The Hybrid Drive Upgrade

I replaced the old hard disk drive in my laptop as it showed signs of dying two weeks ago. There is a lot of talk about upgrading to SSD among the people I follow on Twitter. SSD is great, no doubt, but it's still an expensive option.

Then I came upon this: a hybrid drive. It's actually a traditional, spinning hard disk drive with 4 GB flash memory used as read cache.

I'm never a benchmarking person when it comes to hardware. I do have read the AnandTech review after having installed and used the new drive for a few days, and my experience agrees with the review's findings. In some areas like boot-up speed, this drive does provide SSD-like performance. In other areas it's just a fast spinning drive.

The unpleasant, unresponsive period after login is a thing of the past, and app launching is faster too.

It's true that many Mac users seldom restart their machines, so a big selling point of this kind of hybrid drive, "it speeds up booting up", seems moot. It's true that the hybrid drive is more expensive than its traditional spinning cousins, at about 2x the price, but an SSD of the same capacity will cost about 6x-10x. So for a bit more money you get big speed improvement in one area and small improvements in other areas with this hybrid drive.

This drive does give me a small pleasant surprise: Improved virtual machine performance. For work reasons I usually keep 4-5 virtual machine images around, and I often have to fire up and then suspend some of them (I use VMware Fusion). There must be some complex interactions between the VM's and the host's file systems, and this hybrid drive seems to be of great help. Not only do my VMs start faster, but the long latency after resuming is also gone.

Improved virtual machine gives me a great incentive to virtualize more. Now I can compartmentalize many more things, like trying new apps, in separate VMs. In theory I could have already been doing this all along, but the slow start-up and resume time has put me off, and I seldom used VM other than for work. But this enables a whole new usage for me.

Overall I'm satisfied with the upgrade. I didn't spend too much, and the marginal return is high. Those SSD upgrade tweets made me crave them but I was also wary of their pocket-burning tendencies. Now I won't have to worry about them for at least quite a while.