SSDs are now considered essential components of any modern gaming rig. With your OS and apps stored on an SSD, Windows boots faster and game levels load in a snap. What you’ve heard is true: once you’ve tried solid state, you’ll never go back to a spinning plate. Fortunately, while hardcore gamers may want multi-terabyte storage for archives and media libraries, SSDs are getting big and cheap enough to finally replace old school hard disks for most uses.
Recently, the increased demand for NAND-based storage from smartphones and laptops has created something of a NAND shortage. Unfortunately, the result is that SSD prices have trended upward over the past few months. This is similar to the current state of DDR4 pricing, but as additional 3D NAND manufacturing comes online, we should see that trend will reverse.
SSDs also come in a variety of form factors, including the venerable 2.5-inch SATA drives and newer M.2 'gumstick' drives. M.2 uses the PCIe interface to blow away SATA bottleneck, and the best models use NVMe to further improve performance, but they tend to carry a hefty price premium. (Note: there are also M.2 SATA drives, but don't bother as they're still SATA speeds.) Compared to good SATA drives, for many workloads the benefits are pretty slim, but check our best NVMe SSDs guide for higher performance options. For gaming, we want good performance, capacity, and reliability at a price that won't make your wallet cry out in pain.
Samsung still rules the SATA roost with the 850 Evo, though some of the latest NVMe alternatives like Intel’s 600p can beat it in certain workloads. Our budget SATA recommendation has also been updated after testing the Crucial MX300. It’s not the fastest SATA drive, but it is one of the least expensive (per GB) and is the first non-Samsung consumer drive to use 3D NAND.
SSDs make your whole system faster and more pleasant to use. But they matter for gaming, too. A fast-loading SSD can cut dozens of seconds off the loading times of big games like Battlefield 1 or MMOs like World of Warcraft. An SSD won't normally affect framerates like your GPU or CPU, but it will make installing, booting, dying, and reloading in games a faster, smoother process.
When shopping for a good SSD for gaming, one of the most important factors is price per gigabyte. How much will you have to spend to keep a healthy library of Steam games installed, ready to be played at a moment's notice? With some games surpassing the 50GB mark, this becomes even more critical.
To find the best gaming SSDs, we researched the SSD market, picked out the strongest contenders, and put them through their paces with a variety of benchmarking tools. We also put in the research to know what makes a great SSD great, beyond the numbers—technical stuff like types of flash memory and controllers.
To test the SSDs, we used a PC with an Intel Core i7-6700K, 16GB of DDR4 memory, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 graphics card, and an Asus Z170-A motherboard. Windows 10 was installed on the main system drive, AHCI was enabled, and all the drives were connected to the motherboard’s SATA III ports (except for the Intel 600p, which used the M.2 slot). We used a combination of synthetic and trace benchmarks, as well as real-world file copying. This includes AS SSD, CrystalDiskMark, and PCMark 8, which runs a set number of timed traces of popular applications.
The single specific advantage that makes an SSD so much faster than a hard disk is access times that are orders of magnitude faster. A hard disk depends on a mechanical arm moving into position to read data from a platter, while with an SSD, data is stored and accessed electronically. Although modern hard disks are astonishingly fast at accessing data, they’re no match for an SSD; the fastest HDD access times are still around 10ms, while any decent SSD will usually have access times under 0.1ms.
An SSD is a physically simple device. It’s made from an array of flash memory chips and a controller, which comprises a processor, memory cache, and firmware. But like most things in computing, it starts to get complicated when you look at it in more detail. NAND flash chips store binary values as voltage differences in non-volatile memory, meaning they retain their state when power is cut off. In order to change the state of a single cell (ie writing to it), a strong voltage is required. But because of the way the cells are laid out, it can’t be done on a cell-by-cell basis: an entire row has to be erased at once.
Each cell is insulated from its neighbors to preserve the value it holds, but every time a cell is programmed, the insulator becomes slightly less reliable. Eventually, after a certain number of writes, the cell becomes unable to hold any values, which is why SSDs have a limited lifespan. In the early days of flash memory, this limited number of writes was a concern, but clever tricks, improved technology, and software improvements mean it’s no longer a real issue.
If you want further proof, then have a gander at the SSD endurance experiment over on TechReport. In one of the only tests of its kind, they set about continuously writing data to select SSDs until the drives became completely unusable, in a test that went on for months. Although the odd bad sector crops up relatively early, at 100TB of writes, most of the drives survived until nearly a petabyte of data or more was written to them, far beyond the manufacturers’ ratings, and it took months of non-stop writing to reach that point.
The best drives managed 2.5PB of writes, which means even at 250GB of writes per day it would still take 10,000 days to reach that point. It’s fair to say endurance for all but the most extreme workloads is no longer an issue.
SLC, MLC, and TLC memory
A given quantity of physical flash memory cells can be programmed to hold either one, two, or three bits of data. A drive where each cell holds a single bit is known as SLC (Single-Level Cell). Each cell can only be in one of two states, on or off, and only needs to be sensitive to two voltages. Its endurance and performance will be incredible, but a large amount of flash memory is needed to provide a given capacity, so SLC drives have never really taken off beyond expensive server and workstation setups.
2-bit MLC (Multi-Level Cell) memory is currently the most popular kind used in consumer SSDs. Each cell holds two bits, with four binary states (00, 01, 10 and 11), so the cell needs to be sensitive to four voltages. The same amount of flash memory provides double the amount of space as SLC, so less is needed and the SSD is more affordable.
3-bit TLC (Triple-Level Cell) memory goes even further, with three bits per cell. Now each cell has to hold eight binary states (corresponding to 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, and 111), and performance and endurance begins to really suffer as there are eight distinct voltages that represent data. Since each cell needs to differentiate between eight voltage values, reading them reliably requires more precision, and wear and tear reduces the number of write cycles. The plus side is you get even more capacity from the same amount of flash memory, resulting in even cheaper SSDs, which is something everyone wants.
As we’ve found from testing some SSDs, manufacturers are using tricks to mitigate these negative effects with TLC flash memory, so prices can continue falling without impacting performance. These days, we're seeing increasing numbers of TLC SSDs, particularly in the budget sector, and performance has reached the point where they're generally an acceptable compromise.
Sequential Transfer Speeds
Whenever you read about an SSD or look at a review, the first figure you’ll usually see is a headline-grabbing transfer rate. Imagine read and write speeds up to 550MB/sec, or even faster in the case of PCIe SSDs. These numbers always look really impressive, and it typically represents the best-case performance you'll see from a drive. It usually involves large sequential file transfers, which means all the blocks are laid out one after the other and caching and other advantages are at their peak.
In the real world, most software applications deal with both large and small files, and at times a program might be waiting for input before it carries on, so you’ll rarely get the maximum sequential speed of your SSD. You might see these speeds when reading or writing a large 10GB movie file, but things will be a lot slower when copying a folder full of 10,000 jpeg images, HTML documents, or even a game directory.
These smaller files could be spread all over the disk and will be slower to transfer. In the case of a hard disk, that entails moving the disk head over the correct position on the platter, which adds a really long delay. SSDs are far quicker to do this, which is where the real improvement in overall responsiveness comes from.
To further complicate things, some SSDs (mostly older drives with SandForce controllers) handle uncompressed data much better than compressed data. If there’s a difference, the faster speeds when dealing with uncompressed data are the ones that are quoted. Therefore, although faster sequential speeds are always nice to see, it’s best not to judge an SSD on these figures alone, as you won't see these speeds all the time.
IOPS is another term that is often used to discuss performance of storage products, usually quoted with SSD specifications, but its direct application to real-world use isn’t simple. Put simply, IOPS means input-output operations per second. The more a device can manage, the faster it is. Except, not all IO operations are the same. Reading a tiny 512-byte text file isn’t the same thing as writing a 256KB block from a 10GB movie.
There’s no standard for how figures should be advertised, but generally companies quote the QD32, 4KB block size figure, or IOPS when 32 4KB read or write commands are queued. In the real world, applications won’t be constantly queuing up 32 4KB blocks. It will likely be a random mixture of block sizes, reads, writes, and times when the storage device is idle. For random IO (like booting the OS when lots of files from many applications and drivers are requested), the IOPS figures are important, but they're not the only figure that matters.
Much effort goes into measuring IOPS for patterns that simulate databases, web servers, file servers and so on. For gaming, it really depends on the application, since no two games will be identical. Some might involve huge textures being loaded from disk, while others might be structured differently. Although the 4K QD32 IOPS figure is relevant, it’s best thought of as an indicator of SSD performance with a heavier workload rather than a definitive, comparable benchmark for overall performance.
We started with a collection of nine SSDs by researching the most popular and competitive drives around. At the time, 240-256GB drives offered the best blend of capacity and performance, but as time has passed we're now looking at 480-512GB drives as the baseline, and 1TB and 2TB drives are sometimes tested—256GB can go fast with a few games and Windows 10! There are plenty of other SSDs out there and new ones arrive regularly, so we've added drives to our database over time.
Focusing on just one or two tests doesn't usually tell the whole story, so we've run a variety of benchmarks along with simply using each drive. Outside of specific benchmarks or copying large amounts of data, what's surprising is how little difference there is between the 'best' and 'worst' SSD we've tested. Applications (and games) may take a bit longer to install, but otherwise they all feel remarkably similar for light use. That's why for gaming specific use, we recommend going for the lowest price per GB as the primary consideration.
At the high end, the SATA bus is now the limiting factor in SSD performance. Fortunately, SSD manufacturers can take advantage of the PCIe interface, including add-in boards like the Intel SSD 750 and newer M.2 'gumstick' drives. But even the affordable SSDs are starting to hit the SATA performance ceiling, and prices continue to fall.
Over the past year and more, we’ve tested many drives. The Samsung 850 Evo, Samsung 850 Pro, Crucial MX300, and Intel 600p are currently our primary recommendations, but depending on pricing and availability, many other drives are worth considering.
Corsair has had an SSD line under the Neutron name for several years now, and performance has generally been good, but pricing is higher than we like. Unfortunately, the Neutron XT can't match the 850 Evo, despite a similar price.
Crucial's BX100 was a great budget option that was replaced by the slower Crucial BX200. Crucial also has their MX200 and MX300 that boast better performance along with higher prices, and the MX300 (with TLC 3D NAND) is now available at a variety of capacities, all priced low enough to become the budget SATA SSD pick for this guide.
Intel has had many SSD models over the years, including the 520 and 730, which have been superseded by the likes of the 750 and 600p. These days, Intel is mainly focused on M.2 and NVMe solutions, and the 600p 512GB is our current pick for the best budget M.2 SSD.
Kingston’s V300 is rather old now, and it has generally poor write performance and isn't worth buying, despite its affordability. The newer UV400 drives look much more promising, using a combination of TLC NAND and an SLC cache to deliver better performance than many other TLC drives.
A few years back, OCZ ran into some financial difficulties, but they were saved by Toshiba, who now owns their assets and continues to sell drives under the OCZ brand. The OCZ Trion 100 and newer Trion 150 are the first drives to come post-acquisition, with the 150 replacing the 100 and offering some minor updates. The Trion 150 is a budget offering, using TLC NAND with the relatively common Phison S10 controller. Phison had a deservedly bad reputation in the past, but their S10 is doing quite well. With MLC it can come relatively close to the top drives, though the TLC models are less impressive.
More impressive is OCZ's Vector 180, a drive that can actually come relatively close to matching the 850 Evo's performance. But you get 20GB more capacity with the 500GB Evo compared to the 480GB Vector 180, plus a bit better performance, so barring further price cuts it's not the best choice.
Plextor seemed to be making headroads into the world of consumer SSDs at one point, and then they pulled out and focused on the more lucrative enterprise market. Their M6 Pro line has decent performance, but at the current prices it's no longer competitive--you can get twice the capacity for a lower price.
Samsung is the 800 pound gorilla of SSDs. They have the advantage of owning the NAND and controller fabrication facilities, plus they do all their own firmware. That allows them to compete on price while also offering better performance than many other companies. V-NAND allows the 850 Evo and 850 Pro to claim two of our four SSD recommendations, and in the world of NVMe solutions Samsung also lays claim to the top spots. Simply put, you can't go wrong with a Samsung SSD.
SanDisk's Extreme Pro is one of the few SATA SSDs that can go head-to-head with the 850 Pro. It doesn't win every battle, but with a lower price it doesn't need to. Like Samsung, they make their own NAND, which is a big advantage in the cutthroat world of consumer SSDs, and they also have a lot of experience building controllers. It's interesting that the Extreme Pro is still their best SSD, considering it came out in 2014; maybe we'll see an NVMe drive from the company in the future?
Meanwhile, the SanDisk Ultra II is a serious contender for the best budget SSD, losing out mostly due to the added $25 compared to the SP S55. The Ultra II is a bit faster than the S55, thanks to its continued use of MLC NAND, and if you're willing to spend up it's worth a closer look.
Silicon Power's S55 is one of our latest additions. The TLC models are currently some of the least expensive SSD you're likely to find, though prices have crept up over the past several months. We might be tempted to say you get what you pay for, but in practice we've been pleasantly surprised by the drive and it's a decent budget recommendation. The MLC S55 drives may perform better, but at their higher price we'd stick with a Samsung 850 Evo.
Our final entrant—again, alphabetically—is Transcend, with their relatively new SSD370S series. Unlike many other companies, Transcend is sticking with MLC NAND on the SSD370S, combined with a Silicon Motion 2246EN controller. The result is relatively impressive performance—a bit behind the 850 Pro and 850 Evo, but worth a look, particularly if pricing comes down. Note that like the 850 Pro, this drive also gives you 512GB at our recommended capacity, a bit more than most other options.
Closing thoughts and a look to the future
Now that SSDs are such good value, there's simply no reason not to have one in your PC. If you were an early adopter with a 64GB or 128GB drive and find that capacity to be rather limiting, it's time to consider an upgrade. A 512GB SSD now costs a lot less than a 128GB model did a few years ago, and we strongly recommend at least 240GB for your OS and primary applications, with 480GB and larger providing plenty of room for some games and other goodies.
While ubiquitous, standard 2.5-inch SSDs are now fundamentally limited by the speed of the SATA bus, which has a maximum theoretical throughput of 6Gbit/sec. In real world terms, the performance ceiling is around 550MB/sec for an SSD, and it’s clear this is imposing a limit on flash memory technology.
The solution is to switch to the PCI Express bus, where Gen3 offers 985MB/sec per lane, with a x4 card allowing for up to 3.94GB/sec. Unfortunately, the PCIe SSDs to date are expensive, and they're limited to either PCIe add-in boards or the M.2 form factor, which means only newer (basically Z97, X99, and 100/200-series Intel motherboards) have the requisite NVMe support—AMD's Ryzen chipset will also add M.2 NVMe support. Most new laptops use M.2 drives due to the space savings, and long-term the standard has a lot of room to grow.
In another 10 years, solid state technology may make today's SATA SSDs look like floppy disks. But for now, SATA SSDs still offer the best performance you're going to get for your dollar, and the Samsung 850 Evo is currently the best choice for a great gaming SSD.
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