The Best SSD Today

If I bought a solid-state drive (SSD) today, I’d get the 512GB Crucial MX100 for about $220. It’s not the fastest SSD you can get, but it’s close. More importantly, it has the best combination of price, performance, and capacity. Additionally, Crucial makes its own NAND flash memory and its SSDs have a history of reliability. It’s about $30 cheaper than the 500GB Samsung 840 EVO and has the best price per gigabyte of all those we looked at, so it’s the best choice for most people who are upgrading a laptop or desktop today.

If anything goes wrong, the MX100 has a three-year warranty. And it includes TCG/Opal full-disk self-encryption, if that matters to you. There’s no shortage of great SSDs these days, but some are better values than others, as we learned after spending more than 30 hours of research coming to this conclusion.

The MX100 is one of the best, but if you can’t get the MX100, the Samsung 840 EVO is still good and is our overall runner-up. (It is, after all, our previous pick for this guide.) It’s cheap and fast, just not as cheap or fast as the MX100. It’s also still your best choice for a 1TB drive, since the MX100 only goes up to 512GB.

If you’re a video and photo editor or 3D modeler, consider a step-up option like the Samsung 850 Pro. It has a 10-year warranty and higher write endurance rating. Its quoted speeds aren’t much different than the Crucial’s, but it can be nearly twice as fast (373 MB/s vs 190 MB/s) in some high-intensity benchmarks like AnandTech’s “Destroyer.” It’s the fastest SATA SSD you can get, but it’s not worth the price increase for most people.

Who should get this?

You should get the MX100 if you have a computer that is one or two years old and has a traditional hard drive or cramped, outdated SSD. But this only applies if you plan on keeping your computer for at least another year or you know you can bring your SSD to your next computer. There’s no sense in upgrading a machine that you’re about to replace.

You should also upgrade your RAM first if you haven’t already. More RAM (up to about 8 GB) will make even more of a difference to your computer than going from a hard drive to SSD.

The desktop SSD market is moving from SATA to PCIe next year, but you’ll still have SATA ports on your next computer. For laptops, check your manufacturer’s website or use Crucial’s upgrade advisor tools to figure out what drive type your laptop uses. Most older laptops use 2.5-inch SATA drives. Newer ones use mSATA or M.2 form factors (see below), and others, like recent MacBooks, can’t be upgraded.

What size should you get?

Right now most people should get a 512GB SSD.

The usual advice is to get the highest capacity SSD you can afford. Right now most people should get a 512GB SSD. If you’re buying a new computer, the 512GB SSD option will likely be expensive (in fact, it’s almost always cheaper to get your laptop with a hard drive and replace it with a larger SSD than to get a smaller SSD off the bat). But if you’re buying a separate SSD, 512GB is the sweet spot. A smaller drive will be slower and more expensive per gigabyte.

Much of an SSD’s speed advantage comes from parallelization. As AnandTech says, “A single NAND die isn’t very fast but when you put a dozen or more of them in parallel, the performance adds up.”

Every year, NAND architecture gets smaller. Manufacturers can fit more data onto fewer modules. If your drive has fewer modules than your controller can write to at once, it won’t be as fast as it could be. With today’s SSDs, you’ll get the best speeds from 512GB drives. Smaller drives have slower write speeds, roughly scaling with the number of NAND modules on board.

The Crucial MX100 comes in three capacities: 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB, with 8, 16, and 32 dies respectively. They all have similar sequential read speeds of 550 MB/s, which is about as much as the 6Gbps SATA interface can handle. But their sequential write speeds are dramatically different. The 128GB is rated for 150 MB/s writes, the 256GB can hit 330 MB/s, and the 512GB hits 500 MB/s sequential writes. You can see the benefits of parallelization—more NAND modules equal faster writes.

I wouldn’t get an SSD lower than 256GB if at all possible. 128GB and lower SSDs are not cost effective. The 128GB MX100, for example, is $75, while for $110 you can get a 256GB version. Lower-capacity drives are slower and more expensive.

Why SSD?

The process of loading programs from and writing data to your hard drive is slow, but on an SSD it’s very fast. If you’ve never had one in your computer before, prepare to be amazed.

Solid-state drives don’t have any moving parts, unlike traditional hard drives. They’re better than standard hard drives in every respect except for two. They use much less power than hard drives, put out much less heat, and don’t vibrate. They’re three or four times faster in sequential reads and writes.

Most people will never notice the difference between a top-end SSD and a decent one, but you’ll definitely notice the difference between an SSD and a mechanical drive.

Much more importantly, SSDs have super fast random access times. Random access measures the amount of time it takes for a drive to access a random bit of data on the drive. A mechanical hard drive has to physically move a magnetic head to a specific part of a rotating disk to read the data. This takes around 17 ms on a fast mechanical drive. An SSD can do it in less than 0.1 ms. That speed adds up.

Which SSD you have matters, but not as much as having any decent SSD compared to a standard mechanical hard drive. Most people will never notice the difference between a top-end SSD and a decent one, but you’ll definitely notice the difference between an SSD and a mechanical drive.

This photo from AnandTech shows a 3.5-inch desktop drive, a 2.5-inch SSD, and an mSATA SSD.

Everything you do that requires accessing data on your hard drive is much faster on an SSD. If you have a computer with a standard hard drive, that hard drive is the slowest part of your system. The rest of the computer has to wait around for information to be read from or written to the drive.

They’re so fast that they’ve outgrown the interface that connects them to the computer. The current generation of SSDs has saturated the bandwidth of the SATA interface, and the industry is moving to PCI Express next year. PCIe SSDs are already available, but they’re not cost effective or necessary for most people.

SSDs are still more expensive than mechanical drives. And the biggest hard drives can hold more data than the most capacious SSDs. You can get a 4TB desktop drive for less than four cents per gigabyte and a 1TB laptop hard drive for eight cents a gigabyte. The 1TB Samsung 840 EVO SSD is $430. The 1TB HGST Travelstar 7K1000, a mechanical drive, is $80. That’s a huge amount of storage for not much money.

The price gap is narrowing at the same time that cloud storage means people are keeping less data on their computers. A decent SSD cost $3 per gigabyte in 2010 and $1 per gigabyte in 2012. Now in 2014, the 512GB Crucial MX100, our favorite SSD for most people, is $.43 per gigabyte.

How we picked

A good SSD should be fast, consistent, and reliable. It should have as much storage as possible and enough write endurance to last as long as you’re going to use it. Write endurance is a measure of how much data can be written to a drive before it stops working. NAND flash has a limited lifespan, and every time you write data to it you wear it out a little bit. This isn’t something most people need to worry about.

To update this piece, I looked at every 6Gbps SATA SSD that’s come out since our last update in August 2013. I read reviews from the sites that I know do great SSD reviews, primarily AnandTech but also StorageReview, The Tech Report, CNET, and a few others.

Although I spent several years reviewing SSDs for MaximumPC, I didn’t rely on my own benchmarks. Of the benchmarks I can run, there are plenty of other sites that can run the same benchmarks and get the same numbers. Instead, I focused on reviews from the best SSD reviewers, like Kristian Vättö at AnandTech, who have their own benchmarks that can meaningfully test real-world usage.

Our Pick

If I were upgrading a notebook computer or buying the primary drive for a desktop, I’d get the 512GB Crucial MX100 for about $220. It’s fast, cheap, and consistent, and it comes from a company that makes its own NAND, which means it gets first dibs on the good stuff.1 It has the best price per gigabyte of all those we looked at—not necessarily our main criteria, but a useful one, because it means you can get more space for the money. The MX100 also has power-loss protection, 72TB write endurance (which means it will last a really long time), hardware encryption, and a three-year warranty.

The Crucial has the best price per gigabyte of any SSD we looked at. Plus, it’s about $30 cheaper than the 500GB Samsung 840 EVO and carries a three-year warranty.

Drive Amazon Price (8/14) Price per GB
Crucial MX100 512GB $213 $.42
Crucial MX100 256GB $115 $.49
Samsung 840 EVO 500GB $251 $.50
Samsung 840 EVO 1TB $445 $.45
Samsung 850 Pro 512GB $400 $.78
Samsung 850 Pro 1TB $700 $.70

You’d have to write around 40GB of data every day for five years before you’d expect the drive to wear out.

The MX100 is fast. In AnandTech’s real-world benchmarks, it beat all other budget and mainstream SSDs. It’s only beaten by expensive performance SSDs like Samsung’s Pro drives and SanDisk’s Extreme Pro and Extreme II. Random reads and writes are right up there. It’s not the fastest in IOMeter sequential reads and incompressible sequential writes, but most people won’t notice a difference. It’s consistent, too. Performance remained speedy and steady even as the drive filled up. This wasn’t the case with early SSDs, which had badly optimized garbage collection routines.

The MX100 is cheap enough that there’s no excuse for buying a slower drive from any manufacturer. It’s the first drive to use IMFT’s 16nm MLC NAND. Smaller-process NAND is cheaper to produce because it can fit more on each die.

The MX100 should be reliable, as Crucial drives have been rock-solid for years. The MX100 has a write endurance rating of 72TB. You’d have to write around 40GB of data every day for five years before you’d expect the drive to wear out, and it should last much longer than that. Tech Report has been running endurance tests on six SSDs since last August. All six made it past 700TB, and three have even made it past 1 petabyte, though not without wearing through some sectors. That’s 1,000 TB. All indications are that the vast majority of SSDs can far exceed their advertised write endurance limits.

The MX100 has power-loss protection, so you won’t lose data if the power goes out in the middle of a write operation. It supports TCG/Opal 2.0 and eDrive encryption, so you can use it in corporate settings that require full-disk hardware encryption. This doesn’t matter to most people, but it’s a must-have for some business use and not all SSDs support it, so it’s worth mentioning.

“[The MX100] basically doubles the amount of storage you get for your dollar, it’s an absolute no-brainer.” —Kristian Vättö, AnandTech

AnandTech’s Kristian Vättö, one of the best SSD reviewers working today, says, “I have nothing negative to say about the MX100. With the performance and feature set, combined with pricing that basically doubles the amount of storage you get for your dollar, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Unless you are an enthusiast or professional with a heavy IO workload, the MX100 is currently the drive with the best bang for your buck in the market by far.”

The Tech Report’s Geoff Gasior says, “While the 256GB version is good enough for our TR Recommended award, its 512GB sibling deserves Editor’s Choice distinction. That drive avoids some of the performance pitfalls associated with the smaller version, but it’s just as cheap per gig.”

He adds, “Throw in power-loss protection, AES encryption, and Crucial’s strong reliability reputation, and the MX100 looks like the budget SSD to beat.”

StorageReview‘s Lyle Smith wasn’t wowed by the MX100′s performance in the four-year-old StorageMark 2010 benchmarks. “Despite its mixed performance, the Crucial MX100 line of SSDs still has a lot to offer. While Crucial drives historically have not been performance category leaders, drive reliability and endurance have been. Much of this is due to Crucial using their own Micron NAND and being able to leverage their own internal firmware team to develop a solid platform.”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The MX100 isn’t perfect. Tech Report dinged it for not including any utility software, unlike the very useful Magician software that comes with Samsung SSDs. The MX100 does come with free imaging software to help with the transition from hard drive to SSD, but other drives come with more.

As mentioned above, the 256GB and smaller versions of the drive aren’t as fast as the 512GB version. There also aren’t any MX100 drives larger than 512GB. If you want a 1TB SSD you should go for our runner-up, the Samsung 840 EVO.

And although the Crucial MX100 is competitive in most benchmarks, it can’t match top-of-the-line SSDs like the Samsung 850 Pro or SanDisk Extreme Pro in real-world benchmarks like AnandTech’s Storage Bench 2013. The 512GB model’s 191 MB/s in that test can’t touch the Samsung 850 Pro 1TB’s 373 MB/s in the same test, or even the 256GB model’s 294 MB/s. Still, most people will never notice the difference.

But if you want a great SSD that’s fast, reliable, cheap, and big enough to store everything short of your professional quantities of RAW files and HD video, the 512GB Crucial MX100 is a fantastic choice.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 8/3/2014 and is republished here with permission.


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