When building or buying a new gaming PC, your choice of storage matters. But judging the performance impact of different drives isn’t as simple as checking the benchmarks for new CPUs and GPUs.
It’s easy to wonder: Is “SSD gaming” noticeably faster than “HDD gaming”? Do SSDs have benefits beyond improving boot times?
To answer these and other questions, let’s run through some storage basics and explore the impact of storage on gaming.
Why Capacity Matters
Capacity is the specification you’ll see listed first when looking at storage drives, so let’s start there.
You’ll need a significant amount of space to play modern PC games. Install sizes have grown in recent years, with recent titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare taking up over 200GB by themselves.
Why do game install sizes continue to increase? It’s in part because they feature more high-resolution assets, such as 4K textures, that have a larger memory footprint. Although developers use image compression algorithms to reduce the size of stored assets, more high-res textures still mean more space used. The Unreal 4 engine, for example, specifies that a single 4K texture may take up 10.6-20.3MB of space using supported compression.
Games vary in the ways in which they compress art assets, video, and audio. Because decompressing assets like audio files creates more work for the CPU, developers have sometimes chosen to use uncompressed assets (increasing install size) so that their game runs smoother on lower-spec machines.
While not every game takes up as much space as Modern Warfare or Red Dead Redemption 2 (150GB), AAA titles will likely continue to grow in install size as the quality and complexity of assets increases.
Given that Windows 10 requires 20GB of space, it’s easy to see that some smaller drives—such as a 256GB SSD — could be almost full after installing just one AAA game. No matter what storage solution you choose, if you want to install multiple new releases at once, you’ll likely want at least 500GB for your primary drive.
Beyond that, it’s up to personal preference. Some players only want a couple of titles installed on their gaming PC at a time, while others will want several terabytes of space to manage their game library and save gameplay highlights.
HDDs, SSDs, and Gaming
SSDs generally outperform HDDs in gaming by excelling in key performance metrics like random read/write speeds as well as overall reliability. We’ll walk through some of the reasons this performance gap exists below.
HDDs use moving parts. Inside an HDD, an actuator arm moves over circular tracks on a spinning platter to retrieve or save data.
Because of the arm’s seek time and the platter’s rotational latency, HDDs have slower random read/write times than SSDs. When you’re playing, these delays can mean a longer wait to load up an individual level or assets, as well as momentary hitches and stutters as the game pulls new assets from the disk.
SSDs are integrated circuits with no moving parts. Rather than using magnetic media, most SSDs use NAND flash memory that enables superior read/write speeds and lower latency than HDDs can achieve.
When you upgrade from an HDD to a high performance SSD, the benefits are immediately apparent. Your PC boots faster, games launch and levels load faster, and hitches caused by games pulling assets from storage become far less frequent.
If you want to learn more about the specific differences between HDDs and SSDs, check out our full guide.
The Benefits of Gaming with an SSD
SSDs have become increasingly common in gaming PCs and will be standard in the next generation of gaming consoles. There are clear reasons for their widespread adoption:
- Faster OS boot times. Installing an SSD means less time waiting for your operating system to start before you can play games or do anything else. A new PC with an SSD often boots in a fraction of the time when compared to an HDD. SSDs’ superior data transfer speed can save you minutes of waiting.
- Faster load times. The most dramatic difference between SSDs and HDDs is the time you’ll spend waiting for games to load. The benefit is clear: SSDs can save you a few minutes of loading time in every play session and hours of waiting in the long term.
- Smoother gameplay. Many games perform thousands of tiny read and write operations as you play, which can result in hundreds of megabytes of data transfers. Upgrading to an SSD won’t increase your FPS, but it can result in an improvement in some open-world titles with game engines that load in new areas and textures as you play. On HDDs, the seek time of the arm’s read/write head and the rotational latency of the magnetic platter below it create the latency behind these hitches. By comparison, the greater bandwidth and reduced latency of SSDs help them rapidly access the requested data and avoid hitching.
In the past, game developers were often limited by the capabilities of HDDs. Because cross-platform titles also had to work on HDD-bound consoles, developers couldn’t take full advantage of the speed of SSDs.
The next generation of consoles will change that — both use NVMe SSDs. In addition, technologies like Microsoft’s DirectStorage API let games make vastly more I/O requests. That means that instead of building around the I/O bottlenecks caused by slow storage, creators can now finally scale their games up to the capabilities of NVMe drives.
This means open game worlds with more objects in view, thanks to a larger asset streaming budget. Sections of the level designed to slow the player down — like narrow corridors or elevators — might no longer be needed to conceal the loading of new textures and zones.
These technologies promise a future where the advantages of NVMe are properly utilized, which will have a significant impact on gaming experiences.
How to Choose the Right SSD for Gaming
As developers begin to leverage new I/O pipeline technologies that utilize the bandwidth of NVMe devices, installing a new NVMe drive will have a noticeable impact on gaming performance. Upgrading will also ensure compatibility with new technologies that further enhance the experience.
While finding the right CPU and GPU are key to any PC build, your choice of SSD is also becoming increasingly important.