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Week in Tech: SSD Update. Just Buy One

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It’s been many moons since our last update on solid state of play. And now the SSD game finds itself in a bit of an odd spot. It seems like we’re on the cusp of a big transition, what with new PCI Express-based interfaces on the horizon. At the same time, existing SATA III drives feel like they’ve finally grown up, decided to give the ‘rents a rest and started behaving reliably and responsibly. The tech has matured and the end user experience is converging on something subjectively ‘good enough’. Just pick a drive at random from one of the decent outfits and you’re good to go. Then again, wouldn’t it be bloody annoying if you bought an SSD today only to find the entire market turned on its head by super-fast drives in the space of a month or three. What should you make of it all? Read on, chaps, read on…

The tl;dr bit
I reckon some of you are pretty pragmatic about this stuff. You just want the simplest possible advice for choosing an SSD and getting the benefits of solid-state storage. So, here it is.

1. If we’re talking about current SSDs, reliability and long term performance are what matter
2. The end-user experience from one decent drive to the next is very similar
3. Buy a recent-model Samsung, Intel, Crucial or SanDisk drive and you won’t go too far wrong
4. Bag a 240GB-256GB drive or bigger to get the best performance

And that’s pretty much it. Don’t worry about sequential versus 4k random access, compressible and incompressible, MLC and TLC, SandForce, LAMD or Marvell. It doesn’t matter. Just buy one.

Want to know more?
In that case, there are two ways of looking at this. One the one hand, we’re in the quiet before the storm of new storage interfaces. Peak read and write speeds of the latest SSDs have slammed into the wall that is the SATA III 6Gbps interface.

That’s why most of the sequential read and write benchmarks of the top drives typically show the same thing – 550MB/s or thereabouts. There are, of course, drives that plug into PCI Express slots that side step this limitation.

But what’s really needed is the next generation of storage-specific, hot- or at least warm-swappable interfaces. It’s called SATA Express and it’s on it’s way. Then again, maybe it’s called NGFF and it’s already here today.

Actually, they’re fairly closely related and here things get a bit confusing. NGFF drives are already shipping. None other than the latest Apple Macbooks have NGFF drives cranking out not a million miles off 1GB/s in raw bandwidth in some tests. But the status report for the desktop is a bit baffling.

Buy this one

The latest scuttlebutt, for instance, suggests Intel’s upcoming 9 Series motherboard chipsets won’t support SATA Express natively after all. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a board with an NGFF slot. But the attraction of SATA Express is that it’s backwards compatible with current SATA drives. NGFF is a whole new ball game.

Anyway, at this stage, it’s not really worth going into the details save for saying performance wise it’s a bit like the best bits of SATA and PCI Express combined and will allow, over time, for multiple GB/s of SSD bandwidth.

Back in the summer, some SSD outfits previewed some next-gen SATA Express products with impressive headline numbers. ADATA had a drive claimed to be good for 1.8GB/s in both directions and 200,000 IOPS courtesy of the upcoming LSI SandForce Griffin controller. I thought these products were slated to already be available by now, but things appear to have gone quiet.

The real kicker, of course, is that you’ll need a new motherboard to enjoy the SATA Express performance explosion, and as I indicate above, it’s not clear when this might be possible.

When you combine that with my general feeling that the latest drives are pretty darn good from a subjective experience point of view, I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of buying an SSD today.

Not a bad time to buy
Which brings me to the other side of this debate, which says SSDs have generally come of age. We’re now at the point where you can rely on certain brands to give you a drive that performs well out of the box and keeps doing so for several years. What’s more, you could say that random access performance is more critical, day-to-day and that’s not really limited by interface performance.

Because of that, the actual end-user experience is pretty similar across those brands. I’m not saying there aren’t any remotely worthy SSDs outside the quartet of brands mentioned above. The likes of Plextor and Seagate, among others, are worth a shout. There might even be the odd Corsair drive I wouldn’t kick out of bed on a cold morning.

What I am saying is that among the currently available newish-model and vaguely sensible-money SSDs, what matters is that the latest drives from those brands will give you a similar end user experience in terms of performance, have good reliability reputations and give you enough choice to be getting on with.

Or this one. It doesn’t really matter

Having said all that, some of you probably want a very short shopping list of drives to think about buying. So here they are and in no particular order:

Samsung 840 EVO and 840 Pro
Crucial M500
Intel 335 or 530
Sandisk Extreme II

If you want to really narrow it down, my two top picks are the Crucial M500 and Sammy 840 Evo. I personally wouldn’t bother to spend more.

Generally speaking, among those drives, the more expensive, the higher performing. I’m not convinced you’ll be able to feel the difference. But if you want to hedge your bets, you have the option of a faster drive like the Samsung 840 Pro.

One final caveat is that performance for some drives can fall off a bit with smaller capacities. Personally, I favour the 240GB to 256GB segment as a bare minimum capacity wise. Prices start at roughly £120 on a good day and it just so happens that this is the size at which the performance limitations generally drop away, so it’s win-win.

And that, folks, should have you covered. Sensible SSD advice for a happier populace. Until next time!

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Jeremy Laird

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