Best SSDs For The Money: May 2012

We're updating this month's recommendations after the introduction of Intel's SSD 330. But the new drives don't affect the outcome of today's story because one vendor in particular is going crazy with price-cutting that earns it several mentions from us.

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 read 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.

May Updates

When we write about solid-state storage, we make a lot of caveats. This drive does really well in sequential reads and writes, but doesn't handle random I/O very well. This other drive registers higher power consumption than the others for some unknown reason. And, when it comes to SandForce-based SSDs, they only achieve their peak performance when you're moving around compressible bits of data.

Now, let's face it. Anyone going from a hard drive to an SSD (almost any SSD) will see massive performance increases, much lower power use, and incredibly low response times, even if our benchmark data, which most often compares solid-state technology to itself, suggests more significant differences. Nevertheless, we still think it important to tell you how each architecture, and even more specifically, how each drive behaves relative to its competition.

Because of this, we know a lot of folks are wary of SandForce-based drives explicit because their behavior changes based on workload. It's telling, though, that Intel is the controller vendor's newest customer. We recently reviewed its highest-end desktop drive in Intel SSD 520 Review: Taking Back The High-End With SandForce. And while we really liked Intel's effort (particularly its five-year warranty coverage), high price tags remain a barrier for many folks looking to adopt an SSD they can trust with their important data. 

If you're ready to look past the fact that Intel is using the same controller as its less-expensive competition, one other feature that helps define the SSD 520's performance is its memory interface. Drive makers can choose between Toggle-mode DDR, synchronous ONFi-compliant, and asynchronous ONFi-compliant NAND. Intel uses 25 nm synchronous memory to achieve good (not the best) benchmark results.

Even more recently, Intel unveiled a second-string of SandForce-based SSDs that we reviewed in Intel SSD 330 Review: 60, 120, And 180 GB Models Benchmarked. The company chose not to send any of those drives out for review, so we bought the entire line-up on Amazon for our evaluation. As it turns out, the SSD 330s might actually be more attractive to cost-conscious enthusiasts. They're essentially hardware duplicates of the SSD 520s, including the same controller and same NAND. We suggested that Intel binned the drives for lower performance or capped their speed with a specific firmware. Even still, they're slightly faster than SandForce-based drives with asynchronous NAND like OCZ's Agility 3. The SSD 330 only comes with three-year warranty coverage, but is still backed by Intel's more robust track record for reliability and support.

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. Now that Intel's Z68 Express chipset is available, the idea of SSD-based caching could come into play for more entry-level enthusiasts, too.
  • 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 issue that mobile users face ever-presently. Even on the desktop, other variables have to be considered.
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. Our picks will be valid the month of publication, but we can't extend our choices very far beyond that time frame. SSD pricing is especially competitive, and a $15 difference can be the reason why one SSD makes the list, while another does not. As you shop, 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.
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