Best SSDs: July 2020
In our series of Solid State Drive guides, here’s the latest update to our list of recommended SSDs. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing.
Best SSDs: July 2020
A solid state drive is often the most important component for making a PC feel fast and responsive; any PC still using a mechanical hard drive as its primary storage is long overdue for an upgrade. The SSD market is broader than ever, with a wide range prices, performance and form factors.
Pre-COVID market forecasts pointed to a NAND flash memory shortage to develop throughout 2020. Both NAND supply and demand have been spared the worst impacts seen in other markets, with the end result that SSD prices are generally a bit higher than last year. So far, the NAND shortage isn’t as severe as initially expected, nor is it as bad as the 2017 shortage that occurred as most of the industry struggled to follow Samsung into the 3D NAND era. There’s still plenty of demand for flash memory for servers and PCs, but that’s offset by reduced demand from the smartphone market. Projections for the future demand trends are quite varied.
As usual, retail consumer SSDs are bearing the brunt of the current situation while manufacturers prioritize high-margin enterprise SSDs and high-volume client drives for PC OEMs (and soon, consoles). The retail SSD market is settling into a new normal of more inconsistent product availability caused by this shortage and general supply chain difficulties stemming from the pandemic. This inconsistency makes it trickier than usual to gauge the overall retail SSD price landscape.
|July 2020 SSD Recommendations|
|Entry-level NVMe||ADATA Swordfish 1TB||$99.99 (10¢/GB)|
|High-end NVMe||ADATA XPG SX8200 Pro 2TB||$249.99 (12¢/GB)|
|Mainstream 2.5″ SATA||Crucial MX500 1TB||$114.99 (11¢/GB)|
|M.2 SATA||WD Blue 3D NAND 2TB||$229.45 (11¢/GB)|
|Maximum Capacity||Sabrent Rocket Q 8TB||$1499.99 (18¢/GB)|
Above are some recommendations of good deals in each market segment. Some of these aren’t the cheapest option in their segment and instead are quality products worth paying a little extra for.
The next table is a rough summary of what constitutes a good deal on a current model in today’s market. Sales that don’t beat these prices are only worth a second glance if the drive is nicer than average for its product segment.
|July 2020 SSD Recommendations: Price to Beat, ¢/GB|
|Market Segment||256GB||512GB||1TB||2TB||4 TB|
|Budget 2.5″ SATA||13 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB||9 ¢/GB||10 ¢/GB||12 ¢/GB|
|Mainstream 2.5″ SATA||18 ¢/GB||13 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB|
|Entry-level NVMe||16 ¢/GB||12 ¢/GB||12 ¢/GB||12 ¢/GB||18 ¢/GB|
|High-end NVMe||18 ¢/GB||14 ¢/GB||13 ¢/GB||13 ¢/GB||21 ¢/GB|
|M.2 SATA||18 ¢/GB||13 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB||11 ¢/GB|
As always, the prices and recommendations here are a mere snapshot of the market at the time of writing, based on major North American online retailers. The best deals in each market segment can change on a day to day basis, and availability of specific models and capacities can be unpredictable.
The high-end NVMe market segment has almost been in a holding pattern, waiting for PCIe 4.0 controllers other than the Phison E16 to arrive. Some high-end PCIe 3.0 products are getting late refreshes with 96L TLC, and Micron’s in-house NVMe controller efforts have finally produced the Crucial P5. Meanwhile, the entry-level NVMe market segment continues to see increasing activity with a broadening range of options and pricing that is closing in on SATA SSDs.
High-end NVMe: ADATA XPG SX8200 Pro and HP EX950
For now, our definition of a high-end NVMe SSD is one that has at least: a PCIe 3.0 x4 interface, an 8-channel controller with DRAM, and TLC NAND. It’s too soon to make PCIe 4.0 a requirement because there’s still only one PCIe 4.0 controller solution available in the consumer SSD market (the Phison E16), and it’s far from a clear winner. Ultra-premium products like the MLC-based Samsung 970 PRO and Intel’s Optane SSDs don’t offer enough of an improvement in performance over good TLC drives to be worth the extra expense, and both are due for an update anyways.
The best value in the high-end NVMe segment still comes down to a competition between the Phison E12 and Silicon Motion SM2262EN controllers, each featured in SSDs sold by many brands. At the moment, Microcenter’s Inland Premium brand is one of the most affordable options on the Phison side, and the ADATA SX8200 Pro and HP EX950 are still the best options on the Silicon Motion side. Some of the cheapest options here only come with a 3 year warranty instead of 5 years, and the Phison E12 drives tend to have slightly lower real-world performance than the SM2262EN drives. We recommend paying a few dollars extra for the longer warranty and higher performance.
The next step up in performance would be the Western Digital WD Black SN750 and Samsung 970 EVO Plus. Their performance advantages mostly lie with sustained write performance, which only matters for power users with unusually storage-intense workloads. PCIe 4.0 SSDs using the Phison E16 controller are priced even higher than the Samsung. These offer the best sequential IO performance on recent AMD platforms, but they’re due to be replaced by a new crop of PCIe 4.0 drives later this year featuring faster, lower-power controllers.
Entry-level NVMe: ADATA Swordfish
Compared to our definition of high-end NVMe drives, entry-level NVMe drives compromise on at least one major design point: using QLC NAND instead of TLC, a DRAMless controller or one with fewer PCIe lanes or NAND channels. Any one of those features will put an entry-level NVMe drive at a significant disadvantage compared to typical high-end drives on at least some benchmark, but real-world performance is still more than adequate for most users. The best options in this market segment offer better real-world performance than mainstream SATA SSDs while also undercutting them on price.
This is the most technologically diverse segment of the consumer SSD market, since there are so many viable ways to cut costs while still offering much higher performance than SATA drives are capable of providing.
The ADATA Swordfish and Falcon are their latest drives based on Realtek’s DRAMless NVMe controllers, with 4 channels for the Swordfish and 8 channels for the Falcon. These are some of the more affordable DRAMless NVMe drives, while the WD Blue SN550 is the DRAMless SSD with the best real-world performance.
Among QLC-based drives, the Sabrent Rocket Q has a clear advantage over the Crucial P1 and Intel 660p and 665p. The Rocket uses the Phison E12S controller, an 8-channel design that enables the Rocket Q to hit much higher sequential transfer speeds than the Crucial and Intel drives that use the 4-channel Silicon Motion SM2263. The Silicon Power UD70 should hit the market soon, and will be very similar to the Sabrent Rocket Q, except without the very high capacity models.
The Inland Professional (not to be confused with the Inland Premium) checks almost all the boxes for a low-end drive: QLC NAND with a DRAMless 4-channel controller. It and a few other products using the same components are the absolute cheapest NVMe drives around, but that’s making an awful lot of compromises.
Most of these entry-level NVMe drives can be ruled out by the existence of a much better high-end drive that is only a little bit more expensive. We also recommend avoiding any QLC drive smaller than 1TB. That leaves the ADATA Swordfish and the Inland Professional QLC drive as examples of what you can get that is appreciably cheaper than drives in our high-end category. Both manage to also be cheaper than mainstream SATA SSDs, but the ADATA Swordfish will more consistently outperform SATA and offers a wider range of capacities.
The SATA SSD market is unsurprisingly pretty stagnant. It’s becoming increasingly common for manufacturers to silently update the NAND in SATA SSDs without changing the product name, which is why products like the Crucial MX500 are still around with no successor on the horizon. While in the past we have strongly criticized this kind of silent swapping of components, a straightforward update from 64L to 96L flash doesn’t have much impact on performance of SSDs that are already constrained by the SATA interface. We continue to condemn any invisible product updates that swap TLC for QLC or switch to a DRAMless SSD architecture.
Options for high-capacity multi-TB consumer SSDs are increasing, with some product lines now going all the way up to 8TB. But at the opposite end, we’re seeing disappointing prices on 256GB models: for quite a while they’ve been more expensive on a per-GB basis than 512GB and 1TB models, but that gap is widening. As with 120GB models, these lower capacities are starting to be left behind as flash memory technology pushes for higher capacities. These drives are still fine options for users with modest capacity and performance requirements, but stepping up to a 500+GB model is now usually pretty cheap.
Mainstream 2.5″ SATA: Crucial MX500 and SanDisk Ultra 3D
We consider mainstream SATA SSDs to be those that use TLC NAND and have DRAM buffers. These offer performance and reliability that’s a step above budget models with DRAMless controllers or QLC NAND (or both). We don’t bother making recommendations for those budget-oriented models, because the right answer is usually just whatever’s cheapest at the time, and with many of those products it’s impossible to keep track of what kind of components they’re using from one month to the next.
Samsung has launched the 870 QVO, but nothing has been said about an 870 EVO or 870 PRO yet, so the 860s are still generally the fastest and most expensive consumer SATA SSDs. The Crucial MX500 and WD Blue 3D aka SanDisk Ultra 3D are still very evenly matched and much better deals overall than the Samsung 860 EVO. The SK Hynix Gold S31 is currently a little bit cheaper for its 500GB model, but for the other capacities we’d recommend going with the Crucial or WD drives instead.
Niche Product Segments
The 2.5″ SATA and M.2 2280 NVMe form factors cover most of the consumer SSD market, but not quite all of it.
Readers in our forums noted earlier this year that supplies of the mSATA version of the Samsung 860 EVO had dried up. Samsung was the last major consumer SSD brand to release a new mSATA model, and it was a bit of a surprise that they even bothered with the 860 EVO mSATA. The notebook market has long since moved over to M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe options, so the last product segment keeping the mSATA form factor alive was probably portable SSDs that enclosed a mSATA SSD with a USB to SATA bridge. Now that several USB to NVMe bridge chips are available, the portable SSD market has been pursuing higher performance and has largely switched from mSATA to M.2 SSDs.
M.2 SATA: WD Blue 3D
The M.2 SATA form factor is also on its way out, but isn’t as far gone as mSATA. PC notebook OEMs are overwhelmingly preferring M.2 NVMe SSDs over M.2 SATA SSDs for new machines. Even an entry-level DRAMless NVMe SSD allows OEMs to advertise that they’re using NVMe, and for the most part the performance will indeed be better than with a SATA-based SSD. With OEM SSD shipments falling, fewer SSD manufacturers will bother to keep their M.2 SATA product lines going for the sake of aftermarket upgrade sales and a diminishing slice of the portable SSD market. For the moment, several major brands are still offering M.2 SATA SSDs with comparable pricing to their 2.5″ SATA counterparts, so consumers have good upgrade and replacement options. The 2TB WD Blue 3D NAND stands out in this niche since it is much cheaper than Samsung’s 2TB option, and Crucial simply doesn’t have a 2TB competitor.
Extreme Capacities: Sabrent Rocket Q 8TB, Samsung 870 QVO 8TB
Options for consumer SSDs with capacities beyond 2TB are still few and far between, but this multi-TB market segment is no longer a mere curiosity. While historically it was Samsung that pushed the limits with outrageously priced halo products including some of the first 2TB and later 4TB options, more recently it has been Sabrent setting new records. They were the first to pair the Phison E12 high-end NVMe controller with QLC NAND, to produce the Rocket Q M.2 SSD in capacities up to 8TB. Their more high-end TLC-based Rocket M.2 NVMe product line currently goes up to 4TB, and there’s a Phison E16-based PCIe 4.0 successor to the Rocket Q on the way. Corsair and ADATA have also introduced 4TB models to pre-existing product lines, with an RGB option from the latter. In the SATA market, Samsung still offers a choice of MLC, TLC or QLC NAND for 4TB drives, and their QLC-based 8TB 870 QVO is due to start shipping within the next month or so.
All of these high-capacity models carry a price-per-GB premium over the more mainstream capacities from the same product lines, and the best performance is usually found on the 1TB or 2TB models. So these models bring significant tradeoffs, and aren’t necessarily the best way to equip a system with an excess of solid-state storage. But for notebooks with only one M.2 slot or other scenarios where the highest per-drive capacities are required, these multi-TB drives offer new possibilities and much lower prices than high-capacity enterprise SSDs. The hard drive market has generally cleared the way for compatibility with such massive drives. However, as far as we know none of these SSDs have switched to using 4kB sectors by default rather than 512-byte sectors. This means that cloning from a smaller SSD onto a 4TB or 8TB SSD and then expanding the filesystem is generally a straightforward process, but cloning from a 4k-native hard drive onto one of these SSDs may not be an option.