June 16, 2024

Buying an SSD: What to Look For

If you are looking to switch to a solid-state drive (SSD) or upgrade your existing one, how do you choose the right SSD for your needs? Given how many SSDs are on the market now, how do you even know where to begin? This guide shows what to look for when buying an SSD.

Also helpful: once you know the criteria to look for, these top-recommended SSDs are worth your consideration.

1. Drive Capacity

Due to the pricing of SSDs, most people aren’t investing in 2TB SSDs to hold absolutely everything. It’s just way too expensive for most customers right now.

Smaller-sized SSDs can be used for what is called a “boot drive.” A boot drive holds your operating system. If you were to install Windows on an SSD, it would make your computer boot much faster, regardless of the rest of your tech specs. You can put some commonly-used programs and games on there, too.

How much can go on an SSD without needing a separate storage drive (i.e., a cheap hard drive) depends on how much you’re willing to spend. The following are the usual capacities and what you can expect storage-wise at each range:

  • Tier 1: up to 120GB – can work as a boot drive for any PC. Enough for browsing and word processing. This will work best with cloud storage to extend your storage space.
  • Tier 2: 256 GB – ideal as a boot drive. This is a good starting point if you also have some essential software to store.
  • Tier 3: 512 GB if you have a decent-sized library of movies and photos, you should start from this storage tier.
  • Tier 4: 1 TB – this allows you to install multiple AAA games at the same time or store a library of 4K movies.
  • Tier 5: 2 TB & beyond – superb for anything but more expensive. More than what is needed for the majority of consumers.

Tip: use our guide to find out how much hard drive space you truly need.

2. Form Factor (2.5″, mSATA, or M.2)

SATA SSDs can come in the regular 2.5″ form factor, as well as the smaller mSATA (outdated) and M.2 (modern) form factors. 2.5″ form factors are the most common and fit inside most laptop and desktop computers.

mSATA and M.2 solid-state drives are smaller and require less power. They are most often used in ultra-small laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. M.2 SSDs are longer-lasting than most other options, but they can also be more complicated to install.

PCIe SSDs are available in the M.2 form factor in the form of NVMe SSDs but can also be seen as full desktop PC expansion cards. These expansion cards are extremely fast but expensive, compared to NVMe SSDs.

3. Interface (SATA, SAS, or NVMe)

All SSDs can be sorted into three categories: SATA, SAS, and NVMe (PCIe) SSDs. The difference is the bandwidth that the SSD uses, which directly impacts how fast the drives can read and write data.

The best SATA SSDs operate in the range of 500 MB/s and higher (limited by SATA bandwidth), but cheaper (and older) solutions will naturally fall much shorter. Meanwhile, the speed of the PCI Express standard of the motherboard limits PCIe SSDs (including NVMe SSDs). The newest PCIe Gen5 SSDs have breached 10,000/8500 MB/s read/write speeds.

SAS solid-state drives offer the fastest read/write speeds, with many operating at speeds of at least 3 GB/s. However, SAS SSDs are most often used in enterprise-level servers and similar devices.

Good to know: there are several other differences between SATA and NVMe solid-state drives that you should research before purchasing one.

4. Power Consumption & Temperature

Power consumption may not be a concern regarding SSDs, but it can contribute to higher temperatures on the drive. Typically, M.2 NVMe SSDs consume less power than 2.5″ SATA SSDs, with the difference being around 1 to 2 watts during load. However, these drives can also heat up during certain operations, so many NVMe SSDs ship with a heatsink attached to them.

The power consumption of SSDs makes more of a difference in laptops, as battery life is critical. Since NVMe SSDs use less power, they are a smarter choice over SATA for laptop computers. On a desktop PC, however, the differences won’t amount to much. You should focus instead on the drive’s operating temperature and ensure that you have a heatsink installed, especially if your drive tends to exceed 140ºF to 158ºF (60℃ to 70℃) regularly.

5. Controller

Each SSD is made up of several different components, the most important of which is the controller. It’s essentially the CPU of the SSD and responsible for communicating with the interface (SATA or PCIe) to ensure efficient read/write operations. The quality of the controller used in an SSD determines, to a large extent, the performance the drive can deliver.

Today’s most prominent controller manufacturers are Phison, Silicon Motion, InnoGrit, and Maxio. The Phison E18 is currently one of the fastest controllers available, used in some of the best SSDs, such as the Inland Performance Plus. When buying an SSD for your system, finding the controller specifications is often difficult. Look for independent reviews of controller information as well as performance benchmarks.

Also helpful: format your hard drive for Windows 10 once you select the best SSD for your needs.

6. NAND Flash

The actual data on an SSD is stored in memory cells, which used to be made up of volatile DRAM, but modern SSDs feature non-volatile NAND flash memory. The type of NAND flash used on your SSD can be SLC, MLC, TLC, and QLC.

SLC or single-level cell flash is the fastest, longest-lasting, but most expensive, and hence, mostly used only in servers and industrial solutions. MLC NAND is cheaper but has a good price, performance, and endurance combination. TLC NAND is the most affordable and slowest flash memory and has the least endurance.

More recently, cheaper SSDs have started using QLC NAND for providing higher capacities at more affordable prices, but at the cost of performance. 3D NAND is not a different NAND flash type, but an innovative technique of stacking flash memory on top of each other instead of horizontally. It rivals 2D MLC NAND in terms of performance, while costing less.

If your budget permits, MLC NAND SSDs will net you higher performance, endurance, and reliability.

7. DRAM vs. DRAM-less

Most solid-state drives move data around frequently to prevent cells from wearing out. Dynamic random access memory (DRAM) on an SSD tracks where data is being transferred as the SSD moves things around for efficient read/write operations. DRAM-less SSDs also achieve this function without a dedicated component, using the NAND flash or the computer’s CPU instead.

While DRAM-less SSDs are cheaper than standard SSDs, their lack of DRAM is a significant weakness. A DRAM-less SSD will suffer decreased performance when multitasking, due to not having dedicated RAM to help manage that workload. Therefore, anyone who performs functions with intense graphics, like photo or video editing, should opt for an SSD with DRAM.

Good to know: if you are looking for a more affordable option for your next hard drive, you may want to compare solid-state drives and SSHDs.

8. Price

At the risk of stating the obvious, price is one of the most significant factors in SSD selection. However, prices of SSDs regularly fluctuate. By the time you read this, an SSD that I recommend could have a much different price than it does now.

Instead of recommending particular SSDs at particular price ranges, I’m going to give you a hot tip on buying SSDs and other computer hardware: try browsing SSDs on PCPartPicker.

Once you open PCPartPicker, click “Builder.” You’ll see a screen where you can start assembling a system build – don’t worry about all that right now, though. The option you want at this moment is “Storage.”

Shopping for an SSD on PC Part Picker

This screen may seem intimidating at first, but don’t sweat it. Use the filters on the left to select the drives rated 4 and 5 stars. Check “SSD” under “TYPE,” and choose your desired price range. You can also choose between SATA and NVMe SSDs, depending on your budget and the availability of slots on your motherboard.

Scroll through and find the SSD at the capacity you desire. (You can also choose to sort by Price/GB if you want to find the best-value SSDs that meet your previous specifications)

Tip: once you select a solid-state drive, you can upgrade your hard drive with this tutorial.

9. Brand

When buying an SSD, you want to buy from a high-rated, trusted brand to combine performance with reliability. Think Samsung, Western Digital, Silicon Power, ADATA, Sabrent, Team Group, Crucial, and SanDisk. These brands are known for consistently producing some of the fastest-performing, top-rated SSDs on the market. You can rest assured with plenty of warranty in case something goes wrong down the line.

Buying a random no-name SSD is just asking for trouble, especially if it’s at a suspiciously low price compared to similarly specced drives from its competitors. Don’t take those kinds of chances with your operating system and personal data.

We hope this guide helped you determine what you need to find the right SSD. Once you have an SSD, you may also want to consider checking out the things you must do when running an SSD and how to upgrade your hard drive to SSD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which SSD offers the best read and write speeds?

PCIe SSDs, commonly known as NVMe SSDs, offer the best read-and-write speeds. Choose from PCIe 3.0, PCI3 4.0, or PCIe 5.0 SSDs, depending on your budget and requirements. While PCIe 3.0 or Gen3 SSDs will be enough for most consumers, Gen4 SSDs are currently the most popular for combining blazing-fast performance with affordable prices. Gen5 SSDs have slowly started to become more mainstream but are exorbitantly expensive. The majority of consumers don’t have the requisite CPU and motherboard specs to support them.

Are PCIe 4.0 SSDs compatible with all PCs?

You can use PCIe 4.0 SSDs on any PC with an available M.2 slot, but the speed you’ll get will be limited to the PCIe interface of the slot itself. For instance, installing a PCIe 4.0 SSD on a PCIe 3.0 slot will limit the SSD to PCIe 3.0 bandwidth.

Does an SSD require more RAM?

No, an SSD doesn’t require more RAM by itself. An SSD will work perfectly well, irrespective of whether you have 8GB or 16GB memory in your computer. RAM and SSD serve different functions, and while more RAM will allow you to switch between multiple programs without a perceptible delay, having less-than-ideal RAM won’t affect your SSD’s performance.

Image credit: Unsplash. All original screenshots by Tanveer Singh.

Tanveer Singh
Tanveer Singh

Tanveer hunts far and wide for PC Hardware, Windows, and Gaming ideas to write about. An MBA in Marketing and the owner of a PC building business, he has written extensively on Technology, Gaming, and Marketing. When not scouring the web, he can be found binging on The Office, running for his life in GTFO, or wrecking karts in Smash Karts.

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