NVMe in the M.2 form factor is finally a reality for desktop enthusiasts. Retailers begin selling Samsung's 950 Pro today, and we already have three drives in-hand.
Samsung continues to lead the SSD market. Its new 950 Pro delivers blistering performance in an elegant package. This beauty is a beast, but you might be surprised to learn that it's also affordable.
Today marks an important milestone in storage history. The Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) protocol will replace AHCI across a large number of devices, improving the user experience as it reduces latency. This is all thanks to the first product designed specifically for client use, Samsung's 950 Pro.
For years, storage enthusiasts watched other subsystems enjoy massive performance increases at the hands of new technology and advanced manufacturing. Hard drives, and even SSDs, just couldn't scale at the same pace as CPUs, RAM or GPUs. AHCI-enabled solid-state drives did shrink the gap, but quickly became limited by legacy interfaces designed for mechanical disks.
NVMe changes the rules. Recently, Intel divulged that the protocol was designed for 3D XPoint. But that didn't stop SSD manufacturers from adapting it to more traditional flash-based storage products. Intel already introduced a high-end NVMe-based drive to the client segment by utilizing an expensive and power-hungry controller from its data center portfolio. But the 950 Pro is different. Its M.2 form factor facilitates lower power consumption than Intel's SSD 750, which is limited to the 2.5" and add-in card form factors due to a 12V requirement. Enterprise-class technology like that often finds its way onto the desktop, even though it can be clumsy. For instance, many data center devices need more air flow. When you bring them over to enthusiast PCs, it becomes necessary to augment your cooling and cope with the resulting noise.
The 950 Pro also differs from the SM951 and SM951-NVMe. This new model is a retail product, and it comes with tools developed by Samsung to improve your user experience. Samsung will make the drivers readily available, along with the company's SSD toolbox software called Magician. The company also has an in-house cloning tool you'll get access to. In comparison, the SM951s are designed for OEM customers, and gray market products usually lack official drivers and software. Many enthusiasts have purchased the SM951-NVMe, only to fall back on Microsoft's built-in drivers. Without the NVMe software that HP recently published, you leave roughly 30% of the SM951-NVMe's random performance tied up in the driver stack. Not every user knows to jump through those hoops. Retail products like the 950 Pro simplify support greatly.
The 950 Pro is available in two capacities: 256 and 512GB. Samsung tells us that a 1TB model will launch early in 2016, and it'll employ Samsung's 48-layer MLC V-NAND, which stacks more memory cells without decreasing the number of usable dies per wafer. The two 950 Pros introduced today use Samsung's 32-layer MLC V-NAND. The 48-layer stuff won't enter production until later this year.
At the 950 Pro's heart is a Samsung UBX controller, the same one found on the SM951 and SM951-NVMe. This is Samsung's catch-all PCIe-to-NAND flash controller for 2015, it seems. An enterprise-oriented version with host power-fail protection is expected later this year as well, and it'll be called the SM953. The UBX controller is manufactured on a 32nm node and consists of three ARM Cortex-R4 cores running at 500MHz. The controller can address eight channels with eight-way interleaving. Error correction comes in the form of BCH, so we don't expect Samsung to utilize three-bit-per-cell flash without heavy modifications.
Expect the 512GB 950 Pro to be faster than the 256GB model, delivering up to 2500 MB/s sequential read and 1500 MB/s sequential writes. Its random performance specs are also impressive. At a queue depth of one, random reads can hit up to 12,000 IOPS according to Samsung. Those sequential numbers come from an enterprise-class workload, so you shouldn't expect to see 2.5 GB/s on the desktop. Still, the SSD is very, very fast.
The 950 Pros should also support AES 256-bit FDE with eDrive and TCG Opal. This wasn't enabled on our review sample; however, retail drives are expected to receive a firmware update either before release or not long after. AES encryption is not enabled on the SM951 either, but we've yet to hear anyone complain about the omission.
Samsung's 950 Pro 256GB has an MSRP of $200. The 512GB model should sell for $350. The obvious comparison to the 950 Pro is Intel's SSD 750 400GB. Newegg currently has that drive priced at $360, and we have both of Intel's client-oriented NVMe products in today's charts for performance comparisons.
The 950 Pros include five-year warranties limited by the total amount of data written to the drive. Samsung's 256GB version is capped at 200 terabytes written (TBW) and the 512GB drive doubles that to 400 TBW. Both 950 Pros increase the TBW limit over the 850 Pro by 50 TBW (256GB comparison) and 100 TBW (512GB comparison).
Magician software to enable Rapid Mode was not available in time for our review. However, Samsung says it'll release the utility soon. The company also has its own drive cloning software for retail-branded SSDs. It will be interesting to see how Samsung handles booting from the NVMe driver on a cloned operating system. You may need to fiddle with BIOS settings and the original operating system to get a smooth transition. This would include installing an NVMe driver in Windows 7. The Microsoft driver built into Windows 8.x and Windows 10 is a bit easier.
Software tools aside, the 950 Pro only ships with the M.2 2280 form factor drive and two Samsung SSD stickers for the outside of your notebook or desktop PC.