How to Buy the Right SSD: A Guide for 2021


How to Buy the Right SSD: A Guide for 2021
How to Buy the Right SSD: A Guide for 2021

The easiest way to ruin a high-performance CPU is to pair it with a slow mechanical hard drive. While the processor can process hundreds of millions of cycles per second, it spends a lot of time waiting for the hard drive to deliver data. Mechanical hard drives are particularly unresponsive because they come with mechanical arms, and for the best performance you need a good solid state drive (SSD).

Models like the Samsung 970 Pro and Intel 900P offer faster read and write speeds and are undercutting older SATA products. Those existing SATA drives will have to continue to drop in price to at least compete with NVMe drives on price.

During Computex Taipei 2019 (and beyond), you may have heard about the ultra-fast next-generation PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs from Corsair, Gigabyte, Patriot, and others that will indeed dramatically improve sequential read and write speeds, but you'll need a new X570 motherboard to get the most out of them. And our initial tests show that in addition to the obvious boost in sequential performance, users may not feel the efficiency improvements that come with actual use.

  1. The best SSD recommendations
  2. Best NVMe SSD Recommendations

Brief Tips

  1. Check your desktop computer: find out if the motherboard on your computer has an M.2 slot and if there is enough space in the case. If the answer is no, then you may need a 2.5" SATA SSD.
  2. Consider 500GB to 1TB capacity: do not consider SSDs with capacities below 256GB, 500GB provides a good balance between price and capacity, and as the price of 1TB drops, this is a good option.
  3. SATA is cheaper but slower: If your motherboard supports NVMe-PCIe or Optane drives, then consider buying something with one of these technologies. However, SATA is more common, cheaper, and still provides excellent performance for everyday use;.
  4. Any SSD is better than a mechanical drive: even the worst SSDs can read and write at least three times faster than mechanical drives. Depending on the workload, the performance difference between a good and a strong SSD can be small.

Price

Most consumer drives range in capacity from 120GB to 2TB, and while 120GB is the cheapest option, they are not large enough to hold a lot of software and are usually slower than larger capacity drives. Increasing from 120GB to 250GB costs only a small amount of extra cost, and the difference between 250GB and 500GB can be slightly higher, but 500GB is the best balance between price, performance, and capacity -- especially if you don't have a 1TB budget.

There are also drives (mainly from Samsung, such as the 970 EVO) that have capacities in excess of 2TB, but they are so expensive that these models are only worth it for professional users who need space and speed and don't mind the cost.

What kind of hard drive does your computer support?

Solid state drives come in a variety of different form factors to connect and operate with a wide range of possible hardware and software. The type of drive you need depends on what you already own (or intend to buy), and if you have a newer gaming desktop, or are planning to assemble one, it will probably support most (or all) modern drive types.

Modern ultra-thin and 2-in-1 laptops are increasingly moving to M.2 interfaces and do not offer space for traditional 2.5-inch hard drives. In some cases, laptop manufacturers are even soldering hard drives directly to the board, making it impossible to upgrade later. Therefore, before purchasing an SSD, be sure to check the device's manual or Ingenieur's Advisor tool.

What type of hard drive do you need

There are three main (and another less common) types of solid-state drives.

  1. 2.5-inch Serial ATA (SATA): The most common type, this drive mimics the shape of a traditional laptop hard drive and connects via the same SATA cable and interface. If your laptop or desktop has a 2.5-inch hard drive bay and a spare SATA connector, then this type of SSD should be compatible. For desktops with only 3.5-inch hard drive bays, with the help of a converter.
  2. Plug-in (AIC): These drives are faster than other types because they run over the PCI-E bus (instead of SATA, which was used for spinning mechanical drives a decade or so ago), and AIC drives plug into slots on your motherboard commonly used for graphics cards or RAID controllers, which of course means you can only use them on desktop computers. If your desktop host is small and already has a graphics card installed, then more than likely you won't be able to take advantage of such drives; instead, you can get the fastest data read and write speeds (with an Intel Optane 900P, for example), thanks in large part to the extra surface area and thus better heat dissipation, since reading and writing data at very fast speeds generates a fair amount of heat.
  3. M.2: Similar in shape to memory sticks but smaller in size, M.2 SSDs have become the standard for ultra-thin laptops, but of course they are also found inside many desktops. Most M.2's measure 88 x 22mm, some are shorter or longer. You can tell by the 4 digits (or 5 digits) on the drive name label, with the first 2 digits indicating width and the next few digits indicating length. The most common size label is M.2 2280.
  4. U.2: At first glance, this 2.5-inch component looks very similar to a traditional SATA drive, but the former uses a different connector, transfers data through a faster PCIe interface, and is typically thicker than 2.5-inch mechanical and solid-state drives. In addition, U.2 SSDs are typically more expensive and higher capacity than regular M.2 for servers with a large number of open drive bays.

SATA vs. PCIe

As mentioned earlier, 2.5-inch SSDs run on the SATA interface designed for mechanical drives more than a decade ago, while plug-in SSDs connect to the faster PCI Express bus, providing more bandwidth for components such as graphics cards.

Whether it's a SATA or PCIe interface, M.2 SSDs have models that correspond to it, depending on the design of the drive. The fastest M.2s (including the Samsung 970 EVO Plus and Intel 760P) also support NVMe, a protocol designed for modern storage devices, which is a trickier part of.

  1. In the absence of NVMe support, M.2 drives can run on SATA or PCIe based protocols.
  2. With NVMe support, M.2 drives can run on the PCIe protocol.
  3. Most M.2 SSDs introduced in the past few years support NVMe, and the connectors on M.2 drives and motherboards look very similar, so be sure to double check your motherboard or laptop before you buy.
  4. If your daily use includes web browsing, office applications, and computer gaming, then most NVMe SSDs are not much faster than cheaper SATA; but if you regularly perform intensive tasks such as large file transfers, HD video/photo editing, compression/decompression, etc., then it only makes sense to upgrade to NVMe, an SSD that provides up to SATA, which can effectively improve application performance.

Storage Capacity

  1. 128GB: These small capacity drives tend to have poor performance because they have the least number of memory modules. Moreover, after you put the operating system and a few games on it, you will find that the space is basically used up.
  2. 250GB: Usually less expensive, but still stretched for capacity, especially if you use it to store your operating system, computer games, and a large media library. If you have the swing space in your budget, it is recommended that you upgrade to at least 500GB.
  3. 500GB: holds the best balance of price and capacity, although 1TB SSDs are becoming increasingly attractive.
  4. 1TB: unless you have a lot of media or games, 1TB is enough space for the operating system and main programs.
  5. 2TB: 2TB is only worth it when you have a large number of media files, or just want a large library of games that can be accessed quickly.
  6. 4TB: Pricey, Samsung is currently the only company offering consumer-grade 4TB models, including the 860 EVO and 860 Pro.
  7. If you are a desktop user, or have a gaming laptop with multiple hard drive bays, then it is best to go with a pair of smaller capacity SSDs, which can often save a lot of money while still providing roughly the same storage space and read/write speeds.

Power consumption

After being a desktop-level user with optimal performance, you may not care about the power consumption of your computer. But for notebook and 2-in-1 PC users, the energy efficiency of SSDs is more important than speed, especially when you need all-day endurance.

Choosing an extremely energy-efficient drive like the Samsung 850 EVO will give you 90 minutes (or more) of power outage runtime, and while the 960 EVO is faster, it also consumes more power, and larger capacities will consume more power because they have more NAND particles to write data to.

In general, while there is nothing wrong with the above suggestions, there are some high-end models that are good enough to drive the trend, and technology is always advancing and changing the outlook.

Controller

Basically, you can think of the controller as the CPU of the SSD, which routes data read and write operations and performs other critical performance and maintenance tasks. It can be interesting to delve into the types and specifications of controllers, but for most people, there's just one thing to understand: more cores are better suited for higher performance, higher capacity SSDs.

While the controller plays a critical role in read and write performance, the overall operation of the SSD is even more important.

Flash particles

When buying an SSD for general use, you don't need to know about the type of storage inside. However, if you are curious about this knowledge, then take a look at the list below. Some particles have slowly become less common, and some are becoming the new standard.

  1. Single-Level Cell (SLC): Full name Single-Level Cell, the earliest type of flash memory to appear, has been the primary form of flash memory storage for many years. As the name implies, each cell stores only 1 bit of data, resulting in fast read/write speeds and long life. However, with the increasing development of flash memory technology, it is not very dense in terms of the amount of data it can store, which makes it very expensive and only used by a few enterprises as a fast cache.
  2. Multi-Level Cell (MLC): The full name Multi-Level Cell came after SLC, and despite its slower speed, it was able to store more data at a lower price. To solve the speed problem, many of these drives come with a small number of faster SLC particles to act as write buffers. As of today, MLC has been replaced by TLC, with the exception of a few high-end consumer SSDs (e.g. Samsung 970 Pro)
  3. Triple Level Cell (TLC): The full name is Triple Level Cell and is very common in today's consumer SSDs. Although slower than MLC, as the name implies, it can store more data and is more affordable. Most TLC drives (except for some of the cheapest models) also use some sort of caching technology to improve read and write performance.
  4. Quad-Level Cell (QLC), known as Quad-Level Cell, is becoming the next phase of the solid state storage revolution. The increase in density has led to cheaper prices and higher capacities. At the time of this writing, there are only a few consumer-grade QLC drives on the market, including the Intel 660P, the Ingenium P1, and the SATA-based Samsung 860 QVO, to name a few.

Service life

All flash memory has a limited lifetime, which means that after a certain number of writes to any storage unit, it will stop saving data. Manufacturers typically list the drive's rated endurance, total bit group written (TBW) or whole disk writes per day (DWPD).

But most drives have an over-provisioning feature that uses some of the capacity as a backup, and as time passes and storage units begin to die off, the drive moves data from the worn unit to a new one, thus greatly extending the life of the drive. In general, unless you are putting an SSD into a server or other non-stop write scenario, all of today's products have sufficient endurance to last at least 3 to 5 years.

If you want to use it for a longer period of time, or if you write far more data than the average user, then you should avoid QLC drives and buy a model with an above average endurance rating that offers a longer warranty.

Number of stacked layers

This is another issue that most people don't have to worry about. The flash particles in SSDs used to be arranged in a single (flat) layer, but starting with the Samsung 850 Pro in 2012, manufacturers started stacking storage cells on top of each other. Samsung calls this technology V-NAND, Toshiba calls it BiCS FLASH, and most other companies call it 3D NAND. over time, various manufacturers are stacking more and more layers, leading to denser, cheaper SSDs.

Most consumer SSDs are now manufactured using some type of 3D memory chip, with the newest drives typically using 96 layers of NAND. but beyond the lowercase letters you see in the parameter sheet or on the box, your most intuitive feeling may be the drop in price. For the same capacity, newer 3D-based drives cost far less than their predecessors because they are cheaper to manufacture and require fewer flash chips in the same capacity drive.

Summary

Now you are fully aware of SSDs, and all the important details. Keep in mind that high-end models, while technically faster, are usually not much faster than cheaper products in common application scenarios.

So unless you're doing it for professional or enthusiast reasons, the best choice is a reasonably priced mainstream model that gives you the storage capacity you need at a cost you can afford. Transitioning from an older mechanical drive to a modern SSD, you'll immediately feel a huge difference, but as with most PC components, the return on investment for enthusiast-level models diminishes as you climb to the top of the product ladder.

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Conclusion

The only question is, which side are you going to pick?

Let me know in the comments.

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