Though the CPU and GPU are the most commonly discussed hardware in the context of gaming, your storage choice can also have a serious impact on your gaming experience and system performance as a whole.
Modern PC games make use of both memory (RAM) and permanent storage drives to load the many assets necessary for a game to properly function. If the storage drive is incapable of making those assets available as quickly as the system needs them, there may be issues like stuttering gameplay or longer load times.
But with so many PC storage options to pick from, choosing the right storage solution for your gaming PC might not always seem obvious. The discussion tends to center around HDD vs SSD for gaming, although there are other factors to consider as well, like form factor and capacity.
Slow storage can also have a negative impact system-wide. Everything from your operating system to your internet browser will be impacted if they are running off of a slow drive. Let’s dive into this important component and figure out how to choose the best storage for your system.
SSD Vs. HDD
Modern PC storage drives usually fall into two categories: solid-state drives (SSD) or hard disk drives (HDD). Both come in a variety of capacities and form factors. Generally speaking, SSDs tend to have higher transfer speeds and lower access times (i.e. latency), which equates to better performance, but also higher cost when compared to an HDD with a similar capacity.
The differences between these two storage options illustrate one of the most important distinctions in the modern storage market: performance and capacity. Storage space, or capacity, continues to be a priority as file sizes increase, but how quickly your system can access that data is a key consideration as well.
Finding the ideal balance between these two factors is the key to finding the right storage solution for your system, as is understanding the fundamental differences between the available options.
Let’s start by breaking down how storage speeds are measured.
There are a number of metrics by which you can judge a storage device’s performance, but the most common is the read/write speed. This measurement refers to how quickly an SSD or HDD can read and/or write data. This is a useful number, but there is an important distinction that needs to be made when comparing read/write speeds.
If data is located on the drive in sequential order, it’s easier for the storage device to access it quickly. If the data is located in random blocks throughout the drive, it’s going to take more time to read/write. This is why sequential read/write speeds tend to be higher than random read/write speeds, and why the sequential read/write speed is often used in reference to a storage drive’s performance.
Both can be useful metrics, but for the average consumer workload, including gaming, random performance tends to be more closely aligned with real-world performance.
What Is an SSD?
An SSD uses NAND flash memory or 3D Xpoint media to store data as opposed to the physical spinning disks of an HDD. SSDs do not have any moving parts, and tend to be quieter, lighter, and more durable than their mechanical counterparts.
These features have made SSDs ideal for portable PCs, but due to the faster read and write speeds and lower latency afforded by solid-state storage, SSDs are currently found in most desktop systems as well. SSDs are becoming more prevalent as primary storage options, and that includes gaming-focused systems.
SATA III vs. NVMe*
One of the defining characteristics of an SSD is how it communicates with the PC. The two communication technologies you’re most likely to encounter when looking for a modern, consumer-grade SSD are SATA III and Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe*).
SATA III is older and more widely adopted, while NVMe* is a newer standard designed for flash storage. NVMe* allows higher throughput, lower latency, and all around better performance.
The primary advantage of SATA III is that it’s widely supported, even on older motherboards. SATA III SSDs also tend to be cheaper than NVMe*-based options when similar capacities are compared. A SATA III SSD can be significantly faster than a SATA III-based HDD as well, due to the use of flash storage over spinning disks.
NVMe* is a newer transfer protocol designed specifically for solid-state storage media like SSDs. NVMe* uses PCIe* to directly communicate with the CPU, as compared to SATA, which communicates through a SATA controller and then the CPU. This extra step results in latency and is partly responsible for SATA III’s inferior performance.
When choosing between NVMe* and SATA, you may be limited by your hardware. NVMe* is quickly becoming the standard for high-performance storage, but older motherboards and BIOS may not support the newer transfer protocol. Be sure your system supports NVMe* before upgrading. You can do this by checking your motherboard documentation, or by searching for your motherboard’s specifications online.
SSD Form Factors
SSDs come in a variety of form factors, and each has its own unique properties. The different form factors are more than just physical distinctions; they also dictate how the drives will connect to and communicate with your motherboard.
A 2.5-inch SSD looks similar to a 2.5-inch mechanical drive, though it is significantly lighter due to utilizing flash memory instead of magnetized plates. Modern 2.5-inch SSDs use the SATA III transfer protocol, which means they are slower (and usually cheaper) than their NVMe*-based cousins and require a power and data cable to function.
M.2 is a newer form factor that takes the shape of a small, thin rectangle, often compared to a stick of gum. They can come in a variety of sizes, but all require an M.2 slot on the motherboard in order to communicate with the system.
M.2 can use either SATA III or NVMe* as a transfer protocol, though as SATA III continues to age, NVMe* is likely to become the standard. Though SATA III and NVMe* M.2 drives might look very similar, there is an easy way to tell them apart. The gold key that serves as the connection for the drive is different: on a SATA M.2 drive there are two notches, while an NVMe* M.2 only has one.
M.2 SSDs plug into the motherboard directly via M.2 slots, and, regardless of whether they use the NVMe* or SATA III interface, do not require any cables to operate. M.2 slots can be difficult to visually identify due to their small size. In some cases, particularly if you’re using a Mini-ITX form factor motherboard, the slots might even be on the back, or hidden under a thermal shield.
Check your motherboard documentation to see if you have M.2 slots, and where they’re located on the board.
Another form factor you might encounter is the Add in Card (AIC) SSD. These drives make use of a PCIe slot on the motherboard, which provides both power and access to the PCIe lanes. This means that the SSD can utilize NVMe* and the motherboard’s PCIe lanes to communicate directly with the system, similar to an NVMe* M.2 SSD.
There are also AICs that function as PCIe-to-M.2 adapters, ideal for users who don’t have a free M.2 slot and would rather use a free PCIe slot instead.
There are other SSD interface types and form factors as well, such as the NVMe*-based U.2 SSDs. These are usually used in professional/server environments and are not as commonly found in gaming builds.
What Is an HDD?
Hard disk drives are the older alternative to SSDs, though they are still in common use due to their relative affordability.
An HDD features spinning magnetic media, often referred to as platters, and read/write heads attached to an arm that accesses data by traversing the platters, similar to a record player. The speed at which these platters turn, or their “spindle speed,” is the primary factor in determining read/write speed, though there are other factors — like areal density — that come into play as well. The most common spindle speed in high-performing consumer HDDs is 7,200 RPM, which means the spindle makes 7,200 revolutions per minute. This can vary from 5,400 up to 15,000 RPMs, with higher RPMs typically equating to higher performance.
Like SSDs, HDDs vary dramatically in capacity, and it is easy to find relatively affordable HDDs in the 10TB or higher range. This makes them a practical option for people looking for higher capacity over higher speeds.
Consumer desktop HDDs come in two form factors: 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch drives. Both use the SATA III transfer protocol, along with a SATA connector, just like a 2.5-inch SATA III SSD. HDDs are less durable than an SSD due to the delicate mechanical processes and many moving parts.
HDDs are generally slower than SSDs due to the latency that results from their mechanical design and the fact that most use SATA III. If you do elect to use one, Intel® Optane™ memory is a system accelerator that preloads access to frequently used applications and files. When paired with an HDD, Intel® Optane™ memory can decrease access times and improve transfer speeds, providing an SSD-like experience. This technology can act as a bridge between the large capacities available with affordable HDDs and the faster performance of an SSD.
The Best Gaming Storage Solution
How should you choose between an HDD vs SSD?
If your priority is performance, the short answer is an NVMe* SSD. These drives are capable of truly exceptional read/write speeds and low latency, far beyond anything a SATA-based drive could achieve. That means extremely fast loading of your OS, games, and any other files installed on these drives.
If NVMe* isn’t an option, either due to hardware limitations or price, SATA-based SSDs still provide the higher speeds afforded by solid-state media with lower latency than mechanical drives. This can be an excellent way to upgrade to an SSD without paying the NVMe* premium.
SSDs are more affordable than ever, but it’s still hard to beat an HDD on price per GB. That’s why combining the high performance of an SSD and the high capacities of HDDs can be an effective storage solution.
By utilizing an SSD for your operating system and most commonly used files and games, you benefit from significantly faster speeds with the data you use most. When paired with an HDD to store larger files, or files you don’t access as regularly, you get the best of both worlds.
So, how much storage should a gaming PC have? It depends on how you use your PC, but a 256GB SSD for your primary drive that contains your OS and most frequently used programs paired with a 1TB secondary storage drive should be a comfortable minimum. A more generous configuration for a gaming PC would be a 1TB NVMe* SSD, potentially paired with a 3TB 7200RPM HDD for plenty of backup storage space.
Your storage solution might look a little different depending on factors like budget, hardware, and how you use your system. Regardless of what you choose, understanding the impact that a fast, dependable storage solution can have is an important step toward putting together the ideal gaming PC.