This is the first installment in a new series recommending the best solid-state drives you can buy at any given budget level. With so many SSDs piling up, all based on the same few controllers, it’s time for us to start identifying the real winners.
Detailed solid state drive specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. However, at the end of the day, what an enthusiast needs is the best SSD within a certain budget.
So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right drive, then fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best SSD offered for the money.
If you missed any of the SSD action, the scene recently started heating up again. SandForce decided to make its first public showing of its second-generation controller performance with OCZ’s Vertex 3 and Vertex 3 Pro. Both of these drives are impressive. In random read performance (using the 240 GB model), we saw transfer rates push past 500 MB/s. Although availability was initially spotty, the drives are now shipping in volume. Unfortunately, the pricing OCZ originally gave us was too ambitious, and its 240 and 120 GB drives are each selling for $50 more, at $549 and $299, respectively.
We also had the opportunity to wrap up a review of Intel's SSD 510 (previously code-named Elmcrest). In summary, the results are mixed. Intel's SSD 510-series uses a revised version of the Marvell controller seen on Crucial’s RealSSD C300. However, Intel optimized the SSD 510 for larger files. Sequential read performance is similar to the Vertex 3, but random data hits the 510 much harder. With regard to pricing, the SSD 510 series is tough to embrace. The 250 GB SSD 510 is currently selling for $615. That’s $2.46 per gigabyte (compared to $2.28 for OCZ's 240 GB Vertex 3).
To be fair, Intel really isn't known for its high-end SSD market presence any more. Its mainstream X25-M (G2) is responsible for most of the company's solid-state drive volume. Intel recently unveiled its third-gen mainstream design, known as the SSD 320. This is an update to X25-M with 25 nm NAND and a few other notable benefits. Intel is trying to make the point that it offers the highest reliability of any brand, and new features like power protection are intended to put prospective buyers' minds at ease. On the performance side, the SSD 320 achieves better sequential write and random write performance, thanks to its larger cache. However, the move to 25 nm comes at the cost of random read performance. This is a situation where the X25-M continues to outperform its successor. In that way, it reminds of us of the 25 nm Vertex 2s discussed in The OCZ Vertex 2 Conspiracy: Lost Space, Lost Speed?. But, to Intel's credit, the new model lineup sidesteps the capacity/performance-oriented criticisms that OCZ absorbed as a result of its not-so-transparent transition. But it's the price that really makes the SSD 320 series attractive. The 120 GB SSD 320 only costs $239, which is just below $2.00 per gigabyte.
Intel and OCZ aren't the only players on the block. Crucial's m4 is the 25 nm update to the C300, and it proves itself a worthy successor. Though the m4 suffers a bit in smaller-sized random reads compared to the C300, it offers better random write performance. At its best, it beats at least one of the Vertex 3s. Crucial's newest SSD also offers improved sequential performance, but only its sequential read performance nearly matches the Vertex 3s. If you're aiming for the fastest SSD, we'd consider the m4 a contender against OCZ's newest drives if Crucial can deliver the m4 under $2 per gigabyte. That's what Crucial is aiming for, but until we see drives in retail, we won't make a definitive recommendation.
|Crucial m4||Expected MSRP|
While all of these launches make for great reading material, the most important news has nothing to do with the impressive performance of the latest SSDs. It has to do with prices. Price per gigabyte is, by far, the biggest factor preventing SSDs from enjoying more mainstream adoption. With the introduction of 25 nm flash, new products are starting to become more affordable. In turn, slower SSDs that were previously too expensive are more affordable, too.
Some Notes About Our Recommendations
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:
- If you don't need to copy gigabytes of data quickly or load games in the blink of an eye, then there's nothing wrong with sticking with a mechanical hard drive. This list is intended for people who want the performance/responsiveness that SSDs offer, and operate on a specific budget.
- There are several criteria we use to rank SSDs. We try to evenly weigh performance and capacity at each price point and recommend what we believe to the best drive based on our own experiences, along with information garnered from other sites. Some people may only be concerned with performance, but that ignores the ever-present capacity conundrum that we often encounter when trying to balance SSD price with the other variables. If you have a mobile system, you can usually only have one drive installed. On a desktop system, you want room for your operating system and your more performance-sensitive apps. That's why we have to consider the major weight of capacity, too.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis. Our picks will be valid the month of publication, but we can't make guarantees beyond that. SSD pricing is especially tight, and a $15 difference can be the reason why one SSD makes the list, while another does not. While you are shopping, use our list as a guide, but always double-check for yourself.
- The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary.
- These are new SSD prices. No used or open-box offers are in the list; they might represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do. (Don't forget that you have no way of knowing how many PE cycles are consumed with a used drive.)