NVMe SSDs are finally going mainstream, and the days of having only one or two choices are happily behind us. With more than a dozen NVMe drives now released, including some that successfully flirt with budget pricing, if you have a system that supports NVMe, now is a great time to take the plunge.
NVMe drives require support from your motherboard BIOS if you want to use them as a boot drive. M.2 require an M.2 slot, either on the motherboard or via an adapter card, but some motherboards only provide PCIe x2 connections to the M.2 slot, creating a bottleneck on the fastest drives. Users of older systems, including all current AMD platforms, will want to stick with a standard SATA-based SSD, which we cover in our Best SSD for gaming guide. AMD's Ryzen CPUs and AM4 platform should address this shortcoming in March.
Why do we need NVMe? For decades, computer storage has been making huge strides in capacity, but performance was far off the pace set by CPUs and GPUs. SSDs (solid-state drives) hit the mainstream consumer market in 2007 and reset our expectations for storage. Moving from the mechanical world of hard drives to the silicon world of SSDs brought rapid improvements in performance, technology, capacities, and reliability. SSDs had no difficulty maxing out SATA 1.5Gb/s, followed by SATA 3.0Gb/s and SATA 6.0Gb/s. Faster alternatives were needed, but the interface was only part of the problem.
The AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) command protocol was designed for much slower media (ie, spinning magnetic disks). AHCI is inefficient with modern SSDs, so a new standard was developed: NVMHCI (Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface). Combine NVMHCI with a fast PCIe interface and you have NVMe, Non-Volatile Memory Express. It’s a much improved interface developed around the needs of flash memory rather than spinning disks.
Which are the best NVMe SSDs? The enterprise-grade SSDs are out of the picture, as they're too expensive and aren't designed for consumer workloads. There are now plenty of choices for consumer SSDs, with performance a major consideration for anyone looking at an NMVe drive, but capacity is also something to think about. Early M.2 drives were limited to 512GB, but some of the latest models pack up to 2TB on a single 'gumstick' form factor. The type of NAND and controller are also important, with TLC NAND often putting the brakes on overall performance. We've picked the best overall choice, a budget-friendly option, and a high capacity drive.
We have a test suite for SSDs that consists of synthetic trace benchmarks, real world file manipulation, and various trace tests that play back disk accesses as fast as possible. The ten individual test results have been combined into an overall metric that loosely corresponds to MB/s. This is how the NVMe drives we've tested stack up, and we've used 500GB-class SSDs in most cases. We've also included our pick for the best SATA SSD, the 850 Evo, along with one non-NVMe drive.
Raw performance isn't the only factor when it comes time to buy an SSD, however, so we've taken current market prices and combined that with the capacity of the drives to yield a final result measured as (performance/(price/capacity)). This is intended to normalize the rankings, as much as possible, though higher capacity drives do tend to do a bit better thanks to a slightly lower price/GB.
It's interesting that despite their overall higher prices, the NVMe drives do end up surpassing SATA models. SATA drives might cost less than half as much, but they're also less than half the performance. However, raw storage performance can be a bit confusing, because in practice there aren't that many situations where storage is the primary bottleneck.
If you're copying a game from one drive to another, or validating game files in Steam, faster drives definitely make a difference. They can also shave off a second or two when it comes time to load a game level, but the bigger difference is against hard drives where even a slower SSD is typically much faster. Go beyond a certain point and all SSDs start to feel similar.
In other words, while the speed freak in me loves what NVMe brings to the table, I recognize that in practice it's usually not that noticeable. If you're looking to get the most from your money when it comes time to build a gaming PC, I recommend a 2:1 ratio for money spent on the GPU versus money spent on the CPU. I can't stand using PCs that don't have an SSD these days, but I recommend spending about twice as much on your CPU as you do on your OS drive, meaning most people should stick with SATA SSDs, perhaps going for the budget NVMe option.
The number of NVMe drives is still somewhat small, which means all of the consumer models are worth a look simply by virtue of existing. Not all NVMe drives are created equal, however, and our three primary choices represent the best overall pick, a budget option that doesn't cost much more than SATA, and finally a drive that aims for the sweet spot between performance, capacity, and price.
2016 saw a number of new contenders in the NVMe realm. Many of these still fail to match the performance of the Intel SSD 750 and Samsung 950 Pro, the first consumer NVMe drives we tested, but pricing at least has come... and then it started to head back up due to the NAND shortage. More drives are in the works, and we'll have to see if any of those can displace Samsung and Intel in the future.
The NAND chips make up a substantial portion of the total SSD price, and fundamentally there usually isn’t much of a difference between a SATA drive with 512GB V-NAND and an M.2 NVMe drive with the same 512GB V-NAND. NVMe requires a new controller and firmware, and there are associated R&D costs, but long-term NVMe prices should get a lot closer to SATA SSD prices, with a moderate premium. Economies of scale are still a factor, however, so until more systems use NVMe SSDs, prices will stay higher.
Besides the drives we've recommended, we've also looked at several other NVMe drives. Many of these are very close to replacing some of our primary choices, particularly in the budget sector where a minor price change could make all the difference. Here's the complete list of NVMe SSDs that we've tested, in alphabetical order, along with a brief summary of results, with notes on the form factor: AIC (add-in card), M.2, or U.2.
Corsair Force MP500 (M.2): The latest addition to our NVMe benchmarks, Corsair's MP500 uses a Phison PS50007-E7 controller with MLC NAND. The result is some impressive performance, including very high synthetic results, and overall the MP500 is surpassed only by the Samsung drives and Intel's SSD 750. Unfortunately, the 960 Evo has slightly more storage along with better performance, representing a better value at this time.
Intel 600p (M.2): Our budget pick is actually the slowest NVMe drive we've tested, but it also costs substantially less than any of the other drives. We've even seen the 512GB model on sale for as little as $130, putting it squarely in the realm of budget SATA offerings. Maximum performance is rated at 1,775/560 MB/s and 128.5K/128K IOPS, again the slowest of any NVMe drive. The 600p works best in lighter workloads, with strong sequential throughput but only moderate random IO, and the TLC 3D NAND can slow things down in write-heavy workloads.
Intel SSD 750 (AIC or U.2): The first consumer NVMe drive to hit the retail market, Intel's SSD 750 series is still a contender. Performance is excellent and in some areas it's the fastest drive—it's rated at 2,500/1,200 MB/s and 460K/290K IOPS. The main problem is that it's only available in two formats, as a PCIe x4 AIC, or as a 2.5-inch U.2 drive. Neither is suitable for laptop use, and U.2 support on motherboards is seriously lacking. There are M.2 to U.2 adapters, which are a bit awkward as routing the U.2 cable can be a bit difficult depending on what you have around the M.2 slot, but if you have a U.2 port or want a PCIe AIC drive, Intel's SSD 750 has excellent sustained IO performance. It also uses up to 20W, compared to 5W for most M.2 drives, which definitely helps keep performance high.
Patriot Hellfire (M.2): Powered by the Phison 5007 controller, there was a time when anything using a Phison controller would cause a sad shake of the head. Not so these days, as the Patriot Hellfire proves to be a capable NVMe drive. Its performance rates well above the Intel 600p at least, and if you need an alternative budget option, this is the one to get. Available in capacities of 240GB, 480GB, and 960GB, the Hellfire's biggest weakness is sustained random writes, where it's only marginally better than many SATA drives, but for normal workloads it does very well. It's rated at up to 3,000/2,200 MB/s and 116K/210K IOPS—the lower read IOPS score clearly being the biggest concern.
Plextor M8Pe (M.2 or AIC): Another potentially great option for a less expensive NVMe drive, depending on sales. The M8Pe uses a Marvell 88SS1093 controller and MLC NAND to deliver very respectable performance. It's basically equal to the Toshiba OCZ RD400 and is available in 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB capacities. You can also get it with an add-in card adapter, at a higher price. Rated at up to 2,500/1,400 MB/s with 280K/240K IOPS, the M8Pe is potentially a better value than the 1TB 960 Evo, if you're willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for a lower price.
Samsung 950 Pro (M.2): Samsung's first retail NVMe drive, the 950 Pro is still a contender, though the 960 Pro is obviously intended to replace it. Combining 3D V-NAND with their in-house UBX controller, the 950 Pro has fast transfer speeds, great performance consistency, and it's supported by Samsung's Magician software. It's rated at 2,500/1,500 MB/s and 300K/110K IOPS for the 512GB model, with the random write speeds being the main deficiency. Slight throttling under heavy sustained loads is a minor concern, and one we've seen with other M.2 drives, but a small fan in the vicinity of the M.2 slot takes care of things.
Samsung 960 Pro (M.2): The current king of SSDs, the 960 Pro boasts speeds of up to 3,500/2,100 MB/s and 440K/360K IOPS (with a slightly lower 330K/330K IOPS on the 512GB model). Combined with the new Polaris controller, excellent performance, and support in the way of Samsung's Magician software and a custom NVMe driver, the 960 Pro is our top recommendation for an NVMe drive. It's also relatively expensive, and high demand means it's sometimes out of stock.
Samsung 960 Evo (M.2): The 960 Evo is the slightly slower TLC V-NAND alternative to the 960 Pro. This is the first retail TLC NVMe drive from Samsung, and pricing is quite a bit lower than the 950/960 Pro, with capacities of 250GB/500GB/1TB. Performance is also somewhat lower, with the drive rated at up to 3,200/1,900 MB/s and 380K/360K IOPS, though raw specs don't tell the whole story. Sustained random IO is about 30 percent lower than the 960 Pro, but the drive does hit the sequential read/write targets. For a combination of performance, capacity, and price, the 960 Evo is one of the best SSDs around.
Samsung PM951 (M.2): Is there such thing as an affordable NVMe drive? Samsung's PM951 used to be the least expensive option prior to Intel's 600p, often by a rather large margin. Unfortunately, it's an OEM-only drive, so while you can find it online you won't receive any official support. Also, the drives use TLC NAND, and particularly on the lower capacity models performance ends up being no better than the faster SATA drives. It's rated at 1,050/560 MB/s and 250K/144K IOPS for the 512GB model, which is the slowest sequential read speed of any NVMe drive.
Samsung PM961 (M.2): The precursor to the retail 960 Evo, the PM961 is also a TLC V-NAND drive, with the 512GB model rated at 2,800/1,600 MB/s and 260K/260K IOPS. It uses the same Polaris controller as the 960 Evo, but apparently firmware and other aspects aren't quite as tuned. Still a reasonable budget option, though the lack of direct Samsung support is a concern.
Samsung SM951 NVMe (M.2): Samsung's first M.2 NVMe drive is still around, but it's mostly for OEMs meaning there's no direct Samsung support. Performance is actually pretty similar to the newer 950 Pro, and better in a few cases, but unless you get one of these with a laptop there's no particular reason to pick one up.
Samsung SM961 (M.2): Like the PM961, this is the OEM version of the 960 Pro, with similar performance ratings but no official Samsung support. It's rated at up to 3,200/1,800 MB/s and 450K/400K IOPS, so if you're anxious to get a 960 Pro and can't find one in stock, this might be worth a look. I'd stick with the official retail drives, however.
Toshiba OCZ RD400 (M.2 or AIC): Toshiba was the first to get a 1TB M.2 SSD to market, and initial demand was very high. Prices on the 1TB drive remain high, pitting them directly against the Samsung 950 Pro / 960 Pro. The RD400 models aren't quite as fast as Samsung's equivalents, with the 1TB drive rated at 2,600/1,550 MB/s and 210K/130K IOPS, but despite the relatively tame specs the drive does better than most of the non-Samsung competition in actual performance.
Toshiba XG3 (M.2): All indications are that the XG3 is the same hardware as the RD400, only it's a drive sold solely to OEMs. That means no direct warranty support and it's difficult to find for purchase. We did find one 512GB drive at Newegg, at a relatively low price, though other drives are a safer bet.
Zotac Sonix 480GB (AIC): Zotac uses the same Phison PS5007-E7 controller as Corsair's MP500. Phison used to be the whipping boy of SSD controllers, but since their S10 line came out in 2015, they've improved dramatically. The Zotac Sonix boasts high sustained transfer rates of 2,800/1,500 MB/s; unfortunately, random IO doesn't fare as well, despite the 300K/200K IOPS rating. Combined with the limited options (the NVMe Sonix is only available as a 480GB AIC) and high price, it's difficult to recommend at present.
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