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Best SSDs For The Money: April 2011

Best SSDs For The Money: April 2011
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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.

April Updates:

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
512 GB
$999.99
256 GB
$499.99
128 GB
$249.99


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.)
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  • 7 Hide
    opmopadop , April 27, 2011 4:41 AM
    Any chance you can add a summary table to see the best SSD sorted by price group?

    Makes it easier rather than clicking around on multiple tabs ;-)
  • -1 Hide
    scook9 , April 27, 2011 4:46 AM
    Makes me feel better about the Intel 320 160GB I will be buying soon
  • 5 Hide
    magmcbride , April 27, 2011 4:57 AM
    Great article, and I had wondered when we would start seeing these pop up!

    Personally, I would like to see a graph showing the history for price/GB of SSD's. Maybe even sorted by performance brackets (low/mid/high). The beginning of the article would be a fine place to see it updated monthly.

    I see a lot of articles talking about how much cheaper newer SSD's are to manufacture using smaller tech. We consumers could use the chart(s) to see if these savings are being passed on to us, and if so by how much.
  • 5 Hide
    billj214 , April 27, 2011 5:08 AM
    Would it be possibly to build an SSD Hierarchy based on speed and not price similar to GPU charts?
    Are there any drives which support raid?
    Do functions like Trim make any drive more reliable or a better drive?

    Excellent article, definitely helps consumers with all the choices.
  • 1 Hide
    biao39 , April 27, 2011 5:58 AM
    What about OCZ RevoDrive X2 $409.99
    Sequential Access - Read up to 740MB/s
    Sequential Access - Write up to 690MB/s
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?
    Item=N82E16820227659&cm_re=ocz_revo-_-20-227-659-_-Product
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , April 27, 2011 6:32 AM
    > a file operation completes 85% faster on a high-end SSD than it does on a high-end hard drive, but there is only an 88% speed difference between a high-end hard drive and a low-end SSD.

    Typo? This doesn't make any sense to me.
  • 1 Hide
    agnickolov , April 27, 2011 6:55 AM
    I just got a 240GB OCZ Vertex 2 for $410 on newegg.com, and that's before $30 rebate! It's a better value than the 200GB one in the $400 category and of similar value to the 256GB RealSSD for $420.
  • 3 Hide
    hmp_goose , April 27, 2011 7:46 AM
    I think it would be handy to have a list of "recommends" by capacity.
  • 3 Hide
    damric , April 27, 2011 8:31 AM
    Snagged an OCZ Agility2 120GB for $140 a few months ago on the egg with a promo code :D 
  • 0 Hide
    tijuana , April 27, 2011 8:56 AM
    I would love to know what you guys think of the revodrive aswell
  • 0 Hide
    ripudaman , April 27, 2011 9:27 AM
    Nice article...I have q9300 & few TB's of HHD, will a new SSD help increase my overall preformance
  • 3 Hide
    Helltech , April 27, 2011 9:35 AM
    I know it would be difficult, but we all want an SDD Heirarchy Chart. I feel once it gets "started" it would be easy to maintain. :D 
  • 1 Hide
    assafbt , April 27, 2011 10:06 AM
    Nice on identifying a need and posting this new article series, however one thing will make the notes on the smaller drives obsolete in a very short while, and also requires mentioning on the higher capacities.

    I mean Z68 Chipset's SSD caching. I refer readers to the article from this very site:
    Soon smaller cheap drives will be able to give a significant boost to a whole system's performance, and your cheapest drive is just shy of the 18.6GB minimum to qualify to it. Furthermore, you consider the pros and cons of smaller SSD-s only in the mindset of how are they as boot drives, or system drives, and soon they will have a whole new role as HDD boosters.

    Considering cache brings whole new factors into the deal - for instance, for cache you should have a look at sole read performance as write speed is bound to the HDD write speed for write-through scenario which might be the popular scenario. Also, suddenly 32GB that is barely enough for boot drive, gets reconsideration as it may very well be more than enough to cache an HDD. Which brings another question to light - how much SSD cache is optimal for a certain HDD size? Is 32GB good only upto, say 1TB, or is 40GB needed already for 512GB, but is also enough for 2TB, and so forth.

    So - clearly smaller SSDs require another look with caching, but also bigger SSD-s. Consider someone who purchased a 160GB, but requires performance for 600GB of software? 3 super sized SSD-s are not a rational expense for anyone - Z68 allows for partial allocation for caching if I remember correctly, and giving 30GB from the 160GB to cache a 1TB HDD may be a solution that allows a system drive + certain crucial apps on pure SSD, plus a cached HDD for the lower priority performance requirement. So thinking about these things applies (even if to a lesser extent) also to the bigger SSD-s.

    Just my thoughts for improvements, otherwise a good read on readers needs, and a good article.

    Assaf
  • 0 Hide
    assafbt , April 27, 2011 10:07 AM
    Oops - the link for those who don't know SSD caching got dropped, again, in text format:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/z68-express-lucidlogix-virtu-ssd-caching,2888-2.html
  • 5 Hide
    TopGun , April 27, 2011 11:27 AM
    Count me as another who is interested in a SSD hierarchy chart.

    I'd actually like to see hierarchy charts for cases, PSUs, heatsinks, mobos, dvd burners, etc. I know a lot of those categories would be pretty subjective, but they'd be soooo helpful.
  • 6 Hide
    virtualban , April 27, 2011 12:05 PM
    Count me as another who is interested in raid setups suggestion for SSDs. :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 27, 2011 12:11 PM
    "Steam has a bad habit of not letting you choose where to put your games once it's installed"

    not true, you can drag and drop the steam directory anywhere, even onto a totally new computer and it will work.
  • 4 Hide
    bullwinkel , April 27, 2011 12:25 PM
    This was extremely helpful. The SSD market is just too confusing when it comes to value and performance
  • 2 Hide
    jednx01 , April 27, 2011 12:31 PM
    I really wish that prices would drop on the prices of SSDs. I can't wait for the day when SSDs (or whatever new and faster option comes out) get as cheap as modern standard HDDs.
  • 4 Hide
    Onus , April 27, 2011 12:41 PM
    Nice addition to the monthly "Best" series.
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