PC Makers: We Need to Talk About the Boot Drive

Boot drives rarely get the attention they deserve. The type and capacity of your C: drive significantly affects how fast your system boots, how quickly your programs load, and how long you have to spend tapping your toe before you can actually get your game on.

It’s where all your programs get installed and files get downloaded by default, making your boot drive a huge potential bottleneck for everything you do in your operating system. So why are the boot drives on most modern PCs so disappointing?

To be fair, plummeting solid-state drive (SSD) prices have now thankfully relegated the near-tortuous experience of a spinning-platter boot drive to budget-priced PCs.

Just how far have SSD prices fallen? Intel’s X25-m launched at $595 for the 80GB model in 2008. For roughly a third of that price ($209) a decade later, I bought a Crucial MX500 drive with 25 times that Intel drive’s capacity (2TB). And there are strong indications that SSD prices will fall significantly more as 2019 progresses.

But even on premium laptops and gaming rigs today, system sellers (be they boutique builders ore big-name PC makers) often seem out of touch with the realities of modern pricing and storage needs.

Dell ships the $899 entry model of its latest XPS 13 (9380) with a 128GB (let’s call it 120GB class for the sake of simplicity) NVMe boot drive boot drive. The first model that steps you up to 250GB class is priced above $1,200. Granted, you get double the RAM and a newer CPU for that added cost as well.

But no PC approaching $1,000 should be shipping with cramped storage these days when you can by fast 250GB-class drives at retail for as little as $70, or even less than $50 if you’re willing to step down to a PCIe x2 drive rather than an x4 option. Obviously, big companies like Dell buy their drives in bulk and can get much better pricing than I can surfing Newegg.

Then there’s the gaming PCs. We’ve seen several pre-built rigs in recent months (be they laptops or desktops) priced well above $1,000 with 250GB-class SSD boot drives. Now, 250GB is definitely better than 120GB. But many game installs these days are ballooning up to and above 100GB. And even if there’s a secondary hard drive for storage, that’s not the ideal place to install your favorite games.

There are speedy 500GB-class NVMe SSDs available at retail hovering around the $100 mark. When I wrote this, Intel’s 512GB SSD 660p was on sale on Newegg for just $80, and Crucial’s competing 500GB P1 drive (both are based on the same QLC flash with the same controller) was selling for $75! At those prices, even the 250GB option above makes little sense.

Regardless, if you’re spending $1,500 or more on a gaming rig I think it’s reasonably for a tenth of that cost to be spent on the drive that’s going to be responsible for running your OS and games. Because no matter how fast the graphics card or CPU is, a cramped boot drive--particularly one that forces you to install things on a much-slower hard drive or frequently uninstall and re-download games--is going to lead to a painful gaming experience.

Given the continuing slide of SSD prices, here are some guidelines for what I’d like to see from PC makers in 2019. My ego isn’t inflated enough to think that large companies are going to change their plans based on my advice. But at least for anything I review personally, sticking close to these capacities and price points for a PC’s boot drive should be beneficial to a system’s overall score. More importantly, a PC that adheres to these reasonable storage rules will deliver a better experience to potential buyers.

120GB class: Unless it’s in a sub-$500 budget laptop, this cramped capacity should never be considered. Doubling the capacity adds tens of dollars to the cost, at most. Even if that cost is passed directly to the consumer, you’d be doing a service to anyone who may buy your PC.

250GB class: In most cases, this should be considered the absolute minimum--especially if there’s no secondary storage drive.

500GB class: This should be the minimum for a gaming laptop--even one with a 2.5-inch secondary hard drive, unless maybe the laptop is a budget gamer with a price tag under $1,000. Even then, 500GB is increasingly a reasonable ask.

1TB class: Once the realm of computing luxury, reasonably fast 1TB NVMe SSDs are now priced between $150 and $250. So any media creation or gaming-focused PC priced about $2,500 and up should come with a 1TB SSD boot drive. Gigabyte followed this rule recently with its Aero 15 X9 laptop. But Corsair wasn’t so generous with the 480GB boot drive on its otherwise impressive $3,600 revamped One i160.

These guidelines should also be considered for anyone building their own system. I recommend that you use some type of SSD for any system going forward, an NVMe drive for any system where performance matters (like a gaming or content creation rig), and a 500GB drive as a minimum for anything other than a basic budget machine.

For more help on choosing the right drive for your build or next pre-built rig, you can check out our SSD buying guide.

In case you’re wondering whether I put my money where my PCIe lanes and SATA ports are, my personal system has both a 2TB Intel NVMe 660p and the previously mentioned SATA Crucial MX500, both of which I bought late last year. Granted, I’m an outlier who’s really sick of dealing with fragile, slow hard drives. But as someone who’s been covering and testing storage nearly a decade, there’s never been a better time to buy a roomy, speedy, reliable SSD. And it’s looking like things are only going to get better from the consumer’s perspective as 2019 ambles on.

Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.

40 comments
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  • Brian_R170
    Amen brother. Unfortunately, this sermon was written 3 years ago and you're preaching to the choir.
  • gentlesnow
    "So any media creation or gaming-focused PC priced about $2,500 and up should come with a 1TB SSD boot drive."
    Why? Why should I put applications, games and data on my boot drive? I want all IO for the boot drive to be OS-only, as much as possible. Also, by keeping the boot drive smaller (250-500GB range for Windows), full-drive backups take up less space. HDDs make a ton of sense for some use cases, as there's little meaningful performance penalty for most games. Sure, a person can "Just buy it" and get a larger SSD boot drive, but the better way to make the assessment is data-driven.
  • mikewinddale
    Agreed. Also, if price is an issue, they should just go with SATA over NVMe. The performance jump from mechanical to SATA SSD is far greater than SATA SSD to NVMe. So a large SATA SSD is much better than a small NMVe.