Choosing components for a home or office computer is a multifaceted problem. Someone wants to build as high-performance a platform as possible while another mostly cares about the noise factor. And others yet just want to have a cheap computer capable of handling their everyday tasks. We, at X-bit labs, are trying to test as much hardware as we can to give you well-grounded recommendations but sometimes we come across sophisticated issues calling for very unusual explorations. Today we are going to cover one such issue which is not generally touched upon in hardware reviews (at least we couldn't find much information about that topic on the Web).
Imagine a computer with a fast processor, perhaps even a flagship CPU model, and a top-performance graphics subsystem that easily copes with any load. Suppose the owner of such a dream PC has got some money to spend and wants to keep on upgrading his configuration. What should he pay attention to in the first place?
As a matter of fact, there are not so many options left unless he improves his mainboard, CPU or graphics subsystem. He can buy some peripherals, gadgets or accessories, for example. Or he can get somewhat deeper into the internals of his PC and try upgrading its disk subsystem or system memory. It is on these two opportunities that we want to dwell in this review.
We often upgrade our disk subsystem or system memory because we have to rather than because we intentionally want to boost its performance. We replace our hard disk when it becomes too small to store our data. We add more system memory when we find it irritating that the OS is constantly accessing its swap file. It is indeed but seldom that some user deliberately tries to upgrade these subsystems to boost his computer's performance. This is usually the case when the computer is used for a specific application that depends heavily on a specific subsystem.
For example, it is perfectly clear that the performance of a file server or any computer that has to process large amounts of data stored on its hard disk may be easily improved by replacing its single hard disk with a faster one or with a RAID array. Similarly, a computer running a dozen of heavy applications or virtual machines simultaneously must have a lot of system memory and may do better if equipped with more of it. Such scenarios are clear enough, though, and users of such computers won’t ask anybody what they need to upgrade because they already know everything without our advice.
But what if we have just a regular all-purpose computer that copes well enough with any task it is given and doesn’t betray any weak spots? What should you improve in the first place, its disk subsystem or memory? What will produce the biggest effect?
Installing a faster disk seems to be a very reasonable option, especially as you can now buy an affordable solid state drive delivering much higher performance than a traditional HDD. Our website and other resources offer lots of test data about HDDs but mostly from synthetic benchmarks. The most popular real-life test is to measure the time it takes to boot up an OS or some heavy applications. However, loading an OS or an application are but one-time events which are additionally accelerated by look-ahead data caching in modern OSes (e.g. Windows has SuperFetch technology for that purpose). A speedy SSD will surely help boot your OS up faster and will make the system more responsive overall, reducing the time you have to wait for a program to start or a file to open. But will it help improve performance in regular everyday applications?
We will try to answer this question by checking out a few work scenarios on our testbed using different storage devices. We will try to show you how the storage device affects the results of benchmarks we use to evaluate the overall performance of a computer, rather than that of its disk subsystem only.
Similarly, we will check out the influence of the amount of system memory on the overall computer performance. Thanks to SuperFetch, extra memory may help reduce the number of hard disk accesses by means of caching. So, it may turn out that installing more memory will have the same effect as replacing an HDD with an SSD!