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.
It's important to note that NVMe drives require support from your motherboard BIOS if you want to use them as a boot drive. Obviously M.2 NVMe drives also require an M.2 slot, and certain motherboards only provide PCIe x2 connections to the M.2 slot, which creates a bottleneck on the fastest drives. That means users of older systems, including all current AMD platforms, will want to stick with a standard SATA-based SSD. AMD's Zen platform and socket AM4 should address this shortcoming in early 2017. If you're looking for advice on a standard SSD, check out our Best SSD for gaming guide.
For those that want additional background information, read on, but if you already know you want an NVMe drive and just want to know which are the best options, skip down a few paragraphs and I'll get to the picks.
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. Where hard drives struggled to saturate SATA 1.5Gb/s, SSDs had no difficulty maxing out 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 (e.g., spinning magnetic disks). AHCI ends up being 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.
So, which NVMe SSDs are best? I'm skipping the enterprise-grade SSDs as they're too expensive and aren't designed for consumer workloads. Focusing on the consumer drives still leaves plenty of choices, with more slated to arrive over the coming months. Performance is 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.
Best Overall NVMe SSD
- Excellent performance, not prone to throttling
- Decent price per GB for NVMe
- Available in capacities up to 2TB
- Pricing and availability
Samsung was first on the scene with M.2 NVMe drives, and they still dominate the market. Their 950 Pro series still delivers great performance, but with the 960 Pro Samsung ups the ante. No longer limited to just two capacities, the 960 Pro comes in 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB flavors—and the lack of a 256GB model means all the drives have very similar specs. The 960 Pro has read/write speeds of up to 3,500/2,100 MB/s, and the 1TB and 2TB drives can do 440k/360k read/write IOPS, while the 512GB drive does 330k/330k IOPS. As an added bonus, the 960 Pro has a lower MSRP than the 950 Pro, and street prices for the 512GB model are basically the same.
The 960 Pro uses Samsung's new Polaris controller (nothing in common with AMD's Polaris, naturally), which now has five ARM cores compared to the three ARM cores in the 950's UBX controller. One of the cores is used for communicating with the host system in both controllers, meaning Polaris can dedicate far more resources to accessing data. Having more cores also means the clock speed on each core can be lower, which should improve temperatures under sustained workloads, and the drive design has been tweaked in other ways to avoid throttling. The 960 Pro lineup also uses Samsung's latest iteration of V-NAND (aka 3D NAND), with 48-layer 256Gb die instead of 32-layer 128Gb die.
Best budget M.2 NVMe
- Half the price per GB of other NVMe drives
- Typically faster than 850 Pro in moderate scenarios
- Only about half the speed of the 960 Pro
- TLC 3D NAND is slower in write-heavy scenarios
For the past year, NVMe has been the exclusive domain of expensive offerings. If you wanted to get below $0.50 per GB, Samsung's OEM-only PM951 was the only option, and there are plenty of concerns with going that route. Intel is the first company to come out with a viable budget NVMe drive at retail, in the form of their 600p series. Available in capacities of 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB, the best value is in the 512GB and 1TB sizes, where price per GB is around $0.33. That's almost too tempting to pass by, but you give up some performance compared to the fastest NVMe solutions.
I recommend skipping the 128GB and 256GB options—if you go with one of those, performance will be similar to a good SATA drive, and you're still paying more. Where the 600p becomes interesting is at the 512GB mark, and the 1TB option means you have enough capacity for a large collection of games, applications, and other files. The reality of storage is that many users don't do enough to really warrant spending a ton of money on the fastest SSD possible, but for a moderate price premium the 600p does very well. I plotted overall performance against capacity and cost, and the 600p ranks near the top of the stack. Cost is a consideration for most PC builders, and Intel strikes a nice balance between performance, capacity, and price.
Best Add-In Card NVMe SSD
- Fast and high capacity
- Works in any x4 PCIe slot and no throttling
- Needs a PCIe slot
- Uses more power than other SSDs
M.2 is great for laptops and newer systems, but what if you’re using an older desktop? Assuming you have a spare PCIe slot (at least a physical x4 connector), Intel’s SSD 750 SSDs were the first consumer NVMe drives to hit the market, and in some respects they’re still the fastest drives around. You could put these in any desktop in theory, though again you'll need a motherboard with NVMe support if you want to use the SSD 750 as a boot drive.
Built from the same DNA as the company’s enterprise DC P3700, the SSD 750 is a consumer-focused drive with firmware optimizations that favor improved random I/O rather than maximum peak transfer rates. The main area where the SSD 750 excels is in sustained read/write scenarios, where the heatsink allows it to beat out the competition. In our mixed read/write random testing, the SSD 750 is nearly 20 percent faster than the 960 Pro, but that's one of the only victories.
Testing and other NVMe drives
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 high performance option add-in card for desktops, and a budget option that aims for the sweet spot between performance and price.
After waiting for most of 2016, we finally have a bunch 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 has come down a lot since last year. 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.
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 can be a great value.
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 has caused the drive to go out of stock at many resellers.
Samsung 960 Evo (M.2): Slated to launch on December 13, 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. This is one to watch in the coming weeks.
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): A newly launched NVMe drive, Zotac uses Phison's new E7 controller. 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 make it difficult to recommend at present.
The above chart only includes drives and capacities we've been able to test, and we've included the non-NVMe Predator along with the Samsung 850 Pro to highlight what NVMe brings to the table. The 850 Pro is the fastest SATA drive around, but it loses out to even the slowest of the NVMe drives we've tested in general use.
The overall ranking loosely correlates to transfer speed in MB/s across our test suite, which consists of AS SSD, CrystalDiskMark, IOmeter, PCMark 8, and real-world file copying. Some of the tests focus on purely random IO, which can be useful when determining the weaknesses of a particular drive, but desktop users rarely if ever do anything that follows a completely random pattern.
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