Storage Efficiency Roundup: Mechanical Disk Drives to PCIe 4.Zero SSDs and All the pieces In Between

Computer memory has come a long way since our last summary. We have new PCIe 4.0 SSDs, NVMe drives are becoming the de facto standard for new machines, and prices for older drives have dropped. Instead of just focusing on high-end drives, this time we decided to take a step back and explore the entire storage market from top to bottom.

For someone putting together their next build, the choices can be overwhelming. Are you opting for the latest and greatest SSDs, a mid-tier value proposition or a dirt cheap SATA drive? There are also many different market segments between these areas that make it difficult to tell if a few extra dollars will bring you a lot of extra performance. How has the performance of mechanical hard drives developed in the world of SSDs? We're going to answer all of these questions today, so let's dive in.

The following table shows all the drives we have today and we will briefly explain why they were selected. This review shows not so much which drive is best suited in a particular category, but rather how different types and levels of drives stack up in common applications.

journey capacity
(As tested)
Max Read
(MB / s)
Max Write
(MB / s)
category price $ / GB
Corsair MP600 1 TB 4950 4250 NVMe Gen 4.0 $ 185 $ 0.185
Intel Optane 900P 280 GB 2500 2000 NVMe Gen 3.0 $ 370 $ 1.32
Samsung 970 Pro 1 TB 3500 2700 NVMe Gen 3.0 $ 300 $ 0.30
Samsung 970 Evo Plus 1 TB 3500 3300 NVMe Gen 3.0 $ 200 $ 0.20
Samsung 860 Evo 500 GB 550 520 SATA M.2 $ 95 $ 0.19
Ultimate MX500 1 TB 560 510 SATA $ 108 $ 0.108
Seagate Ironwolf 8 TB 210 210 SATA (7200 rpm) $ 220 $ 0.027
WD red 4 TB 150 150 SATA (5400 rpm) $ 117 $ 0.029
Seagate Firecuda 2 TB 156 140 SATA (5400 rpm) $ 100 $ 0.05

Below we have three traditional mechanical hard drives. They are large both physically and in terms of internal storage capacity. They are cheap, compatible with almost any system, and have been used for decades. Most hard drives are available at either 7200 RPM or 5400 RPM (10K RPM are also available, but rarer), with the former being more expensive but faster.

The WD Red and Seagate Firecuda drives are 5400 RPM while the Seagate Ironwolf is a larger 7200 RPM drive. Compared to WD Red and Seagate Ironwolf, the 7200rpm model costs less per GB, but that's only because we have a larger drive. With drives of the same size, the models with 7200 rpm are almost always somewhat more expensive.

The third mechanical drive, the Seagate Firecuda, is a hybrid drive. A small amount of internal solid state storage is used to offer some of the performance improvements of SSDs while remaining close to the price of HDDs. Frequently used files can be read from or written to the cache first, increasing throughput and reducing latency. However, as soon as the cache is full or the desired file is not in the cache, you will return to the slower magnetic memory.

The remaining drives tested are all SSDs with different technology standards and prices. We have the Crucial MX500, which is a standard SATA SSD. It remains one of the best-selling SSDs on the market because it is very affordable and offers significantly better performance than a conventional mechanical hard drive.

Next we have the Samsung 860 Evo. This is another SATA drive, but this time it switches to the increasingly popular M.2 form factor. This drive is slightly above the MX500, but it also has technology that is a few years old.

We also have the Samsung 970 Evo Plus and 970 Pro, which are one of the most popular and respected NVMe SSDs on the market. Like other Evo drives, the 860 Evo and 970 Evo Plus use 3-bit MLC NAND versus 2-bit NAND on their respective "Pro" cousins. Part of this compromise is persistence. Evo drives also contain a buffer cache to speed up writing to small files. This generally works well, so most consumer-level workloads are just as fast as Pro drives.

The two most advanced drives in today's review are Intel Optane 900p and Corsair MP600. Optane aims to bring together the fast response time of RAM and the large capacity of SSDs. It is by far the most expensive consumer storage technology on the market. Optane is usually best suited for very specific business applications because the raw read and write speeds are much slower than other drives, which cost a fraction of the price. The Corsair drive is a premium SSD with the latest PCIe 4.0 standard. Check out our full comparison between Gen 4.0 and Gen 3.0 drives if you'd like to delve deeper into this area. The MP600 was not the fastest drive from our summary, but serves as a representative of the performance level of these drives.

The leap from rotating hard drives to solid-state storage was immense, and if you compared the first generations of SSDs with today's fastest options, you would see a big leap too. More recently, switching from SATA to NVMe has enabled much more bandwidth, but that doesn't always translate into real performance that you can perceive. To explain this, we need to understand that memory is not the only thing your computer is waiting for while it is performing a task.

Some applications may have limited memory, others may have limited computing power. An application with limited storage space uses a lot of data, but does not process this data very much. For example, copying a file is not very computationally intensive, so a faster drive almost always leads to a faster completion time.

On the other hand, applications with limited computing power use very little data, but do large amounts of calculations. Some games and most productivity applications are computational. That is, once you cross a certain point, a faster storage device will not result in faster completion.

Now let's take a look at some benchmarks. Some synthetic tests have been done to get a general idea of ​​how fast the rated speeds are for these drives. Then, however, we turn to all measurements in the real world. All test results shown are an average of at least 3 runs.

Benchmarks

The standard sequential read and write tests clearly show that performance varies across generations. The mechanical drives operate at approximately 100 MB / s, the SATA SSDs at approximately 500 MB / s, the PCIe 3.0 drives at approximately 3000 MB / s and the PCIe 4.0 drive at 5000 MB / s for read speeds.

Although the 970 Evo Plus is $ 100 cheaper than the 970 Pro, it outperforms the Pro in this limited write test due to the high-speed write cache used. If the test had used larger files that filled the buffer, the write performance would have been halved.

With random reading and writing, the mechanical drives almost do not even register on the scale. In order for a mechanical drive to be able to perform direct access, it must wait until the rotating plate physically rotates towards the reading head. An SSD only has to query a certain bit since no moving parts have to wait.

As expected, the Optane drive is the clear winner due to its low access latency when querying random files. The MX500, the cheapest of the SSDs, is also the slowest of the solid-state drives. We can see that the three Samsung SSDs work close together, even though the SATA interface is considerably slower than PCIe. Since this test doesn't reach SATA's bandwidth limit, adding a faster interface doesn't really help us.

Direct access is a test where you typically get better performance by paying more for the same type of drive. It is very easy for manufacturers to deliver fast sequential speeds, but random reads are much more difficult. Here, larger R&D budgets can help to create more advanced algorithms.

Next, we have three application memory tracks generated with PCMark 8. Although the results come from a benchmarking application, they are still very real tests. They essentially only play a copy of the read and write requests made by different applications and determine how long it takes. In all three test sets, the SSDs work almost identically, while the HDDs lag considerably behind. This, in turn, is caused by the fact that most applications become computational when a drive that is faster than 200 MB / s is used.

Among the mechanical drives, the Seagate Ironwolf is the clear winner, since it is a drive with 7200 rpm and the other two with 5400 rpm. The Seagate Firecuda offers good content creation performance thanks to the additional 8 GB NAND cache. A video scrubbing pad is the perfect application for such a system. However, once we switch to playing, the large texture files and random content can no longer use it.

With SSDs, all drives are generally within a few percent of each other. The Optane drive wins in these tests, but with a very small lead. In this scenario, the MX500 works almost as well as the Optane, a drive that costs ten times as much per GB. If you take a look at the rest of the SSDs, additional output will not result in a noticeable performance improvement. That being said, these three tests weren't very memory intensive at first, so we need to look at a few other tests to differentiate them.

The next tests are the game's load times. I chose CS: GO as the eSport title, which is not particularly difficult to play, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as it is more of a movie game. The Tomb Raider test included a restart between runs, but the CS: GO test did not. There is nothing particularly good or bad about either test method. I chose one to show different scenarios. Corsair Drive was the clear winner in all three tests.

In the Tomb Raider tests, the second and third place between the Optane and 970 Pro drives were very close. Optane had a little trouble starting CS: GO because the drive isn't really designed for gaming. So that's not too surprising.

When we started the games, we didn't see the mechanical drives too far behind the SSDs, because we didn't have to load too much at the start. When you started a level and wanted to enter the game, the SSDs were two to three times faster. This is because most of the data that needs to be loaded when playing a game is texture and environment files.

We will turn to the general task of copying files. We divided the test into two parts: the first part copies approximately 100 video files and the second part copies approximately 13,000 small files from a game installation. The test for large files was just under 16 GB, while the test for small files was 8.6 GB. In both tests, the files were copied to another part of the same hard drive. This enables us to test both reading and writing in the same operation.

The high sequential read and write speeds of the four best SSDs really show up in these tests. While the MX500 and 860 Evo were close to the others in previous tests, their limited SATA interface simply cannot keep up here.

These file tests are designed to fill any temporary buffer that a drive can use to achieve a temporary benefit. This is evident in the 860 Evo, as it lags significantly behind the MX500. The Corsair MP600 with its new PCIe 4.0 interface is the winner here, but not much.

It is interesting to note that the mechanical drives took approximately the same time in both tests, although the test copied almost twice as much data with large files. We also see that the gap between drives in the small file test narrows due to the increased CPU overhead for processing each new file handle and metadata.

The next test we'll look at is the performance of running backup software. Everyone should do at least one type of backup to protect themselves in the event of an accident or malware. So this is a useful test. It measures the bandwidth for imaging the main boot partition of the drive and writing the result to another partition on the same drive. To account for slight differences in system size due to temporary files, the bandwidth was calculated by dividing the resulting image size by the completion time.

Although you would expect this to be very memory intensive, it is not so easy to just copy everything from one place and move it to another. Files have to be processed and added to the resulting image file, which takes some time. The 970 Pro is the winner in this test, closely followed by the MP600 and 970 Evo. We see that both the Seagate Firecuda and 860 Evo are severely hampered by their slower underlying memory. The backups in this test were approximately 90 GB, which is much larger than the few GB of cache that both drives have.

The last test we have to show today is the good old Windows 10 startup time. All systems were created from a new installation and all had the same programs and settings. This test was a tie between the MP600 and the 970 Pro. The Optane 900p was about half a second behind and the 970 Evo was another second behind. The Seagate Firecuda really had problems compared to the competition with a terrible time of almost 70 seconds.

What we have learned

After discussing many different technology options, you should be better able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of spending a fast and more expensive SSD as the main drive. You can also choose a larger mainstream SSD or even a hard drive instead.

Overall, the Corsair MP600 Gen4 drive has asserted itself in this large number of consumer-level applications. PCIe 4.0 is a new interface (currently only available on the latest platform from AMD) that offers some advantages, although we cannot say that it is overwhelmingly faster than the drives before. Most interestingly, Gen 4.0 drives are cheaper than almost anything else on the market that works at these levels. Of all the Gen 4.0 drives that we recently tested in our comparison, we liked the Sabrent Rocket best because of its first-class performance and its incredible price. If you upgrade to a new system that does not support PCIe Gen 4.0, you can continue to use the drives because they are backward compatible.

If this isn't an option for you, a mainstream Gen 3.0 drive like the Samsung 970 Evo Plus or WD Black is an astonishingly good choice. These drives offer solid performance at a significantly lower price than their top-class cousins.

If you're building a budget system for a friend or family member that doesn't do anything intense, older SSD SATA drives are still a good choice. The prospect of spending about $ 100 on a terabyte of fast solid-state storage or just $ 58 on 500 GB (Crucial MX500) makes us smile. They are noticeably faster than mechanical hard drives, but they don't cost much more.

We only recommend a mechanical hard drive as a media or backup drive, as it is slow to use. The 5400 rpm drives were excruciatingly slow to benchmark. We had to wait 20 to 30 minutes after the system booted for the background tasks to complete before we had an inactive system. This would only have taken a few seconds on an SSD. This is also important for those who buy cheap laptops on vacation. Make sure every system you choose has enough solid storage.

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