How to Choose the Right SSD
Today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “SSD” stood for “seriously speedy drive.” Indeed, we’d lobby for that change.
Why? Over the last five years, solid-state drives (SSDs) have changed their shapes, speeds, and storage stripes with such agility that now, they are the biggest real-world difference-makers when it comes to computer upgrades. More than any other kind of core component, you can feel the presence of an SSD.
A dozen-plus makers are churning out SSDs for the U.S. market, among them storage heavyweights Samsung, Micron, Intel, Toshiba, and Western Digital. And since the start of the ’10s, SSDs have morphed from exorbitantly priced luxury items into commodities whose quality is almost uniformly high. An example? A 32GB SSD we tested in 2008 sold then for a whopping $800, which is $500 to $600 more than a modern one that packs 60 times the data. Plus, even today’s humblest new SSDs are about five times faster than that ’08 model.
But interface and manufacturing advances aren’t the only forces at work these days. Other factors, such as NAND oversupply in the storage market, have caused prices per gigabyte to fall lower than ever in 2019. We’ve seen situations pitting previously premium-priced drives (for example, the ADATA XPG SX8200 Pro) against built-for-budget drives (such as the Mushkin Pilot).
It’s a crazy pricing world out there in SSD land. Parts of the price spectrum that were previously reserved for budget brands are now being penetrated by ADATA, Samsung, and Western Digital drives. Indeed, we are seeing something of a street-pricing war between some of the biggest players in the game.
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This oversupply is in part due to the decrease in demand for smartphones (which, in turn, has lessened the bigger-picture demand for NAND memory chips), but also because, on the whole, the industry is moving away from 32-layer and 64-layer NAND manufacturing into the newer 96-layer production process. A 96-layer process technology, among other efficiencies, allows companies to fit more storage in a smaller space, decreasing the cost of materials and passing on savings to consumers.
In other words, SSD performance and capacity have rocketed, while relative prices have plummeted. That makes an SSD the best bang-for-the-buck upgrade any PC or Mac user can make. The only downside to this explosion of SSDs: The number of choices, especially among budget models, can be overwhelming.
Buying Basics: Budget SSDs
Are you a buyer with basic needs, looking to upgrade a traditional platter hard drive in a laptop or desktop with something faster? It’s a safe strategy, these days, to check pricing on recent SSD models and pick the most affordable drive with the capacity you need, from a name-brand maker you are willing to trust with your data. Simple as that. Disappointment will be rare, assuming you are going from one SATA drive to another. (Also, see our primer SSD Versus HDD: What’s the Difference?)
If you want to go deeper, though, to make sure you’re getting the fastest, potentially longest-lasting drive for your budget dollar, we’ll detail many of these considerations below, to help you make the smartest choice. (The first item below is essential, regardless.)
Know Your Form Factors. Note that we’re talking strictly about traditional 2.5-inch SSDs here, which are the same size and shape as the 2.5-inch hard drives found in many mainstream laptops. If you have a recent slim laptop or 2-in-1, it may require a gumstick-shaped M.2 drive (that is, if you can upgrade the drive in the laptop at all). For deep details about those drives and the best models we’ve tested, check out our “alternate” SSD buying guide, The Best M.2 Solid-State Drives, for a great deal of background and advice on this newer kind of SSD. (Note that some late-model desktop PCs may have a slot for an M.2 drive as well. M.2 is not just a laptop thing.) We have included in our product listings here a few of our favorite budget-minded M.2 SSDs to give some “quick pick” guidance for this kind of drive.
MLC, TLC, QLC Memory. The biggest technical consideration that shoppers will face when opting for a budget SSD is what type of solid-state memory it uses. If you’re not familiar with the terms “MLC” and “TLC,” you can get up to speed with our primer Buying a Solid-State Drive: 20 Terms You Need To Know. But we’ll give you the short version here.
The first letter in both flash types refers to the number of bits each memory cell on the drive can store. The “M” in MLC stands for “multi,” meaning (in this case) that the memory can host two bits per cell. The “T” in TLC stands for “triple,” or three bits per cell, and the “Q” is “quad”/four bits per cell. In a drive with many millions of cells, having an extra bit in each cell to store stuff adds up quickly, allowing TLC or QLC drives (in the simplest sense) to hold more data than MLC drives using the same amount of silicon. This also lowers production costs, since fewer physical modules are needed to store the same amount of data. (QLC drives emerged late in 2018, and are poised to be a big factor in budget SSDs going forward.)
Though TLC tech was originally much slower—specifically, when writing data to the SSD—and considered a less reliable option than MLC in heavy rotation, those concerns have waned over time, in ways we’ll touch on below. TLC drives are now considered a solid buy for general computing use. Plus, the emergence of “3D” versions of TLC NANDs (the chips upon which SSDs are built) has allowed SSD makers to deliver more capacity in less space by building memory modules in a vertical as well as horizontal (“planar”) manner.
Because TLC module manufacturing reduces overall costs, and TLC provides decent performance, most manufacturers have jumped aboard the TLC NAND bandwagon, making this type of SSD the de facto kind for those looking for a low-cost SSD. And for most users, TLC drives’ performance is perfectly acceptable. But keep reading…
TLC and QLC Drive Provisos. We mentioned above that TLC-memory-based SSDs can suffer from slower write speeds compared to MLC SSDs. The basic reason is that TLC flash (and likewise, the newer QLC) simply has more bits to deal with on a per-cell level. Manufacturers have been able sidestep this limitation, however, with clever caching technology that basically treats a portion of the drive as if it were a much faster type of flash memory (SLC, or “single-layer cell”). Under this approach, write operations are initially cached to this speedier buffer. Then, when the system is idle, the buffer transfers the data to the slower NAND.
The limitation of this approach is that the buffer is small (usually between 6GB and 10GB), as it has to be small enough to not reduce overall drive capacity by much, or increase costs. So, on TLC or QLC drives, if you try to copy a chunk of data that is larger than the buffer, you may see a big decline in write performance.
Most mainstream users won’t do this kind of thing often, so it’s not really a problem. But be mindful of this issue when considering a TLC or QLC drive, particularly if you’re a content creator or other power user who deals with massive files, or if you move big hunks of data on and off your drive all the time. For these specific situations, it’s worth paying extra for a costlier MLC drive.
TLC Longevity. The other knock against TLC NAND flash is that it generally has a shorter lifespan than more traditional MLC-based flash memory. This is a trait backed up by SSD makers’ own specifications, not just conjecture. (We haven’t reviewed enough QLC SSDs yet to draw keen conclusions on them so far on this front.)
Every time your PC triggers a new write operation for a memory cell that already contains data, that data must be erased first; only then can new data be written to the cell. Because this erase/write process slows down overall operation, the SSD controller strives to write to “fresh” cells (that is, ones that don’t need pre-erasing) when it can. But at some point, it has to start erasing previously used cells and writing to them.
An SSD can repeat this routine of erasing, then writing to, a cell only so many times before a given cell weakens and no longer can hold data. In MLC drives, a typical cell can take roughly 5,000 write/erase cycles before it’s likely no longer functional. On a TLC drive, this falls to around 1,000 cycles. This seems like a dramatic difference between the two memory types, but oftentimes this problem is mitigated by a process called “over-provisioning.” In it, a chunk of the drive is kept hidden and unused, only to be brought online when other cells begin to wear out.
In the real world, we have never heard of any mainstream user, either a tech professional or a consumer in an online forum, who has written a drive to death, unless they were using it to run a server, or some other task where the system is powered up and being accessed almost constantly. In fact, a while back The Tech Report ran a long-term experiment, writing to a batch of SSDs until they died to see how long they would last. Samsung’s TLC-based SSD 840 drive wrote over 800 terabytes before giving up the digital ghost. In the real world, it would take the average user many years (more likely a decade) to write that much data to an SSD. So, unless you plan on using your SSD as your primary drive for 10 years or more (which would make little sense, given how much cheaper and better SSDs get every year), drive endurance is only a secondary issue.
Still, that shouldn’t be used an excuse not to back up your important data. SSDs are not spinning hard drives, but it’s entirely possible for any SSD to fail randomly due to a defect, a power surge, or some other unforeseen event. You may be able to get a drive replaced if it’s under warranty, but the new drive that gets mailed to you won’t have your old data on it, of course.
Software. Though many seasoned enthusiasts and SSD vets don’t find bundled storage software or utilities a necessity, some manufacturers offer a software package with their SSDs that can be surprisingly useful. Samsung and Intel kicked off this trend years ago by pairing their drives with robust utilities that let you examine every facet of the drive, including its overall health level, the amount of data written to it, and whether or not your system is set up to extract maximum performance from the SSD. Their sophistication has grown from there.
The usefulness of these free tools can vary, from slick and feature-rich, to garish and only marginally useful. Some drives include a simple utility that just lets you update the drive’s firmware, and little or nothing else. Generally, a firmware update shouldn’t be necessary unless there’s a problem with performance. So you shouldn’t have to do this unless the company made a mistake or rushed a drive to market.
Our advice, if you’re the type to tinker, is to purchase a drive that includes robust utility software, but read up on the included software first. To our eyes, Samsung provides the best software packages with its drives, though Crucial/Micron, SanDisk/Western Digital, and Intel are all good bets on the software front, too.
Likewise, you may want to look for a drive that includes a drive-cloning utility (such as a version of Acronis TrueImage) if you’re upgrading from a drive in an existing PC, rather than installing a new OS from scratch. The lowest-priced drives lack these niceties, but free programs can get the job done, as well. We’ve had luck using the free Home version of EaseUS’s Disk Copy.
Warranty. Check the warranty terms before purchase. Many budget SSDs we’ve tested feature a three-year warranty, rather than the longer plans of pricier premium models. Samsung, with its watershed SSD 850 EVO model, was an early leader in setting the warranty bar higher for budget-minded SSDs, opting for a five-year plan. Samsung was able to make advancements with its TLC flash, combining it with the company’s vertically stacked V-NAND, to make drives that are low in cost but similar in endurance to pricier MLC drives. Consider a five-year coverage plan a gold star for any budget SSD.
Our Key Metric: Cost Per Gigabyte. Without doing a little math, it’s tricky to figure the bottom-line cost of one SSD versus another when capacities vary, or when you’re looking at SSDs on sale versus regular price. The four main capacity classes you will see, from drive to drive, are 120GB/128GB, then 240GB/250GB/256GB, 480GB/500GB/512GB, and 960GB/1TB. (SSDs bigger than 1TB aren’t really “budget” drives these days, with 2TB models starting at around $200. But they’ll get there.) It’s fine, as a rough measure, to compare prices from drive to drive within the same capacity class.
However, the best way to judge what you are paying, at a more granular level, is to divide the price by the number of gigabytes in the SSD. So, for example, a $50 240GB drive yields a cost per gigabyte of 20.8 cents; a $50 256GB drive, in contrast, comes in at 19.5 cents per gig. The least expensive budget drives you’ll see these days hover around 10 cents per gigabyte. Use this math to calculate your bottom-line price when comparing a host of drives.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
So, onward to our top drive picks. Important to note: All of these drives are also available in capacities different than the ones we tested, so dig into each review for the details on alternate capacities, if you want a drive that’s bigger or smaller than what you see below. For more storage picks, you can also check out our roundups of the best external SSDs and the best SSDs for upgrading your laptop, as well as the best external hard drives.
Samsung SSD 970 EVO
Pros: Lightning-fast random reads and writes.
Reasonable cost per gigabyte.
Multiple capacity options.
Easy-to-use Windows software.
Cons: Pricey upgrade for a mainstream PC that sees casual use.
Bottom Line: The Samsung SSD 970 EVO offers an excellent blend of throughput and performance, making it the best high-end internal M.2 PCI Express SSD for most users.
Seagate FireCuda 510
Pros: Blazingly quick sequential speeds.
Very high durability rating.
Cons: 4K write speeds could be faster.
Only two capacity options.
Bottom Line: The Seagate FireCuda 510 NVMe SSD is a searingly fast and durable storage drive made for gamers and creative professionals alike.
ADATA Ultimate SU750
Pros: Excellent endurance rating. Durability-to-price ratio is top-notch for a mainstream SATA drive.
Cons: More expensive than slightly speedier competing drives.
Bottom Line: ADATA’s Ultimate SU750, a 2.5-inch SSD, offers fine durability for its price and makes a solid pick for write-happy content creators, though it falls a smidge short on speed versus the leading SATA drives.
ADATA XPG SX8200 Pro
Pros: Solid results across almost all speed benchmark tests.
Competitive price per gigabyte.
Bundled, optional-use heat spreader.
Cons: Crystal DiskMark 4K write results solid but not quite tip-top.
Bottom Line: ADATA’s XPG SX8200 Pro offers on-point—which is to say, fast—speeds for a PCI Express M.2 SSD at its price.
It’s a strong value pick in the NVMe drive space.
Crucial BX500 (480GB)
Pros: On-point testing results for a value-minded SATA drive.
Four capacities to choose among.
Comprehensive drive dashboard.
Cons: Three-year, versus five-year, warranty.
Lower “total writes” rating than competing drives from Crucial.
Few ancillary features.
Bottom Line: The Crucial BX500 is a solid, budget-friendly 2.5-inch SATA SSD with a value bent, but at our test capacity, the company’s own MX500 is a better choice for most.
Pros: Good cost-per-gigabyte ratio for a PCI Express M.2 drive.
Polished software management suite.
Cons: Ho-hum sequential-write benchmark speeds at tested size.
Low endurance rating, though competitive warranty length.
No heat spreader.
Bottom Line: Crucial’s P1 is a cost-oriented QLC-memory-based M.2 SSD, the company’s first PCI Express NVMe effort.
The result is a pinch on performance—faster than SATA, slower than most PCIe drives—but one that may be a fair trade-off for budget-minded upgraders and PC builders.
Pros: Very aggressive cost per gigabyte.
Competitive speeds for a SATA SSD in various Crystal DiskMark and AS-SSD trials.
Cons: Terabytes-written endurance rating a smidge lower than average.
Warranty only three years.
No native software.
Bottom Line: Mushkin’s Source provides on-the-button SATA speeds at an attractive budget price, minus frills and software utilities.
It’s a strong value-SSD pick for users who don’t intend to write heavily, or as a first upgrade from a hard drive.
SK hynix Gold S31
Pros: Aggressive pricing, at our 1TB tested capacity.
On-point in most speed tests for a SATA drive in 2019.
Cons: Short company history in consumer market.
Lower terabytes written (TBW) rating than competing drives.
Minimal supporting software.
Bottom Line: SK Hynix, best known as a supplier of storage and DRAM chips to system makers, lands a solid base hit with its Gold S31.
Its debut retail SSD delivers on-point speed and good value per gigabyte for a new SATA drive.
WD Blue SN500
Pros: Competitive 4K write results.
Management software gets top marks.
Decent TBW rating.
Performs at manufacturer spec.
Cons: Beat in sequential tests by much faster, cost-competitive drives.
No 1TB or larger capacity.
Bottom Line: Western Digital’s latest update to its budget line of SSDs, the NVMe-equipped WD Blue SN500, is an able PCI Express M.2 competitor but outpaced for the price.
Pros: Less expensive than most 1TB NVMe SSDs.
Cons: No software-management solutions.
Slow compared with other four-lane NVMe SSDs.
Low durability rating.
Bottom Line: The Pilot is another budget solid-state drive in Mushkin’s ever-growing lineup, but its performance can’t keep up with the plummeting prices in the SSD market.
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