Laptops typically have a hard disk and optical drive but this has been changing a lot lately. In fact, many new laptops don't even come with traditional mechanical drives at all. This guide tries to explain the various storage options included with a laptop to help clear up any confusion buyers may have.
Hard drives are the most common form of storage in a laptop and are pretty straight forward. The first factor towards performance is the speed of the hard drive. In most cases, laptop hard drives spin at a 5,400rpm speed. Some higher performance systems and desktop replacements will feature 7,200rpm drives. The high spin rate allows for better performance but also uses up more battery life when not plugged into an outlet.
Laptop drives are typically 2.5 inches in size and can range from 160 GB up to 1 TB in size. Most systems will have between 500 and 750 GB of storage that 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.
Drive accessibility matters in case you plan to upgrade your hard drive or to replace a damaged hard 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 upgrade or replacements.
Solid State Drives
Solid state drives are now starting to replace hard drives in some laptops especially the new ultrabooks. These use a set of flash memory chips rather than a magnetic platter to store the data. They provide faster data access, low 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 64GB to 256GB of storage space although there are some available with more than 500GB but they are prohibitively expensive.
For more information on solid state drives in computes, check out my Buyer's Guide to Solid State Drives.
Hybrid Hard Drives
If you want higher performance than a traditional hard drive but don't want to sacrifice storage capacity, then a hybrid hard drives are another option. 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, a new class of laptops is also coming out that utilize 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 hybrid hard drives, these caching mechanisms usually use larger drives between 16 and 32GB that provide a boost to a larger range of applications used thanks to the extra space. Some ultrabooks will use a form of SSD caching to offer higher storage capacities or lower costs while still meeting Intel's boot time requirements for ultrabook classification.
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 discs are now only shipped on DVD, so that can also cause problems.
CD-ROM and burner drives are not common these days due to the low cost of DVD burners. They are useful for playing back audio CDs, loading software from CD-ROM or making minor backups. A CD-RW Combo drive has the ability to play or record CDs and also playback DVDs.
DVD writers are pretty much standard in the market these days for laptops. 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). Some drives also support burning labels directly to compatible media. The two systems for this are Labelflash and LightScribe.
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 haven't 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.