Solid State, HDD, External Drives & NAS
Solid state drives are finally the norm, only differentiated by how extreme you want to go and how willing you are to pay for the very best. Enthusiast and pro-level SSDs are reserved to non-volatile storage (NVMe and Intel Optane) which carry a premium but are certainly worth the money if you run applications that fully take advantage of the 2x performance bump. For the rest of users, mainstream SSDs are very affordable at decent capacities, speeds and endurance, and can grow as large as 4TB.
We have spent dozens of hours testing storage, so we have a pretty clear idea about what devices are worth buying. We've divided our picks into six categories based on form factor and need as shown below.
- Best Enthusiast SSD
- Best Mainstream SSD
- Best Hard Drive
- Best Portable Storage
- Best External Storage
- Best Home NAS
Best Enthusiast SSD
The Samsung 970 Evo is as good as it gets for a top performing drive that won't break the bank. Having commanded many of our top SSD lists for the past few years, Samsung's 970 Pro and 970 Evo represent the successors to the highly successful 960 Pro and 960 Evo line from late 2016. Both of these SSDs use Samsung's 3D V-NAND technology to achieve high density at an affordable cost. Compared to traditional NAND storage in which the cells are laid out flat on the PCB, V-NAND uses a vertical arrangement. Samsung claims that stacking the cells also improves longevity and power efficiency.
The 970 Pro is available in 500GB and 1TB versions. The 970 Evo is available in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB variants with prices ranging from $90 for the 250GB version up to $600 for the 2TB variant. Those prices, by the way, are lower than they were just a few months ago at launch, making them ever more attractive. Samsung advertises the two drives as having performance similar to each other and our tests confirm it. The key difference between the Evo and Pro drives is the type of internal memory they use. The 970 Pro uses 2-bit MLC flash, while the 970 Evo uses 3-bit MLC flash in a TLC configuration which is cheaper to manufacture. On paper, the two drives, comparing across the same storage capacity, have very similar read and write speeds.
Samsung's new strategy thus is clear. The more popular and affordable Evo line is taking over the Pro as the main offering for most consumers and enthusiasts. The higher priced 970 Pro with its 2-bit MLC flash is rated for 4x write endurance, but given the Evo's impecable track record and ample terabytes written rating (TBW), to the average user those figures won't matter much.
A Remarkable Competitor
Western Digital and HP offer competing M.2 PCIe SSDs featuring their own architecture and controllers with specs on par with the SSD 970 Evo. In fact, we'd call WD's Black 3D NVMe SSD a match to Samsung's Evo drive in nearly all fronts, but ultimately gave the edge to the Samsung drive due to their longer track record. With that said, the WD Black 3D comes in capacities of 250GB, 500GB and 1TB and there's absolutely no reason not to go for one of them if they're a bit more affordable or simply as a great alternative to Samsung's Evo.
A third option, HP's EX920 also offers excellent performance and value, however we have relegated it to a mention because it doesn't seem to be a product the company is really focused on and thus support might come in late if needed. The EX920 would appear to be more of a byproduct of HP's ambitions in the OEM market. You can buy the SSDs on Amazon and owners seem to love it.
For workstations and professionals, the extra oomph and confidence provided by the SSD 970 Pro may be justified at a premium. The 970 Pro offers class-leading M.2 NVMe performance but is only available in capacities up to 1TB.
Marking a larger jump in performance, Intel's latest Optane 905p drive now offers up to 1.5TB of ultra fast storage. It's damn expensive, but Optane's key attributes include incredibly low latency, extended endurance and performance improvements at practical queue depths. Derived from the enterprise-focused drives, the Optane 905p is essentially the only drive that is significantly faster than Samsung's 970 Pro overall. Endurance on the 960GB Optane 905p is rated at an insane 17.52 PBW vs. Samsung’s 1TB SSD 970 Pro 1.2 PBW (perabytes written). Intel's drive costs over twice as much per gigabyte than Samsung's top offering though.
Best Mainstream SSD
New for 2018 and meaning to replace its 3-year-old SATA SSD line, Samsung has added the 860 Evo along with the 860 Pro to its family of consumer-grade solid-state drives. The 860 Evo remains a great value option and is available in capacities of 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB and 4TB, while boasting sequential read and write speeds of up to 550MB/s and 520MB/s as well as max random read and write speeds of 98K IOPS and 90K IOPS.
The previous generation SSD 850 had already squeezed most it could from the SATA interface, so the speed difference with the new drive is negligible if perhaps more consistent. Best of all, with enthusiasts having moved on to NVMe, prices for these mainstream drives are at its all-time lowest.
You can pick up an 860 Evo in 2.5-inch and mSATA variants and pricing starts at $56 for the 250GB 2.5-inch version, which is our recommendation for a typical budget build. For $88 you can double the drive capacity to 500GB. Both the 860 Evo and 860 Pro use Samsung's MJX controller and V-NAND memory, they are compatible with Samsung's Magician software for management purposes, and they are backed by a five-year warranty or up to 2,400TB written.
Another Wallet-Friendly Alternative
Based on Micron's 64-layer 3D TLC NAND and available in 2.5” SATA or M.2 interfaces, the wallet-friendly Crucial MX500 is another proven affordable option. Most users won’t notice any difference in performance between the MX500 and the SSD 860 Evo or even the 860 Pro. So if you want to save a few bucks, Crucial's drives are usually found at a discount and they're a safe bet for a snappy SSD.
Best Hard Drive
Raw storage capacity is the main reason for considering a conventional hard drive and you won't be seeing blistering speeds regardless with a mechanical drive. That's the reason we're picking a cost-effective yet reliable hard drive, choosing the WD Red over the company's faster but pricier Black drives.
Western Digital main consumer drives includes three HDD families: Blue, for entry-level drives; Red, for NAS systems and long-term reliability; and Black, for ultimate performance from a spinning disk drive. The company's Green drives were dropped from the lineup, while Gold and Purple have been added for enterprise and surveillance purposes.
WD Red HDDs are tested for compatibility in NAS environments, but even if that's not your need, it does offer lower noise and vibration compared to regular hard drives, built-in NASware 3.0 technology and error recovery controls should something go awry. They come in both 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch form factors with capacities ranging from 2TB up to 10TB. Our pick of a 4TB Red drive is just $125 at the moment.
For those of you who need an HDD to store tons of 4K videos, photos, and games, but you also care about performance, you might as well step up to Seagate's Barracuda Pro, which is the largest consumer hard drive you can buy with capacities ranging from 2TB ($120) on up to 14TB ($575) and offers a maximum sustained transfer rate of more than 200MB/s.
Best Portable Storage
Starting at $100 for 500GB of portable solid-state storage, Samsung's T5 series has set the bar for external USB 3.1 SSDs, offering read and write speeds of up to 540MB/s, a three year warranty and AES 256-bit hardware encryption with software that is a snap to set up. The device is encased in metal and is compact enough that it can fit in the palm of your hand or thrown in your pocket, measuring less than 3 x 3 x 0.5".
Compatible with Windows, macOS and Android, the T5 should allow you to expand the storage of any device with a USB port.
Between its compact size, sub-$0.25/GB pricing and top-end performance, the T5 has yet to be bested in this form factor. Do note however that is you want the best performance possible (especially for sequential writes) the larger 500GB version and above are faster than the base 250GB offering. The good news, the 500GB version is currently as cheap as the smaller one.
I Want More
Honestly, the T5 is plenty fast for a portable drive. In fact, we've been spoiled by it. But for mission-critical work, you don't want fast, you want the fastest. The Samsung X5 Portable SSD is a brand new NVMe-based offering that leverages Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, enabling read speeds of up to 2,800 MB/s and write speeds of up to 2,300 MB/s. According to Samsung, you can transfer a 20GB 4K UHD video in just 12 seconds. It is nonetheless a first-gen drive and you'll have to find suitable laptops/PCs that fully take advantage of it. It's expensive, too, but blazing fast.
Best External Hard Drive
For those after something big to backup or transfer data, and don't need the performance of an SSD -- or don't want to pay the premium -- Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub delivers ample storage at a great value. The drive comes in 4 TB, 6 TB, 8 TB and 10 TB capacities, and unlike our portable pick it requires its own power, and must be plugged into a wall outlet.
The design is compact for a full fledged external HDD, while the front-facing USB 3.0 hub is quite useful for charging mobile devices or plugging in flash drives on your desktop.
By default, the Backup Plus Hub comes formatted for Windows PC but with a driver install you can add Mac support and use it interchangeably between the two operating systems without reformatting. Furthermore, Seagate also offers a 'Hub for Mac' white version (4 TB only) that is Time Machine compatible right out of the box, though again, to add Windows support you simply have to install some extra software.
The bundled Seagate Dashboard interface lets you back up your PC, mobile devices, and photos and video from social media, or to restore an existing backup. Seagate drives have proven reliable over the years, but you can also set up an automatic backup that sends your files to an offsite cloud storage provider, so your data is safe even in the event of a failure or unpredictable events like a natural disaster.
Best Home NAS
Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices have become affordable enough for home users to consider purchasing if they are looking for a home file server/media center. Synology makes it easy to migrate data to and from other locations and the company's software provides a ton of apps for anything you might require from this sort of setup (media streaming, file sharing, home surveillance, etc.)
Pricing for the 4-bay DS418play without any drives begins at $425 while options for bundled storage start at 2TB for $585 and go on up to 10TB for more than $1,000. Regardless of the package you buy, specs include a dual-core Intel J3355 processor with support for dual-channel transcoding, 2GB of DDR3-1866 memory (expandable to 6GB), and encrypted sequential throughput of up to 226MB/s on reads and 185MB/s on writes.
If you wind up buying the drive-less DS418play, Synology offers a list of drives that are compatible with it.