Guide To Laptop Storage Drives

How to Choose a Laptop Based on Hard, SSD, CD, DVD and Blu-ray Drive Options

Laptop with CD Drive Open
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As laptops keep getting smaller, their internal space becomes more restricted and companies are either removing or moving to different technologies for providing data storage. Most modern laptops now are moving away from the traditional mechnical drives in favor of more durable and smaller solid state options. This guide looks at all the various types of drives that may be in a laptop and what they may offer to help clear up any confusion for buyers.

Hard Drives

Hard drives are still the most common form of storage in a laptop and are pretty straight forward. Generally the drive will be referred to by its capacity and its rotational speed. In general, larger capacity drives tend to perform better than smaller ones and faster spinning drives will be more responsive than slower spinning drives when capacities are similar. The slower spinning drives do have a slight advantage when it comes to laptop running times though because they draw less power.

Laptop drives are typically 2.5 inches in size and can range from 160 GB up to 2 TB in size. Most systems will have between 500 GB and 1 TB of storage which is more than enough for the standard laptop system. If you are looking at a desktop replacement class notebook to be a primary system, look at getting a 750GB or larger hard drive with the computer.

Solid State Drives

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

These 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 they store much less data and cost much more than a traditional hard drive. A typical laptop equipped with a solid state drive will have anywhere from 16GB to 512GB of storage space although there are some available with more than 500GB but they are prohibitively expensive.

If this is the only storage in the laptop, it should have at least 120GB of storage space but really should have around 240GB 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 is not much more than a flash memory card while high performance laptops use the new M.2 cards with PCI-Express.

For more information on solid state drives in computers, check out my Buyer's Guide to Solid State Drives.

Solid State Hybrid Drives

If you want higher performance than a traditional hard drive but don't want to sacrifice storage capacity, then a solid state hybrid drive or SSHD is another option. Some companies are referring to these as just hybrid hard drives. These include a small amount of solid state memory on a traditional 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 traditional 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 64GB that provide a boost to a larger range of frequently used applications thanks to the extra space. Some older ultrabooks will use a form of SSD caching to offer higher storage capacities or lower costs but Intel has changed this so that a dedicated solid state drive is required in order for new machines to meet the ultrabook branding requirements.

This is becoming much less common now that prices for SSD's continue to drop.

CD, DVD and Blu-ray Drives

It used to be that you were required to have an optical drive on a laptop. It was essentially for loading software onto a PC. With the rise of digital distribution and alternate methods of booting, optical drives are not a requirement they once were. Now they are used more for media watching on the go then they are for loading software. They are also useful for creating audio CDs and DVDs.

So if you do need an optical drive, what type of drive should you get on a laptop? Whatever type you do get, it really should be compatible with DVDs. One of the great advantages to laptops is their ability to be used as portable DVD players. Anyone who flies regularly has seen at least one person pull out a laptop and start watching a movie during the flight. More applications installers are now only shipped on DVD, so that can also cause problems if you don't happen to have one in the laptop.

DVD writers are pretty much standard in the market these days for laptops that have an optical drive. They can fully read and write both CD and DVD formats. This makes them extremely useful for those looking to watch DVD movies on the go or even editing together their own DVD movies. Dual layer drives have about twice the storage capacity (8.5GB) over traditional DVD media (4.7GB).

Now that Blu-ray has become the defacto high definition standard, more laptops are beginning to ship with 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 is a quick chart detailing the 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. It should also be noted that laptop drives are generally much slower than similar drives found in desktop systems.

Be warned that 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. Microsoft has removed this function from Windows 8 and later so it needs a media playback software. Similarly, Apple has never embraced Blu-ray and does not include any software for playing back Blu-ray titles.

Even if a laptop does not have an internal optical drive, it is still possible to use them if you have some USB ports. This can allow you to attach an external USB powered drive if need to either playback or record one of the many different types of discs.

Drive Accessibility

Drive accessibility matters in case you plan to upgrade or replace a damaged drive. Many laptops available in the retail channels have the hard drives installed internally. This means that only an authorized technician will be able to open up the computer to either repair or replace a damaged hard drive. This generally isn't a problem for many people, but in a corporate environment it can cause increased down time for a worker. Laptops that have drive bays that are accessible or swappable have the advantage of easy and quick access for upgrades or replacements.

In addition to being accessible, it is also important to get an idea of what kind of drive bays and any size requirements there 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 9.5mm drives often have better performance and capacities but if the drive bay only fits 7.0mm drives due to a thin profile, you need to know for any plans on upgrading. 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 for those bays.