The Seagate FireCuda 520 (starts at $124.99; $249.99 for 1TB version tested here) is an internal M.2 PCI Express (PCIe) 4.0 SSD that’s a worthy successor to its older sibling, the FireCuda 510, an Editors’ Choice in its weight class. The 520’s higher pricing and middling 4K read/write speeds might not put enough space between it and stellar PCIe 3.0 options such as the WD Blue SN550 to justify the premium price, but as a PCIe 4.0 drive, it’s a strong first effort for Seagate. If you’re a future-proofer dead-set on upgrading to PCIe 4.0, also look at similarly priced, slightly faster options like the TeamGroup T-Force Cardea Z440. But if you need a drive that’s compatible with excellent management software and are already on one of AMD’s recent desktop platforms, the minuscule overall speed trade-off could make the Seagate FireCuda 520 the right upgrade for you.
What Is PCIe 4.0? A Whole Lot of Speed (if You Need It)
Before we jump into the drive details and then the benchmarks, let’s talk a bit about PCIe 4.0. I included the same discussion in our review of the TeamGroup T-Force Cardea Zero Z440, but it bears repeating here if you haven’t read that review. These drives have their own special set of considerations.
Launched to the first mainstream products in 2019 at the same time as the third generation of Ryzen desktop CPUs and the first AMD Navi-based graphics cards, PCIe 4.0 is the latest technical iteration on the channel that your motherboard uses to talk to expansion cards in your PC, including graphics cards, Wi-Fi cards, and the latest SSDs. The 4.0 version doubles the bandwidth ceiling of the last, taking the maximum theoretical throughput of PCIe 3.0 from 16GBps up to 32GBps. We say “theoretical” because in real-world usage scenarios, today’s PCIe 4.0-capable SSDs won’t come close to that. (Today’s models max out right around 5,000MBps read and write, which is significantly higher than the approximate 3,500MBps peaks that the best PCIe 3.0 SSDs are rated for.)
It’s also important to recognize that while PCIe 4.0 drives may have much higher bandwidth ceilings than PCIe 3.0 drives in straight-up sequential read and write speeds, during our testing we’ve found that the 4K read and write speeds don’t vary nearly as much. And 4K random read and write operations are tied to many more aspects of a system than sequential read and write, including how operating systems, applications, games, and certain creative projects are stored on the disk.
Just as important, though, is the actual applicability of these SSDs to today’s PCs: They’re relevant only for users, upgraders, and builders of late-model AMD desktops. Right now, PCIe 4.0-capable M.2 SSD slots are only found on AMD motherboards based on the AMD X570 (enthusiast-grade Ryzen), AMD B550 (newer mainstream Ryzen), and AMD TRX40 (high-end Ryzen Threadripper) chipsets. Until B550’s debut, none of these chipsets was known for its motherboards’ affordability (most B550 boards cost $100 to $200), so keep that in mind before you make the plunge into a full-on upgrade involving PCIe 4.0. PCIe 4.0 compatibility is finally coming to that one mainstream-priced platform, but most X570 and TRX40 boards aren’t cheap.
As for Intel? Even on its latest desktops, it’s not even on the PCIe 4.0 map. The new-for-2020 Intel-based Z490 boards that rolled out with the company’s 10th Generation “Comet Lake-S” desktop processors don’t have support for PCIe 4.0, though the rumor mill has suggested that support for PCIe 4.0 will be coming to this platform in the future. (Some Z490 board makers have advertised Z490 motherboards as PCIe 4.0 “ready,” while Intel has no comment on the matter.) But as of today, none of the company’s in-market mainstream chips, 10th Generation or below, is capable of supporting the PCIe 4.0 spec.
To be clear, PCIe 4.0 SSDs should be backward-compatible with PCIe 3.0 M.2 slots (albeit limited to PCIe 3.0 speeds). But there’s little reason to opt for a premium-priced PCIe 4.0 SSD today if your system doesn’t explicitly support it. Expect these drives to be cheaper by the time the support for them is mainstream, anyway.
Seagate’s First PCI Express 4.0 Foray
Now, as for the drive under review. The Seagate FireCuda 520 is a 96-layer TLC PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD that is launching in three different storage-volume sizes: 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB. (Check out our SSD dejargonizer to make sense of all that, if SSD lingo is not your strong suit.)
Like all PCIe 4.0 drives, the Seagate FireCuda is rated for a generational leap in maximum sequential read and write speeds over PCIe 3.0 drives. Seagate cites a peak theoretical throughput of 5,000MBps for reads and 4,400MBps for writes in its 1TB and 2TB versions of the drive. (With the 500GB version, the rated write speed gets bumped down big-time, to 2,500MBps write.)
The drive carries a much higher durability rating than most PCIe 3.0 drives, as well, at 1,800 terabytes written (TBW) for the 1TB version we tested. Seagate guarantees all drives in the FireCuda line with a five-year warranty.
Following the pattern of the rest of the PCIe 4.0 drives we’ve tested thus far, it’s rare that you’ll find the FireCuda 520 on sale for less than 20 cents per gigabyte in the 1TB variant we tested. The 1TB version of the TeamGroup T-Force Cardea Zero Z440, for example, shares an identical MSRP and TBW rating with the Seagate FireCuda 520, at $249.99 and 1,800TBW, respectively. This new tier of performance-minded drives hasn’t been around long enough to see a universal price drop in their ranks. So, for now, if you want the kinds of sequential speeds that PCIe 4.0 makes possible, you’ll pay for it versus comparatively sized PCIe 3.0-based SSDs.
Unlike most other drives we’ve tested in this category, the FireCuda 520 does not include its own surface-mounted heatsink. While some drives, like the TeamGroup T-Force Cardea Zero Z440, come with a sleek, slim heatsink (in the case of the Cardea, a graphene/copper-based strip), and options like the Corsair Force Series MP600 have chunky, removable metal heatsinks mounted on top, the FireCuda 520 has neither.
This means if you plan on buying this drive and running a lot of sustained reads or writes on it (generally the only time a drive like this needs to be cooled down), then you should consider what passive or active cooling options your motherboard has available for the M.2 slot you plan to use. Some boards have nothing, but many higher-end models (the primary kind you’ll be able to put a PCIe 4.0 drive on, incidentally) have hefty metal M.2 heatspreaders as part of the board design.
Seagate has never been a company to skimp on the software side of things, which is why it’s no surprise to see two applications offered up to help you manage your FireCuda 520. These are SeaTools, a diagnostic dashboard that monitors the overall health of your drive, and DiscWizard, which helps with both backups and imaging of your drive.
Testing the Seagate FireCuda 520: Pushing the PCIe Speed Limit?
We test all of our PCI Express 4.0 SSDs on an MSI Godlike X570 motherboard, with an AMD Ryzen 9 3950X CPU installed. We use 16GB of DDR4 Corsair Dominator RAM clocked to 3,600MHz, and the system employs an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition as its discrete graphics card. Meanwhile, our PCIe 3.0 SSDs are tested on our main storage testbed, which is built on an Asus Prime X299 Deluxe motherboard with an Intel Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition CPU. We use the same RAM, clocked the same, and the same discrete graphics card.
For the test comparisons below, the Corsair and TeamGroup drives are the other PCIe 4.0 contenders; the ADATA, Sabrent, and WD drives are PCIe 3.0.
PCMark 10 Overall Storage Test
First up, there’s the overall PCMark 10 full system drive benchmark from UL. This score represents how well a drive does throughout the entire PCMark 10 run, and this score is the sanctioned score presented by UL’s software at the end of each run. This score reflects a weighted average of the various simulated activities that the PCMark 10 storage test runs, from copying files to launching games, from booting an OS to running creative applications. It’s a general indicator of how consistently a drive can perform through 23 different usage scenarios, meaningful only compared with the scores of other, competing drives.
Right off the bat, the Seagate FireCuda 520 shows that it’s not only here to take wins off the PCIe 3.0 set of drives here, but also has the rest of the PCIe 4.0 crowd in its sights, scoring a visible win over the Corsair MP600 in this first test.
Booting Windows 10
Next is a more granular measure derived from one of PCMark 10’s background “traces.” This and following PCMark 10-derived tests represent a simulation of how quickly a drive is capable of launching a particular program (or, in this case, booting Windows 10). PCMark 10 records how many megabytes per second the drive is reading what are known as “shallow-queue 4K random” blocks of data (i.e., of the kind in which most applications, games, or operating systems are stored). While UL recommends using the overall “read/write MBps bandwidth” metric in these tests, instead we dug a bit deeper to only include random 4K bandwidth in order to paint what we believe is a more specific picture of how well a drive can perform in these tasks.
The first test is the Windows 10 boot trace, which simulates a full operating system startup procedure and records how quickly the drive is able to feed the data required for that task.
Here the drive falls right in line with its overall results from the PCMark 10 run, scoring comfortably above the Corsair MP600 and just slightly below the TeamGroup drive when launching Windows 10.
Next up is a game-launching set, which simulates how quickly a drive can read shallow-depth small random 4K packages; 4K is one of the more commonly used file-block sizes for game installations, though that composition does depend on the title you’re playing. While the three games tested in PCMark 10 are primarily stored in small random 4K, tests from around the web have shown that MMORPGs can more often use the 16K block size, and some games in other genres may employ larger block sizes, from 32K up to 128K. However for the sake of these tests, 4K small random read is the most accurate block-size metric relevant to Battlefield 5, Overwatch, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
More of the same here: faster than most PCIe 3.0 drives and the Corsair MP600, though still not fast enough to catch up to the Cardea Zero Z440.
Launching Creative Applications
Here the drives are put through a very important test for creative types. As anyone who regularly works in programs like Adobe Premiere or Photoshop can tell you, a constant pinch point is the time it takes for these programs to launch. Mind you, these two tests don’t tell the whole story of how a drive will perform for all creative applications. Depending on the complexity of your work and the number of elements in a scene, your software may have to load 3D models, sound files, physics elements, and more; in other words, more than just the program. Still, this is interesting fodder for folks who live and breathe these Adobe apps.
Here is where we start to see the value proposition of the FireCuda 520 start to drop, if by only a small amount. (This test does further illustrate the FireCuda’s consistency in benchmarks, scoring squarely between the Corsair MP600 and the TeamGroup Z440 once again.)
These copy tests are also derived from PCMark 10 traces. While at first these numbers might look low compared to the straight sequential-throughput numbers achieved in benchmarks like Crystal DiskMark 6.0 and AS-SSD, that’s due to the way this score is calculated and the nature of and differences between the source data. If you’re regularly moving files around on your drive from one folder to another, this test is a handy relative throughput measure.
A bit of an anomalous result here. Despite running the test twice, the best score I was able to achieve on the ISO Copy portion of the test was well below that of the competition. (The numbers from the File Copy trace were right-on.) Let’s see if that carries over into our sequential read and write tests in Crystal DiskMark 6.0.
Crystal DiskMark 6.0
Moving on from PCMark 10-derived numbers, the Crystal DiskMark 6.0 sequential tests, meanwhile, simulate best-case, straight-line transfers of large files.
Like the rest of the PCIe 4.0 drives we’ve tested, there’s a clear ceiling on what’s possible for the drive in sequential throughput, and our results mirror-reflect the drive’s own ratings from Seagate. The FireCuda 520 also scores (within the margin of error) right in line with the other two PCIe 4.0 drives here, in both read and writes.
In contrast, the utility’s 4K (or “random read/write”) tests simulate typical processes involved in program/game loads or bootup sequences.
The FireCuda 520 is right in lockstep with the TeamGroup (identical scores!) and Corsair drives, but in some tests it is slightly outpaced in reads and writes by PCIe 3.0-based drives like the new Sabrent Rocket Q.
AS-SSD Copy Tests
Last up is a series of file and folder transfers done in the SSD benchmarking utility AS-SSD. This trio of tests involves copying large files or folders from one location on the test drive to another…
Here the Seagate FireCuda 520 slides off the scale a bit, a smidge behind both PCIe 4.0 drives we’ve tested it against (lagging once again in a copy test with a large ISO file), however still maintaining a visible lead against PCIe 3.0 darlings like the WD Blue SN550.
A Strong PCIe 4.0 Start for Seagate
As we’ve been testing the first PCIe 4.0 drives this year, a trend has emerged: As impressive as their high sequential-throughput numbers may look, they don’t translate into all that much except high sequential-throughput numbers. In tasks like acting as a boot drive for Windows 10-based machines or launching games, drives like the PCIe 3.0-based WD Blue SN550 regularly show themselves to be almost as quick, despite costing half as much per gigabyte in the 1TB size tier.
That said, taken in a vacuum or compared strictly against its fellow PCIe 4.0-based competition, the Seagate FireCuda 520 is still a solid, viable contender. The lack of a heatsink might be a deciding issue for some, but those who prefer to use built-in motherboard M.2 cooling solutions might prefer a drive that doesn’t have its warranty voided by going that route (or make you pry or peel off a heat spreader first).
The Seagate FireCuda 520 is a strong start for the storage giant in the PCIe 4.0 space. But unless you’re an AMD-bound speed hound who needs every last drop of potential from your drive, consider waiting for the FireCuda 530 to see if refinements in 4K random read speeds can take the next drive in this family over the top. PCIe 4.0 storage is a nice incidental upgrade, but so far, it’s not proving to be a strong singular impetus to build a new PC.
Seagate FireCuda 520 Specs
|Internal or External||Internal|
|Interface (Computer Side)||M.2 Type-2280|
|Internal Form Factor||M.2 Type-2280|
|Capacity (Tested)||1 TB|
|Bus Type||PCI Express 4.0|
|Rated Maximum Sequential Read||5000 MBps|
|Rated Maximum Sequential Write||4400 MBps|
|Terabytes Written (TBW) Rating||1800 TBW|
|Warranty Length||5 years|