Laptop hard drives, like the one found in the PlayStation 3, take up little physical space. However, going smaller generally requires compromises. Performance takes a backseat, because manufacturers design the drives primarily for lower power consumption and heat emission. Sony likely wanted to make a smaller console and had to settle for using a space-saving laptop drive. That means we're stuck with a slow drive, and the console reminds us of it every time we install or load up and play a game. To speed things up a bit we could replace the 5,400rpm stock hard drive with an incrementally faster 7,200rpm drive. But that's the easy way out. We'd rather go the Tool Time way and slap in a next-generation solid state drive (SSD). Traditional hard drives have motors and platters that spin and move, and both of those devices take up power and generate heat. SSDs have no moving parts whatsoever--they're based entirely on NAND flash memory like the kind used in memory cards and USB storage devices. SSDs use very little power, emit far less heat than conventional hard drives, are completely silent, and provide excellent performance--if you can afford them.
Solid state drives aren't anything new; they've just been very expensive for much of their existence. A couple of years ago, 60GB SSDs sold for around $1,000. That number is far from affordable, but it was more expensive a short time before that. Like all things in the computer world, SSDs continue to drop tremendously in price, grow in capacity, and increase in performance as the technology makes its way into more mainstream electronics.
Last year we tested the PlayStation 3 with an entry-level 60GB SuperTalent SSD. The results showed that the upgrade didn't justify the cost. Load times decreased, but install times actually went up. Nowadays, we're seeing considerably faster SSDs drop into the $100 territory, albeit at 32GB, which is on the smallish side. Spend a bit more and you can grab a 120GB drive for a hair under $300. 256GB drives scale almost linearly in price and slide in at $650-plus.
We got our hands on the 256GB Samsung MMDOE56G5MXP SSD to see how it performs in a PlayStation 3 Slim. We tested the drive in a PC beforehand and saw blistering performance. We witnessed read speeds in the 220MB/s range and write speeds ranging from 160MB/s to 190MB/s depending on the run. By comparison, we tested the stock PlayStation 3 Slim hard drive and observed 65MB/s read speeds and 48MB/s write speeds. Incidentally, the Slim's drive is considerably quicker than the drive found in our original PlayStation 3, which had 32MB/s write and read speeds.
Installing a solid state drive into the PlayStation 3 doesn't take long; we detailed the process in our How to Upgrade Your PlayStation 3 Hard Drive feature. Aside from screws that are incredibly tight and easy to strip, the process is simple and relatively painless. The SSD has normal SATA hard drive connections and is sized perfectly to fit into the PlayStation 3's hard drive tray.The process is largely the same for the PlayStation 3 Slim, except for the location of the hard drive slot.
Test System Setup: PlayStation 3 Slim Stock Hard Drive - Hitachi 5K500 120GB, Samsung 256GB SSD.
The game installation test results show that the Samsung SSD's ridiculously fast write speeds didn't come into play when installing games from the Blu-ray drive. Give or take a few seconds, the stock PlayStation 3 Slim hard drive performed largely the same as the Samsung SSD. The likely limitation is the speed of the PlayStation 3 Slim's 2x Blu-ray drive, which caps off at 9MB/s. A faster hard drive, SSD or not, simply isn't going to make up for it.
Write speeds are only one part of the story, because you generally install a game only once. The rest of the time, you'll be loading up saved games, waiting for levels to load, or launching games from the Cross Media Bar. The SSD excels in those instances. Grand Theft Auto IV showed tremendous speed increases both when starting the game and when loading a saved game. Assassin's Creed II and Devil May Cry 4 hardly budged in favor of the SSD when it came to saved game loads, but we did shave off a few seconds when loading from the XMB. The SSD's superior read performance doesn't nullify load times entirely, but it does help to reduce them. We're likely encountering Blu-ray drive limitations again, as the disc still needs to be accessed in spite of the game install.
At a cost of $650, it's hard to justify purchasing the 256GB Samsung SSD (or, for that matter, one with one-fourth the capacity and price), especially when you consider that the money could buy you two new consoles. There certainly are benefits to upgrading to a solid state drive, but we wouldn't recommend doing so until the prices are more in line with performance expectations. At this point, you're better off slapping that SSD into your computer to fully enjoy the gains.