The idea of using flash-based storage in a notebook isn't new. Nevertheless, the high cost of flash has prevented it from replacing hard-disk drives on mainstream notebook PCs, despite some advantages in power consumption, shock resistance, and speed--until now.

Photograph: Robert CardinAs prices continue to drop, flash-based solid-state drives (SSDs) have become viable options for handling your notebook's primary storage requirements. Moreover, today's roomiest SSDs have 32GB of memory, enough to do more than satisfy basic storage needs--making them competitive with 1.8-inch hard-disk drives, which range in capacity from 30GB to 80GB. These SSDs, available from companies like Samsung and SanDisk, are lightweight (the SanDisk UATA 5000, for example, weighs 59 grams--just over 2 ounces) and can be found in portables from Dell, Fujitsu, and Toshiba.

Are they worth the extra dollars? In spite of price drops, SSDs cost $400 to $500 more than ordinary hard drives of the same capacity. To justify the price difference, SSD notebooks must demonstrate significant performance benefits over notebooks equipped with standard hard drives. To find out whether they do, we tested three pairs of ultraportable notebooks from Fujitsu and Dell.

The SSD Challenge
Photograph: Rob CardinThe two test models in each pair of laptops were identically configured, except that one had an SSD, and the other a typical 1.8-inch 4200-rpm hard drive. Two of the notebooks--Dell's 6.25-pound ATG D620 ($3015 with SSD, $2815 with a 80GB hard-disk drive) and Fujitsu's 2.5-pound LifeBook P1610 ($2578 with SSD, $2029 with a 30GB hard-disk drive)-- ran Windows XP Professional. The third notebook, another LifeBook P1610 ($2548 with SSD, $1999 with a 30GB hard-disk drive) ran Windows Vista Business.

No Clear Winner
Results were mixed: In several cases, our tests bore out the advantages of SSD, in other cases, the hard-disk-based models led the way.

Photograph: Rob CardinOur benchmark suite for testing system performance, WorldBench 6, Beta 2, showed no definite pattern in overall results between SSD systems and hard-disk-drive systems. For example, the two Dell ATG D620 models, packed with a 2.0-GHz Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU and 1GB of memory, each earned a mark of 76 on WorldBench 6. In contrast, the two Fujitsu LifeBook P1610 units, configured with a 1.2-GHz Core Solo U1400, 1GB of memory, and Windows XP Professional, differed in performance: The SSD version received a score of 42, while the hard-drive version received a 39.

Interestingly, the performance difference was even more pronounced in the pair of Fujitsu P1610 models running Windows Vista Business. Here, the SSD version of the notebook finished with a 36 on our WorldBench 6 beta tests, while the hard-drive version posted only a 30. The Vista-based Fujitsu system with the SSD did especially well on our Adobe Photoshop CS2 image manipulation test, besting the hard-drive version by 36 percent, and on our Nero 7 Ultra Edition disk burning test, where it outperformed its counterpart by 76 percent.

The SSDs achieved superior performance in all three pairings on only two types of applications: drive-intensive tests like our Nero 7 Ultra Edition disc burning, and WinZip 10.0 file compression tests. The SSD versions of the two Fujitsus also earned higher marks than their hard-disk doppelgangers on our Photoshop CS2 test, but on that test the hard-disk Dell outran the SSD Dell by 10 percent.

SSDs Rock on Hard-Drive-Intensive Tasks
We did see decisive performance wins by the SSD models on the file read and write tests that we use for our hard-drive testing. (The read and write tests consist of reading and writing folders of files, and searching for files on a drive.) On these tests, the SSD models bested their hard-drive counterparts in 11 out of 12 instances. Occasionally, the scores were close: On our Windows file search of 6.1GB of data, for example, the SDD Fujitsu Vista Business system notebook finished the test in 86 seconds, while its hard-drive-based twin finished the test in 100 seconds. Still, in most cases, the SSD models were dramatically faster. The most extreme example: The XP Pro Fujitsu finished our large-file reading and writing test in 199 seconds, far ahead of the hard drive-equipped model, which finished the test in 533 seconds.

SSDs Deliver Only Slight Battery Life Edge
Though industry experts routinely boast that flash memory consumes less power than hard drives do, our battery tests found little real-world difference between the two drive types on this measure.

The SSD version of the Dell ATG D620 lasted 5 hours, 40 minutes in our test, just 3 minutes longer than the hard-disk-equipped version lasted. The SSD Fujitsu P1610 with XP held out for 3 hours, 11 minutes--7 minutes longer than its hard-drive counterpart. And the SSD Fujitsu P1610 running Vista Business bested the hard-drive version by 9 minutes (2 hours, 26 minutes versus 2 hours, 17 minutes). The advantage in battery life boost would almost certainly increase for the SSD models if they were matched against hard-drive laptops with drives larger than the 4200-rpm components we used. The faster a disk spins, the more power is required to spin it.

SSD's Other Benefits
Numbers don't tell the whole story about solid-state drives. SSDs also tend to be more rugged than a standard hard drive because the NAND flash memory they use lacks the moving parts found in a hard drive. Drop your notebook, and the data on your SSD will be safe--even if the notebook's screen doesn't survive unscathed. Also, unlike hard-disk drives, SSDs don't generate heat and don't produce a lot of electromagnetic interference.

Conclusions
Manufacturers first incorporated SSDs into ultraportable notebooks designed for people working in healthcare, insurance, and similar fields. But as prices drop and storage capacities increase, you can expect manufacturers to begin promoting SSD notebooks to a broader range of users.

Indeed, the movement toward the mainstream has already begun. This summer, Dell introduced SSD into the company's Latitude D630, D830, and D430 business notebooks, which target power business users and travelers. Choosing the SSD option to replace the standard 80GB 5400-rpm hard drive on any of these units adds $540 to its overall price. Toshiba is expected to begin introducing SSDs into select notebooks later this year, too.

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, with an SSD in your notebook, you'll see somewhat better system responsiveness, and a positive change in the way the system handles drive-intensive tasks such as reading data from and writing data to the drive, coming out of standby mode, and booting up from scratch. If you're a mobile worker who tends to bump your laptop around a little and who would benefit from performance boosts in those areas, the extra cost of having "SSD inside" might just be worth it.

Test Report: Solid-State Drives vs. Hard-Disk Drives--Which Are Faster?
The performance boost from SSD varies from notebook to notebook, but using SSD is clearly beneficial for hard-drive-intensive tasks.

This story originally appeared on PCWorld