The best solid-state drives can supercharge your PC. Here are our picks for the best SSDs, and what you should know before a purchase.
Brad Chacos (PC World (US online)) on 27 October, 2021 01:30
Switching to a solid-state drive is the best upgrade you can make for your PC. These wondrous devices speed up boot times, improve the responsiveness of your programs and games, and generally makes your computer feel fast. But not all solid-state drives are the same. You can find top-notch SSDs that offer solid performance at an affordable price, or you can spend big to achieve read and write speeds that reach a whole other level.
Many SSDs come in a 2.5-inch form factor and connect to your PC via the same SATA port used by a traditional hard drive. But out on the bleeding-edge of NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) drives, you’ll find tiny gumstick SSDs that fit in an M.2 connection on a modern motherboard, SSDs that sit on a PCIe adapter and slot into your motherboard like a graphics card or sound card, futuristic 3D Xpoint drives, and more. Picking the perfect SSD isn’t as simple as it used to be.
That’s the purpose of this guide. We’ve tested numerous drives to find the best SSDs for any use case, and offer our top picks below. In addition to that we give you useful information on what to look for in an SSD so you can be a more knowledgable shopper. Quick note: This roundup only covers internal solid-state drives. Check out PCWorld’s guide to the best external drives if you’re looking for a portable storage solution.
Editor’s note: This article was most recently to include the Silicon Power XD80 to the reviews and best NVMe SSD sections.
Samsung’s mainstream EVO series of SSDs has sat atop our recommended list ever since 2014, and the new Samsung 870 EVO is still a great option for people who want a rock-solid blend of speed, price, compatibility, and the reliability of Samsung’s 5-year warranty and superb Magician management software. But most people would be better off buying the SK Hynix Gold S31.
Not only is the Gold S31 among the fastest SATA SSDs we’ve ever tested, landing within spitting distance of the best-in-class 870 EVO, but the price for this drive is spectacular. At $44 for a 250GB drive, $48 for a 500GB drive, or $85 for 1TB, the Gold S31 costs much less than Samsung’s line, which charges $95 for a 500GB model. When all was said and done in those real-world 48GB copies, the Gold S31 proved the fastest drive we’ve ever tested for sustained read and write operations, our review proclaimed at the time. Enough said.
Well, maybe not. Let’s talk a bit about the brand itself, since SK Hynix isn’t exactly a household name. Despite that, it’s one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers on the planet. The company has been developing NAND and controller technology since the get-go, and while it’s been the SSD manufacturer for numerous large computer vendors, it generally hasn’t taken a place for itself on the shelves. Now it has, and the results are sterling.
If you need a larger capacity, though, or simply want to stick with a tried-and-true brand, still look to the Samsung 870 EVO, which is available in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB models. They’re just a tiny hair faster than the SK Hynix drives in raw performance but cost a fair amount more. That speaks more to how wildly good of a deal the Gold S31 is though, as the Samsung 870 EVO offers a very compelling and affordable package compared to most SSDs. The Samsung 870 QVO is another strong contender, with capacities ranging from 1TB all the way to a whopping 8TB, but we’ll discuss that in the next section.
The best budget SSD is also the best SSD for most people, as the SK Hynix Gold S31 discussed previously delivers fantastic performance at extremely affordable prices. If you aren’t interested in that drive for whatever reason, though, you have more options.
Now that traditional multi-level cell (MLC) and triple-level cell (TLC) solid-state drives are plummeting in price, manufacturers have rolled out new-look quad-level cell (QLC) drives that push SSD prices even lower. The new technology lets drive makers stuff SSDs with hard drive-like levels of capacity while simultaneously coming close to the juicy SSD speeds we all love so much—most of the time. The first round of QLC drives, including the still-superb Samsung 860 QVO, saw its write speeds plunge to hard drive-like levels when you transfer dozens of gigabytes of data in one go.
The Samsung 870 QVO—Samsung’s second-generation QLC offering—doesn’t suffer from the same fate. If you don’t plan on moving around massive amounts of data at once and need more space, this a great option if you need capacities larger than what SK Hynix offers. Samsung’s drive is available at $100 for 1TB, $190 for 2TB, $353 for 4TB, or $700 for 8TB (oof) on Amazon. The older Samsung 860 QVO remains a good option too, but the newer 870 QVO bests it in every way.
If you want to add a bunch of storage to your computer at even lower price, also consider Crucial’s BX500, a fantastic SSD available in several flavors: The 2TB capacity we tested (currently $195 on Amazon), 1TB ($100 on Amazon), 480GB ($55 on Amazon), and 240GB ($35 on Amazon). The BX500 is subjectively as fast as anything out there until it runs out of cache, we said in our review. That’s likely to be a rare occurrence for the average user. Power users should skip it, but for everyone else it’s a good deal.
But what if you’ve got a newer motherboard that supports the faster, newfangled NVMe M.2 drives? Keep reading!
If performance is paramount, the Samsung 970 Pro or Seagate FireCuda 510 are the fastest NVMe SSDs you can buy—but most people should buy the SK Hynix Gold P31. Yes, SK Hynix is on a roll, dominating our budget, NVMe, and best overall SSD categories.
The Gold P31 is the first NVMe SSD to feature 128-bit TLC NAND, and it pushes SK Hynix’s drive beyond other options, which use 96 NAND layers. The model we tested absolutely aced our CrystalDiskMark 6 and AS SSD synthetic benchmarks, nearly hitting the blistering 3.5GBps read and write speeds claimed in the press release. It also held its own against SSDs that cost much more in our real-world 48GB and 450GB file transfer tests. The SK Hynix Gold P31 performs like a top-tier drive, but it’s priced just slightly higher than bargain drives, we stated, and well, that says it all. You can get a 500GB model for $75, a 1TB model for $135, or a 2TB version for $280 on Amazon.
The Crucial P5 is another great, affordable NVMe SSD that performs on par with much costlier options, and would likely be our top pick if the SK Hynix Gold P31 didn’t exist. The Gold P31 is both slightly faster and slightly cheaper, however, so go for that first. Crucial’s drive is a killer alternative though. Its PCIe 4.0-capable cousin, the Crucial P5 Plus, delivers slightly faster speeds for a much higher sticker price, however. It’s still a capable SSD, but doesn’t earn our full recommendation like the non-Plus P5.
You can find compelling options for slightly less money if you’re on a budget, though. The Addlink S70 NVMe SSD is another stellar fast-performing option, earning our Editors’ Choice award. Addlink isn’t as well-known as some bigger brands, but it offers a 5-year warranty on its drive. The same holds true for Silicon Power’s XD80 SSD, which offers tremendous performance for a PCIe 3.0 drive and also earned our Editors’ Choice award. It’s hard to find in capacities other than 1TB, however, thought that size is priced excellently at the same $110 as Addlink’s offering.
If you don’t mind spending up for faster, Samsung 970 Pro-level performance, the Kingston KC2500 also runs with the big dogs, but at a more affordable price. While it didn’t reach the top step of the podium in any one test, the KC2500 was always within easy hailing distance of the leader, we said in our review. It’s available at about the same price as the competition and should be at the top of your short list when you’re shopping for a high-performance NVMe SSD.
And now, you can finally get blistering NVMe speeds without sacrificing capacity thanks to a new breed of supersized SSDs, though you’ll pay up for the privilege. The OWC Aura 12 delivers average NVMe performance (read: faster than most) paired with a big 4TB of performance for $929. The superb Sabrent Rocket Q amps everything up with top-notch performance and a crazy 8TB capacity, but it’ll set you back a cool $1,500. The bleeding-edge isn’t cheap.
Most NVMe SSDs use the standard PCIe 3.0 interface, but even faster PCIe 4.0 drives exist now—at least on systems that support the bleeding-edge technology. Currently, only AMD’s Ryzen 3000 processors support PCIe 4.0, and even then only when they’re inserted in a X570 or B550 motherboard. If you meet that criteria, though, PCIe 4.0 SSDs leave even the fastest PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSDs in the dust.
Corsair, Gigabyte, and Sabrent rolled out the first PCIe 4.0 SSDs available, with all offering similar performance from 1TB models at around $200. Our favorite PCIe 4.0 drive costs slightly more, though.
We’ve only recently added a PCIe 4.0 test bench to our setup, but the champion thus far is the Samsung 980 Pro. The drive exceeded Samsung’s claimed 7GBps read and 5GBps write speeds in our testing. To drive home just how ludicrous that is, the SK Hynix Gold P31—our favorite standard NVMe drive—wowed us with write speeds half as fast. Samsung’s drive also blazed through our real-world file transfer tests, though it can occasionally slow down a bit if you throw a massive amount of data at it, as we discovered in our 450GB transfer test. Most people will never stress their SSD this hard, though.
All that performance comes at a premium, though. You’ll pay $70 for 250GB, $120 for 500GB, or $200 for 1TB of capacity. There’s also a massive 2TB option for $300.
Alternatively, the WD Black SN850 is a hair behind the Samsung 980 Pro’s performance, but by a rather slim margin, for roughly the same price. If you’re looking for the ultimate in single SSD PCIe4 storage performance, you won’t go wrong with either, we said in our review. Your choice. It also earned our Editors’ Choice award. The same goes for the Adata XPG Gammix S70 Blade, another worthy 980 Pro rival.
The excellent Seagate FireCuda 530 is even faster than the Samsung 980 Pro if you’re looking for pure performance, but that extra speed comes at an even higher price—$150 for 500GB, $255 for 1TB, $490 for 2TB, or a heart-stopping $1,000 for 4TB. [The Seagate FireCuda 530] not only bested the best of the rest in our real-world and synthetic benchmarks, it did so by a healthy margin in several tests, we said in our review. If you can afford it and you can find it, you won’t regret it.
If you want an SSD with fast PCIe 4.0 speeds, but don’t want to spend up for Samsung or Seagate’s overkill-for-most-people performance, consider the XPG Gammix S50 Lite.
The XPG Gammix S50 Lite is the first PCIe 4 SSD we’ve tested that doesn’t carry a hefty next-gen surcharge, we said in our review. In the real world, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a system running it, and one running the far more expensive Samsung 980 Pro. Very long transfers aside, it’s a very good deal.
The Gammix S50 Lite costs $140 for 1TB or $260 for 2TB.
Be aware of what NVMe drives deliver before you buy in. Standard SATA SSDs already supercharge boot times and loading times for PCs, and for a whole lot cheaper. You’ll get the most use from NVMe drives, be it in a M.2 form factor like the Samsung 980 Pro or a PCIe drive, if you routinely transfer data, especially in large amounts. If you don’t do that, NVMe drives aren’t worth the price premium.
If you decide to buy an NVMe SSD, make sure your PC can handle it. This is a relatively new technology, so you’ll only be able to find M.2 connections motherboards from the past few years. Think AMD Ryzen and mainstream Intel chips from the Skylake era onward, for the most part. NVMe SSDs that were mounted on PCIe adapters were popular in the technology’s early years, before M.2 adoption spread, but they’re rarer now. Make sure you’re actually able to use an NVMe SSD before you buy one, and be aware that you’ll need 4 PCIe lanes available in order to use it to its full potential.
The Samsung 960 Pro NVMe SSD in an M.2 slot.
To get the most out of an NVMe drive, you want to run your operating system on it, so you must have a system that recognizes the drive and can boot from it. PCs purchased during the past year or two should have no problem booting from an NVMe drive, but support for that can be iffy in older motherboards. Do a Google search for your motherboard and see if it supports booting from NVMe. You may need to install a BIOS update for your board. If your hardware can’t boot from an NVMe SSD, your machine should still be able to use it as a secondary drive.
Capacity and price are important, of course, and a long warranty can alleviate fears of premature data death. Most SSD manufacturers offer a three-year warranty, and some nicer models are guaranteed for five years. But unlike the olden days of SSDs, modern drives won’t wear out with normal consumer usage, as Tech Report tested and proved years ago with a grueling endurance test.
The biggest thing to watch out for is the technology used to connect the SSD to your PC. We go into deeper details and buying advice in our guide on which SSD you should buy.
Speed matters, of course, but as we said most modern SSDs saturate the SATA III interface. Not all of them, though.
Do you need an SSD? Need is a strong word, but we heartily recommend that everyone upgrade to an SSD. Solid-state drive speeds blow even the fastest mechanical hard drives out of the water. Simply swapping the hard drive in your old laptop or desktop out for an SSD can make it feel like a whole new system—and a blazing fast one at that. Buying an SSD is easily the best upgrade you can make for a computer.
SSDs cost more per gigabyte than mechanical hard drives, though, and thus aren’t often available in ultra-high capacities. If you want speed and storage space, you can buy an SSD with limited space and use it as your boot drive, then set up a traditional hard drive as secondary storage in your PC. Place your programs on your boot drive, stash your media and other files on the hard drive, and you’re ready to have your cake and eat it too.
If you’d like to know more about our best SSD picks as well as other options, the links below point you toward all the SSDs we’ve recently reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new ones on a regular basis, so be sure to check back to see what other drives we’ve put through their paces. And once more, if you’re looking for portable storage, check out PCWorld’s roundup of the best external drives.
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