It's never been a better time to purchase an SSD! Whether you're new to the SSD game, looking to upgrade or replacing your older SSD, this guide will be a tool to assist you, as a consumer, in making a more informed purchase. An SSD, or Solid State Drive, can be equated to a large super-fast flash drive that is rapidly replacing HDDs (hard disk drives) as the preferred method of housing Windows, Mac, and other operating systems (OS). This is because SSDs are multitudes faster than HDDs and are more reliable. SSDs have no moving parts. Smartphones such as Android and Apple devices use SSD storage. In some ways, an SSD can be compared to a computer; it uses a processor and memory, for example. As is typical with computers, not all SSDs are created equal. Brand name has nothing to do with a quality SSD; every manufacturer makes excellent SSDs and every manufacturer makes less than desirable SSDs. _________________________________ Contents Section 1 - Form Factor and Protocol Section 2 - NAND Flash Type and Layering Section 3 - Controller, SLC Caching, DRAM Buffer, HMB, and Over-Provisioning Section 4 - Brand and Model Purchase Segment _________________________________ Section 1 - Form Factor and Protocol The most common SSD form factors are 2.5" drives and M.2 drives. 2.5" SATA SSD This SSD uses the same SATA interface that a typical hard disk does. Uses the AHCI protocol. M.2 SSD The M.2 SSD connects directly to the motherboard via an M.2 connector. It can use the SATA bus or the PCIe bus. M.2 SSDs can support different speeds; PCI-Express 3.0 x2 or PCI-Express 3.0 x4, respectively. M.2 SSDs are manufactured in different dimensions and sizes. This will be written as 2242, 2260, 2280 or 22110. For example: WD Blue M.2 2280 1TB. 22 is the width. The remaining numbers represent the length, so 2280 = 22mm wide x 80mm long. You will need to consult the motherboard support page or manual to find which M.2 SSDs will be compatible with your system. M.2 Module Keys M.2 SSDs use defined keys and notches for the interface. For M.2, the most commonly used keys are: B - Can support both SATA and PCIe interface/ protocol; supports up to PCIe x2 speeds on PCIe bus. M - Can support both SATA and PCIe interface/ protocol; supports up to PCIe x 4 speeds on PCIe bus B+M - Can support both SATA and PCIe interface/ protocol; supports up to PCIe x2 speeds on PCIe bus. Picture source: https://www.kingston.com/us/ssd/system-builder/m2_faq Important Note: A "B" connector will not fit into an "M" port on the motherboard and vice versa. NVMe - (non-volatile memory express) is a protocol used over the PCIe bus. An NVMe SSD enjoys the benefit of lower latency and extremely high speeds. It takes full advantage of the PCIe x4 lane and is mostly for pro-consumers and workstation users. However, this massive speed increase is hardly a benefit to the typical consumer, especially considering NVMe SSDs still carry a hefty price tag. The vast majority of consumers will not notice the difference in real world performance between a SATA SSD and an NVMe SSD. Section 2 - NAND Flash Type and Layering Just like a flash drive, an SSD uses flash memory. This particular flash is called NAND flash; it's used to store data and is a type of nonvolatile storage technology that does not require power to retain data. The most common types of NAND flash are: SLC - Mostly used for critical enterprise storage devices, this flash is extremely expensive, but extremely fast and durable. It is non-existent in the consumer-grade SSD realm. MLC - MLC flash is a "step down" from SLC flash. It's cheaper and not nearly as fast or durable as SLC, but its lower price tag made it a viable option for consumer-grade SSDs. MLC is no longer used by the majority of manufacturers of consumer-grade SSDs, however, you can still find MLC SSDs for sale on the market. TLC - Until QLC flash was released, TLC flash was the cheapest and densest available. Once used only for extremely cheap low-end SSDs, TLC is now employed in almost every SSD (including Samsung) and is more than adequate for consumer-grade SSDs. QLC - The newest version of NAND flash. QLC is capable of 33 percent higher array density. This means QLC SSDs, in theory, will be much cheaper and much larger than previous SSDs. This is the goal, at least. Note: QLC NAND was recently released for use in consumer-level SSDs, including by Samsung in their QVO line and by other manufacturers, such as Intel with their 660p NVMe SSD, ADATA, and Crucial. Its goal is to reduce costs and increase drive sizes. However, it is a new technology and is more expensive than TLC, making it a less than compelling option in the current market. QLC has abysmal endurance and performance compared to TLC, but manufacturers claim that this will be a non-issue. At this time, most users should opt for TLC SSDs, but this will change in the future once QLC prices drop below TLC and the technology improves. Note: For consumers, endurance ratings should largely be ignored. Although QLC flash has one-third the endurance rating of TLC, manufacturers have developed techniques that make this a non-issue. For example, the Intel 660p NVMe SSD contains what's called a dynamic SLC cache; this enables the 660p to treat up to half of the available QLC memory as SLC flash, drastically improving performance and endurance. As the drive fills up, the cache gets smaller and more QLC blocks will be made available. In theory, the SLC cache could be fully exhausted, but for most consumers this would be completely unrealistic. Even if a consumer were able to write directly to the QLC, speeds would be consistently well above hard disk speeds; comparable to slower TLC. QLC will likely improve as the technology progresses. Picture source: https://www.anandtech.com/show/13752/anandtech-year-in-review-2018-ssds Flash Stacking 2D or planar NAND - Originally, consumer level MLC and TLC SSDs were produced using what's called 2D planar NAND flash. This means the flash was placed side by side, as if on a plane. 3D NAND - All newer TLC and QLC drives use 3D NAND flash. This means that the flash is stacked vertically, yielding faster speeds, increased longevity, and improved power requirements. This technique and technology massively improves density. 64-layer 3D TLC has essentially met or surpassed 2D MLC in performance and reliability. Note: One should avoid older style 2D or planar SSDs, MLC or TLC. These drives have decreased reliability and endurance compared to most 3D TLC drives and cost the same or often less. Flash Layering NAND manufacturers have developed techniques for layering NAND flash. This is an incredibly complicated process. Basically, just as with 3D stacking, the flash can be layered to improve density, therefore increasing drive capacity in smaller spaces; this can create issues though because cells will interfere with each other the closer they are layered, however, it's not quite this simple as different flash manufacturers are better than others at this process and some layering techniques are better than others. Newer generations of SSDs use 64-layer and 96-layer configurations. Older drives use 32-layer. 32-layer 3D TLC is acceptable, but newer layering technologies are better overall. Section 3 - Controller, SLC Caching, DRAM Buffer, HMB, and Over-Provisioning An SSD utilizes an incredibly complicated structure of components and technology. On the consumer level, these will be the most important parts of an SSD to look out for: Controller - Just like a computer, an SSD uses a processor (or controller). This is one of the most important elements of an SSD. A controller will dictate performance and endurance. SLC Caching - This is a technique used in SSDs where a portion of the TLC or QLC NAND is treated as SLC flash. This drastically improves write performance because information can be written to the much faster SLC cache and later moved to the slower TLC or QLC flash. Some SSDs have a large SLC cache; others not so much. For consumers, this isn't the most important factor, but it can help if you're using the SSD to store large files such as games. An adequately sized SLC cache is especially necessary for 2D TLC SSDs because writing directly to the flash is so slow that it can cause hard disk-like performance. DRAM Buffer - This is a DRAM module, usually external of the NAND flash. It helps with writes, especially small or short writes to the flash, making it ideal for an operating system. This is because the OS and programs/ apps rely heavily on random read/ write performance and DRAM is much, much faster than flash. Basically, the OS will store a map of the data on the DRAM chip, allowing the controller to more efficiently store the data it writes, therefore drastically increasing endurance and speed. DRAM generally drastically increases the life of an SSD because less writes are needed to store a piece of information. DRAM-less - This is where a manufacturer produces an SSD without the external DRAM chip; presumably to save costs. This causes the OS data map to be stored directly on the NAND flash, increasing the effect known as "write amplification". A DRAM-less SSD suffers from substantially lower endurance and performance; the life of the flash is reduced drastically as a result. This is especially noticeable with 2D NAND SSDs; they will stutter and suffer hard disk-like speeds and fail more often. DRAM-less SSDs are less reliable by nature. Performance decreases are especially noticeable on a full DRAM-less SSD and manufacturers rely more heavily on a process known as "over-provisioning" to combat its deficiencies in these drives because it takes many more writes to store a piece of information. Host Memory Buffer - Host Memory Buffer, or HMB, is a newer technology used in DRAM-less NVMe SSDs. This allows the OS to store the data map on available system memory (such as RAM), therefore increasing performance and longevity. It isn't perfect and doesn't replace DRAM completely, but it helps create low cost SSDs without such a massive hit to endurance and performance. (This feature is drive specific and is currently only supported by Windows 10 post-Creator's update and Linux; supposedly older versions of Windows can support HMB with driver updates, but is not supported natively) Over-Provisioning - SSD manufacturers implement what's called over-provisioning. This is an area of the NAND flash that is inaccessible to the user and is not visible. This process greatly increases endurance and performance of an SSD. In the past, manually over-provisioning was recommended; this is no longer necessary. Note: In the current market, a DRAM-less SSD should mostly be avoided by the majority of consumers. DRAM SSDs typically cost the same or slightly more than their DRAM-less counterparts. Note - DRAM Buffer: The OS stores a map (translation table) of the information on the DRAM buffer and the SSD uses this map (translates) to retrieve and write information to the flash. This significantly reduces wear and increases performance because SSDs do not store information like a spinning hard disk; an SSD must spread wear evenly across the NAND flash. Without the DRAM buffer, the map is stored directly on the NAND flash. This is an issue because flash is significantly slower than DRAM and this process causes the SSD to inefficiently write to the flash since it isn't given time to appropriately allocate the writes. The SSD is then forced to make several more writes just to store a piece of information, drastically reducing endurance and performance because the SSD has to move the information around the flash and write an entire page just to make small changes to the translation table. The majority of manufacturers will not specify on websites or packaging if an SSD contains DRAM. It's best to consult reviews and guides for this kind of information. Note: It's best to update the firmware on an SSD after initial installation. Controllers are constantly improved and having the latest firmware version can improve performance and endurance. Section 4 - Brand and Model Purchase Segment Now that we're armed with the information we need to make an informed decision, we can create a guideline for purchasing an SSD. Keep in mind that sales happen constantly, so prices will go up and down. This guide will be based on what prices have recently been spotted at and the components of the SSD. For most people, $60 or less would be considered budget tier. There's nothing wrong with spending less than $60. In fact, a 128GB SSD or 256GB SSD below $40 can be an incredible value. Some SSDs are better for OS use, others better for gaming. Some SSDs are great for both. SSDs that are below 240GB/ 256GB will be placed into the Ultra-Budget realm. I will update this guide frequently, especially when great deals are posted. Best in Class - Budget SAMSUNG 860 EVO 2.5" SATA Uses 64-layer 3D TLC, DRAM, and a Samsung in-house controller. Comes with a 5-year warranty. Usually doesn't go on insane sales like other SSDs, but dips pretty low in price quite often. Great for OS use and gaming. Intel 545s 2.5" SATA The Intel 545s is arguably one of the best SSDs out currently. Uses the newer SM2259 controller, 64-layer 3D TLC, and DRAM. Comes with a 5-year warranty. The 256GB variant has been seen at $35; the 512GB at $55, but haven't returned to those prices. Great for OS use and gaming. Crucial MX500 2.5" SATA and M.2 2280 SATA The MX500 is a legendary drive. Contains the SM2258 controller, 64-layer 3D TLC, DRAM, and a 5-year warranty. This drive has been seen at $48 for the 500GB version. The 1TB version was on sale for $108 recently. Great for OS use and gaming. WD Blue 3D and SANDISK ULTRA 3D 2.5" SATA and M.2 2280 SATA Western Digital and SanDisk have entered a joint venture. Both SSDs are virtually the same. Uses the Marvell 88SS1074 controller, 64-layer 3D TLC, and DRAM. The 250GB and 500GB can be found for budget prices. The 1TB was on sale recently for $99. Great for OS and gaming. Alternative - Budget Team Group L5 LITE 3D 2.5" SATA Uses the SM2258 with 32-layer 3D TLC. DRAM. 3-year warranty. Great for OS use and gaming. ADATA SU800 and XPG SX850 2.5" SATA The SX850 is a re-branded version of the SU800. Uses the SM2258 and DRAM cache, 32-layer 3D TLC, DRAM, and a massive SLC cache. The massive SLC cache helps a lot with games. 3-year warranty. Great for OS use and gaming. Gigabyte UD Pro 2.5" SATA This drives contains 64-layer 3D TLC and a DRAM buffer. However, it uses a much older Phison S10 controller. This will not have a noticeable effect on longevity, but this drive is technically slower than its competition. For the average consumer this difference won't be realized. This drive has hit $35 for the 256GB model. Offers a 3-year warranty. Good for OS use and gaming. HP S700 Pro 2.5" SATA Uses 32-layer 3D TLC and the SM2258 controller. Uses DRAM. Includes an abysmal 1-year warranty. Based on pricing, this SSD doesn't offer much in value. Good for OS use and gaming. Ultra-Budget Team Group L5 LITE 3D 2.5" SATA 120GB Uses the SM2258 with 32-layer 3D TLC. DRAM. 3-year warranty. Acceptable for OS use. ADATA XPG SX850 128GB 32-layer 3D TLC, SM2258 controller, DRAM. Better than a DRAM-less variant SSD, but keep in mind that that for around $10 more one could purchase a 256GB drive. Acceptable for OS use. Inland Professional 120GB Although this is a DRAM-less SSD, at $20 the cheap price is hard to ignore. Uses 64-layer 3D TLC and the Phison S11 controller. It will guarantee better than hard disk performance at first, but keep in mind that for $2 or $3 more the 128GB SX850 is an option, and for $10 more a 256GB DRAM SSD lurks around the corner. Ideal for an unimportant or old computer. 3-year warranty. Performance/ Enthusiast HP EX920 M.2 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe Uses 64-layer 3D TLC, DRAM, and the respectable SM2262 controller. Although it's an HP (uh oh), it's one of the best NVMe drives on the market in terms of value and performance. 5-year warranty. Often seen on sale below $80 for 512GB, and the smaller SKU around $50. SX8200 Pro M.2 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe 64-layer 3D TLC - same as used in the HP EX920. DRAM. Newer SM2262EN (new version of the SM2262) controller. 5-year warranty. Often on sale in the same range as the HP EX920. Has been seen in the low $50 range. Alternative - Performance Budget Crucial P1 M.2 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe 64-layer QLC with DRAM. SM2263 controller. 5-year warranty. Note: QLC NAND is currently overpriced due to poor yields. This will likely change. Keep an eye out for a deal on this drive, but right now it can't be recommended above the competition due to pricing. Intel 660p M.2 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe 64-layer QLC with DRAM. SM2263 controller. Note: QLC NAND is currently overpriced due to poor yields. This will likely change. Keep an eye out for a deal on this drive, but right now it can't be recommended above the competition due to pricing. HP EX900 M.2 2280 PCIe x4 NVMe - $46.99 Not an enthusiast SSD by any means, this drive utilizes HMB technology, bringing NVMe benefits at a low price. DRAM-less, but uses HMB that mostly makes up for the deficiencies; this drive has beyond acceptable endurance and speed. Uses 64-layer 3D TLC and the SM2263XT controller. 3-year warranty. Great for OS and gaming. ADATA XPG SX6000 Pro M.2 2280 PCIe x4 NVMe Utilizing HMB instead of DRAM, this SSD uses 64-layer 3D TLC NAND and the Realtek RTS5763DL controller. 5-year warranty. Great for OS and gaming.