The SATA interface may not be the fastest option, but even years after the first SATA SSDs appeared, it continues to deliver the best bang for the buck. Manufacturers realize this as well, which is why Samsung just launched its new 860 Pro and 860 Evo models to replace the 3-years-old 850 Pro and 850 Evo. Performance doesn't actually change much, however, and for now prices are higher. We'll be keeping an eye on the newcomers and will adjust our recommendations if and when they become the better value.
Putting an SSD into your PC is one of the best upgrades you can make to your PC for general responsiveness and performance. With your OS and apps stored on an SSD, Windows boots faster and game levels load in a snap. The difference between using an SSD and an HDD for your primary storage is like night and day, and once you take the SSD plunge there's no going back.
Hardcore gamers may want multi-terabyte storage for archives and media libraries, but SSDs are getting big and cheap enough to finally replace old school hard disks. The increased demand for NAND-based storage from smartphones and laptops has created something of a NAND shortage, leading to higher SSD prices, but as additional NAND manufacturing comes online, we should see that trend reverse. And the good news is that quite a few manufacturers at this year's CES told us to expect lower pricing in the coming months. Finally!
SSDs come in a variety of form factors, including the venerable 2.5-inch SATA drives, newer M.2 'gumstick' drives, and PCIe add-in boards. M.2 and the PCIe interface blow away SATA bottleneck, and the fastest SSDs 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, including games, the benefits are pretty slim, but our best NVMe SSDs guide has higher performance options.
For gaming, the best option is a drive that combines performance, capacity, and reliability at a price that won't make your wallet cry out in pain. That generally means SATA drives, though some of the least expensive NVMe alternatives like Intel’s 600p are also worth a look. We've selected the best SSD for gaming, based on the above criteria, using our own performance results.
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 load 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.
SSD performance and value ranked
To test the SSDs, we used a PC with an Intel Core i7-8700K, 16GB of DDR4 memory, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card, and Gigabyte Aorus Z370 Gaming 7 motherboard. We use Windows 10 Pro installed on a Samsung 960 Evo as the boot drive, AHCI is enabled, and all drives are connected to the motherboard’s SATA III ports (except NVMe drives, which use the second M.2 slot). We use a combination of synthetic and trace benchmarks, as well as real-world file copying. This includes AS SSD, CrystalDiskMark, and PCMark 8.
As you can see in the benchmark rankings of current SSDs, going from the slowest SATA SSD we've tested to the fastest SATA SSD is only about a 30 percent increase in performance. Moving to even a modest M.2 NVMe SSD meanwhile results in nearly a doubling of performance.
This is only when you're really hitting the storage subsystem, of course. If you're not running benchmarks, the real-world differences are more difficult to detect. However, in the same test suite, a good hard drive scores around 10-15. Yeah, it's that big of a jump, and you absolutely will notice the difference between any modern SSD and an HDD.
Because price and capacity are also important factors, these charts combine all three metrics to generate a different look at the drives. Prices do fluctuate quite a bit over time, and we've used the best current prices we could find for these charts, but sales can and will change positioning. As you can see, the higher performance offered by Intel's SSD 760p pushes it to the top of the value charts as well.
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've tested dozens of SATA SSDs over the years, but since many have been discontinued and we now prefer the 480-525GB capacities, we've trimmed down our list to drives that are readily available and worth considering. There are older models that appear at sometimes lower prices, but we no longer actively track those drives.
Over the past couple of years, 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.
Crucial's X300 is one of the latest offerings from the company, with the new BX300 potentially replacing it over time. For now, the MX300 combines TLC 3D NAND with performance and a price low enough to become the budget SATA SSD pick for this guide.
The HP S700 Pro is a newer addition, intended to compete with the Samsung 850 Pro. Unfortunately, performance doesn't quite live up to that lofty goals, though the price makes it a potentially viable alternative.
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 760p 512GB is our current pick for the best budget M.2 SSD.
Mushkin's Reactor line is getting somewhat long in the tooth, and performance can't quite compete with the better SATA drives, but the 1TB (960GB) model in particular is worth a look if you want a lot of solid-state storage at a more reasonable price.
OCZ had some financial difficulties but was saved by Toshiba, who now owns their assets and continues to sell drives under the OCZ brand. The OCZ TR200 is the latest addition to the family, replacing the former TR150. It's slightly faster overall but remains somewhat difficult to find the 480GB capacity that we prefer. The OCZ VX500 meanwhile is supposed to be a higher performance MLC offering, but the price is simply too high to make it competitive.
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 one of the top spots. The new 860 Evo also looks promising, though it largely delivers similar performance to the 850 Evo. Simply put, you can't go wrong with a Samsung SSD.
Transcend SSD370S series sticks with MLC NAND instead of going the TLC route, and combines that 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. But current pricing puts it out of consideration.
Our final entrant—alphabetically—is Western Digital's Blue 1TB SSD. A long-time player in the storage market, WD has not entered the SSD arena. Unfortunately, the performance is rather low due to the use of TLC NAND, but pricing is at least reasonable. Like many SSDs, this brand is a simple price cut away from a stronger recommendation.
Closing thoughts and a look to the future
With SSDs becoming a better 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 a SATA 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 a x4 connection allows for up to 3.94GB/sec. Unfortunately, the PCIe SSDs are (often substantially) more expensive, and they're mostly limited to either PCIe add-in boards or the M.2 form factor, which means only newer PCs have the requisite NVMe support. If you're using an Intel Skylake or newer CPU, or AMD Ryzen or newer, you should consider M.2 drives as higher performance alternative.
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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