Dealing with RPM: Why laptops are still using slow hard drives

Today, when shopping for a new laptop, you'll likely see a hard drive advertised as either a hard-disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). HDDs have a physical platter that is read while it spins, while SSDs have no moving parts and are thus much faster. Since SSDs are available, why are laptops still shipping with the slower HDDs? Let's break it down and, along the way, explain the big difference between drives and which one you should buy.

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The tale of two hard-disk drives

Whether you have an HDD or an SSD advertised with a new laptop, you'll see a storage size, usually measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB). If it's an HDD, you should also see a listed speed.

The spindle speed, which signifies how fast the physical platters inside rotate and is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM), will often be either 5,400RPM or 7,200RPM. Great! You want a fast hard drive, so you'll go with the 7,200RPM model. The higher RPM drive spins faster, but there is another factor to consider. Areal density, which is how close together the bits of data can be jammed together on a platter, also plays a role, albeit significantly diminished thanks to advancing technology.

Visible platters and arm

Without getting too technical, there are two parts that make up areal density. There are tracks per inch (TPI) as well as bits per inch (BPI). More tracks on the platter, higher TPI. More bits on each track, higher BPI. An HDD with a higher TPI and a higher BPI is preferred.

Think of it like this: you have a sprinter who can carry two boxes at a time, one under each arm. The sprinter must make several quick trips back and forth between the starting point and the end point. There is also a hiker who can carry way more boxes thanks to a large backpack and careful packing. The hiker takes longer to make a trip but will deliver more boxes at the endpoint. In this case, the hiker is the 5,400RPM drive, and the sprinter is the 7,200RPM drive.

Areal density has pretty much been topped out in HDDs, so you can worry less about it when buying a drive. Plus, now that SSDs are readily available in many laptops, you have an entirely new option to look at.

Why do some new laptops still come with hard-disk drives?

Laptop manufacturers know what most laptop buyers are looking for; long battery life, a large amount of storage, an acceptable price, and a slim chassis. This is why you'll often see a hard drive's size mentioned without any other specifics. They draw us in with a flashy 1TB offering and we move on to looking at thickness and weight, as well as how long the battery lasts. To help boost all these specifications, a 5,400RPM HDD is often used. It doesn't move as fast, taking less power and creating less heat, it's readily available in large sizes, it's relatively cheap, and it's commonly found in a 2.5-inch size.

Seagate 2TB HDD

Take, for example, this 2.5-inch, internal 2TB Seagate 5,400RPM HDD that costs $85. That's a lot of storage for something that fits into most modern laptops, and it's available for a reasonable price. In comparison, this 2.5-inch, internal 1TB HGST Travelstar 7,200RPM HDD costs about $55. Both drives are highly rated, but one has 1TB less storage.

If you are going with an HDD, no matter the speed, always check full laptop reviews as well as hard drive reviews to get an idea of how it will stand up to everyday usage. Technology has come such a long way that you'll usually see some defect specific to the manufacturer cause a failure before a drive could wear itself out through regular use, whether 5,400RPM or 7,200RPM. If there's an option for an SSD, you're confronted with a whole other decision.

Should you choose a solid-state drive with a new laptop?

Samsung's formidable SSD

In most cases, if an SSD is an option in a new laptop, the wise decision — as long as you feel there's enough storage space — would be to go with it. The difference in performance, especially when you get away from SATA interfaces, is enormous, and once you've used an SSD in the past, the step back to an HDD is a big one.

We've come across plenty of 5,400 and 7,200RPM HDDs while reviewing laptops, and the performance difference is immediately noticeable. Apps take longer to load, Windows 10 takes longer to boot, and unzipping a file is almost torture. Even in a laptop with otherwise blazing hardware inside, a slow HDD can mar a great experience.

Still, you need to do your research when it comes to SSDs, as they are not all made the same. The Surface Laptop, which uses a Toshiba drive, is much slower than, say, the Lenovo Flex 5, which uses a Samsung drive. Here are some stats from CrystalDiskMark to give you a better idea of how drives stack up when it comes to sequential read and write speeds.

Hard drive Read speed Write speed
Toshiba PCIe SSD 423 MB/s 237 MB/s
Samsung PCIe SSD 2,146 MB/s 1,186 MB/s
SATA SSD 428 MB/s 412 MB/s
5,400RPM SATA HDD 102.1 MB/s 95.84 MB/s
7,200RPM SATA HDD 195.8 MB/s 153.4 MB/s

It's evident that not all drives are made the same, and you'll see performance fluctuations when moving between states, interfaces, and manufacturers. Read plenty of reviews, find out who makes the hard drive in a laptop, and search out benchmarks for an idea of how it will perform.

Best solid-state drives for Windows PCs

How to DIY upgrade your hard drive

Inside Dell's XPS 15

The choice to go with an SSD isn't always an easy one. They are quite a bit more expensive, and you likely won't get the same volume of storage. That's a trade-off that's currently a reality, but there are some solutions.

You could buy a laptop with a small SSD in it to save some money now, wait for a sale on SSDs and buy one for cheap, and install it yourself. You just have to make sure your laptop allows you to tinker with its internals. Some of our favorite laptops support this type of DIY project, and we've written a few guides on the subject.

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