MacBook Air Performance: SSD vs. Mechanical HDD

We took the same MacBook Air and just swapped drives for running these tests, you can't get more scientific methody than that. First up are some synthetic tests to help set expectations, for that we turned to XBench 1.3.

XBench isn't a particularly good benchmark for OS X, but it does have a basic drive performance test that suits our needs:


XBench 1.3 256KB block Disk Tests 80GB 4200RPM HDD 64GB SSD
Sequential - Uncached Writes 28.4MB/s 24.6MB/s
Sequential - Uncached Reads 28.0MB/s 49.9MB/s
Random - Uncached Writes 20.6MB/s 17.8MB/s
Random - Uncached Reads 13.0MB/s 49.2MB/s


The trends are pretty clear here: write speed is about 17% faster on the mechanical HDD while read speeds are much higher on the SSD, particularly when they aren't sequential reads. Since the mechanical drive has to worry about locating data on a spinning platter, random data spread out over the relatively slow spinning platter takes time to access. The SSD benefits from having an equal access latency to data regardless of where it's located in the drive's flash memory.

While most desktop applications are quite sequential in nature, multitasking can change I/O access patterns considerably.

Our first set of real world tests on the SSD are basic stopwatch application launch tests. We took 7 applications and timed how long they take to start up on the mechanical drive vs. the SSD:


Application Launch Time Tests 80GB 4200RPM HDD 64GB SSD
Adobe Photoshop CS3 18.0s 6.9s
iWork '08 - Pages 11.0s 3.5s
iWork '08 - Keynote 13.0s 6.3s
iWork '08 - Numbers 7.1s 3.5s
Mail 4.0s 2.6s
Microsoft Word 2008 28.8s 11.0s
Safari 2.9s 1.0s
System Boot Time 54.4s 32.5s


The SSD completely destroys the mechanical disk in application launch times, and these results aren't just numerical, they are very noticeable in using the system. The SSD is noticeably faster in application launches, accessing files in Finder and spotlight searches. After I used the SSD MacBook Air, I tossed the standard HDD back in and honestly thought something was wrong - it felt significantly slower, despite feeling mostly "fine" before I was exposed to the SSD.

Most application level benchmarks however favor the higher write speeds of the mechanical disk instead:


Application Benchmarks 80GB 4200RPM HDD 64GB SSD
iPhoto Import 125.9s 128.8s
iPhoto Export 196.0s 201.0s
Pages Export 37.6s 41.1s
Keynote Export 25.0s 23.7s
Word 2008 - Compare Docs 107.8s 109.3s
PowerPoint 2008 + Word, Print PDF 149.0s 162.6s
File Decompression 103.7s 138.4s
Photoshop CS3 76.2s 79.0s
Quicktime H.264 Encode 5.6m 5.8m


Most of these benchmarks show the SSD as slightly slower than the standard HDD, but a couple are noticeably faster on the standard drive thanks to its write speed advantage. The SSD recommendation would be an easier one if the benchmarks clearly leaned in one direction or another, but it's not as difficult as you might think on first glance.

The split between reads and writes on a desktop system is biased towards read performance, so you're more likely to notice the SSD's faster read speeds than its slower write speeds. The theory was echoed in my real world usage of the machine, the SSD was just faster.

Installing the SSD The Impact of SSD on Battery Life
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  • michael2k - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    Fujitsu P7230: Too slow (one core at 1.2GHz vs two cores at 1.6GHz), half as much ram (1GB vs 2GB) for the same price
    Dell XPS 1330: You can't get a 1210 from Dell.com (one pound (33%)heavier) for 2/3 the price
    Sony TZ250N: You can't get a TX from Sonystyle.com, too slow (2 cores at 1.2GHz vs 1.6Ghz), too expensive ($600 more)
    Sony SZ750N: Too big and heavy (1 pound (33%) heavier and twice as thick) for the same price

    You argue against thinner: Thinner is only a measure of weight. Compare to 3 pounds (2.7 to 3.2 pound) and you already eliminate the toughbook, the Dells, the Portege, and the SZ. Compare to the CPU speed and you eliminate the Fujitsu and Sony TZ.

    So what is left? The Lenovo X300, which is still more expensive, but for that extra expense you get an optical drive.
    Reply
  • mattbull08 - Monday, February 18, 2008 - link

    actually a lot less "cool" but a much better option would be a panasonic T5 thicker but lighter than the MBA but with twice the battery life... and that last is really important in something you always carry and use all day, anything which can't go a full day without a charge is just not worth the expense (I know the T5 will do a UK->West Coast flight on a single charge).

    The only real loss is less performance (do you really need it on the road??) and nowhere near as nice a screen.

    Really depends on what your usage is... but I'll get a T5 when my current notebook goes thanks.
    Reply
  • blumenbach - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "OK, so then the Sony TX, the Fujitsu P7k, the Toshiba Portege, the Dialogue Flybook, the Panasonic Toughbook, the Dell XPS1210, the Sony SZ, The LG XNote."

    The only one in this list that could compare with the MBA is the Portege, and even here it feels and looks like a plastic toy in comparison to the MBA. The display isn't near as sharp or bright on the Portege, and it's much slower. I owned the Sony, and Anand's review is right on: the cramped keyboard and tiny display made it a definite chore to use ergonomically.

    So, yes, just like the MP3 player (iPod) and smartphone (iPhone) Apple has taken the ultralight class, studied what others have done, and have set a new benchmark by redefining what is possible with these devices.
    Reply
  • themadmilkman - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "Redefining what is possible with these devices?" That's taking it a bit far, and I'm a rabid Apple fanatic. The MBA is a first effort, and just that. I spent a good amount of time playing with one at the Apple Store yesterday, and the only thing I can say about it is that it is simply too large. I can do without the ports, the external drive, the non-removable battery, etc., since none of those things really affect how I use my laptop. But if the MBA were reduced to an 11" or even 12" screen with a slightly smaller bezel around the screen, I would buy one. Until then, it's worth it to just carry the extra two pounds and buy a MacBook. Reply
  • ninjit - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    Regarding the 8 hour time-to-charge you noticed a few times. Did you calibrate the battery when you first got the Macbook Air.

    I've seen similar behavior on Macbook Pros before, when new or after buying a new battery - and it's almost always because the user failed to collaborate the battery initially.

    It's one of those simple things that manufacturers tell people to do (for good reason in this case), but most ignore.
    Reply
  • Omega215D - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    I noticed that you missed the page down and page up buttons. I have to say that I like scrolling with the trackpad much better. Place two fingers on it and slide downward makes this a nice feature.

    To me the LED backlighting made the blacks a little richer and less prone to showing bleed like the regular LCD on the MacBook, did you feel this way too? I wished that LED backlighting is available for the regular MacBook like the one I just bought.

    I like the way Apple did keyboard lighting on the Air than the one on the MacBook Pro. Black keys with lighting works much better than lighting on silver keys in my opinion. This being said I get by just fine using the light from the screen to illuminate my keys.

    On a final note, there's no need to miss the right click button on the track pad, I just set the pad to accept clicks and allowed for two finger tapping to be a right click. I find it pretty difficult to go back to other laptops.
    Reply
  • Omega215D - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    I noticed that you missed the page down and page up buttons. I have to say that I like scrolling with the trackpad much better. Place two fingers on it and slide downward makes this a nice feature.

    To me the LED backlighting made the blacks a little richer and less prone to showing bleed like the regular LCD on the MacBook, did you feel this way too? I wished that LED backlighting is available for the regular MacBook like the one I just bought.

    I like the way Apple did keyboard lighting on the Air than the one on the MacBook Pro. Black keys with lighting works much better than lighting on silver keys in my opinion. This being said I get by just fine using the light from the screen to illuminate my keys.
    Reply
  • bpurkapi - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    When I first heard rumors of the Air I was excited. But seeing that there is no opportunity to upgrade it is worthless to me. For $1800 the ability to upgrade should be standard. This makes me really enjoy the smaller and more affordable EEEpc. If the purpose is just basic internet and note taking the EEE is a much better choice for a college kid, then the overpriced Air. I see the air as a status notebook, at 13.3 it is not really an ultra portable, yes it is light but the form factor is not that portable. I believe the size of the EEE is about as small as one can go without serious drawbacks. I think the Air will sell like the iTV. I just wonder why Apple would release this subpar product following the iPhone? You would think it would have been a tablet and actually had a smaller form factor. As of now the Air is worthless compared to other portables. Why would anyone buy this when the Macbook has better specs and is only 2 pounds more. The thinness of the Air is a gimmick and really doesn't provide much more portability. Reply
  • Griswold - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    But its a clear winner! This is why:

    http://www.abload.de/image.php?img=macbookcommodor...">http://www.abload.de/image.php?img=macbookcommodor...
    Reply
  • Mathue - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    ""EEEpc. If the purpose is just basic internet and note taking the EEE is a much better choice for a college kid""


    I dunno, the EEEpc is way too small. In my job on the road, field and office I need a light machine that has REAL keys. My fingers are large since I do actually do 'work' in addition my eyesight isn't what it once was. The tiny screen on the EEEpc might as well be an iPhone with the text size. And for heavens sake, if the 'Surf' EEEpc has a RAM slot, darn-it, put a door on it so you don't have the pull the machine apart! I also, much as I dislike it, must have perfect Word, Excel and Powerpoint compatibility, (Watching a colleague running Ubuntu on a Thinkpad July of last year for a pre-made company presentation was painful) the OEM linux 'office like' application doesn't give me that, at least there is office on the Mac. And don't say run XP on one of those, I deal with enough XP foibles as it is then to have to run it on a 7" screen with cramped keys. As it is the Air probably barely fits for me, but the EEEpc just goes way too far size wise and is even less of use.
    Reply

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