Solid-state storage has changed the way we use our computers, with faster boot times and the ability to multitask better than ever. If you're running a PC without some form of SSD for your OS drive, stop now and upgrade—it's the single biggest upgrade you can make to an older PC. What if you already have an SSD but you still want faster storage? If that's what you're after, look no further than the latest NVMe offerings, which come in a variety of formats.
Modern motherboards, including most Intel boards using sockets LGA1151, LGA2066, or LGA2011-v3 and later, along with AMD's socket AM4 and TR4, support NVMe drives. These typically include one or more M.2 slots, and potentially a U.2 connector on some models. (There are also M.2 to U.2 adapters, if you want a U.2 SSD.) PCIe-based add-in cards (AIC) are also an option, and these work on just about any motherboard. You'll need BIOS support for NVMe if you want to boot from the drive, however. For older PCs, we recommend sticking with standard SATA SSDs, which we cover in our Best SSD for gaming guide.
What's so special about NVMe? The old storage paradigm was built on the idea of spinning disks. When SSDs hit the mainstream consumer market in 2007, they 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 saturating the various SATA connections. 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? There are plenty of consumer M.2 NVMe SSDs now, but performance should be a major consideration for anyone looking at these drives, and 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 the highest performance drive to satisfy your NVMe dreams.
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, as a point of reference.
The Intel 900p makes a bold statement for performance, but raw performance isn't the only factor when it comes time to buy an SSD. 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. The prices used were the best we could find at the time of writing, and we've removed drives that are no longer readily available at retail.
Despite their overall higher prices, most NVMe drives do end up surpassing SATA models. The Intel 900p is the exception, thanks to its extremely high price, but if your PC supports NVMe storage there's a strong case to be made for ditching SATA, at least for your boot drive. On the other hand, good SATA drives might cost about a quarter less than even the most affordable NVMe drives, and for lighter workloads the difference in performance is hardly noticeable—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 SATA SSD is 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.
NVMe drives are becoming increasingly commonplace, and prices are starting to come down. There are still more SATA offerings, but many of those are several years old. 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 kicks sensibility to the curb and goes pedal to the metal for performance.
2016 saw a number of new contenders in the NVMe realm, and 2017 has more than doubled the count. The more affordable options often still trail the Intel SSD 750 and Samsung 950 Pro, which were the first consumer NVMe drives on the market, but price is almost always a factor. 2018 should see even more competition in the NVMe space, which will hopefully bring prices close to parity with SATA SSDs.
Besides the SSDs we've recommended, we've looked at many 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): 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 and Intel drives. Unfortunately, the 960 Evo has slightly more storage along with better performance, making it a better value.
Intel 600p (M.2): Our budget pick is actually one of the slowest NVMe drives we've tested, but it also costs substantially less than many 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 lower than most other NVMe drives. 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 remains excellent—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.
Intel Optane 900p (AIC or U.2): Sporting 3D XPoint memory instead of NAND, the Optane 900p is easily the fastest SSD in our collection. Not coincidentally, it's also the most expensive, with the 480GB model costing twice as much as the closest competitor, the Samsung 960 Pro. Hopefully we'll see higher capacities and lower prices from Optane in the future.
Patriot Hellfire (M.2): Also powered by the Phison 5007 controller, might have once caused a sad shake of the head. These days, as the Patriot Hellfire proves that Phison has come a long way, and it's a capable NVMe drive. Its performance rates well above the Intel 600p at least, and at the right price it's worthy of consideration. 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.
Plextor M8Se (M.2 or AIC): Plextor initially informed us that the M8Se series would be replacing its M8Pe, but performance is actually a bit slower. The M8Se is rated at 2450/1000 MB/s and 210K/175K IOPS. Availability is also a problem, with Newegg being one of the few places in the US stocking all four capacities. Finding the drive in other countries is proving difficult, so until or unless that changes, consider the M8Pe as the better option.
Samsung 950 Pro (M.2): Samsung's first retail NVMe drive, the 950 Pro is still a contender, though the 960 Pro has now replaced it. Combining 3D V-NAND with Samsung's 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 2500/1500 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 Evo (M.2): The 960 Evo is the slightly slower TLC V-NAND alternative to the 960 Pro (see below). This is the first retail TLC NVMe drive from Samsung, and pricing is substantially 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. While sustained random IO is about 30 percent lower than the 960 Pro, the drive does hit the sequential read/write targets, and in general use it's every bit as fast as the 960 Pro. For its combination of performance, capacity, and price, the 960 Evo is our pick for the best NVMe SSD.
Samsung 960 Pro (M.2): The king of SSDs prior to the arrival of Intel's Optane 900p, 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). Sustained reads/writes are actually faster than the Optane 900p, though random workloads clearly favor the Intel drive. 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 an excellent NVMe drive and still worth considering, if the 960 Evo isn't quite enough for your storage needs.
Samsung PM951, Samsung PM961, Samsung SM951 NVMe, Samsung SM961(M.2): These are Samsung's OEM NVMe drives, meaning there's no direct Samsung support. Performance is pretty similar to the consumer 960 Pro/Evo for the SM961/PM961, while the SM951/PM951 are the earlier offerings and are largely discontinued now. Unless you get one of these with a laptop there's no particular reason to pick one up.
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 more difficult to find for purchase.
WD Black 512GB (M.2): WD has been a player in the storage arena for decades, but the company is a newcomer to the SSD scene. The WD Black uses a Marvell 88SS1093 controller paired with SanDisk 15nm TLC planar NAND. The result is performance that's near the bottom of the NVMe charts in most of our tests. However, like the Intel 600p, this is also one of the least expensive drives. Rated at 2050/800MB/s and 170k/134k IOPS read/write, the specs don't look too bad, but real-world testing puts the WD Black just barely ahead of the faster SATA drives. Unless you only do a lot of sequential writes, in which case it's several times faster.
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 over other drives.
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