Smarten Up Your Storage
Graphics cards and processors might get the headlines, but no gaming PC is complete without storage – and the type of storage you use can make a huge difference to the speed and responsiveness of any rig.
Storage is important, then, and the market has rarely been this exciting. Drives that use M.2 and NVMe technology are breaking speed records, and more conventional SSDs and hard disks have never been bigger, faster or cheaper.
Our guide explains the differences between these important components, and highlights what you should be looking for – and picks some of our favourite products, too.
The World’s Best Storage:
The fastest drives on the market used NVM Express, or NVMe. This future-proofed technology is designed to take advantage of the huge speed capabilities of Flash storage, and they use the PCI-Express interface, so there’s no chance of bottlenecks any time soon.
Drives that use NVMe come in two forms. The most common are referred to as M.2 SSDs, because they use the M.2 connection, which is a tiny port designed for storage and wireless cards. These SSDs are usually used in laptops, too, because they’re tiny – routinely just 80mm long and 22mm wide.
The second form is increasingly popular: PCI cards. These usually connect to the PCI-Express x1 or x4 slots on motherboards, and they allow companies to make larger, faster drives or better-looking products.
Whether they use the M.2 or PCI-Express interface, these SSDs work in the same way: Flash memory. These super-fast chips use the same underlying technology as PC memory, although they’re obviously configured to store data rather than lose it.
The silicon chips that build these drives are built in cells, with small differences in their manufacturing processes creating products that offer more speed, say, or better reliability. No matter how your SSD is built, it’ll have a controller and a cache to help data transfer between the drive and the rest of the machine.
Those flash chips are far quicker than conventional SSDs and hard disks, and there are other advantages too. Using the PCI interface means direct communication with the CPU, which means less latency, and there’s no need for a power connector. The absence of moving parts means there’s less to go wrong, and these drives are often cooler than hard disks. They’re far smaller, too – no current form factor offers more capacity inside a tinier space than M.2 SSDs.
PCs have supported NVMe drives for some years, but recent developments have improved the landscape for this super-fast storage. The new Z270 chipset that Intel released alongside its Kaby Lake processors now supports more PCI lanes, which means boards can handle more than one drive alongside graphics cards and other peripherals – with a maximum of three drives supported by Kaby Lake motherboards. That’s great for adding extra capacity or even running these drives in a super-fast RAID array.
The situation is similarly rosy on the AMD side of the fence – at least now that Ryzen has been released – with extensive support for NVMe in order to compete with Intel.
The picture is only going to improve for NVMe-based SSDs. The new U.2 interface is now appearing more, especially since Intel’s Kaby Lake range improved the bandwidth available for storage on new motherboards.
There’s a lot to like about U.2 SSDs, which will start to appear more over the next year or so. These drives use a conventional 2.5in form factor and a small connector on the motherboard, but they also use PCI-Express connectivity – so firms can use the huge speed provided by that type of connection on a physically larger drive.
That means there’s less pressure on space when compared to a tiny M.2 drive, which means that U.2 drives can have higher capacities. It’s an important move that’ll continue to push up SSD sizes while driving down prices, as there’s going to be less need than ever to concentrate on miniaturisation.
Our favourite M.2 SSDs come from two of the big beasts in the consumer electronics market: Intel and Samsung.
Korean giant Samsung has been a long-term innovator in the SSD market, and its 960 EVO drives are top-quality products that deliver better speeds than almost any rival. These drives use groundbreaking 3D V-NAND, and this new generation of product has a better controller and more efficient design – so you’ll get more speed while consuming less power.
We’ve got stonking deals on the 250GB and 500GB versions of the 960 EVO, with the former at £119.99 and the latter at £229.99. They’re perfect for upgrading a laptop, or pairing alongside a hard disk inside a new gaming PC.
Intel is another big player in the M.2 SSD market thanks to its range of 600P drives. These products offer unbeatable value thanks to 3D TLC NAND chips and deliver speeds that will easily beat any traditional SATA SSD.
We’ve got three different sizes of 600P for sale, each with tempting prices. The 256GB version is just £158.99, the 512GB model is £389.99 and the mighty 1TB drive costs just £428.99 – so there’s a deal for you, no matter what size of SSD you’re after.
Solid as a Rock:
NVMe-based drives might take home the headlines, but those sorts of products are expensive and don’t work on some PCs – which means there’s still a place for more conventional solid-state storage.
The market has come a long way since SSDs barely outpaced hard disks for half the space and twice the price. The best SATA SSDs available now rival hard disks for space, and they’re surprisingly affordable. That’s because companies like Samsung and Micron have kept innovating: Samsung introduced its 3D V-NAND, with transistors built in layers to improve performance, while Micron has reduced manufacturing process size with gusto.
Innovations like that benefit consumers in every part of the market. If you’re after an affordable drive, then you’re in luck: 120GB drives from companies like Kingston and Corsair are available from our store at little more than £60 – and sometimes less. And, if you’re feeling a little more flush, then drives from Samsung, Crucial and other big firms regularly hit 1TB and 2TB – so you can entirely abandon slower hard disks if you’ve got the cash.
It’s no surprise that solid-state stalwarts Samsung are still leading the way in the traditional SSD arena. Its 850 PRO range delivers blazing speeds and top-tier endurance levels, so your next system can offer a heady mix of incredible pace and long-lasting performance.
Humble Hard Disks:
Solid-state drives are quick, sure, but they still don’t beat the humble hard disk when it comes to capacity and value for money.
The spinning platters inside a hard disk can’t compete with SSDs for speed, but there are still many scenarios where an HDD is the best option. If you’re a keen gamer with a huge collection, then a hard disk is still the best way to store your titles without shelling out hundreds of pounds for huge SSDs. Hard disks also provide the huge capacities required for building a server, and they’re great for NAS – perfect for offering cheap, reliable and high-capacity storage for backing up photos, watching movies and streaming music.
Desktop hard disks start at less than £50 for a 1TB model, but our favourite parts here come from Seagate – and it clearly pays to spend a little more on a quality product.
If you’re after a drive for your desktop PC then look no further than the Seagate FireCuda range. The disks have 7,200rpm spin speeds and 64MB caches made with flash memory for super-fast response times. They’re great value, too: the 1TB model costs £74.99, while the 2TB variant is £89.99.
Both of those drives use the popular 3.5in form factor, but don’t fret if you need something smaller. Seagate’s FireCuda range also includes a 2.5in drive that’s perfect for laptops, games consoles and PCs. This model serves up 2TB of space for £99.95, so it’s perfect for an affordable storage upgrade that won’t slow down your system.
The storage market has grown at huge pace over the past few years, and that’s fantastic for consumers: there are more products to choose from than ever, with super-fast M.2 SSDs, mid-range SATA SSDs and reliable hard disks all at larger capacities and better prices than ever before.
All that’s left, then, is to head to the storage department and have a look around – we’ll see you at the checkout!