Why aren’t SSD or hybrid disk drives more popular in laptop computers?

Given that the SSD or hybrid disk drive (e.g., Seagate Momentus) would seem to be ideal for laptop computers, why aren’t they more popular? To research this posting, I visited the HP and Dell sites and looked at their high-end 17″ laptops. Neither was available with a hybrid drive (Seagate says that 1 million have been shipped, which sounds great but that’s a negligible market share), despite the fact that these retail for as little as $108 at Amazon.com (see Seagate Momentus XT 250 GB). HP and Dell charge approximately $600 extra for an SSD over a conventional hard drive, despite the fact 256 GB hard drives retail for as little as $365 at Amazon (e.g., Crucial 256GB m4 SSD). Why wouldn’t a notebook computer maker want to encourage SSD sales so that they can (1) have consumers talk about how fast their new Brand X laptop is, (2) reduce failure and return rates, and (3) cut down on build time (presumably it is faster to load an OS onto an SSD-based laptop)? So one would naively think that Dell and HP would not mark up an SSD more than a retailer such as Amazon or Newegg.

21 thoughts on “Why aren’t SSD or hybrid disk drives more popular in laptop computers?

  1. Very good point. I suspect that $/gb is still king in much the same way that $/GHz was for x86 until very recently.

  2. My guess would be that either they bought a few million units when the price was $600 or the failure rate is ridiculously high.

  3. …(2) reduce failure and return rates

    SSDs are just starting to reach the same level of reliability as spinning platters. “No moving parts” sounds like it should be flawlessly reliable, but the devil is in the details, and the spinning platter folks have had a few extra decades to work the bugs out.

    See this link for some disturbing anecdotes:


    (Personally, my MacBook Air and Intel 320 SSDs have work fine the last few months, but I still back up often….)

  4. You ask a really good question. I just dropped an SSD into my 3 year old macbook, which was like getting a new machine (in terms of performance improvement) for a quarter of the cost of a new macbook. I stopped shopping HP and Dell about the same time I bought this machine, and this is the first time I didn’t yearn to replace my machine, since the build quality is so good. If I had bought a Dell or HP, I’d probably have bought a new mac by now. 😉

  5. A Momentus XT did wonders for my Mac Mini.

    I can’t explain it other than they loath to expand inventory. Also, if you can believe ratings at newegg, etc., the cheaper ones do have more reliability issues.

  6. Until recently, the cost/GB for an SSD made them prohibitive for use in mainstream PCs, but they’re starting to appear as standard items on the newest laptops. ASUS just announced their Zenbook line of ultraportables, and they’re only available with SSDs in 128 GB/256 GB flavors. Acer just released the Aspire S3 that contains a hybrid SSD/HD.


    Contrary to expectations, It’s not clear yet that SSDs are more reliable than traditional hard drives. There are a *lot* of reports of early SSD death. Jeff Atwood, one of the principals behind StackOverflow.com says “Solid state hard drives fail. A lot. And not just any fail. I’m talking about catastrophic, oh-my-God-what-just-happened-to-all-my-data instant gigafail. It’s not pretty.”


    In my small, four-person software company, we’ve added 128 GB SSDs as the primary boot drives for a couple of development machines. No major issues yet, but it’s early days…

  7. FWIW,

    my 3-mth old Acer Aspire sports a Segate Momentus and it’s a cheapo version of a hybrid drive as it’s a 5400rpm platter.

    but the difference between a hybrid and normal hard drive is still striking–bootup being noticeably faster and if you frequently use the same couple of application, application startup is also noticeably faster. You notice the difference straight away as you’d get a spinning circle if the application is not in cache and is booting off from the hard drive.

    the acer aspire cost less than a comparably spec HP/Dell laptop, and even if HP/Dell wish to cut cost, they could have a cheapo 5400rpm hybrid in their laptops and it’d still outperform a 7200rpm NORMAL hard drive

  8. The Momentus XT answer might be simple: firmware. I believe it’s gotten six firmware updates in the year and change it’s been available (see complaints here). A lot of Mac users have had trouble too; I’ve got a 500GB model in a 2008 aluminum MacBook and haven’t had problems, but that appears to be more lucky than anything else.

  9. The answer is obvious: which is more catchy, a laptop advertised with 500+ GB of disk space or one with 250 GB to Joe six pack consumer? Until the price of SSD’s drop, and size increased, don’t expect them to be main stream.

    Btw, one of the first things I do when I configure / buy a PC / laptop, is look for a hard drive with 7200 RPM, and with fast seek and access time. This alone will boost PC’s speed vs. the default configuration you are presented by PC manufacturers. Oh, and don’t forgot to partition your hard disk; use different partitions for the OS, swap, application [1], data, etc.; don’t dump everything on one partition. Not only will this speed up you PC, and give you better organization, it helps you when disaster strikes and you have to re-install the OS; you only have to overwrite the OS partition.

    [1] Never use Windows default for application installation; i.e.: C:\Program Files\

  10. Phil, the short of it is that people are mostly unaware of how much better an SSD makes things. That plus there’s still this ghastly obsession with gigabytes, much like the camera world is obsessed with pure megapixels: you really don’t need a 256 GB SSD. Not only will everything be hosted in the cloud shortly, but if you happen to need that much space, simply get a “legacy” spinning HD as your second or external drive. Having a 256 GB SSD jacks up the already-premium price to painful levels for most folks. And once again, we find Apple innovating in an area where, as you point out, Big PC is dragging their feet.

    Not trying to self-promote, but I *did* write a post on how compelling an upgrade the SSD is… 128 GB worked fine for me. 😉 http://computingkeith.com/2010/08/03/ssd-are-you-experienced/


  11. SSDs are perceived as exotic and worthy of a premium. People aren’t aware of the benefits and perhaps still believe some early SSD reliability scare stories. IT departments won’t try the technology, as if it ain’t broke, why fix it (they aren’t incentivised to provide faster desktops)?

    i) For consumers, SSDs large enough for Windows are more expensive so don’t make it into the cheaper machines; putting both a small SSD and an HD in a mid-range consumer machine would bump up the assembly and maintenance cost (and complexity to the user); it’s only with mid to large SSDs in higher end PCs for sophisticated buyers that the costs makes sense.
    ii) The computer manufacturers are probably tied in to large HD purchasing contracts, so aren’t eager to switch.

    On the other hand:
    i) PCs with a mid-size SSD with all working data held on a central server would probably be useful for organisations with IT departments.
    ii) Intel’s Z68 chipset offers SSD caching (a small caching SSD alongside your HD), which may eventually bring SSDs to the masses.

    So, they will arrive when people feel safer switching to them.

  12. I think the codinghorror link J Peterson mentioned gets to the heart of it. Since he only mentioned it in passing, I’ll quote the relevant bit:

    “… I feel ethically and morally obligated to let you in on a dirty little secret I’ve discovered in the last two years of full time SSD ownership. Solid state hard drives fail. A lot. And not just any fail. I’m talking about catastrophic, oh-my-God-what-just-happened-to-all-my-data instant gigafail. It’s not pretty.”

    My early-adopter friends corroborate this analysis. I think SSD drives are only for people tech savvy enough to set up a really good backup strategy. And that’s not most consumers.

  13. Part of the issue with availability and cost may stem from risk aversion on the part of the computer manufacturers. SSDs have higher failure rates than spinning disks. Failure within a year is not unheard of, within three years more than possible, and within 5-7 years maybe even likely, depending on the use profile.

    In a data center environment, this is acceptable. Everything is RAIDed and backed up, so when a disk fails, there’s staff on hand to replace it immediately. The failure rates are higher than for their spinning disks, and the costs higher, but the performance is so much better that it is worthwhile.

    Your average laptop user, even a “power user,” is still just relying on a single disk to carry their life’s work. If the disk fails in two years, and this user hasn’t backed anything up for 6 months, you better believe they’re going to make a huge stink about it to the laptop maker, and probably get on the front page of the Consumerist about said maker making unreliable products.

  14. It’s a very new technology, one that still has some reliability and cost issues. The performance advantages on the low-end drives are not as great as expected, either, especially for writes. (TRIM makes this a lot better, and yes, if you buy an expensive, recent SSD, writes will be much better than spinning rust, but now you are talking money. I mean, laptops are cheap enough that adding a few hundred to the cost is painful.)

    Even the good SSDs have higher failure rates in production than good hard drives. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the “you can only write it so many time” nature of flash; From my own anecdotal evidence of a few thousand drives, the failure rates for SSDs follow a bathtub curve just like spinning rust. (I left that company before I saw the end of the bathtub curve, but man, we had a lot of failures in the first month, and it seemed to cool down a bit after that.)

    Now, SSDs are coming down in price, so for people that don’t store a lot of media? SSDs are starting to look pretty good, and shortly will be the obvious choice. For ‘bulk storage’ applications, though? hard drives will be king for quite some time.

    Now, you brought up something interesting: what about the hybrid drives? they look perfect, right? you dump your frequently used program files and your rarely-used movies and MP3s on the same drive, and the drive itself sorts out which to cache in flash and which to leave on spinning rust. Best of both worlds, right?

    I did some research on the last generation of hybrid drives; others write about reliability issues, and often the performance isn’t as much better as you’d expect. It’s possible that the Seagate Momentus XT has solved this problem and works well, I have yet to sufficiently research. The last generation of hybrid drives were declared pathetic by the press and consumers alike, though.

    The same thing is happening with ‘enterprise’ storage right now; ZFS-based storage servers are extremely popular mostly because they allow you to dump a bunch of slow disks and a few fast SSDs in to the same system and let it sort out what data to cache and what data to not cache.

    It’s possible that a ‘hybrid’ drive where the flash is controlled by the same firmware as the spinning rust is a better solution due to more intimate knowledge of the physical layout of the disk. But personally, I’d want to see a generation of hybrid drives go through a year or two of production use (with happy customers) before I started selling drives.

    I mean, I’m a SysAdmin, not a hardware expert, so this is all anecdotal, practical experience type stuff, so some of it is wrong. but I’m certain that if dell switched to an all-ssd lineup tomorrow? their return rate would rise considerably, and considering that most people don’t mirror desktop drives for some reason, this is a problem.

  15. I’ve been looking into getting a laptop that will run Ubuntu and I went to dell at first because I don’t need anything all that spectacular but the lack of HD choice and ability to cheaply upgrade to 8GB RAM got to me. I’m thinking System 76 is the way to go now. I can cheaply get the Hybrid SSD HD and 8GB of RAM in their low end laptop.

  16. Re the references to Jeff Atwood’s post on his blog, Coding Horror, it’s being quoted out of context.While in the beginning half of the post he recounts his, and others, experience with failures, half way down he writes:

    Solid state hard drives are so freaking amazing performance wise, and the experience you will have with them is so transformative, that I don’t even care if they fail every 12 months on average! I can’t imagine using a computer without a SSD any more; it’d be like going back to dial-up internet or 13″ CRTs or single button mice. Over my dead body, man!

    FWIW, that’s Jeff’s conclusion. Let’s not quote the man out of context!

  17. Price:
    Amazon sells these at very low markup. Unsustainable for most hardware manufacturers.

    Reliability issues with earlier SLC variants (getting better now):
    Average consumer does not back up HD too often.

    Price & Availability
    Apple buys a major portion of the available NAND memory in the world and enters into long term contracts with suppliers to effectuate the same.
    Other manufacturers who are hesitant to commit to such large quantites often fight for limited supply thereby playing havoc with their slim margins AND they are not guranteed supply at any moment in time thereby playing havoc with their just-in-time manufacturing / supply chain.

    Average consumer who does not buy premium PCs (which pretty much means Apple these days), although a small contingent of us love our Thinkpads, is not willing to pay the price for an SSD. Given the advertised price of $699 vs $999 for a laptop with otherwise similar specs, the consumer will chose the $699 99.9 % of the time.

  18. I bought one recently for my old Mac laptop (2008) and it’s like getting a new computer. I bought a plextor from Amazon (256 gigs) for about $400. I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner! I will never have another computer without significant solid-state storage… Of course, I have a NAS and backup regularly…

  19. This all feels opposite to the way I use solid state — sort of like a ROM. I hardly ever write to it, but it’s (so far) been a lot more stable than hard drives, especially in environments where I can’t control the power supply.

  20. To answer Phil’s original question:

    Computer vendors (they really should be called integrators) overcharge on SSDs because they can, just as they usually charge 2x prices for RAM upgrades. Sure, anyone with half a brain will order the RAM from Crucial, but do not underestimate the apathy and general don’t-give-a-hoot-it’s-not-my-money attitude at most corporate IT departments. Even if you sell 1/10 what you could otherwise, the 100%+ profit margin more than makes up for it.

    It probably doesn’t help that SSDs are still seen as an “enthusiast” feature, i.e. a license to gouge, much as cellular data plans were per-iPhone.

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