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Explanation WednesdayLaptops

Low-End Laptops are a Mistake

9th September 2015 — by That IT Guy0

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As I was writing the previous article “5 Ways to Cool Down Your Laptop” and talked about overheating Laptops I’ve fixed in the past, I couldn’t help but remember what one of the biggest complaints people have told me about their Laptops, “It’s just to Slow!”. 9 out of 10 times these laptops are low-end Laptops.

Low End Laptops are a Mistake

Lets analyze what constitutes a “Cheap Laptop”

The term “Cheap laptops” doesn’t necessarily have to do with the amount of money you payed for it (you could buy a 3-year-old laptop which in its day was a high-end laptop for a low price, i.e. cheap so really by cheap laptops I mean low-end laptops. The market is filled with low-end laptops, it easily constitutes 75% of all laptop sales. Let’s have a look at two examples and take it from there.

The “Office & Internet” laptop

First of all let me clarify that I haven’t chosen an HP laptop for any specific reason other than it’s the first one I found, all the brands do this, it’s just how it is. So, let’s analyze its specs.

HP Compaq 15-H200NS AMD E1-2100/4GB/500GB/15.6

HP Compaq 15-H200NS AMD E1-2100/4GB/500GB/15.6

1: Processor & Graphics: AMD E1-2100 – AMD Radeon HD 8210 GPU

The AMD E1-2100 is a mobile dual-core SoC for low-end subnotebooks and netbooks, which was presented in mid-2013. In addition to 2 CPU cores with a base clock speed of 1.0 GHz (no turbo), the 28-nanometer chip also integrates a Radeon HD 8210 GPU, a single-channel DDR3L-1333 memory controller as well as the Southbridge with various I/O ports.

The AMD Radeon HD 8210 is an integrated DirectX 11.1 graphics card found in AMD E1-2100 “Kabini” and A4-1250 “Temash” APUs. It offers 128 shader cores and two Compute Units based on the GCN architecture and is clocked at 300 MHz with no support for Turbo. The graphics card does not have dedicated VRAM and will access the main memory of the system (up to single-channel DDR3L-1333).”

The description says this is a dual core cpu rated at just 1.0Ghz. The first ever processor to reach 1.0Ghz was back in 2003. Granted this processor is likely much more powerful than the first 1.0Ghz cpu as that rating isn’t the only thing that counts at all ( a 2.6Ghz CPU could be much more powerful than a 3.0Ghz cpu for example). But the fact that it is as low as 1Ghz lets us know that while it may ok-ish for office work and browsing, it will most likely not run High definition video and you can forget about games, specially without a discrete graphics card, running on the integrated Radeon HD 8210 GPU which is again 2-year-old technology that is equivalent to the power of a 7-year old graphics card and to top it off does not have dedicated VRAM so it will use your RAM memory to do its thing which moves us to the next point.

2: RAM: 4 GB DDR3L 1600 MHz (1 x 4Gb)

While by today’s standards, 4Gb of DDR3 1600Mhz would be the absolute minimum for any Desktop or Laptop, we have to have in mind that this is being shared with the on-board graphics card which means we will not have all the RAM available at any time. The fact that it is all in one stick of memory rather than 2 also means that we do not have Dual Channel technology which allows RAM to receive and send information at the same time meaning that regardless of the amount, it is slower than you’d like.

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 500Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ 1366 x 768

This laptop comes with an adequate 500Gb but as all low-end laptops it’s a 5400RPM drive which means it’s speed is considerably reduced compared to the Desktop’s conventional 7200RPM drives. The screen is the standard 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen will likely drive you mad due to the low image quality and content reduction due to the fact that you simply can’t fit much in to that amount of pixels, not that it would matter as the on board graphics card would provably struggle with anything closely resembling Full HD.

4: Why it sells so much

Simple answer, 300€/280Pounds/320USD and that is the reality of this, the manufacturer can only include so much for such a low price and that’s what makes it attractive to customers, being able to buy a computer for that price is something most people won’t look over, because, can you complain? No, you can’t and this is the problem. The laptop will feel sluggish from day one, chances are you’ll end up taking it to your local it shop or computer guy/friend and they will tell you that it’s just to low of a spec, that it’ll never feel fast but what they can do is reinstall windows cleanly, without all the rubbish software manufacturers bundle with their Laptops which just slow it down further and if you want to spend a bit of money, upgrade it with an SSD which will no doubt improve the responsiveness of the laptop considerably due to the slow original drive not helping the cause but it’ll still be limited by its ridiculous processing power.

Conclusion: In all fairness, they advertise it for what it is, a basic laptop with the age-old excuse of “if all you want to do is office work and browse”. I don’t know about you but when I open Word or Firefox/Chrome I’d like for them to open and not make a cup of tea while I wait for it. So, false economy, is your time really worth that little?

The “It’s actually less powerful than it looks” Laptop

This kind really pisses me off actually, the previous one at least is straight up about what it is, if the customer doesn’t know better, you can’t really blame the manufacturer, this one however will take advantage of that, to sell you something that looks powerful when it really isn’t.

Lenovo IdeaPad G50-30 Celeron N2840/8GB/500GB/GT820M/15.6
Lenovo IdeaPad G50-30 Celeron N2840/8GB/500GB/GT820M/15.6
1: Processor & Graphics: Intel Celeron N2840 – NVIDIA GeForce GT820M

The Intel Celeron N2840 is a power efficient dual-core SoC for entry-level notebooks. It is clocked at up to 2.58 GHz and part of the Bay Trail-M platform. Thanks to the specially optimized 22 nanometer low-power process (P1271) with tri-gate transistors, performance and energy efficiency have been significantly improved compared to previous Intel Atom CPUs. The N2840 supports Intel Quick Sync and Wireless Display.

Here we see the first sign of trying to sell you something that looks powerful when it is not. 2.58Ghz sounds like a high clock rate, it certainly looks like that way but the keyword here is “Celeron”. Now, if you do a simple google search you’ll find Celeron is the second lowest powerfully range of processors from the Intel family. As if that wasn’t enough of a warning light, we see the N letter in the model which rings a bell… Remember those extremely low powered 7-10″ netbooks from Acer & ASUS? Their processor also started with a N… and then we keep reading and there it is… “improved compared to previous Intel Atom CPUs“, that’s right, they had Intel Atom CPUs which are the lowest of the Intel Family, so this is an Atom CPU but with the Celeron badge slapped on, with a higher clocked rate that translates to the equivalent power of the old Core 2 Duo low-mid range cpus which were a range of processors launched in 2006. So here we have a 2.58Ghz with power equivalent to a 6-9 year old processor.

The NVIDIA GeForce 820M (or GT 820M) is an entry-level DirectX 12 compatible graphics card announced in January 2014. Its core is based on the 28nm GF117 chip (Fermi architecture) and is equipped with 64-bit DDR3 memory. Besides the slightly different clock rate, the 820M is almost identical to the old GeForce 710M and GT 720M.”

So this laptop has a dedicated (also known as discrete) graphics card, the NVIDIA Geforce GT820M with 1Gb VRAM which is good because that means it won’t steal RAM resources from the rest of the laptop. But hold on, low-end NVIDIA integrated mobile gpu…. See, the graphic card manufacturers don’t really give their low-end models on any given series new technology, they are essentially rebranded older hardware with slightly different clocks. So it says that the GT820M is based on the Fermi architecture. It was first used (released) on the Geforce 400 series back in 2010, so again, we’re given hardware based on technology that’s 5 years old. To put it in perspective, if you had a Desktop with the highest end 400 series graphics card (which when first released would set you back 600USD/€/Pounds easily, and that’s just for the graphics card, nothing else), it would not be able to cope with the latest games, design software. And that’s the highest possible model in the range, this GT 820M is the low-end equivalent so you see where this is going.

2: RAM: 8 GB DDR3L non-specified MHz (1 x 8Gb)

This laptop comes with 8Gb of DDR3 RAM with an unspecified Mhz rating which basically means it’s 1333Mhz (so while more than the previous model, comes at a slower speed) and as before the fact that it is all in one stick of memory rather than 2 also means that we do not have Dual Channel technology which allows RAM to receive and send information at the same time meaning that regardless of the amount, it is slower than you’d like. But, it’s 8Gb so it makes it look more powerful.

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 500Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ 1366 x 768

This laptop again comes with an adequate 500Gb but as all low-end laptops it’s a 5400RPM drive which means it’s speed is considerably reduced compared to the Desktop’s conventional 7200RPM drives. The screen is the standard 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen will likely drive you mad due to the low image quality and content reduction due to the fact that you simply can’t fit much in to that amount of pixels, not that it would matter as the discrete graphics card is so out of date that even though it can handle Full HD (which doesn’t matter because you don’t get a Full HD screen with this Laptop) it can’t handle any modern games, so you’re stuck with older games and any sort of resource intensive software (like Photoshop for example) which again, doesn’t really matter because even if it did have the graphics power, the processor lets you down so hard that it would feel like pushing something really big up a hill, you may be able to get there but not in any sort of record time, or good time for that matter (here I come again kettle!).

4: Why it sells so much

Simple answer, 450€/410Pounds/475USD and it looks, on paper, so much better than the previous model and it’s only 50% more so that must justify the increase in the specs which in turn must mean that this is incredibly more powerful… which brings me back to why this type of laptop makes me angry, the manufacturer is indirectly lying to the customer making something look powerful when it’s actually rather slow and at the same time not breaking any laws because they are not technically telling you that, you’re just assuming it by the way it’s advertised and the numbers in the description so as with the previous example, you’ll most likely end up at the shop/it friend’s house to try and reinstall Windows without all the bundled crap and maybe upgrade it with an SSD.

Conclusion: Ugh *facepalm*!

So what kind of laptop should I buy?

You’d think the easiest answer to this considering the examples I’ve given is “anything over X amount of [insert currency of choice here]” but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You see, what determines a good laptop (and by good I mean good for your needs, not in the hardware power scale) is a reasonable combination of its components which means if a laptop must cost no more than X to manufacture, it should not spend a large chunk of its budget on a higher end part and combine it with a very low-end part to offset the costs just so the higher end part can be used as part of a marketing strategy. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get this on the lower side of the laptop spec spectrum simply because it’s not a good marketing move. Furthermore, unlike Desktop PCs, it’s not like we can pick and choose components at a shop and let them assemble them for us (or do it ourselves).

So what are we left with?

We’re left with 4 steps to take into account when buying a laptop.

  1. We have to decide how much we want to spend on our new laptop and, unlike on pretty much any other expensive item in our lives, not stick to it. If spending 30€/USD/Pounds means getting something considerably better, we must consider the extra expense as a possibility.
  2. We have to do our research and find a Laptop composed by components that match each other. By my experience this normally means not even looking at anything under 600€/540Pounds/660USD. Why? Because while you may find some that matches these 2 points, they are far and wide apart which means we’ll spend a ton of time doing so.
  3. Unlike Desktops which are mostly assembled in huge numbers and will be put on sale once they are out of date, Laptops are assembled in relatively small batches as models come out every other week and each model having a second batch depend on how well they sell. This means that it is very rare for laptops to go on sale due to wanting to get rid of stock which means when they are on sale, it’s purely a marketting strategy meaning the supposed “original” price is inflated to give the impression of a “good deal”.
  4. Do not buy a Laptop just because it has an SSD, often it is cheaper to buy the laptop of your choice and simply pay extra for an SSD so you can install it yourself or have a friend/local shop install it for you.

The “Matching Components” Laptop

Here is a decent example (again, only reason I chose an ASUS model was because it was the first I found matching what I was looking for, all brands have equivalents) of what I mean on the previous points. Usually this kind of laptop is what falls in the “negative feedback” zone of marketting. It’s not powerful enough to advertise it as a gaming laptop nor is it cheap enough to do any of the marketing moves exposed in the previous 2 examples and therefore is normally placed on a shelf with nothing special mentioned about it, no sale, no nothing, it’s just there because they have to offer something in between marketing strategies.

Asus K555LD-XX1014H Intel i5-5200U/8GB/1TB/GT 820M/15.6

Asus K555LD-XX1014H Intel i5-5200U/8GB/1TB/GT 820M/15.6

 1: Processor & Graphics: Intel Core i5-5200U – nvidia GeForce GT820M

The Intel Core i5-5200U is a ULV (ultra low voltage) dual-core processor based on the Broadwell architecture, which has been launched in January 2015. In addition to two CPU cores with Hyper-Threading clocked at 2.2 – 2.7 GHz (2 Cores: 2.5 GHz), the chip also integrates an HD Graphics 5500 GPU and a dual-channel DDR3(L)-1600 memory controller. The Core i5 is manufactured in a 14 nm process with FinFET transistors.

The i5 has for some years now been the corner-stone of the Intel range. It’s not a Celeron or atom which is geared to ultra-cheap laptops, it’s not an i3 which is base line of the main processors and it’s not an i7 which is geared for the high-end. It’s that in-between point which is what we want for an all round value/performance good laptop. This specific model (like most laptop current generation i5) is a ULV, which essentially means it uses very little power and therefore giving you considerably more power than lower end cpus but keeping the battery usage in check. It is a Dual Core with HT (Hyper Threading) which means it can handle to threads per core, essentially making it a Quad Core processor which allows you to more things at once without an increased slowdown. It is also part of the Broadwell family of processors which were launched this year and are manufactured with a 14nm process which is also new to this year. This means this is in fact new and up-to-date technology, unlike the previous examples.

Furthermore the CPU itself comes with the Intel HD5500 integrated graphics. This being a laptop with also a dedicated (discrete) graphics card means that the laptop will switch between both of them depending on what you’re doing in order to make the battery last longer before it needs a recharge while at the same time not shying away from giving you the power when you need it.

The NVIDIA GeForce 820M (or GT 820M) is an entry-level DirectX 12 compatible graphics card announced in January 2014. Its core is based on the 28nm GF117 chip (Fermi architecture) and is equipped with 64-bit DDR3 memory. Besides the slightly different clock rate, the 820M is almost identical to the old GeForce 710M and GT 720M.”

I talked about this very graphics card in the second example within this article. The difference here is that while it is old technology it is paired with a proper processor which has its own high-end integrated graphics which in combination with this can provide the power that the previous example could not. And this is what I talked about on 4 points on buying a new laptop. It’s about coherent combination of hardware.

2: RAM: 8 GB DDR3L 1600Mhz (2 x 4Gb)

This laptop comes with 8Gb of DDR3 RAM at 1600 Mhz rating which is today’s DDR3 standard. Being composed of 2x 4Gb sticks, it has Dual Channel activated which means the laptop can handle write and read operations at the same time meaning no slowdowns in its usage (unlike the previous example with had 8Gb of 1333Mhz in one stick).

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 1000Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ Slimglare LED

This laptop comes with an adequate 1Tb (1000Gb) drive but what we should do here is also acquire an SSD and have it installed (if you don’t know what SSDs are or why you should upgrade to one, click here!). Then, we can purchase an external usb 2.5 enclosure and place the original 1Tb laptop drive in there which will mean our laptop is now much faster and we also have an external backup drive which is perfect.

The screen is the SlimGare LED 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen is not good but the fact the it’s a high quality LED panel somewhat makes up for this disadvantage (again, sensible combination of components). Furthermore, while you will not have Full HD with this screen, you will be able to make the most of the graphic power but it not having to work as hard but knowing that it is capable of Full HD when plugging your laptop to a Desktop monitor or even a TV to what the latest movies.

4: Why it doesn’t sell so much

Marketing departments rarely care for this mid-point between low-end massive sales and the remaining high-end sales but they know that it’s a product they must have in order to fill in the gap and compete against the other companies. Because of this most people will go one way or another but don’t normally go this way. Even the people intending to go towards the middle end up falling in to the trap exposed by the second example in this article so you could even argue the companies would rather you did not buy this laptop and bought the cheaper one instead. For the record, this specific model is around 600€/540Pounds/660USD at the time of writing.

Conclusion: As you can see this is a Laptop that has a coherent combination of components and not a single flashy one. The irony in this is that this Laptop will outperform laptops around the same price range or less that have a “flashy” component that’s being used for marketing purposes.

So, hopefully now you are ready to go Laptop shopping and tell the sales rep. YOU! NOT THIS TIME! (though to be honest they don’t care as long as you actually buy a laptop).

Explanation WednesdayStorage

SSD – What are they and Why you Want one (or two!).

2nd September 2015 — by That IT Guy0

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An SSD or “Solid State Drive” is, by all means, a Hard Drive, meaning it fulfills the same function. It’s where your Windows is installed, where your programs are installed, where your music, photos, and documents are stored. So, if this is true, what’s so different between an SSD and a conventional Hard Disk Drive? In order to explain what it is, we first need to analyze the differences. On this article I will only be talking about conventiona 2.5″ SSDs, I will talk about M.2 and PCI form factors in future articles. Let’s see what Wikipedia says about Hard Disk Drives.

“A hard disk drive (HDD), hard disk, hard drive or fixed disk is a data storage device used for storing and retrieving digital information using one or more rigid (“hard”) rapidly rotating disks (platters) coated with magnetic material. The platters are paired with magnetic heads arranged on a moving actuator arm, which read and write data to the platter surfaces. Data is accessed in a random-access manner, meaning that individual blocks of data can be stored or retrieved in any order rather than sequentially. HDDs retain stored data even when powered off.”

Hard Disk Drive

HDDs have been around since 1956, invented by IBM and you can see the technology has evolved immensely by the million-to-one scale except one factor. Average Access Time. What does this mean? Well, it’s the time your hard drive takes to access its sectors which is where your data is located. Now, have in mind that if you have a photo that weighs 1Mb, that 1Mb isn’t stored all together and neatly, this is called fragmentation and it’s why we have defrag in WIndows, so your drive needs to access many different sectors within it to get all the information needed to open up that selfie you took to use as your main Facebook picture. You may think, but That IT Guy, it says right there in the chart it takes milliseconds, surely we wouldn’t even notice? Well, that’d be true if all our hard drive was doing is getting the photo but our hard drives are constantly in motion working with temp files, cache, indexing and all sorts of operations Windows needs it to do to keep up with you. This specially affects Laptops due to the fact that in order to save costs 90% of laptops have HDDs with a spin speed of 5400RPM while conventional Desktops use HDDs with a speed of 7200RPM. And talking about Laptops, if you’ve ever dropped one you’ll have noticed that the first thing to break (even if the rest of the Laptop is perfectly fine) is the Hard Drive.

Hard Drives are very sensitive to knocking, the slightest impact can render them useless and this is because of the millimetric spaces between the platters inside and their reading heads (you may have heard a ticking computer at some point, this is its hard drive dying due to platter or head displacement).

So, now we know what conventional Hard Drives are which is what you’ll all get on a new Desktop or Laptop (unless they are very high-end, in which case you may also get an SSD). Let’s now find out what SSDs are and by the end of that we can compare the differences. As before, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say:

“A solid-state drive (SSD) (also known as a solid-state disk though it contains no actual disk, nor a drive motor to spin a disk) is a solid-state storage device that uses integrated circuit assemblies as memory to store data persistently. SSD technology primarily uses electronic interfaces compatible with traditional block input/output (I/O) hard disk drives, which permit simple replacements in common applications. Additionally, new I/O interfaces, like SATA Express, have been designed to address specific requirements of the SSD technology.”

Let’s Compare

The first thing that catches the eye is that it contains no actual disk (platters) nor drive motor which implies to headers either. What does all this mean? Well, the simplest way to explain it would be comparing it to a pendrive but on a bigger scale. Both use memory chips (in modern SSDs NAND Flash to be specific) but instead of being limited to USB technology (which putting aside modern USB 3.0/1, most people have USB 2 devices and connections which works at an average of 12mb per second read/write speed which is why all those films you download take so long to copy to your pendrive) it uses SATA technology which is the modern-day standard connection for hard drives. If you both a PC or Laptop within the last 3 years, chances are it has SATA 6Gbps connectivity… that’s 6144Mb/s max speed… which is exactly 512 times faster than a pendrive. To be fair however, most SSDs will have a read speed of between 400 to 560Mb/s which when compared to conventional hard drives that have an average of between 50 to 120Mb/s means that an SSD is 5 to 10 times faster than a conventional hard drive (you can see where this is going). We also have to take in to consideration the access times, conventional hard drives as we saw earlier take time to find the parts of the file you want to access because they have to spin-up and get the header to read the sectors on the hard drive that have those parts. An SSD has to… nothing. It’s flash memory which is indexed which means instant access time, no delay, no fragmentation.

What does that mean?

It means we get the full speed of the SSD almost instantly while we would only get the full speed of an HDD if the one file was big enough to allow it to reach that speed (and in 99% of cases, most files aren’t). Let’s put it in perspective with a real world speed test, using CrystalDiskMark (go ahead, click on it and get it from the downloads section and run the test on your hard drive). The test we’re running is a Best out of 4 passes on 1Gb files with 5 second intervals between passes. For the test I’ll be using a brand new Western Digital NAS Red 4Tb HDD which is considered one of the most reliable drives in the market and in fact it’s made to last. The second test is for a RAID 0 array of 2x Kingston HyperX 3K 240Gb SSDs so the results should be divided by 2 to get the real individual speed as RAID 0 greatly increases speed, you can read more about that here. The conventional speed is Seq Q32T1 so those are the results you want to look at. 4K is just what it sounds like, speed tests for very small files (which shows just how slow HDDs are in terms of access time). For the results, higher is faster.

HDD vs SSD

You can instantly see that while the SSDs are in general terms (which the overall READ/WRITE speed, so “Seq Q32T1”) considerably faster, they are also so much more faster in 4K Q32T1 tests (400 times faster) due to the instant access times and that’s really what you want as most drive activity on your computer will be small files. And this is just the start as SSDs are getting faster all the time and the models I used in this test are almost 4 years old!

Other advantages

While speed is, of course, very attractive (Windows boots up in just a few seconds and programs open up instantly even on lower end machines), it is not the only advantage. You see, SSDs have no moving parts which means they are unlikely to break due to being knocked being by dropping the drive or dropping your laptop with it in it. They also consume much less power (a LOT less) which means your Laptop’s battery will last longer or you’ll simply get smaller electricity bills for your PC. They are compatible with any computer of any form that has a SATA connection of any generations which makes them compatible with pretty much any computer in the last 8 years. Because of their speed they are ideal upgrades for really old computers that just can’t keep up as they provide a fresh breath of life due to their speed even if they are limited by older SATA connections (max of 250Mb/s.

Disadvantages

And here’s the big “BUT”. Prices. The price per Gb (which is the standardized pricing scheme used for storage) is much higher than on conventional hard drives. For the price of a 1Tb (1000Gb) conventional Hard Drive, you can only get a 120Gb SSD, that’s 10 times less space. A 1Tb SSD will set you back around 400USD/330Pounds/370€ so they are not ideal to use as storage at the moment but, this is ok because what I always tell my clients is the following. If you’re upgrading your PC, buy a 120Gb SSD and install Windows on it, install your programs and store your files on your old conventional Hard Drive. For a Laptop, buy a 240Gb SSD and a 2.5 HDD external enclosure. Take your standard hard drive out, put it in the usb enclosure and stick the SSD in the laptop. You now have a much faster Laptop and have recycled your old hard drive to be used as an external usb hard drive to keep your files (which also doubles as backup!).

Prices, however, are going down all the times as the SSDs get cheaper to manufacture (supply and demand). Intel has said they want to offer 100Tb SSDs by the end of 2018 and that’s one of the biggest advantages of SSDs, their storage capacity isn’t limited by the size of platters like conventional HDDs but rather the size of transistors used to manufacture their memory which is getting smaller all the time as it’s the technology used on many other kinds of products.

Conclusion: Give your Laptop or PC, no matter how old or new it is, a new breath of incredibly fast life. Check back on Monday for a tutorial on how to swap drives over both on Desktops and Laptops.

Explanation WednesdayPerformance

RAID Systems – What are they and why on earth do we care?

26th August 2015 — by That IT Guy0

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Lately I’ve been recommending RAID systems to most of my clients (of course, depending on their needs) in different flavours (some just need speed, some just need peace of mind and some are just greedy and want both).

Unfortunately, explaining every single time WHY can be somewhat tedious as it’s not as easy as explaining why the latest fantastic 4 move is awful in every possible way and I wish the cinema had some sort of refunding policy similar to what Steam has (if you don’t know what Steam is, it’s a digital distribution platform that sells you games. Yes, I do play games from time to time, I’m guilty).

So, I thought it’d be a good moment to explain what RAID Systems are and why on earth you should care, because after all, don’t we want to use the full potential of the PC we paid for?

RAID, What is it?

RAID Systems (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a data storage virtualization technology that combines multiple disks (Magnetic [HDD] or Solid State [SSD] in one single logical unit with the purpose of data redundancy (security), an increase of transfer rate (speed) or in certain types of RAID, both.

How does this sorcery work?

Data is distributed along several drives in different ways which are denominated as RAID levels (nothing to do with what level your Pokemon or World of Warcraft character is though) followed by a number (for example, RAID 0 or RAID 1). Each level provides a balances of pros and cons depending on our needs. All levels above RAID 0 (not included) provide a level of data redundancy (in lamest terms, keep your data safe from hard drive failure) against non-recoverable segments and read errors including complete hard drive failure. This aside, there’s three types of obtaining RAID; “Hardware RAID”, “Software RAID” and “Firmware RAID”.

A brief history lesson:

The “RAID” term was invented by David Patterson, Garth A. Gibson and Randy Katz in 1987 at Berkeley University, California. The concept, however, has existed (or at least, in part) since 1977. In 1983, the tech company DEC started to sell RA8X disk systems (now known as RAID 1) and in 1986 IBM registered a patent which would later turn in its modern day equivalent RAID 5. As the technology became a standard in the industry, the word represented by the “i” in the RAID acronym went from meaning “inexpensive” which was a marketing strategy at the time considering hardware prices to “independent” which is a more accurate representation of the technology itself anyway.

Until a few years ago, RAID was most an industry exclusive and in itself, pretty much a standard, it was unheard of to not set some sort of RAID system when it came to industry data as loosing data there wasn’t exactly the same as loosing a few photos your parents took of you as a kid (which in retrospective, considering the general weirdness of those, might not be a bad thing, and therefore not a great example) but it was uncommon in consumer grade hardware due to it being incredibly expensive and therefore not affordable by the average family. Today, however, where SATA is the standard and IDE has disappeared, RAID has become a technology where, at a basic level, it’s cheap and easy to manufacture which means most motherboards included it at one level or another.

What “levels” can I use?

I’m going to explain what levels we can generally find in today’s consumer market motherboards without much technicism in order to make it as simple as possible so you can decide which to choose if and when you do so and discarding other levels that while exist, are generally reserved for enterprise grade systems or servers. If you’re curious however, here are all the modern-day RAID system levels: Conventional: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5E, 6E. Hybrid: 0+1, 1+0 (o 10), 30, 50, 100, 10+1. Propriety: 50EE, Double Parity, 1.5, 7, S (or Parity RAID), Matrix (no, not like the film), Linux MD RAID 10, IBM ServeRAID 1E, Z.

RAID 0

RAID 0 uses 2 or more drivers (any amount above 2 works) in “stripe”. Regardless of what operating system we use (any version of windows, linux, etc), it will detect these drivers in RAID 0 as one single drive. Its size is the result of the sum of the sizes of all drives we chose to add to RAID 0 and a considerable (if not huge) speed increase. The formula to calculate it is the following:

“Speed of the slowest drive” x “amount of drives” – “5% of the total”.

Unlike every other RAID level, RAID 0 has no redundancy or security which unfortunately means that before you think of adding 4 SSDs in RAID 0 for a 2Gb per second read rate, you should know that if one of the drives dies, you  lose the information in that drive and unless we have some very specific equipment and tools, we essentially lose the information in the other drives within that RAID 0 array. This is because being a single logical volume, it does not stop and think where to store each bit which means that every drive within the array has a huge chance of not having one single complete file within in. This in turn is what makes it so fast but needs compromise so I do not recommend, not matter how tempting it may be, using more than 2 drives in a RAID 0 array and use it for something that benefits of the speed but does not keep critical files (so for example, the operating system, worst case scenario you can just reinstall it).

RAID 1

RAID 1 is a basic redundancy level. It requires 2 or more drives but it always has to be in pairs (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc). By using RAID 1 we lose the ability to use one out of every two drives. Our operating system will see just one Logical drive (just like on RAID 0) that is the size of the smallest drive within the array and is as fast as the slowest drive within the array.

Each written bit is simultaneously written to all disks within the RAID 1 array. Because of this if one of the drives suffers from read errors or has corrupted sectors or even just plain dies our system will not be affected, it will just let us know that one of the drives needs replacing as soon as possible but Windows or whatever OS you’re running will continue to work, thus preventing data and time loss.

So basically RAID 1 protects us from data loss caused by drive errors (not caused by human error, if you delete a file, that file is gone, obviously) at the expense of loosing access to half the drives that take part in the array. A RAID 1 array can survive the sudden death of up to half its drives, at which point we simply replace the dead drives and resync the remaining drives with the new drives. Today, the whole process can be done without even turning off our PC thanks to the “hot plug” technology (as long as we have it active within our bios/uefi) which is available in almost all motherboards that have SATA connections and is commonly used in basic servers.

As with RAID 0, it’s convenient to use drives that have the same speed due to the fact that the overall speed will be that of the slowest drive (the difference being that in RAID 0 we can experience speed fluctuations depending on what drive is in use at that very second but in RAID 1 the speed is consistent due to all drives being used exactly at the same time all the time and therefore having to stick to the speed of the slowest drive) so it would be wasteful to use fast and slow drives in the same RAID 1 array. We should also use drives of the same size as if we use one 500Gb and one 1000Gb drive, the resulting RAID logical drive would only be 500Gb so we’d be wasting space.

RAID 5

RAID 5 is a level which we’re not going to talk much about because while it is available in consumer motherboards it just isn’t something I’d (or most people would) recommend due to it have a high write cost and so reducing the life expectancy of our drives considerably. It’s original intention is to expand the functionality of RAID 1 with a lower cost in drives (not at a monetary level but rather, at a unit and usable space level).

RAID 5 requires a minimum of 3 drives. As with RAID 1, it is a redundancy level but unlike RAID 1, we do not lose 50% of our storage, we only loose 33%. The mirror information, unlike RAID 1 being direct, is kept in all drives, which is why there’s a bigger continuous write cost and why it isn’t recommended much today due to RAID 6 (not available in consumer motherboards) solves this issue and pretty much replaces RAID 5 when it comes to servers and enterprise level systems.

RAID 0+1

Hybrid RAID (0+1 & 1+0) is, in essence, a RAID array of two other RAID arrays. We’re going to focus on RAID 0 and RAID 1. On one hand we have the speed and appeal (specially using SSDs) that RAID 0 offers us but we’ll also always have the fear that if one of the drives within the RAID 0 array dies, we’ll lose the data and all of them. On the other hand we have the peace of mind and tranquility that RAID 1 offers us but the annoyance of not gaining speed and “loosing” storage space as half of the space is being used for, what in essence is, an insta-backup. From this, we get the brilliant (yes, brilliant, there’s no other way of describing it) Hybrid RAID that allows us to have in one single array the advantages of both and only some of the disadvantages, not all of them. So, within this type of RAID there’s 2.

RAID 0+1 creates two RAID 0 arrays (speed and capacity with no redundancy) and binds them in a RAID 1 array which gives us redundancy in a system that normally wouldn’t have it.

This system can sustain one or more drive failures in one of the 2 RAID 0 systems that compose our RAID 0+1 system, even all of the drives within one of the two RAID 0 systems but if we lose drives in both RAID 0 arrays (regardless of quantity) we will lose all our data. So, we would have to lose a drive in each RAID 0 array at the same time which while unlikely, it’s not impossible and due to this risk, this system is no longer used much at an enterprise level.

RAID 10

RAID 1+0 (or simply, RAID 10), is, as far as I’m concerned, the ideal everyday consumer solution due to the fact that it offers us something similar to RAID 0+1 but with less disadvantages. RAID 1+0 creates a RAID 0 array out of two RAID 1 arrays. As with RAID 0+1 we obtain an increase in speed but somewhat less due to the fact that in essence, we’re only obtaining the speed of 2 drives put together (remember each RAID 1 is the speed of the slowest drive within its array) following the formula specified in the description of RAID 0. That said, we can lose drives from both RAID 1 arrays as long as we don’t lose all the drives from each array. You could argue that this has still the same chance of complete failure, after all, we have the same unlikely chance of loosing both drives in a RAID 1 array within a RAID 1+0 array than loosing one disk on each array within the RAID 0+1 which is why there’s an ideal setup to prevent this.

The ideal setup would be for each RAID 1 array within the RAID 1+0 to contain 4 drives, giving us the capacity of 4 drives overall with the speed of 2 drives in RAID 0 (following the formula in the RAID 0 explanation) with the peace of mind that it is incredibly unlikely that all 4 drives within of the RAID 1 arrays would die at the very same time. (if 2 and 2 drives, or 3 and 1 drives die, we could continue working as if nothing happened).

An ideal example of personal use would be 8x 256Gb SSDs in RAID 1+0 giving us 1000Gb of usable storage, an average of 1Gb/s read-write rate with the peace of mind that we’d have to be the most unlucky person in the world in order to lose our data due to drive failure.

What methods can I use to obtain RAID?

RAID levels aside, there’s 3 ways of obtaining and using RAID. In some cases we will have more than one of these at our disposal but each way is considerably different to the rest but I’ve organized them from less desirable to most desirable so this way you’ll know which to go for if you have more than one available.

Software RAID
Software RAID

This way of acquiring RAID does not require any specific hardware and can be done on any computer that has 2 or more drives (even though IDE). The only thing we need is Windows 7 or newer or certain Linux distros. The obvious advantage of this is that we can set up RAID on any system without worrying about compatibility and we can use drives of any connection type, size or speed. The disadvantage however is a considerable one, specially on low powered computers due to the fact that Software RAID uses a considerable amount of processor and ram resources. We also do not have the option to easily swap out one drive for another (on Hardware and Firmware RAID we can easily do so without any issue, we just swap the drive or drives, synchronise and done) and due to this it is not advisable to use Software RAID on the drive that our operating system lives on due to the fact that if our RAID array fails we will not be able to boot to WIndows or Linux and fix this issue. So, software RAID should only be used for storage purposes.

Firmware RAID
Firmware RAID

This is the most common type of acquiring RAID today due to the fact that Firmware RAID refers to the integrated systems that come with consumer grade motherboards which means that for most readers, assuming their motherboard is compatible (which you’ll find out about on our next article on the matter) this is the way to go. The main difference between this and Hardware RAID is that we continue to depend on resources from our processor and ram but, the fact is that considering the motherboards that contain this technology plus the power of modern-day processors and ram mean that we will not notice the loss of resources we will have by using this type of RAID.

Hardware RAID
Hardware RAID

There’s a strong chance you will never use or even see a Hardware RAID system. These depend on a PCI/PCI-E card that have their own processor and ram which means it does not require to use any of our resources which is great, on the hand, the main issue with Hardware RAID is that if the card dies (which granted is unlikely for many years as these things are seriously built to last) and is a discontinued model (again, it would have to be very old for this to happen) you will have an issue due to the fact you will need the very same model in order to use the RAID system you had when your card died and therefore get access to your data.

That said, not all PCI/PCI-E RAID cards fall within the Hardware RAID category as many of the cheaper models do not have their own processor and/or ram so these fall within the Firmware RAID category. Unfortunately, the ones that do fit within the Hardware RAID category are incredibly expensive and due to this tend to be used almost exclusively in the world of servers and enterprise systems that require maximum security and efficiency.

Would you like to know if your computer is compatible and how to set up a RAID system to get the most of your PC?
Click here!