These days, it seems, 3D NAND memory is coming around for a visit to every major maker of solid-state drives (SSDs), and it’s not going home. Now it’s Western Digital’s turn to be host.
WD is throwing its hat into the ring for 64-layer 3D TLC-based SSDs with its new line of Blue drives. (See our review of the non-3D version of the WD Blue from a while back.) This type of cost-efficient NAND flash—the core memory chips that make up any SSD—is the new hotness in the world of mainstream SSDs, and over the past year we’ve been seeing a steady stream of announcements surrounding companies bringing their own versions to market. WD’s is the latest.
Samsung kicked off the whole 3D-NAND-based craze with the 48-layer Samsung SSD 960 ProSSD 960 EVOCrucial MX300Intel SSD 545s Series. WD, which also owns the consumer-staple storage brand SanDisk, is specifically coming to market with a 64-layer design. The idea of 64-layer in SSDs, in a nutshell, means pretty much what it sounds like: 64 layers of memory stacked in a three-dimensional space, rather than laid out side by side (in what is called a “planar” design).
This 3D approach is a radical departure from the planar method of laying down memory dies. Making the chips ever-smaller to fit in the planar scheme gets increasingly tricky as the size goes down, so 3D NAND development’s goal was to keep the chips at a reasonable size, and just stack them vertically. (For more on SSD lingo, see our guide Buying an SSD: 20 Terms You Need to Know.)
Besides the spatial problem solved by the nature of 3D NAND, this approach has several other benefits, most noticeably increased endurance (at least, as rated by the SSD makers themselves). In the case of WD (and SanDisk), it places the brands alongside other industry heavyweights in being able to offer the latest technology to its SSD customers. For WD’s part, its spokespeople say the move to 64-layer 3D NAND allows it to provide drives with lower power consumption as well as higher performance, endurance, and capacity, which sounds like a trifecta for a mainstream SSD. [Hey, that’s four things! Is there such a thing as a quadfecta? —Ed.]
WD is also releasing this drive under a different name under the SanDisk brand, as the SanDisk Ultra 3D. (See our recent review of the SanDisk Ultra 3D SSD.) That drive comes only in the 2.5-inch form factor, while WD is offering the Blue 3D in both the 2.5-inch design and in the M.2 “gumstick” form you see pictured here. If you’re more of a SanDisk fan than a WD loyalist, you could buy the SanDisk-flavored one, but according to WD, they are the same SSD underneath the skin/stickers.
Therefore, the good news: On the WD Blue 3D SSDs, it’s SATA, so it’s widely compatible. The bad news is, well, it’s SATA, as this means it’ll likely offer the same level of performance we’ve seen from SSDs for the past three years or so. But that’s a SATA problem, not a WD one.
The Blue 3D NAND SSDs come in four capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB. Each capacity will available in both of the form factors (2.5-inch versus M.2 Type-2280). The drives are specified to deliver up to 560MB per second in sequential reads, and 530MB per second in sequential writes, which is close to the maximum performance possible over a SATA connection, whose hard ceiling is 600MB per second. Even under a perfect-circumstances synthetic test, SATA drives won’t quite hit that 600MB per second, due to a measure of overhead required in the transfers. Overall, there’s not a huge speed difference in the real world among well-made, late-model SATA SSDs. But WD’s ratings put it right in the mix with the top of the lot.
As we mentioned above, one of the biggest benefits of moving to this type of memory for an SSD is increased endurance. To understand why, you need to realize that back when SSD flash memory was being laid down side-by-side, the only way to increase capacity was to shrink matters down, and as the elements involved got smaller and smaller, the potential for interference between cells became a problem. By stacking the layers vertically, SSD makers can spread out the silicon more, since they’re no longer constrained by the planar orientation. That, in turn, allows the chips to be more robust.
In the endurance vein, WD is flogging some impressive numbers. For example, the 2TB drive is rated for up to 500TB of written data, which, depending on what you do, might suffice that you could use the drive for the rest of your life and pass it down to your kids. The 1TB drive is rated to handle 400TB of writes; the 500GB is rated for 200TB; and the smallest (250GB) drive is rated at 100TB. These are all high, as mainstream SATA drives go, and if they pan out, they should be more than sufficient for any mainstream user. (Really, unless you’re day-in, day-out writing enormous 4K or 8K video files as a pro content creator, it will be hard to hit these numbers under typical usage. The drives themselves will become obsolete in terms of capacity, or passe for other reasons, before then.) Some manufacturers don’t actually release these numbers, so it’s clear that WD is confident in them, by virtue of the fact that they are being published.
Some budget drives come with little (or scanty) software, but the Blue 3D drive includes a pretty decent bundle. It features WD’s SSD maintenance software, dubbed SSD Dashboard, which we covered in our earlier review of the non-3D WD BlueSamsung SSD 850 EVOThe Best M.2 Solid-State Drives, Tested.
AS-SSD (Sequential Read Write Speeds)
This test uses the AS-SSD benchmark utility, which is designed to test SSDs, as opposed to traditional spinning hard drives. It measures a drive’s ability to read and write large files. Drive makers often quote these speeds as a theoretical maximum on the packaging or in advertising.
Sequential speeds are important if you’re working with very large files for image or video editing, or you play lots of games with large levels that take a long time to load with traditional hard drives. We secure-erase all SSDs before running this test.
The WD Blue 3D performed quite well in the read portion of this test, reaching a maximum sustained transfer rate of 518MB per second, which is about as much as you can expect from a SATA drive in this test. As you can see, it was only a few megabytes per second slower than the fastest drive, with most of the drives clustered close. That’s because this is essentially a straight-line speed contest, and most SATA drives with similar specs are in their element for a straightforward task like this. Still, it’s promising that the WD Blue 3D was one of the faster drives we’ve tested.
The drive also ran pretty fast in the write portion too, taking third place but coming close enough to the top drives to essentially call it a tie…
It was able to hit 492MB per second, which, like the read test, is about as fast as a SATA drive can go on this benchmark. It was fast enough that it was only 17MB per second slower than the fastest drive. But possibly even more significant is the fact that it tied the reigning mainstream-SSD champion, the Samsung SSD 850 EVO (which, as noted earlier, also uses 3D NAND).
AS-SSD (4K Read Write Speeds)
This test, also a part of the SSD-centric AS-SSD benchmark, measures a drive’s ability to traffic small files. Often overlooked, 4K performance, particularly 4K write performance, is important when it comes to boot speed and program launch times.
When booting up and launching programs, many tiny files get accessed and edited frequently. The faster your drive can write and read these kinds of files (especially dynamic link library, or DLL, files in Windows), the faster your OS will “feel.” Since small files like these get accessed much more frequently than large media or game-level files, a drive’s performance on this test will have a greater impact on how fast a drive feels in everyday use.
The WD Blue impressed us once again on this test, coming in as the second-fastest SATA drive of this lot, just 2MB per second slower overall than the budget-oriented Toshiba OCZ TL100. More important, it edged out (barely) two of its main competitors, the Samsung SSD 850 EVO and the just-released Intel SSD 545s, albeit by margins small enough to make no perceptible difference in the real world. Regardless, a win is a win, and the WD Blue 3D delivered a strong performance here.
As for 4K writes…
The WD Blue is on a roll, once again almost atop our benchmark chart. Once the smoke had cleared, it was just the WD Blue 3D and Crucial BX200 on the podium, with the others in a step-down class below. So far, this drive is proving rather well-rounded.
Anvil’s Storage Utilities
Anvil’s Storage Utilities is, like AS-SSD, an SSD-specific set of drive-benchmarking tests. We’ll report here the Overall Score, which is derived from the Read and Write scores with the utility running at default settings. (That is, with 100 percent incompressible data.) The drive was secure-erased before the test was run.
In this “one score for everything” test, the WD Blue 3D hit second place overall by a razor-thin margin to the more expensive Samsung SSD 850 Pro (not to be confused with the more mainstream-priced SSD 850 EVO). Of the midrange and budget drives, though, the WD Blue 3D was clearly the fastest, if by small margins once again. It was also noticeably faster than the previous, non-3D version of the WD Blue drive; this indicates that the new 64-layer TLC 3D NAND in the Blue 3D indeed gains you an uptick in performance over the previous drive. It just edged out the Intel SSD 545s, which also has 64-layer 3D NAND, by a little more than the margin of error.
Crystal DiskMark (QD32 Testing)
Crystal DiskMark uses incompressible data for testing, which stresses most modern SSDs quite a bit since they rely on data compression to achieve their maximum level of performance. This particular test is designed to replicate the duties of an SSD located inside a Web server, as it’s asked to perform a smattering of small reads, 4K in size. While it’s reading these files, a queue of 32 outstanding requests is lined up (a “queue depth” 32 requests deep). That’s typical of a high-volume Web server, which has to fulfill requests coming in at the same time from various clients.
In this demanding benchmark, the WD Blue 3D toppled a bit off its perch and was actually outgunned by its predecessor, the vanilla (non-3D) WD Blue drive. On this test, nobody in this lot outran the Samsung SSD 850 drives, which took the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. The WD Blue 3D still performed well, finishing just about 30MB per second behind the fastest drive overall, which isn’t too shabby. In any case, this test is more of an academic exercise; this isn’t a drive designed for server duty. That said, the write test…
In this benchmark, which might be the most challenging test for an SSD in our entire suite, the WD Blue 3D hunted with the big cats from Samsung and finished just a sliver behind them. This score puts the WD Blue 3D at the top of the heap of non-Samsung SSDs, the Kingston HyperX Savage excluded. It’s a strong showing, and it also outpaced Intel’s SSD 545s drive again. The most notable distinction we gleaned from this test is the difference between this new WD drive and the older one, which hung out at the bottom of this lot. That’s quite a difference.
PCMark 7 Secondary Storage Test
Our last test is the PCMark 7 Secondary Storage Test. This holistic trial simulates everyday drive accesses in a Windows environment.
This benchmark illustrates a key truth right now in the world of SATA SSDs: In the real world, most leading-edge and mainstream SATA drives perform much the same in everyday applications that don’t involve huge or frequent file transfers. Despite the small differences among benchmark results, most will finish the kinds of tasks attempted by home users in roughly the same amount of time. While it’s certainly a good thing that the WD Blue 3D finished “technically” fourth, it’s essentially tied with a whole bunch of drives on this trial.
Overall, we’re impressed with the WD Blue 3D. It performed well in pretty much every test we ran, and it comported itself like a midrange SSD with high-end aspirations. It still doesn’t technically top the Samsung SSD 850 EVO, but it’s close enough that under most circumstances, it will be indistinguishable. For the average home user, it’s close enough, and it’s one of the few drives we’ve seen of late that performed well across the board, instead of just in some of our tests. Overall, the WD Blue 3D is a very competitive SSD.
It also includes excellent software. Those utilities tend to be one-time-use, or in most situations not really required, but they are nice to have. We also like that WD is including a copy of Acronis, as it’s a fave of ours among cloning software and corrects one of the shortfalls with the previous drive’s rollout. (Bundling in cloning software is something of a must now, to be competitive, so WD needed it to roll with the big boys and girls.)
The endurance ratings are high, too. With the WD Blue 3D being new to the market, we’ll have to see if these endurance claims pan out over time. But at this point in the evolution of SSDs, it’s been years (Samsung SSD 840, anyone?) since we’ve heard whispers of SSD endurance issues. But that is a question mark about any SSD long-term. And that said, a company that loses a gamble on these numbers will pay for it big-time in warranty service down the line, so there is not much incentive to inflate them.
Overall, the WD Blue 3D, as we tested it in M.2 trim, is a very well-rounded package. At launch, it’s not quite ready from a price perspective to dethrone the Samsung SSD 850 EVO, but, boy, is it close. It checks all the boxes for an SSD for home or business use, and price fluctuations mean it should be right in the consideration mix over its life. If prices drop a tiny bit and someone asks if they should buy this or one of the forms of the SSD 850 EVO (in M.2 or 2.5-inch), the answer is simple: flip a coin.
Or flip an SSD. Label side up, choose one; label side down, the other.
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