Computex 2016 media activities start today. Tom's Hardware writers are peppered across the largest city in Taiwan to bring you unrivaled coverage. In this piece, we look back at our predictions from 2015 and lay the groundwork for the rest of 2016.
We discussed price parity between hard disk and solid-state drives for OEM system builders at Computex 2015. Lower-cost NAND flash, higher bit output, and technologies such as DRAM-less SSD controllers fueled tremendous growth. New pricing models for this year will continue to fuel the fire as the focus moves up the stack into higher capacity sizes at lower price points.
All of our projections from Computex 2015 have come true. It is now possible to purchase a 256 GB-class SSD for less than $60. System integrators and major OEMs have adopted flash-based storage in mid-tier systems, and now it's even possible to select an entry-level SSD for sub-$500 notebooks. Shrinking SSD prices have also aided in the decline of new PC sales (a topic we will address later).
The number of NVMe-based products has also increased, but at a slower rate than we expected. Part of that points back to Marvell, which has yet to ship its Eldora and Eldora-Lite SSD controllers in retail products. Toshiba finally managed to get its TC58NCP SSD controller out the door in the OEM-specific XG3 and retail OCZ RD400, but these products were also much later than expected. Phison shipped the PS5007-E7, but it is still limited to the Zotac SONIX 480GB SSD. The NVMe adoption rate has been a little slower than we predicted, as companies struggle to build products that can compete with Samsung's 950 Pro.
2nd Half 2016 Trends
The rest of 2016 will follow four trends: Entry-level 512 GB class SSDs will drop to $100, and 2TB class SSDs will ship from more manufacturers. NVMe-based products will become more prevalent in the market but demand a price premium that may not attract shoppers. Finally, flash storage will begin to consume the portable drive market as flash enables manufacturers to make smaller, more robust devices.
$100 512GB SSDs
The industry is not going to wait for 3D NAND flash production to ramp up before lowering the price of entry-level 512 GB SSDs. We've already spotted a 512 GB class SSD at $99.99, and more will follow. The new price is roughly $10 to $30 lower than what we see now. Samsung just entered this entry-level space with the 750 EVO 500 GB (MSRP $150) to compete with a new value-centric class of products where the scant features list mimics the low price point. We suspect Samsung will start with aggressive pricing on the 750 EVO, allowing it to compete with other entry-level products at $100-$110. This tactic will allow Samsung to simultaneously increase the price of the 850 EVO.
The Phison S10, Silicon Motion SM2256, and newcomer Marvell Dean controllers will all fight for market share with Samsung's two-core MGX controller. All of these products will utilize the planar (2D) NAND flash that is cheaper to manufacture than existing and upcoming 3D TLC.
More 2TB Choices
Market leader Samsung has already shipped three 2 TB flash-based products. It is common to see 850 EVO, 850 Pro and external T3 for sale in this capacity size. Of those three products, only the T3 Portable SSD utilizes the new 48-layer V-NAND (doubles the die density over 32-layer), but the two internal drives will follow shortly. Forty-eight-layer V-NAND should allow Samsung to lower the price of its two existing 2 TB internal SSDs.
Samsung has had more success with moving TLC to 48 layers than MLC; in fact, we have yet to see a retail 950 Pro 1 TB SSD or MLC 48-layer flash. Given the success of 48-layer TLC, we suspect to see an 850 EVO 2 TB M.2 and mSATA announcement next month at Samsung's annual SSD Summit in Seoul, South Korea. We also hope to see the introduction of 950 EVO with NVMe. Samsung has not announced or confirmed these predictions, but a large reseller based in the United States has mildly confirmed upcoming 2TB EVO products.
Other vendors will announce 2 TB products at Computex 2016, but we will not see retail units until Q4 2016. This leads us to believe that the upcoming Phison S10-based SSDs will ship only with 3D NAND flash. Over the coming days, several companies will paper-launch upcoming retail SSDs with empty shells. When released, we expect to see 2 TB TLC products selling around $500.
More Enthusiast-Class NVMe SSDs
Plextor has already leaked details of its upcoming M8e SSD. The 2016 flagship utilizes a Marvell NVMe-based controller. Marvell should be close to releasing 28nm Eldora (8-channel) and Eldora Lite (4-channel) controllers to SSD manufacturers. We expected the company to launch the controllers in Q4 2015, but that time passed without a single product release. SSD manufacturers must build firmware for Marvell SSDs, because the company does not provide it as a service, and we suspect Marvell has had hardware ready, but the firmware slowed the release schedule.
Phison has already shipped the PS5007-E7 NVMe-enabled controller--but only in the Zotac SONIX. When we reviewed the drive, it felt unfinished. Later discussions with the company confirmed our suspicions. A new firmware with additional performance tuning is in development but not finished as of two months ago. We suspect smaller SSD companies such as Patriot, Corsair, and a much larger Kingston will release E7-based products with the new firmware. We should see these products at Computex on display with firm release dates.
Many Phison E7-based SSDs were shown at Computex in 2015, and again in a refined form at CES last January. The products on display at Computex 2016 should be identical to retail products. We suspect the retail drives will ship next month and outperform the SONIX add-in card we reviewed.
Silicon Motion has made excellent market penetration in the low-cost SATA SSD market with 4-channel controllers, such as the SM2246 (for MLC) and SM2256 (for TLC). The company has displayed the upcoming NVMe 8-channel SM2260 in the past. We have learned the SM2260 is destined for exclusive use in a client M.2 product from a major NAND flash fab company. The company will announce the product in the coming days. The new M.2 SSD will pair the SMI SM2260 controller with 32-layer 3D NAND flash.
Small Portable And Fast External SSDs
Since the first affordable SSDs hit the market, the external device vendors have tapped the technology to build shock-resistant portable products that rival those from hard disk drive manufacturers. NAND flash pricing has always been a difficult hurdle to overcome, but low-cost TLC NAND is beginning to level the playing field. Companies will announce more flash-based external drives in various form factors, but we do not expect pricing to mimic internal SSDs anytime soon.
We were recently informed that 3D flash yields need to exceed 80 percent to be cost-competitive with existing 16nm 2D NAND. We do not think the industry has achieved that level of success yet. More companies have placed external SSDs on the road map and will lay a foundation with 2D flash, but large-capacity products will not be cost-competitive until 3D production overcomes some challenges.