2022 has had its PC hardware disappointments, but it’s been a vintage year for gaming SSDs. In the latter half alone we’ve seen the top-class PCIe 3.0 speeds of the Crucial P3, the surprising affordability of the PCIe 4.0-based Crucial P3 Plus, the outstanding premium-tier performance of the WD Black SN850X, and now the Samsung 990 Pro: an NVMe SSD with the fastest read speeds in the land. So say its makers, anyway.
On paper, the 990 Pro happily makes bigger claims than those of its closest rival, the Black SN850X. That maximum read speed? 7450MB/s for Samsung, 7300MB/s for WD. Write speeds also appear to favour the 990 Pro, with a claimed 6900MB/s to the Black SN850X’s 6300MB/s. Samsung are asking a lot with their drive’s pricing, starting at £160 / $170 for the 1TB model, but then it’s potentially exploring new heights of what a PCIe 4.0 SSD can do. And why not – PCIe 5.0 SSDs are still a ways off.
Despite this ambition, though, it was the Black SN850X that came out on top in AS SSD’s sequential tests. These aim to record the very highest read/write speeds you might actually get in an unusually easy workload, and while neither of these high-end SSDs actually reached their advertised maximums, the 990 Pro’s 5435MB/s sequential read speed result fell behind the Black SN850X’s 5715MB/s. The latter won out on sequential write speeds too, with the 990 Pro producing 5349MB/s. That’s otherwise excellent, but not as high as the SN850X’s 5701MB/s.
All that hype for nowt, then? Maybe not. Sequential results make for impressively big numbers but they seldom represent an SSD’s everyday performance, and in our tougher, non-sequential benchmarks, the 990 Pro asserted itself more firmly. Crucially, it did so specifically on read speeds, which are far more important to games as they’ll what affects loading times and texture streaming performance.
In CrystalDiskMark’s random 4K benchmark, the Black SN850X recorded a 3187MB/s read speed. That would be one for our record books, were it not for the 990 Pro, which thrashed it with 3647MB/s. Granted, the 990 Pro’s write speed of 4090MB/s was in turn beaten by the Black SN850X’s 4261MB/s, but besides the margin of victory being considerably narrower, write speeds aren’t nearly as useful to games specifically.
This was apparent in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where the 990 Pro took an average of 6.6s to load a scene heaving with NPCs. The Black SN850X took 6.7s on average, which isn’t much of a difference, but then the Samsung SSD was consistently faster across all three measurement runs. It also cuts that loading time (roughly) in half compared the previous Samsung 980 Pro, and that SSD was a bit of a speed addict in its own right.
It's not just marketing bumf, then: the 990 Pro really is the fastest PCIe 4.0 SSD for read speeds, both in theory and practice. The Black SN850X is more of a well-balanced drive, with invariably higher write speeds that could be useful if you regularly need to shift around big files, but I’m guessing you’re not on RPS for workstation building advice. Games are almost all about reads, and the 990 Pro is successfully superlative for them.
However, at this moment in time, it’s still the Black SN850X that’s the better buy – even if this comes down to the simple matter of cold, hard cash. Whereas the 990 Pro has just launched, all dressed up with the premium pricing expected of a class-leader, the Black SN850X is currently out parting in the Black Friday sales. The result? A 2TB Black SN850X costs, in the UK, the same as a 1TB 990 Pro. And you can compare fractions of seconds in game loading times all you want, but that arithmetic just doesn’t work for Samsung.
In the future, mind you, I’d expect the decision to get much tougher. Besides Black Friday season ending in a matter of days, it seems unlikely that the Black SN850X will get much cheaper, while the 990 Pro’s pricing can only go down from here. I kind of hope that’s the case, anyway – the 990 Pro is just too damn fast to deserve second place.