Switching to a solid-state drive is the best upgrade you can make for your PC. These wondrous devices obliterate long boot times, speed up how fast your programs and games load, and generally makes your computer feel fast. But not all solid-state drives are created equal. The best SSDs offer solid performance at affordable prices—or, if price is no object, face-meltingly fast read and write speeds.
This article was last updated on November 17, 2017 to include Intel’s Optane SSD 900P and the WD Blue 3D SATA NAND SSD.
Many SSDs come in a 2.5-inch form factor and communicate with PCs via the same SATA ports used by traditional hard drives. But out on the bleeding-edge of NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) drives, you’ll find tiny “gumstick” SSDs that fit in M.2 connections on modern motherboards, SSDs that sit on a PCIe adapter and slot into your motherboard like a graphics card or sound card, futuristic 3D Xpoint drives, and more. Picking the perfect SSD isn’t as simple as it used to be.
That’s where this guide comes in. We’ve tested numerous drives to find the best SSDs for any use case. Let’s take a look at PCWorld’s top picks, and then dive into what to look for in an SSD. Quick note: This roundup only covers internal solid-state drives. Check out PCWorld’s guide to the best external drives if you’re looking for a portable storage solution.
Best SSD for most people
Real-life friends often hit PCWorld staffers up for hardware recommendations. And when people ask for the best SSD, our universal answer has been “Get a Samsung 850 EVO.” That still holds true three years after the SSD’s launch. We recently bought another one for PCWorld’s graphics card testing system, in fact.
The Samsung 850 EVO isn’t the fastest SSD you can buy—that honor goes to advanced NVMe drives—but it’s neck-and-neck with other SATA-based drives. More importantly, the price of this once-cutting-edge SSD has plummeted over the years. While it started off expensive, today the Samsung 850 EVO offers a compelling blend of price, performance, and capacity that few SSDs can match, backed by a long five-year warranty and Samsung’s superb Magician SSD software for easy-peasy drive installation and maintenance. And as a SATA-based drive, the Samsung 850 EVO should have no problems slipping into most desktops or laptops, unlike exotic M.2 and PCIe SSDs.
The 500GB Samsung 850 EVO ($150 on Amazon) is probably the best option for most people, but it’s also available in 250GB, 1TB, 2TB, and 4TBmodels. Prices for SSDs start to get staggering once you hit 1TB or more of capacity, though. Most people would be better off buying the 500GB version and pairing it (if need be) with a high-capacity traditional hard drive like the Western Digital Blue lineup ($50 for 1TB on Amazon).
But after all these years other SSDs are challenging the Samsung 850 EVO. The Sandisk Ultra 3D ($150 for 500GB on Amazon) and Intel SSD 545s ($180 for 500GB on Newegg) are two other good options. The Sandisk Ultra 3D’s three-year warranty lags behind the five-year warranty of the Samsung and Newegg drives, though. The WD Blue 3D NAND SATA SSD ($155 on Amazon) is essentially the same SSD as the Sandisk Ultra 3D, but sold with a different label and in another form factor (M.2).
Best budget SSD
If you’re looking for a solid, easy-to-install SATA SSD but don’t want to spend a lot of money, check out the Crucial BX300. It’s one of the fastest budget-friendly drives we’ve tested.
Many cheap SSDs use triple-level cell (TLC) NAND chips that can peter out on the performance front when you’re transferring a lot of files and exceed the drive’s cache. (More on that in the buying guide section.) The Crucial BX300 uses multi-level cell (MLC) NAND that sidesteps the issue, so it delivers consistent transfer speeds even when you’ve moving over large batches of files. The three-year warranty isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either.
The price is certainly right though, especially if you’re planning to pair your SSD with a mechanical hard drive. On Amazon, you can grab a 120GB model for just $60 and a 240GB model for $80. There’s also a 480GB BX300 for $145, but in that price range, grab a Samsung 850 EVO or SanDisk Ultra 3D instead.
Best NVMe SSD
If performance is paramount, the Samsung 960 Pro is the best NVMe SSD you can buy. This drive is ludicrously fast, roaring past SATA-based SSDs in sustained read/write tests, and it’s available in up to 2TB of capacity ($1,025 on Amazon)—a rarity for a top-end NVMe SSD, albeit an expensive one. If your pockets aren’t quite that deep, 1TB ($587 on Amazon) and 512GB ($290 on Amazon) models are also available. Samsung supports the 960 Pro with its excellent Magician SSD management software and a lengthy five-year warranty.
If performance is paramount and price is no object, Intel’s Optane SSD 900Pis the best SSD you can buy, full stop. The drive doesn’t use traditional NAND technology like other SSDs; instead, it’s built around the futuristic 3D Xpoint technology developed by Micron and Intel. Hit that link if you want a tech deep-dive, but in practical terms, the Optane SSD 900P absolutely plows through our storage benchmarks and carries a ridiculous 8,750TBW (terabytes written) rating, compared to the roughly 200TBW offered by many NAND SSDs. If that holds true, this blazing-fast drive is basically immortal—and it looks damned good, too.
But you pay for the privilege of bleeding edge performance. Intel’s Optane SSD 900P costs $390 for a 280GB version and $600 for a 480GB model. That’s significantly more expensive than even NVMe SSDs—and like those, the benefits of Intel’s SSD will be most obvious to people who move large amounts of data around regularly. And the Optane SSD 900P actually uses the NVMe protocol to communicate with your PC, so you’ll need to meet some additional criteria to be able to boot from it—which we’ll cover next.
NVMe SSD setup: What you need to know
Be aware of what NVMe drives deliver before you buy in. Standard SATA SSDs already supercharge boot times and loading times for PCs, and for a whole lot cheaper. You’ll get the most use from NVMe drives, be it in a M.2 form factor like the Samsung 960 Pro or a PCIe drive, if you routinely transfer data, especially in large amounts. If you don’t do that, NVMe drives aren’t worth the price premium.
If you decide to buy an NVMe SSD, make sure your PC can handle it. This is a relatively new technology, so you’ll only be able to find M.2 connections motherboards from the past few years. Think AMD Ryzen and mainstream Intel chips from the Skylake era onward, for the most part. NVMe SSDs that were mounted on PCIe adapters were popular in the technology’s early years, before M.2 adoption spread, but they’re rarer now. Make sure you’re actually able to use an NVMe SSD before you buy one, and be aware that you’ll need 4 PCIe lanes available in order to use it.
To get the most out of an NVMe drive, you want to run your operating system on it, so you must have a system that recognizes the drive and can boot from it. PCs purchased during the past year or two should have no problem booting from an NVMe drive, but support for that can be iffy in older motherboards. Do a Google search for your motherboard and see if it supports booting from NVMe. You may need to install a BIOS update for your board. If your hardware can’t boot from an NVMe SSD, your machine should still be able to use it as a secondary drive.
What to look for in an SSD
Capacity and price are important, of course, and a long warranty can alleviate fears of premature data death. Most SSD manufacturers offer a three-year warranty, and some nicer models are guaranteed for five years. But unlike the olden days of SSDs, modern drives won’t wear out with normal consumer usage, as Tech Report tested and proved years ago with a grueling endurance test.
The biggest thing to watch out for is the technology used to connect the SSD to your PC.
SATA: This refers to both the connection type and the transfer protocol, which is used to connect most 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch hard drives and SSDs to your PC. SATA III speeds can hit roughly 600MBps, and most—but not all—modern drives max it out. (More on that in the next section.)
PCI-E: This interface taps into four of your computer’s PCIe lanes to blow away SATA speeds, to the tune of nearly 4GBps over PCIe gen. 3. Those sort of face-melting speeds pair nicely with supercharged NVMe drives. Both the PCIe lanes in your motherboard and the M.2 slot in your motherboard can be wired to support the PCIe interface, and you can buy adapters that allow you to slot “gumstick” M.2 drives into a PCIe lane.
NVMe: Non-Volatile Memory Express technology takes advantage of PCIe’s bountiful bandwidth to create blisteringly fast SSDs that blow SATA-based drives out of the water. Check out PCWorld’s “Everything you need to know about NVMe” for a nitty-gritty deep-dive.
M.2: This is where things get tricky. Many people assume M.2 drives all use NVMe technology and PCIe speeds, but that’s not true. M.2 is just a form factor. Sure, most M.2 SSDs use NVMe, but some still stick to SATA. Do your homework. Many modern Ultrabooks rely on M.2 for storage.
U.2 and mSATA: You may also stumble across mSATA and U.2 SSDs, but both motherboard support and product availability are rare for those formats. Some older Ultrabooks included mSATA before M.2 became popular, and drives are still available if you need them.
Speed matters, of course, but as we said most modern SSDs saturate the SATA III interface. Not all of them, though. About that…
Buyer beware: TLC vs MLC vs SLC SSDs
We’re starting to see more SSDs that use triple-level cell (TLC) NAND technology. TLC can store three bits per cell. By comparison, one bit single-layer cell (SLC) SSDs offer the best performance at the cost of higher prices and lower capacities, and multi-level cell (MLC) SSDs store two bits per cell.
TLC drives offer greater data density, in other words, which in turn can be used to increase the capacity of SSDs, or offer standard SSD capacities at lower prices. But TLC’s sustained write performance is comparatively poor—in some cases exceedingly. If you move large amounts of data, transfer speeds for these drives can fall off a cliff once you’ve exceeded the SSD’s cache.
The problem isn’t universal, and it won’t matter if you don’t move big batches of files, but storage makers don’t advertise this potentially crippling SSD problem. We’ve witnessed the behavior in numerous SSDs, including the Toshiba TR200 and Q300 as well as the older OCZ Trion 100. Heck, even the TLC-packing Crucial BX200 suffers from the issue—and its MLC-equipped sibling the BX300 is our favorite budget drive! Stick to our tried and tested picks for the best SSD rather than rolling the dice on a cheap clunker.
SSDs vs. hard drives
Do you need an SSD? “Need” is a strong word, but we heartily recommend that everyone upgrade to an SSD. Solid-state drive speeds blow even the fastest mechanical hard drives out of the water. Simply swapping the hard drive in your old laptop or desktop out for an SSD can make it feel like a whole new system—and a blazing fast one at that. Buying an SSD is easily the best upgrade you can make for a computer.
SSDs cost more per gigabyte than mechanical hard drives, though, and thus aren’t often available in ultra-high capacities. If you want speed and storage space, you can buy an SSD with limited space (like the 128GB Crucial BX300) and use it as your boot drive, then set up a traditional hard drive as secondary storage in your PC. Place your programs on your boot drive, stash your media and other files on the hard drive, and you’re ready to have your cake and eat it too.
Alternatively, Intel’s new Optane drives blend both worlds. These tiny, affordable M.2 drives are designed to pair with a hard drive in your system and act as a cache, speeding up the most-used programs on your PC. Intel’s tech can truly supercharge your everyday experience, but once you blow past the M.2 drive’s 16GB or 32GB of cache, you’re back to pokey hard drive speeds. Optane also has strict configuration and supported hardware requirements. Check out PCWorld’s Intel Optane memory review for the full details.
Best SSDs: Our reviews
If you’d like to know more about our best SSD picks as well as other options, the links below point you toward all the SSDs we’ve recently reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new ones on a regular basis, so be sure to check back to see what other drives we’ve put through their paces. And once more, if you’re looking for portable storage, check out PCWorld’s roundup of the best external drives.