Which SSD Should You Buy?

All of this has happened before. All of it will happen again. I speak of the seemingly constant state of flux that afflicts the solid-state drive or SSD market. Well, that and my posts on SSDs which routinely predict an end game for SSD tech that somehow arrives and then starts all over again. First it was stuttering drives, then it was random versus sequential and compressible versus incompressible. Latterly, it’s PCI Express versus SATA. Whatever, it’s time to catch up on SSDs. Have they finally attained the glories of BSG up to season 1.5 (don’t argue, it’s down the pan from season two, episode 11)? Or are we still looking at the horrors of the final five? Let’s find out if anything has really changed and what the best buy is here and now.

To make this really simple for some of you who don’t care for the ins and outs, try this. Go buy a Crucial BX100 in either 250GB or 500GB trim depending on your budget. You’re done, catch you next time.

The Power of PCI Express

For everyone else, the big news with SSDs right now is of course the transition from SATA to PCI Express as the primary interconnect. But what does this mean?

In simple terms it means more bandwidth and in turn faster drives and snappier PCs. The fastest existing SATA interface tops out at 6Gbps in theoretical terms and roughly 550MB/s of real-world data throughput.

For PCI Express it’s all a bit complicated. Drives and indeed motherboards may support multiple PCI Express standards and in turn multiple PCI Express storage standards. Regards the latter I’m talking M.2, SATA Express and SFF-8639, the final two of which are mechanically identical but make different use of the available pins. Yup, it’s a bit of a nightmare.

This is the future of storage. Kinda

I suppose we are at least fortunate in that SATA Express appears to have zero traction in the form of drives you can buy. So it can be ignored for now. That leaves M.2 drives and SFF-8639 that require a dedicated connector on the motherboard or via an add-in card. M.2 drives are basically very small bare circuit boards, whereas SFF-8639 drives will come in 2.5-inch form factor and look essentially the same as existing SATA drives.

To that you can add what you might call pure PCI Express drives that simply plug into a PCI Express slot in the same manner as a graphics card. Again, I can only apologise for the sheer, brain numbing complexity of all these new SSD options.

Bandwidth bomb
Now, regards PCI Express itself, the fastest current spec is PCI Express 3.0 and that delivers 1GB/s per lane in each direction (ie in and out of the device in question). You can, of course, tag-team PCI Express lanes to generate more bandwidth.

I’m not clear if there is a theoretical limit to how many lanes an SSD could use. Obviously graphics cards and indeed motherboard slots max out at 16 lanes per slot and thus per device. Whatever, for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely we’ll see drives using more than four lanes. Still, that’s a maximum theoretical throughput of 4GB/s or the sort of number that not too long ago looked healthy for the memory bandwidth of an Intel CPU.

It’s all about NVMe
There is, however, more to this PCI Express thing than raw bandwidth. There’s also the control protocol that allows your PC to talk to the drive. For SATA drives, that’s AHCI and it was never designed for use with solid state drives.

As I’ve mentioned previously, for PCI Express drives there’s a new protocol called NVMe which has been designed for solid-state storage and promises a major boost in the kind of random access work that makes your PC feel responsive.

It’s M.2. But is it NVMe?

If all of this sounds peachy, there are a couple of snags. Firstly, nearly all the PCI Express drives that have so far been launched have lacked NVMe support. And that makes them very unappealing.

Motherboard and CPU compatibility
Next up, Intel platforms of late have strictly limited PCI Express resources. I’m talking about chipsets and CPUs compatible with sockets including LGA1150, LGA1155 and LGA1156 and thus Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge and Haswell CPUs. In other words, CPUs like the Core i5-2500K, Core i7-3770K or Core i5-4670K. Anything remotely recent, then.

Anyway, those CPUs are limited to 16 native PCI Express lanes. In theory, you want all 16 for your graphics card. Take even one for an SSD, and your graphics will drop down to eight lanes. Now, it is debatable how much impact this will have. Indeed, it’s worth noting that eight PCI Express 3.0 lanes gives the same bandwidth as 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes.

For a single graphics card in today’s games, as opposed to running multiple cards with Nvidia SLI or AMD Crossfire tech, it probably doesn’t matter. But if you are buying a PC to keep for a few years, maybe upgrade the CPU and graphics down the line, I’m less comfortable.

The two solutions to this are either go with Intel’s high end platform in the form of the X99 chipset and an LGA2011v3 chip like the 5820K, which have at least 28 PCI Express lanes. Or wait until later this year for Intel’s new mainstream Skylake CPUs on the LGA1151 socket (I know, it’s bloody confusing, but LGA1151 is yet another new socket) which get 20 PCI Express lanes and thus have four spare for storage.

And what of AMD?
As for AMD PCs, it’s a bit different as the PCI Express lanes are in the motherboard chipset, not the CPU. So the same limitations generally do not apply. PCI Express lane availability will vary according to motherboard. But even the entry-level AMD 970 chipset has 22 lanes. The top-end 990FX packs 38.

PCI Express adapter cards
Either way, unless you have a very new motherboard, it’s not going to have an M.2 or SFF-8639 connector. Adapter cards to drop into the PCI Express slots in your motherboard are available, however: something like this. How broad the compatibility is with cards like that and whether you’ll have any problems booting off it, well, I’m afraid I’m not clear. It’s early days with this stuff.

Nope, it’s not the stillborn Intel Larrabee graphics card. It’s a bleedin’ big SSD

In any case, as I write, I’ve not personally had my hands on any M.2 drives with that crucial NVMe protocol support, so I’d recommend holding fire for now. Similarly, SFF-8639 drives for consumers as opposed drives designed for servers aren’t quite here yet. If you really want a PCI Express drive right now, therefore, you need to be looking to the likes of Intel’s NVMe-toting SSD 750 drive in plain PCI Express card format (as opposed to SFF-8639, which is announced but not yet available). It ain’t cheap, of course, current residing at just over £300 / $400 for the 400GB model.

The simpler SATA solution
For most of us, then, if you need an SSD immediately, it’s going to be an old school SATA drive. That’s not a disaster, especially if you are upgrading from an even more old school magnetic drive. It’ll be miles faster, it’ll be cheap and it’ll just work with pretty much any PC.

As for which SATA SSD to buy, given the coming PCI Express revolution, I lean toward cheapness with SATA drives. The advantages of the best and most expensive SATA drives look pretty piffling compared to what PCI Express drives deliver.

Thus, I’ll make this really simple, as per my comment up top. Go and get yourself a Crucial BX100. A 500GB model is roughly £150 / $200 (the 250GB model is about half the price). It’s not the best drive on the market, but it’s cheap and reliable and sidesteps any of the worries with drives like Samsung’s seemingly iffy TLC (triple-level cell) drives.

In other words, don’t fret about the previous 1,200 words or so. Just buy a BX100.

Oh and apropos of not all that much, isn’t it amazing to think that BSG reimagined first hit the small screen 12 years ago? Remarkable.

53 Comments

  1. mattevansc3 says:

    If anyone is interested in an SSD drive I strongly recommend going to http://www.hotukdeals.com

    Its a community driven deals site with SSDs and GPUs being a firm favourite. Last month they found two sites offering the BX100 for £130, they’ve since gone up to £140.

  2. Premium User Badge

    aLostEngineer says:

    “BSG reimagined first hit the small screen 12 years ago” thanks for reminding me that I’m getting old.

    • DrScuttles says:

      And remembering how shit that ending was reminds me I’ve not gone crazy yet.

      • Continuity says:

        Well I just finished rewatching it today, I’d say the ending wasn’t as bad as all that, it was conclusive, it made sense, and it wrapped up almost all the loose ends.. more than can be said for many other shows. But yeah, BSG did get steadily worse from season 2, the last half of season 4 in particular was fairly poor and frankly the whole final 5 thing wasn’t a great plot line once it played out.

  3. omegajimes says:

    I did tons of SSD research, then the MX100 drives went on sale for $60/256GB, so I bought some of those. Damned better than my old spinning Seagates.

    • Vayra says:

      Seconded. I you can still pick up some MX100’s somewhere, GO FOR IT. The BX 100 is very likely to be just as good, but all that has been tested on that drive as of today is how well it performs; not how reliable it really is.

      In other words, when buying SSD, it is no shame to look at old, proven products. In a similar vein, if you still see a sale for Samsung 830 (non-pro), grab it. It is one of the most reliable drives to date.

  4. DanMan says:

    Please put the TL;DR at the top next time. kthxbai.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Being a somewhat early adopter of SSDs, I’ve been sticking with Intel since (when I first started) they were the only ones considered truly reliable. Having stuck with them for many years now, and watched many co-workers’ non-Intel SSDs crash and burn, I’ve been feeling pretty secure in that decision.

    Has this changed? Or are people just more diligent at backing things up these days? :)

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Intel’s early SSDs were pretty dodgy. It was just that everyone else’s were really terrible!

      In any case, Intel is still among the best for validation and reliability. But they are not the only game in town.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      I am one of those who took a big leap of faith with an OCZ Vertex 2 ( or 3? ) for some considered incredibly unreliable and for others even almost unusual without a firmware update which i never did. I’m not the only happy owner as a friend of mine bought it from me a year or so ago and still rocking it.

      But yeah, this is anecdotal and i might be extremely lucky, though i always took all the needed step to assure that the drive is not used improperly by the OS and so on.

      Crucial and Samsung are also some good options, even on the RAM side, or maybe especially there as they are guaranteed to use their own modules, just like Crucial is part of Jmicron, which is solid. Other brands are more of a bet and they might use dodgier things, not necessarily the brand per-se but it depends on the model, and i’d be more inclined to trust their high end offerings although that’s worthless without a proper chart of what’s inside each of them, or the quality control.

      But yeah, this is just in case you want to expand your horizons past Intel, otherwise you can absolutely stay there and be totally happy.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Correction: unusual = unusable

      • Continuity says:

        Yeah I got an OCZ vertex as well, apparently they’re terrible but mine is still going fine (2.5 years).

        Next buy with probably be either Samsung or Crucial. Though I’m not buying until I build a new rig next year, so things might have changed by then.

    • phelix says:

      Well apart from the speed degradation shenanigans in the EVO 840, Samsung drives are also on the upper end in terms of reliability and longevity if I’m not mistaken.

      • Vayra says:

        Some, but not all. The EVO line has its problems and the consumer pays for Samsung’s cost reducing experimenting, which is a really bad thing. Samsung drives have never had power-safe caps like the Crucial MX/BX100’s do. The old Samsung 830 was and still is a VERY reliable drive, that also touches the SATA limits and is still MLC with a fairly regular controller. The newer drives may seem a whole lot faster, but in daily use there is no way you will ever notice. My Samsung 830 already streams the GTA V game world seamlessly, for example, and everything I open or move simply saturates the SATA bus and appears instantly.

        For mere humans, there is no such thing that is faster than instant. Numbers don’t mean shit, responsiveness is an experience not a measurement. Therefore, don’t buy based on speed, buy reliability and proven track records.

  6. Steed says:

    Re plugging an SSD into a PCI-E slot chopping the GPU down to x16 on current Intel tech, does that mean my PCI-E sound card (Asus Xonar DG) is doing the same thing?

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Are you sure it’s an Asus Xonar DG? DG is an old PCI model according to their site and DX or DGX are the PCI-E models.

      If your motherboard/chipset/CPU is one of those models limited to max 16 PCIe lanes the sound card will reduce the number of connections to the GPU depending on the sound card’s size.
      If it’s a legacy PCI card then it’s on its own separate bus and you don’t have to care, otherwise it’s a PCI Express x1 card (according to their site).

      If it’s a max x16 system it will give the sound card its x1 connection, leaving x15 free but that number can’t be used by a single device so the system can only give the GPU x8, running it at half its maximum bandwidth.

      I recommend you just test it. Remove the sound card (if it’s a PCIe card) and see if there’s any difference in a benchmark or demanding game of your choice since I don’t know what the rest of your system looks like. :)

      (I welcome more knowledgeable people to poke holes in this if I got anything wrong, my knowledge hasn’t been kept up to date more than some wikipedia and forum reading and I hate spreading misinformation).

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Some boards should have that very small 1x slot on the bottom that’s handled differently and shouldn’t impact your available lanes in any way, but i didn’t know some soundcards would require a proper PCI-E connection, are you sure about that?

    • Sakkura says:

      No. Unfortunately Jeremy is misinformed on that point. The CPU provides 16 PCIe lanes directly, and those are intended for graphics card(s) mainly. However, the chipset provides additional PCIe lanes for extra slots, to accomodate anything from sound cards to SSDs.

      Now, the PCIe lanes from the CPU can sometimes be split between two or even three PCIe slots on the board, so you should still ideally not plug your sound card into one of those; instead you’d want a slot powered by the chipset. If you’re using a small PCIe x1 slot, you’re fine. If you’re using a full-sized slot, you’ll want to check whether that slot runs off the CPU or the chipset PCIe lanes.

      • Steed says:

        Tis indeed the DGX as suggested further up, plugged in to the mini PCI-e slot of an MSI P67A-GD65. Sounds like it should be fine :)

        Thanks for your help.

      • Jeremy Laird says:

        And how do those additional chipset lanes connect to the CPU, eh? It’s not the same thing, I’m afraid.

        • Sakkura says:

          They connect via DMI 2.0, which is a separate connection from the direct PCIe lanes for the graphics card(s).

  7. Soapeh says:

    Is NVMe meant to be pronounced ‘envy me’? If so, that’s pretty cool.

    • Premium User Badge

      Don Reba says:

      Also, “envidia” is Spanish for “envy”.

    • Sakkura says:

      Non-Volatile Memory Express.

      Non-volatile memory being the NAND flash used in SSDs, and express because it’s used on PCI Express connections.

  8. Arren says:

    (don’t argue, it’s down the pan from season two, episode 11)

    So, so true.

    (Forgive me — I just finished watching the series for the first time and this is my opportunity to chime in. Starbuck the reborn messianic figure and mastermind Ellen Tigh were just farcically bad.)

    • Continuity says:

      Saul Tigh as a final 5 was a much weaker character than before also, plus I think they over egged both Bill adama and Laura Roslin.

  9. HidingCat says:

    I agree – the Crucials are great and the BX100 is fast enough. The differences are mostly splitting hairs, so might as well get the cheapest drive you can find. I’d even recommend the 1GB version when it gets cheap enough.

  10. Ejia says:

    I’m more interested in whether or not HDDs larger than 2TB are actually more likely to fail. If not for the warnings about how squeezing that many platters into a drive is not a good idea I’d have gone for a 4TB storage drive.

    I suppose if it’s going to take a bit of time for motherboards and drives to start supporting this new protocol then one should just spring for a SATA SSD, yes.

  11. kalniel says:

    “It’s all about NVMe”
    For home users/gamers, not so much. If you’re running a server with high loads then sure, but unless you need to squeeze every last bit of idle time you can for ultra low power reasons then it’s not really worth worrying about.

  12. sixmillionways says:

    Thanks for a great article as always. I just got a Samsung 850 Evo 500gb for under £150, probably not much in it but I’ve seen several other tech sites list this as the one to go for.

  13. OmNomNom says:

    I’ve actually had two Intel SSDs fail me over the years and a really old Crucial one that is still going strong in my server.

    I can really recommend Samsung. I have two 840Pro drives I had in RAID for a long while and Samsung recently enabled RAPID for non RAID drive caching using your RAM. (Gives spectacular results in benchmarks at least).

    In addition I also have some new plextor m.2 drives in RAID that while faster than the old interface isn’t really truly spectacular. Plextor also have a RAPID counterpart called Plexturbo.

    The RAM accelerator programs only allow you to accelerate one drive per system but if you mix brands then you can run both apps to cache two drives!

    • Razumen says:

      Yep, Samsung’s PRO drives are really good, Anandtech did a stress test of a bunch of SSD’s awhile back and the Pro was one of the last ones still running at the end.

  14. Machinations says:

    In answer to the headline is ‘None’

    They fail quicker, have tiny capacities, and give you only the tiniest of performance improvements. There are cases where they are very useful, SAN for example. For gamers? Not so much.

    • frightlever says:

      Last I heard SSD had a better MTBF than magnetic drives in normal world usage and you’re much more likely to have to RMA a magnetic drive under warranty than a SSD, but whatever. It’s like religion, nothing I say is going to change your mind.

    • Asurmen says:

      Well that’s a whole bunch of wrong :)

    • Dale Winton says:

      Just buy a ssd grandad and see for yourself. You’ll not go back

      • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

        I’m with that guy.
        My experience with SSD has been nothing but disappointment. Benchmarks are one thing, but in actual games a good Intel SSD gave me about 10-20% improvement in load times over a good Caviar HDD. Yep, that was sure worth all the cash and the crazy downgrade in space! Drive’s silence is nice of course, but it was never the point.

    • Razumen says:

      Are you serious? SSD’s are better than HDDs in pretty much every regard, except for storage capacity, and that is rapidly improving.

    • C0llic says:

      This opinion is about 5 years out of date. A SATA 500 GB SSD is damn cheap these days. They are reliable, and you’ll see huge improvements in boot time and game performance. Particularly when it comes to loading times and games that use streaming for assets (eg. any large, modern open-world game).

      It’s your choice of course, but I’m afraid your opinion doesn’t seem to be an informed one.

  15. C0llic says:

    I disagree almost completely

    BSG truly lost me after the interesting stuff in New Caprica. So about season 3.04 ish..

    What a shame.

    • Continuity says:

      Yeah season 3 wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as the first two seasons. Then season 4 just tanked it.

  16. Razumen says:

    Samsung’s 840/850 PRO drives are extremely reliable and have lasted far longer than the competition in stress testing, you can’t go wrong with them at all.

  17. Sakkura says:

    The stuff about PCI Express lanes on Intel’s mainstream platform (LGA 1150 etc) is wrong. The CPU provides 16 lanes directly, and those are intended for the graphics card. BUT the chipset provides additional lanes, specifically for things like SSDs to use. So the limitations you speak of are not nearly as severe.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Again, how are those chipset lanes connected to the CPU?

      This time, I’ll tell you. It’s via the DMI bus, which is shared with everything from audio, to USB 3.0 to networking. For the 9 Series, it’s DMI 2.0, so 20Gbps as opposed for 5Gbps total for earlier chipsets, but still a major limitation.

      Which is why some 9 series mobos use the CPU lanes to provide four genuine PCIe lanes to their M.2 slots. Other provide two lanes via DMI. Far from optimal. I am guilty of over simplification, but equally, it’s clear you don’t fully grasp the limitations of PCIe on current mainstream Intel platforms. I left some details out in the name of brevity, but gave the correct overall impression.

      Moreover, the limitations are precisely why Intel is adding CPU lanes to Skylake.

      • Sakkura says:

        Right, but it’s not like a sound card is going to bottleneck your SSD, especially because DMI 2.0 (using PCIe-style signalling) does not use performance-hampering interrupts the way old-school legacy PCI or ISA did.

        But it’s true that there is a limitation – as I said, it’s just less strict than you made it appear.

        As for the up to 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes on Skylake, that’s again going to be bottlenecked by the DMI connection between the chipset and the CPU. Because those new lanes are not directly from the CPU, but from the chipset like the 6-8 PCIe 2.0 lanes we get today.

        But at least they’re moving to DMI 3.0 so the bandwidth doubles.

  18. Smeghead says:

    “In any case, as I write, I’ve not personally had my hands on any M.2 drives with that crucial NVMe protocol support, so I’d recommend holding fire for now.”

    Perhaps “crucial” isn’t the best adjective to use, given the subject? :)

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  20. Bfox says:

    Are they reliable? They wont steal any money I leave on table while I’m not looking?

    My old spinning discs were always honest, never lied to me once.

  21. Foosnark says:

    I just installed a 1TB BX100 last night and will vouch for the recommendation, and for the oft-repeated-here statement that an SSD is the most significant upgrade you can get. (With the exception of integrated graphics to an actual graphics card, of course.)

    I just cloned my old 1 TB hard drive directly to it, no mucking around with partition sizes. My computer went from about a 2 minute boot to about 15 seconds. Most applications load in an eyeblink. Games load noticeably faster — though big games with lots of textures don’t gain quite as much as other things do.

    I use my machine for music production too; large audio plugins and sample libraries load far faster than before and it makes everything feel so much better when I’m browsing for the right sound.