacity, a solid state hybrid drive is another option. Some companies are referring to these as just hybrid hard drives.

Solid state hybrid drives include a small amount of solid state memory on a mechanical hard drive that is used to cache frequently used files. They do help speed up tasks such as booting up a laptop but they aren't always faster. In fact, this form of drive is best used when a limited number of applications are used on a frequent basis.

Smart Response Technology and SSD Cache

Similar to hybrid hard drives, some laptops are using both mechanical hard drives with a small solid state drive. The most common form of this uses the Intel Smart Response Technology. This provides the benefits of the storage capacities of the hard drive while gaining the speed benefits of a solid-state drive.

Unlike SSHDs, these caching mechanisms usually use larger drives between 16 and 64 GB that provide a boost to a larger range of frequently used applications, thanks to the extra space.

Some older ultrabooks use a form of SSD caching that offers higher storage capacities or lower costs, but Intel has changed the specs so that a dedicated solid state drive is required in order for new machines to meet the ultrabook branding requirements.

CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Drives

ejected dvd in laptop notebook
deepblue4you / Getty Images

With the rise of digital distribution and alternate methods of booting, optical drives are not a requirement like they once were. These days, they're used more for watching movies or playing games, as well as burning programs to a disc, creating DVDs, or building audio CDs.

DVD writers are pretty much standard for laptops that have an optical drive. They can fully read and write both CD and DVD formats. This versatility makes them extremely useful for watching DVD movies on the go or for editing your own DVD movies.

Now that Blu-ray has become the de facto high definition standard, more laptops have these drives. Blu-ray combo drives have all the features of a traditional DVD burner with the ability to play Blu-ray movies. Blu-ray writers add the ability to burn lots of data or video to the BD-R and BD-RE media.

Here are some optical drive options and the tasks they are best suited for:

  • Basic computing w/DVD Playback: DVD-ROM
  • DVD/CD Recording: DVD Writer
  • HD Video Playback: Blu-ray Combo
  • HD Video Recording: Blu-ray Writer

With current component costs, there is almost no reason that a laptop would not have a DVD burner if it is going to have an optical drive. What is surprising is that Blu-ray drives have not become more standard as their prices are also quite low now for the combo drives. Laptop drives are generally much slower than similar drives found in desktop systems.

Even if a laptop does not have an internal optical drive, it's still possible to use one so long as you have an open USB port for room to attach a USB optical drive.

When you purchase a laptop with an optical drive, it may require additional software beyond the operating system to properly view DVD or Blu-ray movies.

Drive Accessibility

Drive accessibility is important when considering whether to upgrade or replace a damaged drive.

In addition to being accessible, it's also important to get an idea of what kind of drive bays there are and what the size requirements may be. For instance, the 2.5-inch drive bays used for hard drives and solid state drives can come in several sizes. The larger 9.5 mm drives often have better performance and capacities but if the drive bay only fits 7.0 mm drives due to a thin profile, you need to know that.

Similarly, some systems use the mSATA or M.2 cards rather than a traditional 2.5-inch hard drive for their solid state drive. So, if the drives can be accessed and replaced, be sure to know what type of interfaces and physical size limits there are.

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