Switching from a mechanical drive to a solid state drive is one of the most important upgrades you can make to your gaming PC – and with the release of new drives earlier this year and flash storage prices finally starting to drop significantly, now is the perfect time to pick up a new SSD.
Before we get into the specific models we recommend, we should probably answer a simple question: why are SSDs worth their higher price per gigabyte over traditional hard disk drives?
There are a few good reasons, but the most important for gamers is that with an SSD, game load times go way down. In fact, in our extensive testing of five different drives, we found that upgrading to an SSD – even a budget model – reduced game load times by up to 60 per cent compared to even modern, high-performance HDDs. For games that require frequent loading for new areas, like Skyrim and Fallout 4, or titles with very long initial load times, like Grand Theft Auto 5, using an SSD saves you a ton of time and prevents interruption to the flow of the game. If you’re noticing hitching – minute stutters that often occur when entering a new location – this problem could also be solved by upgrading to a faster storage solution.
Of course, there are other advantages to solid state drives too – you’ll certainly notice an uptick in general responsiveness while running Windows and your most commonly used programs from an SSD instead of an old-fashioned spinning disk drive. SSDs also operate completely silently and are even more resistant to damage from magnets or drops. With all of these advantages, it’s easy to see why solid state drives have become the default choice for gamers – and indeed computer users in general.
Now, let’s get right into the recommendations – starting with our value picks and moving onto the absolute fastest consumer drives on the market today. You can also jump straight to the selection you’re interested in using the links below – including our brief explainers at the bottom of the article.
This drive from Crucial is one of the best options on the market, offering excellent performance for a SATA drive at a consistently reasonable price. While the firm’s BX500-series drives are even cheaper, the MX500 sports better random read and write performance and a higher endurance rating that justifies the small extra investment. The 500GB drive we’d recommend for most users usually retails for about 75/$85. It’s also available in two form factors: compact, cable-less M.2 or standard 2.5-inch.
The 2.5-inch Crucial MX500 is also ideal for speeding up PS4 and Xbox One load times. On the PS4 and PS4 Pro you should replace the original internal drive with the MX500, while on the Xbox One and Xbox One X you should connect the MX500 externally with a USB 3.0 SATA enclosure.
Samsung’s 970 Evo is a solid recommendation for gamers and creatives alike, offering roughly 90 per cent of the performance of Samsung’s top-tier 970 Pro, one of the fastest drives on the market, at 75 per cent of the cost. The Evo is available in a wide range of capacities, from 250GB to 2TB, and the 500GB drive we’d recommend to most people is often available for a little over 130/$140. While other NVMe drives are available for lower prices, the 970 Evo’s stellar performance characteristics have made it an incredibly popular choice.
This cut-price NVMe drive offers similar real-world performance to the Samsung 970 Evo at a dramatically lower price, at just over 100/$110 for our recommended 480GB model. It relies on excellent random read and write performance to carve out its own territory against other cut-price NVMe drives. Although its sequential write speeds aren’t as strong as the Samsung drive, the considerable cost savings make it a wise choice for anyone building on a budget.
If you want the fastest consumer drive by a significant margin, the Samsung 970 Pro is what you’re after. This drive offers some of the highest sequential read and write speeds on the market, and its random speeds are impressive too. Intel’s Optane 900P and 905P cards are still the absolute performance champions,but they cost more than twice as much per gigabyte and don’t deliver anywhere near twice the performance – especially in gaming, where we noted only a six per cent difference in average load times between the Intel 905P and a slower WD NVMe drive. Therefore, the Samsung 970 Pro is the standout choice, with the recommended 512GB model going for 180/$190.
SATA: This legacy interface was initially designed to allow relatively low-bandwidth drives, such as CD-ROM drives and mechanical HDDs, to connect to your computer. As SSDs improved in speed over time, they started to run up against the limits of the SATA III interface – specifically, maximum sequential read and write speeds of around 550~600MB/s. This bottleneck prompted the creation of a new interface, NVMe.
NVMe: This modern interface is designed specifically for high-speed solid state drives, relying on the PCIe standard that is also used for graphics cards, network cards and other add-in cards. The greater bandwidth available removes the interface bottleneck, thereby allowing high-end SSDs to reach increasingly higher speeds and lower access times.
2.5-inch: This form factor is probably what you’d picture if you imagined an SSD: a simple metal cuboid, 70 x 100 millimetres in size with separate data and power cables. The vast majority of 2.5-inch drives can only connect via the relatively slow SATA interface.
M.2: This very flat form factor boasts a much smaller volume than a standard 2.5-inch SSD, allowing these drives to be mounted directly onto a desktop computer’s motherboard or inside a slim laptop. Confusingly, M.2 drives can be either (slow) SATA or (fast) NVMe types, so make sure you know which kind of drive you’re buying. While most motherboard M.2 slots will support both options, allowing fast NVMe M.2 drives to be connected, some are SATA-only, so once again be sure to check whichyour computer supports before purchasing. M.2’s single connector includes both data and power, and as you’re plugging directly into the motherboard you won’t need to run any cables.
PCIe: If you have a spare PCIe x4 or x16 slot on your motherboard, then you can connect an NVMe SSD here. You can either use an M.2 NVMe drive together with a PCIe adaptor card, or you can directly connect a PCIe NVMe add-in card.
Reads vs writes: Reads refer to data is being taken from storage to the processor so it can be used; writes are the opposite, where data is being sent from the processor to storage to be accessed later. Reading data is more common than writing data, so often read speeds will be higher than write speeds.
Sequential vs random: This refers to whether the data you’re reading or writing is grouped together in a row or spread out across the drive. For example, a sequential read might be loading a single video file into memory, while a random read might be accessing multiple files to load a game. This is only a simplification, and most games use both sequential and random reads to load. Generally, sequential data is easier to read and write quickly than random data.
Which type of SSD is best for me – NVMe or SATA?
To answer this question, you need to identify what you’ll be using the drive for – either playing games and normal day-to-day tasks like web browsing, or more intensive operations like editing 4K video or crunching through large scientific or engineering datasets.
For computers that are primarily used for playing games, our research suggests that you’ll only see minimal improvements to game load times by swapping a standard SATA-connected SSD for a more expensive NVMe drive, even if it boasts significantly higher read and write speeds. Unless the rest of your system is already top notch, you will probably notice a bigger performance difference from upgrading to one of the best graphics cards rather than shelling out for a super-fast NVMe drive that sits at the top of the benchmark charts.
Therefore, we recommend you take a look at our recommendations for the best value-for-money SSDs on the market, including drives from some lesser-known brands. These drives largely use SATA connections, preventing their performance from surpassing a certain threshold, but they do offer the biggest capacities for the lowest prices. All modern motherboards support SATA too, so you won’t have to worry about compatibility.
Of course, there’s also an argument to be made for going for faster NVMe drives. Specifically, gamers that don’t want to upgrade their storage for a long time or creative professionals that require utmost performance may want to spend more to really maximise their performance. Just remember that not all motherboards support these fast NVMe drives out of the box; you’ll either need an M.2 slot that supports NVMe, or a free PCIe slot.
What size SSD do I need?
Thanks to recent drops in flash memory prices, solid state drives have become increasingly affordable – even though they’re still far pricier per gigabyte than mechanical hard disk drives. As with most things, there is a tradeoff when deciding how big of a drive to choose. The smaller the drive, the more careful you’ll have to be with the space that you’ve got – such as by uninstalling games you’re not playing and moving media and downloads to a mechanical HDD. This kind of curation can be a pain, so saving up for a bigger drive makes sense. Larger drives are also slightly faster, particularly in terms of write speeds, than their smaller-capacity counterparts. Finally, choosing a larger drive will mean that it will last you a longer time. As games include higher-resolution textures and videos, they will continue to balloon in size, so having some breathing room will let you put off a drive upgrade for at least a few years.
So what about specific capacities? At the time of writing, a 240GB drive is probably a good starting point for most people, giving you enough room to install Windows and a few large games with space to spare for Windows updates, HD downloads and so on. If you like to keep more than a dozen games installed at once or you have a media collection that you don’t want to keep on a second drive, then choosing a 480GB drive makes more sense. Right now these 480GB drives are in the price-per-gig sweet spot, so spring for them if you can. Finally, 1TB drives are about the largest SSD you can get before prices start getting really silly, so if you want one drive that will last you for a long time, then a 1TB SSD is just the ticket.
Can I install an SSD into my PS4 or Xbox One to improve its loading speeds?
Yes! On the PS4 and PS4 Pro, you can replace the system’s internal drive with an SSD, while the Xbox One can have an external SSD connected over USB 3.0. You can see our investigations into game load time improvements with the PS4, PS4 Pro and Xbox One here. For the PS4 and PS4 Pro, we recommend a budget 2.5-inch SSD, such as the Crucial MX500 we highlighted above, while for the Xbox One and Xbox One X, you’ll also need a USB 3.0 SATA enclosure. The installation process can be tricky – particularly on the PS4 – so it’s worth finding and following instructions to install your new drive.
Do you want to know more? Read our investigation into whether SSDs are essential for gaming.