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


View All Comments

  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "The SuperDrive won't work on a regular USB port as it draws too much power"

    Wrong. The MBAir Superdrive uses standard voltage and draws a normal 500ma of current. (See AppleInsider indepth MBA review). Apple has apparently simply chosen not to provide the driver that would allow this drive to work on other Macs, as it will still show up as a USB drive but can't be used. What remains to be tested is whether the MBAir Superdrive can even be used to import a burned CD/DVD on another MBAir once it has been initiated to a first machine. If it fails this test then it would indicate hardware based authentication ala Microsoft & Vista.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    You are correct - it looks like the power draw is identical to any other USB optical drive. I don't see any indication of any hardware based authentication tied to the drive, although I haven't specifically tested it.

    Take care,
  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Wow. Thank you very much for looking into it. IF you do get a chance to test out the drive on another MBA, I'd sure like to know the result. I'm really hoping they haven't invoked any limitations similar to Remote Disk under the assertion that people could use it to share media content.

  • Xenoterranos - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Bravo Anand. I loved the review, and it reminded me of why I started reading Anandtech in the first place.

    I honestly couldn't care less about the Macbook Air, but the review was top notch.
  • mlambert890 - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    So Anand...

    Seriously.. the Mac koolaid is making you drunk.

    Youd be "blown away" if Dell and Gateway took away the removable batteries from their existing thin and lights (they dont make ultraportables, and neither does Apple), made them thinner, and removed a bunch of ports and the optical drives?

    Were you "blown away" by the Sony X505? Or how about any of the MANY PC based notebooks that are a LOT smaller and lighter than the MBA?

    I guess not. They're not that nice white color with the Apple logo and arent held up by Jobs at the Mac expo.

    Are PC guys really getting THIS desperately bored that now we're going to join the flocks swooning over any crap Apple chucks into the marketplace?

    At least be honest man. If the MBA had a Dell or Gateway logo you would TEAR IT APART for lack of ports, too large of a footprint, weight that was mediocre since there is a BIG list of sub 3lb PC notebooks and.... NON REMOVABLE BATTERY.
  • mlambert890 - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Not to be picky but, well, *PC* reviews are always picky. There is NO WAY the MBA is an "ultraportable"

    Its HUGE in terms of the dimensions that mean something - LxW. It is a THIN AND LIGHT.

    Im typing this on a Fujitsu P1610. THAT is an ultra-portable - 9.1x6.5x2.2lbs

    13x9 is massive. My Sony SZ had similar dimensions and I couldnt open it in a cramped coach seat on a plane.

    People keep talking about how "the MBA is for special people - you dont get it". MANY of us *do* "get it". There are ALOT of travelers like myself who have been using notebooks in this space for YEARS.

    Apple has given us yet another ~13x~9x~3lb notebook. The only difference is this one is THINK (useless) and has NO REMOVABLE BATTERY (big problem)

    I keep seeing Mac lunatics ranting about how the battery *IS* removable because you can surgically remove it. Its funny because thats pretty directly counter to the argument of "only special people use this type of notebook" since those "special people" are executives and road warriors who NEED TO SWAP BATTERIES WHILE ON A PLANE and also need to open the thing on a plane.

    Sorry to all the drooling Mac-o-philes, but the MBA is a miss.
  • Griswold - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    But but... its only 10 tiny screws of varying sizes that need to be removed to change the battery - anyone can do that on a plane!

  • Souka - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    13.3" screen and 3lbs...

    Why not a
    faster laptop
    heckuv a lot more durable (proven)
    2.2lb (26% lighter!)
    upto 4GB of ram
    upto 200GB SATA HD, not old school PATA...
    Wi-fi a/b/g/n + EVDO broadband (Verizon or AT& can choose!)
    you can CHOOSE what CPU, RAM, an HD you want....
    fingerprint reader
    hardware based security encryption (if you set it up and lose your laptop the data is %100 safe)
    choice of 4 or 8 cell battery....carry an extra and change without taking 10 screws out...or upgrade at any time
    can be purchasd in tablet-form...uber cool

    Oh yeah...prices start at hundreds less than Macair

    what am I talking about?? Lenovo X61...and other laptop makers are in the SUB 3lb market....

    True...Lenovo's development is way more experienced at ultra-portables than Apple... and I do say the Apple is "pretty" and sleek... but if I had a kid in college, I'd spend the $$ on a Lenovo laptop as I know it'll take the abuse much better than the Macbook air and heckuv lot less likely to be stolen...

    My $.02...

  • OccamsAftershave - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    And a X61 with a Penryn, 100GB HD and Ultrabase+DVD is $1600 vs. Air+DVD $1900.
    Only comparison negatives: with an 8 cell X61 is 3.3 lbs and resolution is XGA, not WXGA+.
    (And the 4 cell weighs 2.7 lbs. not 2.2 lbs.)
  • lopri - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link


    This wasn’t going to be my ultimate work machine, I wasn’t going to be running Photoshop on it, I just needed it to do some basic writing and web browsing. In many senses all I needed was a notebook-sized iPhone.

    What happened to the special, customized, and powerful Core 2 Duo CPU that Intel designed just for Apple?

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