How to Buy the Best Budget SSD
Today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “SSD” stood for “seriously speedy drive.” Indeed, we’d lobby for that change.
Why? Over the last five years, solid-state drives (SSDs) have changed their shapes, speeds, and storage stripes with such agility that now, they are the biggest real-world difference-makers when it comes to computer upgrades. More than any other kind of core component, you can feel the presence of an SSD.
A dozen-plus makers are churning out SSDs for the U.S. market, among them storage heavyweights Samsung, Micron, Intel, Toshiba, and Western Digital. And since the start of the ’10s, SSDs have morphed from exorbitantly priced luxury items into commodities whose quality is almost uniformly high. An example? A 32GB SSD we tested in 2008 sold then for a whopping $800, which is $200 to $300 more than a modern one that packs 60 times the data. Plus, even today’s humblest new SSDs are about five times faster than that ’08 model.
In other words, SSD performance and capacity have rocketed, while relative prices have plummeted. That makes an SSD the best bang-for-the-buck upgrade any PC or Mac user can make. The only downside to this explosion of SSDs: The number of choices, especially among budget models, can be overwhelming.
Dirty Secret: Speeds Are Pretty Similar
Because most mainstream SSDs on the market use the same system-side interface, dubbed SATA 3 (for Serial ATA 3.0), and many brands of drive use the same components from a handful of suppliers (Toshiba, Micron, and Samsung are the primary makers of SSD memory modules), there’s not a huge chasm in performance among different models in a given class. That makes price something that consumers have been extremely sensitive about. Us reviewers and editors, too.
Because performance is so similar among budget-priced SATA-based drives, you’ll find only a few substantive reasons to pay extra for one model over another. SATA drives have seen a classic race to the bottom, in which manufacturers scramble to bring drives to market to meet exploding demand, while competing primarily on price. And pricing, particularly online, can shift from one day to the next—or even from hour to hour.
But fear not—we’ll discuss what actually matters when shopping for a budget SSD, and map out the best picks (with full, deep-dive reviews) to make your shopping easier. Let’s get down to it.
Buying Basics: Budget SSDs
Are you a buyer with basic needs, looking to upgrade a traditional platter hard drive in a laptop or desktop with something faster? It’s a safe strategy, these days, to check pricing on recent SSD models and pick the most affordable drive with the capacity you need, from a name-brand maker you are willing to trust with your data. Simple as that. Disappointment will be rare, assuming you are going from one SATA drive to another. (Also, see our primer SSD Versus HDD: What’s the Difference?)
If you want to go deeper, though, to make sure you’re getting the fastest, potentially longest-lasting drive for your budget dollar, we’ll detail many of these considerations below, to help you make the smartest choice. (The first item below is essential, regardless.)
Know Your Form Factors. Note that we’re talking strictly about traditional 2.5-inch SSDs here, which are the same size and shape as the 2.5-inch hard drives found in many mainstream laptops. If you have a recent slim laptop or 2-in-1, it may require a gumstick-shaped M.2 drive (if you can upgrade the drive in the laptop at all). For deep details about those drives and the best models we’ve tested, check out our “alternate” SSD buying guide The Best M.2 Solid-State Drives for a great deal of background and advice on this newer kind of SSD. (Note that some late-model desktop PCs may have a slot for an M.2 drive as well. M.2 is not just a laptop thing.) We have included in our product listings here two of our favorite budget-minded M.2 SSDs, from Samsung and WD, to give some “quick pick” guidance for this kind of drive.
MLC Versus TLC Memory. The biggest technical consideration that shoppers will face when opting for a budget SSD is what type of solid-state memory will be inside the slim enclosure. If you’re not familiar with the terms “MLC” and “TLC,” you can get up to speed with our primer Buying a Solid-State Drive: 20 Terms You Need To Know. But we’ll give you the short version here.
The first letter in both flash types refers to the number of bits each cell can hold. The “M” in MLC stands for “multi,” meaning (in this case) that the memory can host two bits per cell. The “T” in TLC stands for “triple,” or three bits per cell. In a drive with many millions of cells, having an extra bit in each cell to store stuff adds up quickly, allowing TLC drives (in the simplest sense) to hold more data than MLC drives using the same amount of silicon. This also lowers production costs, since fewer physical modules are needed to store the same amount of data. (As you might expect, Q-for-“quad” QLC drives will also be a thing, likely in 2018.)
Though TLC tech was originally much slower—specifically, when writing data to the SSD—and considered a less reliable option than MLC in heavy rotation, those concerns have waned over time, in ways we’ll touch on below. TLC drives are now considered a solid buy for general computing use. Plus, the emergence of “3D” versions of TLC NANDs (the chips upon which SSDs are built) has allowed SSD makers to deliver more capacity in less space by building cells in a vertical as well as horizontal (“planar”) manner.
Since TLC module manufacturing reduces overall costs, and TLC provides decent performance, most manufacturers have jumped aboard the TLC NAND bandwagon, making this type of SSD the de facto kind for those looking for a low-cost SSD. And for most users, TLC drives’ performance is perfectly acceptable. But keep reading…
TLC-Drive Provisos. We mentioned above that TLC-memory-based SSDs can suffer from slower write speeds compared to MLC SSDs. The basic reason is that TLC flash simply has more bits to deal with on a per-cell level. Manufacturers have been able sidestep this limitation, however, with clever caching technology that basically treats a portion of the drive as if it were a much faster type of flash memory (SLC, or “single-layer cell”). Under this approach, write operations are initially cached to this speedier buffer. Then, when the system is idle, the buffer transfers the data to the slower TLC NAND.
The limitation of this approach is that the buffer is small (usually between 6GB and 10GB), as it has to be small enough to not reduce overall drive capacity by much, or increase costs. So, on TLC drives, if you try to copy a chunk of data that is larger than the buffer, you will see a dramatic decline in write performance.
Most mainstream users won’t do this kind of thing often, so it’s not really a problem. But be mindful of this issue when considering a TLC drive, particularly if you’re a content creator or other power user who deals with massive files, or if you move big hunks of data on and off your drive on a regular basis. For these situations, it’s worth paying extra for a costlier MLC drive.
TLC Longevity. The other knock against TLC NAND flash is that it generally has a shorter lifespan than more traditional MLC-based flash memory. This is a trait backed up by SSD makers’ own specifications, not just conjecture.
Every time your PC triggers a new write operation for a memory cell that already contains data, that data must be erased first; only then can new data be written to the cell. Because this erase/write process slows down overall operation, the SSD controller strives to write to “fresh” cells (that is, ones that don’t need pre-erasing) when it can. But at some point, it has to start erasing previously used cells and writing to them.
An SSD can repeat this routine of erasing, then writing to, a cell only so many times before a given cell weakens and no longer can hold data. In MLC drives, a typical cell can take roughly 5,000 write/erase cycles before it’s likely no longer functional. On a TLC drive, this falls to around 1,000 cycles. This seems like a dramatic difference between the two memory types, but oftentimes this problem is mitigated by a process called “over-provisioning.” In it, a chunk of the drive is kept hidden and unused, only to be brought online when other cells begin to wear out.
In the real world, we have never heard of any mainstream user, either a tech professional or a consumer in an online forum, who has written a drive to death, unless they were using it to run a server, or some other task where the system is powered up and being accessed almost constantly. In fact, a while back The Tech Report ran a long-term experiment, writing to a batch of SSDs until they died to see how long they would last. Samsung’s TLC-based SSD 840 drive wrote over 800 terabytes before giving up the digital ghost. In the real world, it would take the average user many years (more likely a decade) to write that much data to an SSD. So, unless you plan on using your SSD as your primary drive for 10 years or more (which would make little sense, given how much cheaper and better SSDs get every year), drive endurance is only a secondary issue.
Still, that shouldn’t be used an excuse not to back up your important data. SSDs are not spinning hard drives, but it’s entirely possible for any SSD to fail randomly due to a defect, a power surge, or some other unforeseen event. You may be able to get a drive replaced if it’s under warranty, but the new drive that gets mailed to you won’t have your old data on it, of course.
Software. Though many seasoned enthusiasts and SSD vets don’t find bundled storage software or utilities a necessity, some manufacturers offer a software package with their SSDs that can be surprisingly useful. Samsung and Intel kicked off this trend years ago by pairing their drives with robust utilities that let you examine every facet of the drive, including its overall health level, the amount of data written to it, and whether or not your system is set up to extract maximum performance from the SSD. Their sophistication has grown from there.
The usefulness of these free tools can vary, from slick and feature-rich, to garish and only marginally useful. Some drives include a simple utility that just lets you update the drive’s firmware, and little or nothing else. Generally, a firmware update shouldn’t be necessary unless there’s a problem with performance. So you shouldn’t have to do this unless the company made a mistake or rushed a drive to market.
Our advice, if you’re the type to tinker, is to purchase a drive that includes robust utility software, but read up on the included software first. To our eyes, Samsung provides the best software packages with its drives, though Crucial/Micron, SanDisk/Western Digital, Intel, and Plextor are all good bets on the software front, too.
Likewise, you may want to look for a drive that includes a drive-cloning utility (such as a version of Acronis TrueImage) if you’re upgrading from a drive in an existing PC, rather than installing a new OS from scratch. The lowest-priced drives lack these niceties, but free programs can get the job done, as well. We’ve had luck using the free Home version of EaseUS’s Disk Copy.
Warranty. Check the warranty terms before purchase. Many budget SSDs we’ve tested feature a three-year warranty, rather than the longer plans of pricier premium models. Samsung, with its watershed SSD 850 EVO model, was an early leader in setting the warranty bar higher for budget-minded SSDs, opting for a five-year plan. Samsung was able to make advancements with its TLC flash, combining it with the company’s vertically stacked V-NAND, to make drives that are low in cost but similar in endurance to pricier MLC drives. Consider a five-year coverage plan a gold star for any budget SSD.
Our Key Metric: Cost Per Gigabyte. Without doing a little math, it’s tricky to figure the bottom-line cost of one SSD versus another when capacities vary, or when you’re looking at SSDs on sale versus regular price. The four main capacity classes you will see, from drive to drive, are 120GB/128GB, then 240GB/250GB/256GB, 480GB/500GB/512GB, and 960GB/1TB. (SSDs bigger than 1TB aren’t “budget” drives these days.) It’s fine, as a rough measure, to compare prices from drive to drive within the same capacity class.
However, the best way to judge what you are paying, at a more granular level, is to divide the price by the number of gigabytes in the SSD. So, for example, a $100 240GB drive yields a cost per gigabyte of 41.7 cents; a $100 256GB drive, in contrast, comes in at 39 cents per gig. The least expensive budget drives you’ll see these days hover around 25 cents per gigabyte. Use this math to calculate your bottom-line price when comparing a host of drives.
Let’s Get Picking…
So, onward to our top drive picks. Important to note: All of these drives are also available in capacities different than the ones we tested, so dig into each review for the details on alternate capacities, if you want a drive that’s bigger or smaller than what you see below. For more storage picks, you can also check out our roundups of the best external SSDs and the best SSDs for upgrading your laptop, as well as the best external hard drives for Mac and the overall best external hard drives.
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