NVMe SSD Roundup 2018: Intel Optane, WD Black and Samsung 970 Evo/Professional

The SSD market can seem overwhelming at first glance. Every product claims to be the fastest with advanced technologies that leave competition in the dust. There's a lot of marketing fluff and artificial numbers, but ultimately it's a good time to update your storage considering the ever lower prices and two different segments that range from fast and relatively affordable storage to extremely fast and expensive solutions . Today, let's take a look at the latter segment, which consists only of NVMe Solid Storage.

Which products are best for certain workloads, which technologies are there and which should you choose for your next build? We take a look at the top players Samsung 970 Pro and 970 Evo, Intel's Optane M.2 modules and Intel's Optane PCIe card as well as WD's Black SSD. A previous generation NVMe SSD from Intel was also used for comparison.

When the SATA connection became a bottleneck for the increasing speed of SSDs, manufacturers began to connect them directly via the PCI Express bus. This offers higher throughput, lower latency and more scope for scaling. To make a simple comparison: Samsung's most popular SATA SSD is the SSD 860 Pro (~ $ 120 for 500 GB), and that may be as fast as a SATA drive. Up until a few years ago we were happy about this speed. However, the products that are mostly tested today will be two to three times faster in terms of raw throughput.

Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) is now the standard for high-speed storage drives. You need a relatively new chipset to support this technology because older motherboards don't have M.2 connectors. Some systems and drives may be backward compatible, so you can work with M.2 in an older SATA mode. However, you should review your manual before purchasing.

After we've mastered many of our top SSD lists in recent years, the first models in our summary are the Samsung 970 Pro and 970 Evo SSD. They are the successors of the extremely successful 960 Pro and 960 Evo line from the end of 2016. Both SSDs use the 3D V-NAND technology from Samsung to achieve high density at affordable costs. Compared to conventional NAND memories, in which the cells are arranged flat on the circuit board, V-NAND uses a vertical arrangement. Samsung claims that stacking the cells also improves longevity and energy efficiency.

The 970 Pro is available in 500GB and 1TB versions for $ 230 and $ 570 respectively. The 970 Evo is available in 250 GB, 500 GB, 1 TB and 2 TB versions. Prices range from $ 107 for the 250 GB version to $ 800 for the 2 TB version.

Today we have the 1 TB version of the 970 Pro and the 500 GB version of the 970 Evo for testing.

Samsung advertises that the two drives have a similar performance. The main difference between the two drives is the type of internal storage they use. The 970 Pro uses 2-bit MLC flash, while the 970 Evo uses 3-bit MLC flash in a TLC configuration that is cheaper to manufacture. On paper, the two drives have very similar read and write speeds compared to the same storage capacity.

This will make Samsung's new strategy clearer as the more popular Evo line is now adopting the Pro as the main offering for most consumers. The more expensive 970 Pro with its 2-bit MLC flash is designed for 4 times the write time. However, given the Evo's flawless track record and sufficient terabyte rating (TBW), these numbers are not particularly important to the average user.

Next on the list is Intel's Optane storage technology that they launched last year. Intel boasts of Optane as one of the greatest breakthroughs in computer memory history. Optane works fundamentally different than other types of storage we've seen before. Primary memories such as RAM are ideal for storing small bits of data that must be accessed very quickly, but are expensive and do not have a large capacity. Secondary storage such as an SSD or HDD are ideal for storing large amounts of information that do not need to be accessed as often. Intel therefore expects to offer memory that is faster than NAND flash, with latencies closer to RAM, larger capacity than RAM, but closer to an SSD and a significantly longer lifespan than conventional SSDs.

Intel currently has three main variants of Optane on the market: small accelerator modules that are used as a cache for rotating hard drives, medium-sized drives for storing your operating system and some selected programs, and full-size drives for your large Steam library or other data-intensive workloads.

Optane products are very fast, but are not meant to have the absolute fastest read and write speeds, but rather to focus on low latency and consistent performance across a variety of queue depths. We have three drives in the laboratory for testing: the SSD 800P 58 GB, the SSD 800P 118 GB and the SSD 900P 280 GB.

Intel offers the high-end 900P both in the U.2 form factor and in a standard PCIe x4 add-on card. The U.2 model costs $ 330 with a capacity of 280 GB, and the PCIe version offers capacities of 280 GB and 480 GB at prices of $ 330 and $ 540, respectively. While we were working on this comparison, Intel released the newer Optane 905p, which offers a slight increase in performance compared to the 900p we tested. It is not meant to replace the 900p, but rather to consolidate Intel's lead in tasks with low queue depth and at the same time add a larger and more expensive 960 GB version.

Intel's 3D Xpoint stacks cells on top of each other in two storage levels, hence the 3D name. Cells are read and written by varying the voltage sent to selectors that control the cells. This configuration means that unlike conventional NAND flash or DRAM, each cell does not require a transistor. By eliminating the transistors, the cells become cheaper, faster and can store more data.

The 58 GB and 118 GB drives occupy an interesting market segment at $ 110 and $ 200. They are only large enough for your operating system and some selected programs, but cost four times more per GB than conventional NAND-based SSDs. My first thought when they came out was whether you want to spend all the money on an SSD that wants one that small. The 800P line is also a further development of the original Optane line from Intel, which had capacities of only 16 GB or 32 GB and could only be used to accelerate a hard drive – it seems like this is no longer a very common scenario.

Compared to the almost unprecedented lifespan of the 900P of over 5PB, the 800P only manages 365 TB. Although this is a 93% decrease, it is still more than twice the lifespan of previous generation NAND based SSDs. On paper, the 800P has slower read and write speeds than the 900P, but maintains a similar extremely low latency.

At the end of our SSD summary, there is the Black NVMe SSD from Western Digital. A relatively newcomer to the solid state market debuts with a direct rival to Samsung's flagship drives. It uses a similar 3D NAND technology and is said to be sold for a little less. Both lines claim to offer similar performance, so value is a key factor in choosing the drive.

The WD Black is available in 250 GB, 500 GB, and 1 TB sizes at prices of $ 110, $ 200, and $ 400, respectively.

Memory checks include many numbers and data points. The following table lists some important product information for each drive. As mentioned above, the drives are available in different capacities, but we only recorded data for the drives that we are testing today. The write duration value indicates how much terabyte of data the drive is likely to be able to write before the failure.

journey capacity Max Read (MB / s) Max Write (MB / s) Write endurance (TB) price Price / GB
Intel Optane 800P 58 GB 1450 640 365 $ 108 $ 1.86
Intel Optane 800P 118 GB 1450 640 365 $ 200 $ 1.69
Samsung 970 Pro 1 TB 3500 2700 1200 $ 500 $ 0.48
Samsung 970 Evo 500 GB 3400 2300 300 $ 200 $ 0.40
Intel SSD 600P 512 GB 1775 560 288 $ 240 $ 0.47
Intel Optane SSD 900P 280 GB 2500 2000 5110 $ 330 $ 1.18
Western digital black 1 TB 3400 2800 600 $ 400 $ 0.39

Benchmark results

When we move on to performance testing, we start with synthetic benchmarks to get a feel for how each drive works under ideal circumstances, and then move on to more realistic scenarios. The two most important benchmarks for drive performance are speed and latency. These categories are further divided into sequential and random access patterns. Sequential results represent reading large files such as textures or videos that are stored together. On the other hand, random access means loading many, usually smaller, discontinuous files, e.g. B. when starting a game or booting an operating system.

My tests were done on the Z370 platform with a Core i7-8700k. Synthetic tests are usually performed by accessing the drive under test from another drive that you start on. Real world tests were performed by installing the same Windows installation on each drive and running the tests locally. I used an Intel SSD 600P as the boot drive for the synthetic tests and used the results for comparison. It is an older drive and represents performance results from previous generation NVMe drives.

ATTO Disk Benchmark

The first test I did was ATTO Disk Benchmark. This gives a good idea of ​​how each drive behaves with different files that grow in size from 512 bytes to 64 MB. Small files are more difficult to process because the controller has more overhead. We can see that the Optane-based drives generally reach their maximum read speeds between 16 and 32,000, earlier than the NAND-based ones. These SSDs are all considered first class SSDs and we can see the wide range by their performance figures.

The 970 Pro hardly surpasses the WD Black in the reading test, but cannot maintain its nominal speed of 3500 MB / s for long. The 970 Evo had some problems here and, despite a nominal output of 3400 MB / s, only reached a maximum of around 3150 MB / s before it became significantly tapered. The Optane 800P modules exactly match the numbers given, and the 900P is well above the 2500MB / s rating.

Typically, writing to a drive is less common than reading, so manufacturers tend to focus their efforts accordingly. The drives are closer here than in the read tests, and the distance between the Optane 800P line and the other drives has increased. Although slightly better than the last generation SSD 600P, the Optane 800P modules achieved their nominal write speed of 640 MB / s, which is not much faster than standard SATA-based SSDs from a few years ago. I would have expected better numbers here.

AS SSD benchmark

At the top of the table is the WD Black, which has actually exceeded its write speed of 2800 MB / s. Behind it is the 970 Pro, which has slightly exceeded its nominal speed of 2700 MB / s. The 970 Evo takes third place, but delivers some very interesting results. The 500 GB model I have is only designed for 2300 MB / s, but actually reaches over 2500 MB / s here. The Optane 900P finishes our top 4 and also exceeds its 2000 MB / s rating by about 10%.

Now on access time. These results are important for the responsiveness of the system and when applications need to access many files. The faster the drive can respond to a request, the faster it can move to the next request in the queue. With the exception of the SSD 600P, all results are pretty close. The Optane drives have a narrow lead.

The AS SSD's read and write tests are a bit mixed. The 4K test measures the performance of the drive when reading or writing a 4K data block. Because it is a relatively small file, drives are difficult to manage at high speeds. The 4K-64Thrd test measures the performance of the drive when reading or writing a similar 4K data block, but this time while running 64 threads at the same time. This is also known as the queue depth of 64. The third test I ran was sequential read and write, which tests the drive's ability to read or write a single large piece of related data.

The write tests don't really show a clear overall winner, but the 970 Pro is the most consistent drive, so I'll give it the win here. The WD Black drive does sequential writes, but ranks fourth at 4 KB with a queue depth of 64. Among the top 4 drives, the standard 4K tests are all very close together and can be viewed within the margin of error. Here we see the Optane 800P drive battle compared to the rest of the field.

The reading tests are more precisely defined. The three Optane drives destroy competition in 4K reads, which are almost four times the performance of the closest drive. The Optane 900P also leads the 4K-64 thread test by a considerable margin.

For pure sequential reads, the Optane drives with the 970 and the WD Black drives slow neck to neck for guidance. I will hand over the win for this to the Optane 900P because it has a dominant 4K performance. something that is more like a real workload.

Iometer benchmark

Next up is Iometer, an extremely powerful tool that is considered the industry standard for memory benchmarks. Iometer can measure dozens of metrics, but since we've covered the read and write speeds in detail, I'll test the drive's response time. The Iometer is also known for its IOPS measurement (input-output operations per second), which can vary greatly depending on the system and configuration. It is also an extremely sophisticated test that does not reflect the workload that a user would be exposed to outside of high-performance corporate databases. If this is your use case, there are many specially designed drives that are not covered in this test.

I did two tests here. The first is in a queue depth of 1, which is the response time for reading a single file. The second test set was in a queue depth of 256, which is the response time for the drive that receives 256 data requests simultaneously. Thanks to the design advancements from 3D-XPoint, the Optane drives really shine here. While the 970 Pro slightly outperforms it in terms of average write latency, the overall tests aren't even a competition. All three Optane drives work almost identically and are more than three times faster than the nearest competitor. The Western Digital drive and controller have big problems here and are about twice as slow as their closest competitor.

The same tests that were repeated at a queue depth of 256 show a very similar result, with the Optane 800P actually winning with a significant lead. The WD Black actually has the best average read performance and surprisingly the older SSD 600P had the best average write performance, but overall Optane wins by far. It is an interesting result to see that the 970 drives faster than the WD Black in the QD1 test, but significantly slower in the QD256 test. We can see that the 970 Evo's cache is full and its average write performance is significantly poorer than that of the 970 Pro because 256 data requests occur.

In terms of overall response time performance, the Optane drives are the clear winner. The older NAND architecture does not fit 3D-XPoint.

Real applications

Now let's move on to some real benchmarks. I chose a variety of different scenarios to test different aspects of the drives. These are all tasks that occur frequently for everyone and should give a good result for the performance of each drive in an actual build. The first test is a full recovery of the Windows drive image. I reinstalled Windows 10 and then immediately mapped the drive with Macrium Reflect. I then restored the same drive image on each SSD in the summary and determined how long it took.

The 600P is not included in this test because I saved the raw image there. With the exception of the two Optane 800P drives, the end results are all within two seconds. I would call that within a margin of error. Despite the significant differences that we saw in the synthetic benchmarks above, the top 4 drives are almost identical when performing this particular task.

Next are two file copy tests. I used the files for a desktop program, as this represents numerous small files for the first part. For the second part, I used the single large backup image from the previous test for the second part, as this represents moving a single large file. These tests were performed by copying the image from one directory and pasting it into another directory on the same drive. This means that the drive must read the data, process it where it is to be stored, and then actually write it to test the read, write and access time.

The SSD 600P was the winner of the program copy, but took the last place for the drive image copy. Here, too, some other interesting trends can be observed. The Optane 900P and NAND based 970 and WD Black drives copied the backup image better than the program. Overall, the 970 Pro, 970 Evo, and WD Black performed the same, so I'll label this a three-way tie.

The next test will extract a compressed file and write it to another location on the same drive. As with the previous test, this includes reading the archive, performing processing to extract the files, and writing to the drive. There is a speed difference of approximately 10% from top to bottom, which the 900P wins.

The final test is very interesting from an everyday perspective. It shows the time it takes the computer to start completely from the Windows desktop and then the time to start Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Both test results were mostly within 2 seconds across the board …

closing remarks

Many of the general memory-related tasks didn't seem to be overly affected by which drive from this summary they were running on. As expected, Optane drives and second generation NVMe SSDs are the top players on the market and offer a significant performance advantage over cheaper SATA solid-state drives. But it's in the subtle details where you can draw some conclusions about what to buy based on your needs.

Back to our buying recommendations for storage earlier this year: Mainstream users don't have to invest in superfast NVMe SSDs. For half the price (or twice the storage capacity), most consumers will be satisfied with the Samsung 860 Evo, WD Blue, or the notorious Crucial MX500 SATA drive.

In the meantime, enthusiasts and professionals will definitely take the opportunity to take advantage of the wild storage performance of today's NVMe offerings. If your workload involves moving large amounts of data, you should choose the 970 Evo / Pro or WD Black because they have the best sequential read and write speeds. Note that the WD offers Black Evo-like prices, but has a better write duration, while the 970 Pro goes above and beyond with a premium. The 970 Evo is the only series to offer a 2 TB version.

If your workload requires super-fast response times or large data collections with many files are being analyzed, the Optane 900p is the best choice because it offers incredibly low response times. The high-end Optane is a niche within a niche product that dominates its competitors in reading and writing small files in conjunction with an insanely high life rating. If you need that, there's nothing like the expensive Optane, which got a slight bump (new 905p) at the time of writing and offers a larger 960GB version for a hefty $ 1,299.

In our opinion, the "middle class" Optane 800P is more difficult to sell due to the pricing. The ability to use a "cheap" drive for your operating system and a game or two may have worked a few years ago, but the 800p isn't affordable enough to do better than alternative, larger-capacity drives.

Best SSD for enthusiasts: Samsung 970 Evo and WD Black NVMe SSD
Best workstation SSD: Intel Optane 900P / 905P

The bottom line is that for a large majority of enthusiasts and professional users, we wouldn't look beyond the 970 Evo and the equally competent WD Black. Both are incredibly fast drives that won't break the bank. The 970 Pro may perform slightly better in some scenarios, but it costs more, and if you don't need the endurance, we wouldn't care. After all, the Optane 900p / 905p is simply the best there is currently. However, if you don't need latency and "queue depth", the top NVMe drives have comparable read and write speeds.

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