Questions like this pop up all over the internet, across forums, and strewn through comment sections: ‘Can X component improve Y game aspects like FPS or resolution or load times.’ And we’ve all been there.
Some snappy new games come out with the latest in ray tracing or demand some exorbitant amount of RAM, so it makes sense to look for improvements where you can find them. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are a good place to start.
These days SSDs aren’t the luxury item they once were, and many computers come standard with them. But how they specifically affect gaming is less clear.
The problem with that age-old question: ‘Can X component improve Y game aspect’ is that rarely are the answers simple. The addition of an SSD very well might smooth out your framerate and lower your load times.
But to know for sure, first, we have to understand what SSDs do, how they differ from HDDs, and what different types of SSDs are out there in order to better answer the question of what SSDs do for gaming and if they can improve your FPS.
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What is an SSD?
A solid-state drive is a component that stores data. That’s it. They were developed in the 1980s as an alternative to hard disk drives (HDDs) and became popular and readily available to general consumers in the 2000s.
Since then, they have only gotten cheaper, faster, and more widely available. Many speculate that it is only a matter of time before SSDs replace HDDs altogether. Why is that you may ask?
Well, unlike HDDs, which store, read and write data on magnetic platters that spin at around 7200 RPM, SSDs don’t have any moving parts. SSDs store data persistently on integrated circuits, so there is no time spent spinning disks to find it.
That lack of moving parts is great for a lot of reasons. First, it means that SSDs are notably faster at storing and retrieving data than HDDs. All of the data are stored in integrated circuits and are accessible all the time without the need to find it.
Second, it means that SSDs are less likely to fail or malfunction due to errors in spinning disks or the many moving parts within an HDD. And third, SSDs are built specifically to not overheat. Nothing moving internally means less heat is produced.
All modern SSDs stand by that integrated circuit model, meaning they benefit from the above advantages of not having moving parts. That being said, as SSDs get faster and more efficient, some of those benefits ebb and flow depending on the type.
Let’s run through some of the most widely used types of SSDs to discuss how they are different, what they do, and some of their pros and cons.
SSD Terminology is kind of confusing because the different factors that are used to describe them can overlap and be combined. There are three ways SSDs are described: the form factor, the interface, and the bus type.
The form factor is the overall shape of the SSD. Certain SSDs are built specifically for desktops and won’t fit into laptops and vice versa. For example, an SSD in the PCIe form factor is larger and won’t fit into laptops and tablets.
The interface is the physical connection from the SSD to your computer. These interfaces often use the same terminology as form factor so usually, an SSD in the PCIe form factor also uses the PCIe interface to connect to a desktop. This is not always the case.
Buses or the logical interface of the SSD is how data will move through it. Buses run into the same naming convention confusion as form factors and interfaces. Often the type of bus corresponds to a specific interface and shares a name. For example, an SSD that uses a SATA bus usually has a SATA interface.
So when an article mentions an M.2 SSD, usually they are referring to an SSD that uses that term for all three variables: the SSD is in the M.2 form factor, uses the M.2 interface, and also uses the M.2 bus. This gets confusing when that is not the case.
Running into long strings of descriptions for SSDs usually means that the name describes each of the three aspects: form factor, interface, and bus type. So with that understanding, let’s go through some of the most common types of SSDs.
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Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) SSDs are the oldest most widely used type of SSD. It was released by Intel in 2003 and became widely used because it outpaced comparative HDDs. SATA SSDs can still be found in computers today, though they are no longer the fastest SSD on the market.
Another term you might run into when looking into SSDs is an mSATA SSD. The ‘m’ in mSATA stands for ‘mini,’ meaning it is just a smaller form factor and interface of SATA SSDs meant for small or thin devices like tablets.
Both SATA and mSATA SSDs neatly fit into the benefits outlined above when describing SSDs. They are reliable, hard to overheat, and can outpace HDDs while still being relatively affordable.
M.2 SSDs are a more modern SSD released in 2013. M.2 SSDs are also known as Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF). M.2 SSDs are coveted because of how much faster they are as compared to their SATA SSD progenitors.
Where SATA and mSATA SSDs had data rates of about 600 MB/s, M.2 SSDs can blow past that limit running anywhere from 500% to an incredible 1000% faster.
How do M.2 SSDs achieve such speeds? It comes able to use a new bus or logical interface called Nonvolatile Memory Express (NVMe).
The NVMe interface allows SSDs to process thousands of command queues simultaneously which is why they handily beat out SATA SSDs in reading and writing speeds. M.2 SSDs are able to use this interface to achieve these speeds, although not all M.2 SSDs do.
The downside of M.2 NVMe SSDs is that despite still not having moving parts, they can get incredibly hot. We discussed this issue in more depth in our article ‘Do SSDs need Cooling,’ but long story short, M.2 NVMe SSDs are not only known for getting hot but are nearly expected to overheat.
These days you can buy heatsinks specifically designed for M.2 NVMe SSDs because of their tendency to get hot and overheat. In fact, many M.2 NVMe SSDs come preprogrammed with a safety net program called ‘Thermal Throttling’ which will slow down its processing speed if the internal temperature rises above safe operating limits.
PCIe SSDs are named for the interface they use: Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe). Besides that, PCIe SSDs are larger than other types of SSDs, meaning they are popular for desktops and can hold more chips per card. PCIe SSDs can also use the NVMe bus meaning it can process data extremely fast at the threat of overheating. Again, not every PCIe SSD uses it, so buy accordingly.
Other SSD Types and Terms
Generally, like SATA and PCIe, SSDs are named for the bus or logical interface they use. There are others beyond what is outlined above but those are by far the most common.
You may also run across other modifiers beyond the ones described above like SATA III or SATA 3.0. These describe the different generations of buses and change how SSDs buses function.
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SSDs and Gaming
So at a macro scale, SSDs allow your computer to access memory faster than if it was stored on an HDD. While that is never a bad thing, it often doesn’t affect the biggest factors when it comes to video games.
Components like your graphics card, processor, and the amount and type of RAM that are in your rig are going to set the baseline for how it performs with specific games. An SSD can’t make up for not having decent specs in terms of those components. So what does an SSD do for gaming? Does SSD improve FPS?
Modern video games do an incredible amount of accessing data at any given moment. Due to the size of modern video games, nearly every aspect from cut scenes to voice chat to textures has to be compressed to not take up thousands of gigabytes on everyone’s drives.
That compression means that all of those aspects have to be unpacked and reconstituted even before they can be applied. Polygon has an excellent video essay explaining this very process and the companies that work behind the scenes to do it.
But because of how complicated, compressed, and intensive modern video games are, accessing data faster can only help run them better. But will that speed translate into higher FPS? Yes, but only in niche cases.
Again your GPU and RAM are doing the heavy lifting here not the SSD, no matter how fast it is. But based on that simple fact of SSDs accessing data more quickly than HDDs, here’s what we can say when it comes to the specific benefits of SSDs for gaming.
The obvious answer to reading and writing data more quickly is that the load times for your game will go down. For load-time intensive games like Civilization V, that alone can be worth the upgrade, but for many other games, losing ten seconds to load into a game doesn’t matter if you aren’t getting a solid FPS.
So that’s great and all, you’ll have less time to spin models of Skyrim characters and read tips, but what is so exciting about shorter load times is that many games don’t fade to black to load like our friend Skyrim.
Especially when it comes to open-world games, your computer is constantly pulling up and unpacking data for what you are seeing. Not every inch of Skyrim loads when you boot up the game.
Rather a game works to keep you comfortably encapsulated within a bubble of perfectly loaded graphics and animations while the rest of the game remains unrendered.
A good way to visualize this is by thinking about the loaded chunks within Minecraft. Chunks are a 16×16 block unit of the game world that Minecraft uses to load and generate worlds.
Within Minecraft’s settings, you can specifically adjust how many chunks are loaded at any given point. Changing that setting will specifically adjust the size of the loaded ‘bubble’ around the player: how much of the game world your computer will render at one time.
While more complicated games obviously use more nuanced methods of loading game worlds, the idea of constantly loading and unloading parts of the game remains the same.
When the player strays too far towards the edge of that bubble, games will load more ‘chunks’ in that direction. This often is associated with a drop in framerates as the game struggles to maintain what the player does while loading all of that data. This issue is called ‘Hitching’ and is exactly where SSDs shine.
Due to the major increase in speed from HDDs to SSDs, games will be much faster at rendering these new ‘chunks’ while maintaining steady FPS. That age-old dip in FPS as you progress to a new area can be solved with a fast SSD.
So in this case, due to how video games render game worlds as well as how data is stored, read, and written, SSDs can actually increase your FPS as you load in new parts of the game world while playing.
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In a similar vein to how video games render game worlds, video game graphics are also being constantly loaded and unloaded. Especially in the age of 4k graphics and incredibly detailed textures for both models and environments, being able to compress texture files is a necessity in modern gaming.
Therefore the speed at which you can pack and unpack those files can very literally be a graphical upgrade for your PC.
In order to explain how an SSD can boost the graphics for your video games, it makes sense to discuss the common graphical error it would solve. Unfortunately, there is not a term for this graphical error, so we are dubbing it ‘graphical hitching.’
Graphical hitching is the error of video game graphics not loading quickly enough to appear the first time you see them on a model or in an environment.
Basically, you will wheel around a corner in a video game, and rather than seeing a bunch of pedestrians standing before a brick building, you see a bunch of stick figure nightmares standing before a terracotta blob. And then the graphics load, applying the high-resolution texture to those figures. That is graphical hitching.
Graphical hitching was once really only a problem only in huge multiplayer games like MMO’s. This is because, in order to best run these massive servers, textures were loaded separately from the game world. Due to just how advanced and compressed modern textures are, however, that error has bled over into the single-player experience.
Graphical hitching is directly caused by your computer not being able to access and apply that compressed texture to a model in the game world quickly enough.
Therefore the speed at which you can assess data impacts graphic hitching a lot. A sufficiently fast SSD could handily solve this problem for you and thus, improve your graphics.
Playing Video Games on your SSD
Another important point to consider when it comes to SSDs and gaming is whether or not you are actually using them for the games you are playing.
Especially if you are on a budget or only have a small SSD, you won’t be able to install all of your games onto it at one point.
Otherwise, many PCs come with several drives so make sure you are always using your SSD for the games you are playing is important.
These days clients like Steam allow you to install games on various drives and play on others, so it isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s important to keep in mind if you are trying to wring every last frame from your ailing rig.
SSDs are rarely going to make or break your gaming experience. By allowing you to access data more quickly, they can help in a lot of niche cases when it comes to gaming like shortening load times, stopping frame rate drops associated with hitching, and avoiding graphical hitching altogether.
That being said even installing a terabyte SSD won’t improve the overall FPS of your games. They won’t allow you to tick your graphical setting to the next level nor finally be able to play Cyberpunk 2077.
SSDs just aren’t the major components that help your computer run complex video games like GPUs. SSDs are, however, a relatively accessible and inexpensive way to upgrade in the age of graphics card shortages.
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