The Solid State Drive Guide

Getting an SSD (if you don’t have one installed on your PC) can be a relatively cheap way to get a huge leap in speed. Everything will become much faster, especially when your PC is booting. Instead of waiting for minutes (and then waiting a couple of more minutes for the system to become fully responsive) for the system to boot, with an SSD your system will boot in less than a minute and will become fully responsive almost immediately after you see your desktop.

And games, games will load almost immediately. Instead of waiting for minutes and minutes (especially with newer open world titles) for a level to load, and then suffering from a stuttering for some time before all data ends up being transferred from a hard drive to RAM, you will see games load up in seconds without waiting and without that ugly screeching noise that can be heard after a game is loaded.

Yes, SSDs are way faster than regular hard drives, but are also more expensive. And unlike hard drives, which all use SATA interface (well, except if you own a ten-year-old or even older model that utilizes ATA interface), SSDs are a bit more complicated since there are three different form-factors and they all use different connectors. Also, SSDs are known to have a smaller average capacity, and while an average hard drive (by average we mean a relatively cheap drive that costs around $40 or $50) has a capacity of 1TB, an average SSD can hold 512GB or 256GB of data, depending on the model and price.

But that shouldn’t stop you from getting one, since you can keep multimedia files (like your music collection, movies, TV shows, audio and video recordings) on a hard drive, and you won’t notice a difference between keeping them on a hard drive and on an SSD. But, on the other hand, you should have your system installed on an SSD since that will massively improve boot time. Further, you can put five or six games along with your system, even on a 256GB drive, and still have some space left.

And since Steam supports multiple install locations, you can install games that are more frequently played or that have long loading times on an SSD, while keeping others on your hard drive (I mean, moving Rocket League from hard drive to an SSD will save you like three seconds when loading the game).

Differences between a hard drive and an SSD

But, how does an SSD work? How it is different from a regular hard drive? What are the three different form factors SSD drives can be found in?

Technology

The innards of a platter hard drive
The innards of a platter hard drive

Hard drives are made out of one, or more, metal platters coated with a magnetic coating that allows for data storage. Reading and writing is done by a head mounted on a movable arm. The technology is here for more than a half of a century and while it has seen some massive improvements in storage capacity (an average capacity for a hard drive during 90’s was around 1GB, while today mainstream hard drives have a capacity between 1TB and 3TB) and read and write speeds, the core stayed the same.

You have magnetic metal platters and a head that performs reading and writing. Since hard drives have moving parts, they are prone to damage when dropped or impacted, and since they use magnetic metal platters they can be damaged, even wiped clean if come to contact with a relatively strong magnet.

On the other side of the line, we have SSDs (short for solid state drives). They also offer storage keeping, but instead metal platters, magnetic coating, and moving read/write heads they use flash storage chips similar to those that can be found in USB flash drives. Flash memory chips used in SSD devices are faster, more durable, and generally of higher quality. Thus, more expensive than those found inside USB flash drives.

Most SSDs have lots of flash chips packed into a single body, or soldered directly to a PCB (as is the case with M.2 and PCI-e card models), and they don’t have moving parts, meaning that they offer immediate access to data, often near SATA III interface limits (600MB/s).

SSD drives started appearing during the mid 2000s. The first drives had an average capacity of just a few gigabytes and were soldered to a motherboard, instead of using SATA or some other connector because soldering them was cheaper and back then SSD storage was way expensive than today when it is still relatively expensive compared to standard hard drives.

Capacity and price

As we already said, hard drives that can be found today have at least 1TB of storage space while relatively affordable SSDs offer 256GB or 512GB of storage space. Of course, you can find a 1TB SSD, or even bigger one, but it will cost you way more than the same capacity hard drive.

For instance, while an average 1TB hard drive can be found for around $45, the same capacity SSD (ones that offer the slowest read and write speeds) can be found for around $260. On average, an SSD costs five times more than its hard drive counterpart.

Speed

There isn’t much to talk about this. It is simple, SSDs are way faster than hard drives, both in reading and writing. While an average hard drive has a speed of 7200rpm (that’s about from 80MB/s to 160MB/s for writing and reading, respectively) an average SSD feature read speeds of about 550MB/s and reading speeds that are close to 600MB/s (SATA interface is limited to a 600MB/s speed). Keep in mind that actual, real-life speeds, vary from the stated speeds on the box. After you find a model for you try reading reviews from buyers, or find an expert review in order to find out everyday read and write speeds.

Other differences

Firstly, SSD drives are much more durable. They won’t damage when dropped (most hard drives will die if dropped to a solid ground) and aren’t vulnerable to strong magnets. They use less power to operate than hard drives, and don’t make any noise while working.

Some hard drives can live longer than an SSD, maybe as long as 10 year or more simply because of it’s mechanical nature. An SSDs life depends on it’s writing capacity though. Keep in mind that SSDs won’t be damaged during reading, just when new data is wrote. Most models should offer at least five years of life, even if they are used as system drives, and even if it is always having new data written on them.

But real life experiments showed that SSDs could last way longer than advertised. This test shows pretty well how many write cycles an average SSD can take before going away for good. The winner, Samsung 850 Pro, lived through 9100TB of written data. If used as a system drive, SSD would see between 10GB and 30GB of written data per day. That means the Samsung 850 Pro would, in theory, last for almost 700 years! This shows that you shouldn’t fear about shorter life expectancy SSDs have when compared to magnetic hard drives.

Different form factors, interfaces, and memory chips used

Now, since we covered differences between hard drives and SSDs, let’s check out different types of SSDs and interaces they use. We will also cover different memory chips used since they do matter.

2.5-inch SATA SSDs

Samsung 850 EVO 2.5-inch drive
Samsung 850 EVO 2.5-inch drive

SSDs appear in three form factors. The most common SSDs are 2.5-inch SATA ones that use the same connector (SATA) as hard drives to connect to a motherboard and can be installed the same way as smaller, 2.5-inch hard drives. They offer the slowest speeds, when compared to other two form factors (up to 600MB/s, which is SATA III interface limit) but also feature lowest average price.

You can find them anywhere, and they are perfect as your main storage unit (if you have a budget for a 512GB or 1TB SSD). They are also great for using as a system drive (but offer slower boot speed than M.2 NVMe SSD drives) and most users won’t notice a difference in boot speeds between a classic 2.5-inch SSD and a faster M.2 SSD.

As for games, they are perfect because they have the best price to storage size ratio out of all three form factors. Since most games these days can go over 50GB and many take even more space on a storage device, it is better to get a large 2.5-inch SATA SSD and to have space for all your video games, than to spend more money on a smaller M.2 SSD that gives better read and write speeds but offers less storage for the same amount of money.

And don’t worry about installing a SATA III SSD on a motherboard that doesn’t support SATA III interface. If your motherboard supports SATA II (there’s a weak chance you need SSD while running SATA I board) feel free to install a 2.5 Inch SSD. Speed will be slower (SATA II has a limit of 600MB/s), but the device will work without problems.

M.2 SSDs

A Samsung 960 Pro M.2 SSD
A Samsung 960 Pro M.2 SSD

M.2 slots are relatively new. They started appearing on newer motherboard models a couple of years ago, replacing mSATA ports that were featured on some desktop motherboards and on many laptop models. The port offers support for both SATA and PCIe interfaces, and while older M.2 SSD models use SATA interface, newer ones use PCIe and offer much faster read and write speeds than it would be possible if they used SATA III.

M.2 slots started appearing with Intel z97 and AMD FX 990 chipsets, so if you have one of those or a newer chipset you should have at least one M.2 slot on your motherboard. Current CPU generations (Intel Coffee Lake and AMD Ryzen) support M.2 SSDs without any problems. Also, many newer laptop models come with M.2 slots, but in order to see if your laptop supports M.2 SSDs, please visit manufacturer’s page and find your model specs.

An example of an M.2 slot
An example of an M.2 slot

Now, newer motherboards all have (except the cheapest models) at least one M.2 slot, while top models come with two or more M.2 slots. Disks are usually mounted parallel to the PCB and don’t take lots of space. They look like RAM sticks and have flash memory chips directly soldered to a PCB. Most models are stripped, with visible chips, but some top models feature heatsinks that offer better cooling since M.2 SSDs can get pretty hot when under heavy load. There are three main sizes almost all M.2 SSD models come in. There are five M.2 SSD sizes in total:

  • 2230
  • 2242
  • 2260
  • 2280
  • 22110

The first two digits stand for the width meaning that all models have the same width (22mm). Other digits stand for length (also in mm). The three most common lengths are 42mm, 60mm, and 80mm, and most motherboards with M.2 slots support those three. Some boards have support for 110mm models (but very few so be careful with 110mm models), while the 30mm versions aren’t supported by desktop motherboards. While most laptops also have support for the three most popular sizes, some models support only 42mm and 60mm models.

M.2 SSDs come with support for SATA or PCIe interface, and most expensive models come with PCIe support. Cheaper M.2 models are usually SATA ones and offer the usual SATA III speeds (up to 600MB/s). On the other hand, we have PCIe M.2 SSD models that have much higher read and write speeds. The usual speed of M.2 PCIe (theoretical limit is 4GB/s for PCI Express x4, 2GB/s for PCI Express x2)models is 2000MB/s for reading and around 800MB/s for writing, which is noticeably faster than 2.5-inch and M.2 SATA SSDs. While top motherboard models come with PCIe x4 M.2 support, some lower tier models support only PCIe x2 speeds, which are slower but M.2 models that use x4 PCIe will work, although at slower speeds.

Now, there’s more. On top of coming in two interface models (SATA and PCIe), M.2 SSDs come in two flavors when it comes to the protocol being used. There are two main protocols used by M.2 SSDs – AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) and NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express).

The first one is an older technology developed for magnetic hard drives, and it offers just one processing queue. It is supported only by SATA M.2 models and is slower than NVMe.

NVMe protocol is made for newer flash memory-based storage devices, and it supports tens of thousands of queues offering much higher speeds. It is used by all PCIe M.2 SSDs, and it is way better than AHCI. Now, if you have an NVMe M.2 SSD as your system drive, bear in mind that you will be able to boot Windows 10 and 8.1 without problems. Also, NVMe SSDs work only on X99, Z97, Ryzen, and 990FX chipsets and newer ones. It is possible to boot up Windows 7 from an NVMe drive, but it takes some modding. Here’s a guide for all those who still run Windows 7 and want to buy an NVMe SSD.

Also, if you use SATA Express connector bear in mind that you won’t be able to use an M.2 slot on your board. The SATA Express is a dead interface but still can be found on new motherboard models. It is clearly marked on the board so you can see if it is used. Also, it is made out of two regular SATA ports and one special port, so it is possible that you maybe use one of the two SATA ports for your 2.5-inch SSD or a hard drive, so check that out before installing an M.2 SSD.

As for the price, M.2 drives are noticeably more expensive than regular 2.5-inch SSDs but offer noticeably faster speeds. They currently cost around $130 for a 256GB NVMe model (perfect size for a system drive). SATA M.2 models offer more storage for the price but are also slower than NVMe ones. If you want to use that M.2 slot, it is better to buy a smaller NVMe drive and use it as a system drive than to buy a cheaper M.2 SATA model because they offer same speeds as 2.5-inch SSDs.

PCIe card SSDs

An Intel PCIe card
An Intel PCIe card

These are performance and enthusiast models that offer the highest speeds but also come with the highest price. They are installed on PCI Express slot on your motherboard and usually come with heatsinks since they use fastest memory chips and produce the most heat.

They aren’t for everyone because their price is too high for an average consumer (256GB models cost around $350), but if you want one know that they come with monstrous read and write speeds (around 2000MB/s read speeds and usually more than 2000MB/s for write speeds). They offer the least storage for money, but are super fast and could be a perfect choice for playing the role of your system drive, if your budget allows it.

Different memory chips used on SSDs

Some naked flash
Some naked flash

There are six main chip versions used on SSDs. The first one is called SLC (Single Level Cell), and it features the highest amount if write cycles and it is extremely fast. On the other hand, it also is quite expensive and usually cannot be found on mainstream SSDs made for the general population.

MLC (Multi-Level Cell) chips offer the best performance-price ratio and can be found on many mainstream SSDs.

We also have TLC (Triple Level Cell) chips which can be found on budget solutions. They aren’t recommended because they have the fewest write cycles and feature SLC cache that has a capacity of only a couple of gigabytes. When you transfer a large file (larger than five gigs, for instance) onto a TLC device, it will slow down the transfer to a crawl and will become slower even than transfer rates on classic hard drives.

Then we have 3D NAND chips that come in three flavors. MLC chips are the fastest and best, with lots of write cycles but they are also very expensive. TLC chips feature solid lifespans and offer quite good speeds. Finally, Xpoint chips are extremely fast and offer a huge number of lifecycles but are also extremely expensive and can be found only on Intel’s Optane boost drives that play a role between a RAM and an SSD storage and are meant to speed up old PCs. They come in humble sizes (16GB and 32GB) and aren’t even available in SSD models, even in those expensive PCIe card versions.

Conclusion

In the end, even if you pick some classic 2.5-inch SSD (in case you still have just a classic magnetic hard drive) you will see a massive performance boost, especially during system boot and during loading in video games.

If you already own a 2.5 SSD, a quality NVMe M.2 model can be a great way to speed up boot process even more. The best solution (for those with a high budget) is getting a 512GB or 1TB 2.5-inch SSD in combination with a fast, 256GB NVMe SSD for the best performance. If you have 400 bucks to spare, then go for a 256GB high-performance PCIe card SSD instead of an M.2 NVMe SSD and you will have the fastest possible storage solution available.

Our Picks

Budget Pick

Samsung 850 EVO 2.5-inch drive
Samsung 850 EVO 2.5-inch drive

Samsung is producing some of the best SSDs out there currently. The Samsung 850 EVO 2.5-inch is an amazing consumer level drive that is both cost-effective and comes in a variety of sizes. With Read / Write speeds up to 540 MB/s and 520 MB/s. I own this drive, and I think it’s amazing. Coming from a traditional platter hard drive this is a great upgrade hands down worth the money spent.

Top Pick

Samsung NVMe 960 EVO M.2 drive
Samsung NVMe 960 EVO M.2 drive

Samsung seems to dominate the top of line SSD drives. Our top pick for most gamers would be the Samsung NVMe 960 EVO M.2. This drive boasts a whopping 3200 MB/s Read, and 1900 MB/s Write speed and uses Samsung V-NAND. This drive is so fast it’s honestly kind of stupid, but in a good way.

Pro Pick

A Samsung 960 Pro M.2 SSD
A Samsung 960 Pro M.2 SSD

You could also consider the Samsung NVMe 960 Pro M.2 if you really have the money to spend. Really the advantages over the 960 EVO are it offers a 5-year warranty and slightly better performance. For all but the most demanding users, we feel like it won’t offer you a significant advantage, and costs ~20% more than the 960 EVO.

A psychologist turned freelance writer and reviewer, Goran is a hardcore gamer with more than twenty years of experience, and interested in all kinds of technology. He also likes Sci Fi novels and basketball.
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