The Truth about Solid State Drive Reliability

SSD Memory Cards

If you’ve Googled any comparison of hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs), then you’ve probably seen the same analysis in every article. Every one of them will tell you that HDDs give you a ton more space for much less money, while SSDs rock HDDs in terms of performance. No argument from us there.

Most of them will also say that SSDs are far more reliable. They’ll cite things like the lack of moving parts, or HDD’s risk from magnetism, as reasons why an SSD is clearly the more reliable option. All in all, are SSDs today generally more reliable than HDDs?

No.

In our experience with hard drive data recovery, the technology in SSDs is no more universally reliable than HDDs at this point. There may be SSDs that are more reliable than any HDD offering, but until the least reliable SSDs last longer than any HDD, it’s reckless to make SSDs the undisputed hard drive quality champion.

This is important to keep in mind, because if you read a review saying that a high end SSD will last longer than a trusted HDD model, that’s a vote of confidence for that particular SSD model, not the technology in general. It’d be like reading a review of the Tesla Model S vs some luxury combustion engine car that favors the Tesla, coming away with the thought “electric car > gas powered car,” and then buying a Nissan Leaf with the exact same expectations.

So why is it that we don’t declare SSDs universally more reliable than HDDs?

Contrary to belief, SSDs aren’t invulnerable

Most of the issues that happen with HDDs can happen with SSDs as well. Sectors degrade, partition structure can get lost, and firmware issues happen. Just because it doesn’t have spinning platters doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable to every type of failure. Most failures we encounter are logical issues, which happen to SSDs just as much as HDDs.

HDDs have been around for 57 years, meaning there have been 56 years for HDD manufacturers to work out the kinks in the technology. SSDs as a mainstream product have under a decade of use. That’s decades fewer time to not just innovate, but to take long-term tests to work out issues with the technology. The technology has not reached a level that automatically makes it more reliable than HDDs, it’s still up to the manufacturers to actually make a more reliable drive. Problem is…

There are a lot of low-end SSDs out there

The HDD industry is pretty much down to three major players – Western Digital, Seagate, and Toshiba. There is no mainstream low-end HDD manufacturer; they all build their drives to be as reliable as the technology allows for it. 50+ years of consumer expectations, coupled with prices being low already for the amount of space you’re getting, mean that intentionally making an HDD less reliable for a lower price would be met with an overwhelming negative consumer reaction.

The SSD market is growing, meaning more and more manufacturers are entering the market. Any company can buy the mass-produced NAND chips that store the data on an SSD. Take those NAND chips, develop a proprietary firmware setup and install it into a controller and bam, you’re an SSD manufacturer. As a result, there is a flood of low-end manufacturers that DO chose less reliability in order to charge lower prices.

Since the industry is so new, and numerous in possible choices, a consumer is less likely to take note of the brand, but shop simply by price. You might see a $1,000 SSD from Samsung, but also one from some manufacturer you’d never heard of that has about the same amount of space and performance for only $500. Well, where do you think they saved on costs if the space and performance are similar?

What many base their decision on is a lie

A manufacturer commonly provides an estimation of how long a drive is expected to operate without fault, called the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF). The MTBF estimates the number of hours a drive will typically operate between instances of failures. SSD users will point out that the MTBF is typically larger on SSDs than it is for HDDs, a sign that SSDs are far superior to HDDs in the reliability category.

Unfortunately, they lie. A common MTBF for drives, one that may even be considered on the low side nowadays, is 500,000. That means that drive, if it operates as long as expected before failing, will last 57 years, as long as HDDs have existed as a technology. So, when an SSD is pointed out as superior because it has a MTBF of 1.5-2 million, you’re being told that the drive you purchased today is expected to fail somewhere between the years 2185 and 2242. Yeah, not likely.

In our experience as a data recovery firm, we get plenty of SSD, and they come in at generally the same ages that HDDs do.

So, if you care about reliability…

If you care about your data, there’s still one tried and true method of preserving your data – back it up. Because HDDs are so much less expensive than SSDs right now, if you’re especially concerned about a hard drive failure, you can simple buy a second hard drive of the same type and use it back up your files. Heck, you could buy five HDDs and it would likely still be less expensive than a single SSD of the same size.