Introduction, Design Features
How fast do you need your storage to be, and how big is your budget? These are the two questions you need to ask yourself when shopping for cutting-edge storage here at the end of 2016.
Unless you’re truly cash-strapped and don’t do much more than basic tasks, we’d strongly suggest stepping up to some sort of solid-state drive at this point on your desktop or laptop PC. With very good budget Serial ATA-based drives such as Crucial’s MX300 delivering roughly five times the sequential speed of a spinning-platter hard drive and lightning-quick access times, there’s little reason these days to hang around with the poor plebeians still spinning their slow, platter-based boot drives.
If you want even more speed than a SATA drive can deliver (SATA tops out around 550MB per second, due to the limitations of the aging SATA interface), and you have a desktop or laptop that supports it, you can drop in a drive that supports NVMe. NVMe is a new-ish drive protocol that replaces AHCI, a software control layer that debuted in in 2004 and was designed handle hard drives. NVMe-equipped drives generally use the PCI Express bus to move data, and can be found in several form factors: as M.2 “stick”-style SSDs, as PCI Express cards, or as 2.5-inch drives using the esoteric U.2 interface.
NVMe-based drives still aren’t all that common, and they definitely cost more than SATA drives do. But the Intel 750 Series SSDSSD 950 Pro, two of the major NVMe drives we’ve tested to date, have delivered sequential read speeds in the range of 2,500MB per second and writes up above 1,000MB per second. That’s a performance leap above most SATA-based drives that’s almost as drastic as stepping up from a plain old hard drive to a decent SATA-based SSD.
Samsung, obviously not content to leave fast enough alone, recently announced its successors to the 950 Pro, in the form of both an SSD 960 EVO, and an an even higher-end drive, the SSD 960 Pro. Both the EVO and the Pro make use of NVMe, the M.2 form factor, and a PCI Express x4 connection. We know that’s a mouthful of storage jargon, so for a refresher on the state of cutting-edge storage, see our 2016 Guide: The Best M.2 Solid-State Drives, Tested.
We’re looking at the SSD 960 Pro here, which comes in 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB capacities. Samsung sent us the entry-level 512GB capacity for review, which is notable because 512GB was actually the maximum capacity of the previous-generation SSD 950 Pro. Also of note with this new drive are two speeds: its rated sequential-read speed (3,500MB per second) and its sequential-write rating (2,100MB per second), which applies across the board, no matter the capacity. This is no minor bump over last year’s blazing-fast Samsung SSD 950; the SSD 960 Pro promises blistering speeds a full 1GB per second speedier than the previous-generation drive in reads, and 600MB per second faster in writes.
That all sounds extremely impressive on paper, and at least some of our initial benchmark testing generally backed up Samsung’s claims. But while the Samsung SSD 960 Pro is indeed faster than Samsung’s previous NVMe drive (and any other drive we’ve tested, period), it’s important to note that in a general sense, it doesn’t feel any faster than other fast NVMe drives we’ve used. And that’s important if pricing matters to you, at all.
That’s because the Samsung SSD 960 Pro is quite expensive in these days of otherwise impressively falling SSD prices. A good mainstream SATA drive, such as the recently introduced WD Blue SSD (1TB), can sell for less than 30 cents per gigabyte, which works out to less than $300 for a 1TB drive. The 1TB Samsung SSD 960 Pro lists at well over twice that much: $629. And the top 2TB model hits the market at a teeth-grinding $1,299.
So, much like Intel’s $1,000-plus Extreme Edition Core i7 processors, the Samsung SSD 960 Pro delivers astounding performance if you’re often undertaking tasks that can take advantage of it (say, high-end content creation or 4K video editing). But unless price just isn’t an issue, most users would be better off opting for something a little more modest. The Samsung SSD 960 EVO models, which were also trickling out to online stores when we wrote this, might just be that happy medium between fastest-possible performance and reasonable pricing. The 256GB entry-level SSD 960 EVO was selling for just $130.
There’s little doubt that the Samsung SSD 960 Pro represents the pinnacle of consumer storage tech here in late 2016. As with the previous SSD 950 Pro, the drive ships only in a Type 2280 (80mm) M.2 form factor, which is quickly becoming the standard SSD type for slim premium notebooks and convertibles. The connector is showing up on many recent Intel motherboards, as well. And while the SSD 950 Pro topped out at 512GB, the SSD 960 Pro will be offered starting at that capacity, and ramping up to a top 2TB.
To pack that much storage into a slim, gumstick-size form factor, Samsung is using its latest (third-generation) 48-layer 3D-stacked MLC V-NAND here, which lets the company pack up to 512GB of storage into each of the drive’s four memory modules. To save even more space, the drive’s DRAM (which acts as a cache between the controller and the NAND) is mounted on top of the drive’s new Polaris controller itself. Samsung calls this a “Package-on-Package” (POP) design, and claims this is the first client SSD to implement it.
Rather than rattle off a long list of the SSD 960 Pro’s specs, here’s a chart, direct from Samsung’s press materials…
The other primary feature addition between the previous-generation drive and the SSD 960 Pro is a whole lot less technical. Because the M.2 form factor is so small, and NVMe drives can be so fast, heat can become an issue, causing performance to throttle back during sustained reads and/or writes. To combat this, Samsung has incorporated a thin strip of copper underneath the SSD 960 Pro’s label, which sits directly atop the drive’s controller and storage packages, effectively working as a heat spreader. The company says this, combined with the new four-package design, lets the new drive handle roughly twice the amount of sustained sequential reads, and three times the sequential writes, before the drive starts slowing down due to heat. Samsung says for the SSD 960 Pro, that should be 333GB of reads, or 273GB of writes.
This is an important improvement for those situations where the drive is getting hammered with transfers. But outside of benchmark tests, it’s hard to see a scenario where this would happen often under general consumer use. There aren’t many other drives that could feed the SSD 960 Pro enough data at fast enough speeds to get it to this point. Perhaps if you have an external RAID array of multiple SSDs connected via Thunderbolt 3 to a system running this drive, and you are dumping large amounts of high-resolution video, throttling could become an issue (even with the SSD 960 Pro and its copper label). But outside of that, it’s unlikely you’ll often run into an occasion where the drive slows down due to thermal issues.
As with the previous-generation drive, the SSD 960 Pro features 256-bit hardware-based encryption, and features a five-year warranty. That length of coverage is unfortunately half that of the 10 years of coverage offered by the company’s high-end SATA-based drive, the SSD 850 Pro. But honestly, given the rate at which solid-state storage has been improving, if you care about performance (as you clearly do if you’re paying this much for a drive), you’ll probably be considering an upgrade by the time 2021 or 2022 rolls around, anyway.
And unless you’re running the SSD 960 Pro in a server running 24/7 (which the drive isn’t designed for), you shouldn’t have to worry about endurance. Samsung rates the 512GB model we tested at 400TBW (terabytes written), the 1TB drive doubles that to 800TBW, and the 2TB version is rated to 1,200TBW, or 1.2 petabytes. We consider 10 terabytes to be a rough estimate of the amount of data a heavy power user writes to a boot drive in a given year. So even if you somehow managed to double that, the entry-level capacity is rated to withstand two decades of writes. To wear out the cells in the 2TB model within the five-year warranty, you’d need to write more than 650GB to the drive every single day. In other words, you probably don’t have to worry about endurance.
Samsung includes very little in the box with the SSD 960 Pro. You get the drive, as well as a small paper manual/install guide, wedged between pieces of packaging plastic. That’s all that’s physically included, but the drive also supports Samsung’s excellent, polished Magician software that we’ve touched on before, most recently in our review of the entry-level SSD 750 EVO. The current version of the Magician Software wasn’t fully functional with the SSD 960 Pro when we tested; the Secure Erase, Firmware Update, and some other features were grayed out. But the company promises a new 5.0 version of the software in mid-November, which will include new backup features and a Samsung-specific NVMe driver. Because Samsung’s driver wasn’t available at testing time, we ran our benchmarks using Microsoft’s driver, as we generally do with SATA-based drives.
It would have been nice if Samsung had also included a spare or two of the very tiny M.2-slot screw to hold down the drive for installation purposes. But hopefully users haven’t lost the one that came with their motherboard. (Hint: It may still be screwed into the post near the M.2 connector.) Samsung also could have included a PCI Express card adapter for desktop users who don’t have an M.2 connector on their board, but it’s likely that most SSD 960 Pro buyers that know enough to be searching for this specific drive will have the necessary connector, or be in the process of upgrading to a new machine that does. And if you’re determined to install the drive in a desktop without an M.2 connector, you can find PCI Express adapter cards online for $15 to $30 that should do the trick.