Solid state drives are not only mainstream, but they’ve become a commodity. Fast storage will hopefully only get faster but today’s best choices are differentiated by how extreme you want to go and how willing you are to pay for the very best. For new builds, NVMe drives have become the norm as prices continue to fall.
Enthusiast and pro-level SSDs are reserved to non-volatile storage which carry a premium, but are certainly worth the money if you run applications that fully take advantage of the 2x performance bump. For everybody else, mainstream SSDs are affordable and speedy, offering good capacity and endurance. Our best storage picks are divided into six categories based on form factor and need as shown below.
Best High-Performance Enthusiast SSD
Sabrent’s Rocket NVMe PCIe 4.0 remains the fastest consumer drive on the market. When paired with a motherboard that supports PCIe 4.0, you can expect to see read speeds of nearly 5000MB/s.
The Rocket was our favorite SSD in our PCIe 4.0 vs PCIe 3.0 SSD benchmark comparison, and for good reason. With many drives on the market sharing similar internals, Sabrent’s firmware and optimizations allow it to stand out. While many prospective buyers won’t necessarily have a PCIe 4.0 motherboard right now (only AMD’s latest platform offers it for now), the Rocket works perfectly fine on older boards at Gen 3.0 speeds.
Generally speaking, when discussing high-performance enthusiast hardware we wouldn’t consider value a key feature but in the case of the Rocket we must, the value offered by this drive is stunning. It’s cheaper than most other drives in the high-performance category, so even if you don’t have a Gen 4.0 motherboard now, this would still be a great investment if you plan to upgrade in the future.
If you look at Samsung’s top drives like the 970 Pro and 970 Evo Plus, both cost more than Sabrent’s and the Gen 4.0 drive will outperform them in almost every workload. Also worthy of mention is the Corsair Force Series MP600 SSD which is also PCIe 4.0 and uses similar hardware to Sabrent’s.
Endurance is also insane for the Rocket and MP600 rated at 3,600 TBW (terabytes written), compared to 1,200 TBW for the Samsung 970 Pro and 600 TBW for the 970 Evo Plus.
Best Mainstream SSD
The WD Black SN750 is as good as it gets for a top performing drive that won’t break the bank. While it’s been Samsung commanding our top SSD lists in recent years, competition from the likes of WD, HP, Corsair and a few others has been felt for some time, bringing not just better value (much better value as of late) but comparable performance and excellent reliability.
The Black SN750 is available in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB variants. Pricing ranges from $55 for the 250GB version up to $370 for the 2TB variant. The most popular 1TB version is available for $150 which is considerably less than Samsung’s competing drive at that same capacity ($225).
The SN750 SSD uses the same controller, NAND, and hardware design from previous WD Black solid drives, this is a positive because those drives have a solid track record, but with newer firmware WD has pushed performance further showing fast sequential transfers and good latency. New in this latest iteration is the option of a heatsink, showing this drive is intended for enthusiasts who are worried about cooling and throttling, even if the drive behaves just fine without it.
When we said SSDs are now a commodity, we were not only referring to affordable mainstream models, but even top tier NVMe are hard to differentiate. Along with the WD Black SN750, you can find good deals on the Corsair Force MP510 and the PCIe 3.0 Sabrent Rocket is also fantastic for the price. Even previous-gen models, like the 970 Evo (non-plus), WD Black NVMe and HP EX920 are good buys if you get them at a discount since performance difference is marginal.
SATA option for upgrading older PCs and laptops
The always wallet-friendly Crucial MX500 is a proven affordable option if you want to upgrade an older PC that only supports the SATA interface. This group of consumer-grade SSDs are great option for all kinds of uses, laptop upgrades, builders, and at this point even storage capacity upgrades.
The best performing SATA drives have already squeezed most they could from the interface a few years ago, so the speed differences here are negligible between the best models, if perhaps more consistent than they were before. Currently you can buy a 1TB MX500 drive for as little as $115, or half a terabyte for $70.
Best Hard Drive
If you’re in the market for a mechanical hard drive, you’re either looking to put together a budget system or you just want a ton of storage. Especially for the latter, our top hard disk recommendation goes to the Seagate IronWolf line.
The IronWolf drives are state of the art as far as consumer hard drives go, leveraging PMR (perpendicular magnetic recording) platters running at 7200 RPM to cram up to 16 terabytes of data in a regular 3.5-inch form factor drive. The IronWolf are NAS drives so these are not the cheapest around, but they are more reliable, come in higher capacities and perform well (for a hard drive).
You can find IronWolf HDDs in several different capacities: from 1 to 4TB drives are 5900 RPM, while larger 6/8/10/12/14/16 TB models are all 7200 RPM. Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about hard drive manufacturers using SMR or “shingled magnetic recording” for making denser and cheaper drives. SMR disks are meant to store more data on a disk platter than conventional magnetic recording “CMR” disks by partially overlapping write tracks, resulting in much slower write performance than a non-SMR drive.
IronWolf drives are all CMR and get our top recommendation for buying a new HDD if you’re willing to pay a ~20% premium over budget drives. For example, an 8TB IronWolf drive will set you back around $200, while a BarraCuda goes for $160.
If you want to save money and are simply looking for an inexpensive HDD, starting at $50 for 2TB the Seagate Barracuda line is one of the cheapest on the market, but also one of the best values. The BarraCuda is available in 3TB, 4TB, 6TB, and 8TB variants, with the 4TB model costing $85 and the 8TB model going for $160.
The 1TB and 2TB models of the BarraCuda are 7200 RPM which are fast enough for a boot drive and moderate applications on top. The 3TB and above models slow down to 5400 RPM but we think that’s reasonable for the price. Another thing we like about this series is the 256MB cache; other value drives only have 64MB. A larger cache is useful for storing frequently used files without needing to keep them on the slower disk.
Best Portable Storage
Samsung has been setting the bar on portable solid-state storage for a few years now. The Samsung T5 was great and it’s now being replaced by the T7 series. The new Samsung T7 improves in every possible way, with a slimmer chassis, faster USB 3.2 (Gen2, 10Gbps) connectivity, and much faster performance by moving from a SATA drive to NVMe.
The Samsung T7 is anywhere from 30 to 80% faster, offering read and write speeds of up to 1,000 MB/s, a three year warranty, and AES 256-bit hardware encryption with software that is a snap to set up. The device has also added a hardware fingerprint sensor for authentication instead of using a password.
The device is encased in metal and is compact enough that it can fit in the palm of your hand or thrown in your pocket, measuring 85 x 57 x 8 mm. Compatible with Windows, macOS and Android, the T7 should allow you to expand the storage of any device with a USB port.
The T7 is available in 500GB, 1TB and 2TB capacities. The 1TB model, for example, will set you back $199, which is $20 more than the equivalent T5. We would certainly go for the newer drive every time.
Need for speed
Honestly, the T7 is plenty fast for a portable drive. But for mission-critical work, you don’t want fast, you want the fastest. The Samsung X5 Portable SSD is NVMe-based and leverages Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, enabling read speeds of up to 2,800 MB/s and write speeds of up to 2,300 MB/s. According to Samsung, you can transfer a 20GB 4K UHD video in just 12 seconds. It’s more expensive, too, but blazing fast.
Best External Hard Drive
Runner-up: WD My Book External
For those after something big to backup or transfer data, and don’t need the performance of an SSD — or don’t want to pay the premium — Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub delivers ample storage at a great value ($150 for 8 terabytes). The drive comes in 4 TB, 6 TB, 8 TB and 10 TB capacities, and unlike our portable pick it requires its own power, and must be plugged into a wall outlet.
The design is compact for a full fledged external HDD, while the front-facing USB 3.0 hub is useful for charging mobile devices or plugging in flash drives on your desktop.
By default, the Backup Plus Hub comes formatted for Windows PCs but with a driver install you can add macOS support and use it interchangeably between the two operating systems without reformatting. Furthermore, Seagate also offers a ‘Hub for Mac’ white version that is Time Machine compatible right out of the box. To add Windows support, again you simply have to install some extra software.
The bundled Seagate Dashboard interface lets you backup your PC, mobile devices, and photos and video from social media, or to restore an existing backup. Seagate drives have proven reliable over the years, but you can also set up an automatic backup that sends your files to an offsite cloud storage provider so your data is safe even in the event of a failure or unpredictable events like a natural disaster.
Best Home NAS
Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices have become affordable enough for home users to consider purchasing if they are looking for a home file server/media center. Synology makes it easy to migrate data to and from other locations and the company’s software provides a ton of apps for anything you might require from this sort of setup (media streaming, file sharing, home surveillance, etc.).
Generally, the processing power of a NAS scales with the number of drive bays. For the home user that wants a place to backup all their files from all devices, a 2-bay unit like the DS218+ should be great. Depending on how much storage capacity you want, you can easily build a complete system for a few hundred dollars. For a more advanced home user that would want to run additional services on top of their NAS, stream HD/4K movies, and use more than 15TB of storage, a 4-bay unit would be the way to go. These units will have a more powerful processor and can support higher quality media streaming.
Pricing for the 4-bay DS418play without any drives begins at $389. Synology offers a list of drives that are compatible with its products. Regardless of the configuration you end up with, specs include a dual-core Intel J3355 processor with support for dual-channel transcoding, 2GB of DDR3-1866 memory (expandable to 6GB), and encrypted sequential throughput of up to 226MB/s on reads and 185MB/s on writes.
Masthead image credit: Julio Aldana