Buying an SSD: What to Look For

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If you are looking to switch to a solid-state disk (SSD) or upgrade your existing one, how do you choose the right SSD for your needs, and how do you even understand what to look for to begin with? Here we show you what to look for when buying an SSD.

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.

What smaller-sized SSDs can be used for is 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. Here are the usual capacities and what you can expect storage-wise at each range:

  • Tier 1: 120-256 GB – Ideal as a boot drive for any PC. Enough for browsing and word processing. This will work best with cloud storage for extending your storage space.
  • Tier 2: 256 GB – If you have a good library of photos, this is a good starting point.
  • Tier 3: 512 GB If you play a lot of PC games or have a good library of movies and photos, you should start from this storage tier.
  • Tier 4: 1 TB – This allows you to install many AAA games at the same time or store a good library of 4K movies.
  • Tier 5: 2 TB & Beyond – Superb for just about anything, but fairly expensive, more so than is needed for the majority of consumers.

2. Manufacturer

When buying an SSD, you want to buy from a high-rated, trusted brand – think Samsung, Crucial or SanDisk.

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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 as its competitors. Don’t take those kinds of chances with your operating system and personal data.

3. Bandwidth Type (SATA/PCIe/NVMe) and Read/Write Speed

Read/write speed is one of the more technical aspects behind an SSD, but it’s also the metric by which their performance is measured. Essentially, this is the rate at which it reads and writes data. A high read speed means faster loading times for games and programs (as well as your operating system as a whole, leading to super-fast boot times), and a high write speed makes tasks like uncompressing files with 7Zip work much faster.

While all SSDs are faster than HDDs, they aren’t all operating at the same read/write speeds.

Nowadays, all SSDs can be sorted into one of two categories: SATA SSDs and PCIe SSDs. The difference between them is the bandwidth that the SSD uses, with PCIe being exponentially faster.

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Two M.2 SSDs – Left SATA, Right NVMe/PCIe

The best SATA SSDs operate in the range of 500 MB and higher (limited by SATA bandwidth), but cheaper (and older) solutions will naturally fall much shorter.

PCIe SSDs (including NVMe SSDs) are limited by the speed of the PCI Express standard of the motherboard. With last-gen NVMe SSDs, speeds start at around 1 GB. With PCI Express Gen4, some SSDs can even go as high as 7GB! This makes it extra important to check speed specs when buying SSDs.

4. Form Factor: 2.5-Inch, mSATA, or M.2

SATA SSDs can come in the proper 3.5″ or 2.5″ form factors, as well as the smaller mSATA (outdated) and M.2 (modern) form factors. If you aren’t using M.2, most SATA SSDs are sold in 2.5″ form factors, and I recommend getting those for the best system compatibility.

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A 2.5-Inch SATA SSD and an mSATA SSD

PCIe SSDs can come in a M.2 form factor through NVMe SSDs but can also be seen in full desktop PC expansion cards. These expansion cards are extremely fast but very high in price compared to NVMe SSDs.

5. Should You Consider an SSHD Instead?

An SSHD (Solid State Hard Drive) is a popular alternative to an SSD for many. Since SSD storage is consistently more expensive than HDD storage, SSHDs will use a small amount of SSD storage as a cache for the entire drive. This won’t allow for full SSD speeds, but it does provide a moderate speed boost over a standard HDD and becomes particularly compelling if you want to keep a media library without needing a separate storage drive.

As with most SSDs, an SSHD will make an immediate and noticeable impact on boot times but not quite to the same level as a proper SSD. Outside of this scenario, an SSHD’s impact will be less noticeable, but quick boots are one of the main reasons to get an SSD.

6. Is A DRAM-Less SSD Better or Worse?

While DRAM-less SSDs are cheaper than standard SSDs, their lack of DRAM is actually a major weakness. A DRAM-less SSD will suffer decreased performance when multitasking, due to not having dedicated RAM to help manage that workload.

This makes a DRAM-less SSD a particularly poor choice for video editing and other multitasking-heavy workloads, and you won’t typically save much money for the compromise. A DRAM-less SSD is still better than any HDD, though, and it serves as yet another step up from SSHDs for even faster boot and load times across the board.

7. Price and Spec Comparison

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

So 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 this little website called PCPartPicker.

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Once you open PCPartPicker, click “Start a System Build.” You’ll see a screen where you can start assembling a system build – don’t worry about all that right now, though. What you’re looking for at this moment is “Choose Storage.”

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This screen may seem intimidating at first, but don’t sweat it.

First, check off the boxes on the left side of the screen. You only want highly-rated drives, so check the ones rated 4 and 5 stars. Skip manufacturer and capacity; check “SSD” under Type.

How To Buy Ssds 2021 Update Pcpartpicker Sidebar

Now, you’ll need to specify what kind of SSD you want.

If you want an M.2 SSD, go ahead and click “Yes” under the NVMe drop-down at the bottom. While you can get M.2 SSDs that use SATA bandwidth, they’re typically not worth any minor savings compared to NVMe SSDs at the same capacity.

If you don’t have an M.2 slot, NVMe won’t be an option. You can select “PCI-E” under form factor to still shop for faster-than-SATA SSDs, but expansion card SSDs are extremely expensive. We recommend selecting “2.5-Inch” to search for SATA SSDs if you don’t have an M.2 Slot.

Once you’ve specified the SSD type you’re looking for, go over to the right side of the screen, and under “Price,” click the up arrow to set price as ascending for all the list of drives.

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Now just scroll along 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, but the best price-per-GB usually doesn’t occur until $80 and up.)

PCPartPicker is a site that gathers information about different PC parts and peripherals and allows you to easily sort through them. When opening product pages on PCPartPicker, you’re actually given a page where you can select different storefronts (like Newegg or Amazon) to buy the part from, but the price displayed is always from whoever has that particular part the cheapest.

Using PCPartPicker, you can easily compare pricing and capacity while also monitoring brand and quality. Once you’ve found a drive (or a few drives) that are at the price and capacity you want, open their pages on the storefront you’re buying them from to observe their technical specs – high end SSDs are in the 500 MBIRA range for read/write speeds, but others may be lower.

If you’re just looking for the best-performing SSDs, consider checking out UserBenchmark’s page comparing the performance of various SSDs across the board and ranking them according to their performance, recorded from the benchmarks of real users around the world.

Parting Words

We hope this article helped you learn what you needed 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.

Image Credits: machu on Flickr; PCPartPicker; Vladsinger on WikiMedia Commons; ガラパリ on WikiMedia Commons

Christopher Harper Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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