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Best SSD for gaming 2021: shorter loading times, smoother streaming

Our top picks, plus what you need to know about different SSDs.

On the back of falling flash memory prices, SSDs have become significantly more affordable over the past few years. At the beginning of 2018, a 512GB Crucial MX500 drive cost around $140; now, the same drive costs $60 - and it was $10 cheaper before the current human malware pandemic. We've seen even more significant price drops for fast NVMe drives, making them a much better value for money option than ever before. Before we get into the actual drives that we recommend, let's cover the basics: why are SSDs actually worth their higher cost per gigabyte than traditional hard disk drives?

There are quite a few good reasons, but almost all of them come down to speed. Using an SSD as your boot drive will make your computer faster to start, while installing programs to an SSD will mean they will start faster and be more responsive too. The most demanding tasks will see the biggest improvements, and nowhere is this true more than in games. Switching from a mechanical hard drive to a solid state drive will cut game load times dramatically and there are further gains to be made when switching from an entry-level SATA drive to a faster NVMe SSD.

We found that upgrading to an SSD reduced game load times by up to 60 per cent.

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. More expensive NVMe SSDs reduced load times even further. 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. SSDs operate completely silently and are more resistant to damage from magnets or drops, thanks to their lack of moving parts. Some SSDs are also extremely compact, slotting right into your motherboard, removing the need to run data or power cables to them. 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. Even next-gen consoles are getting into the action, with a selection of the best SSDs compatible with the PS5 hitting the market in mid 2021.

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.

More information

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Best value SSD for gaming on PC and console: Crucial MX500

mx500_new
Type: 2.5-inch or M.2 SATA SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Sequential speeds: up to 560MB/s reads, up to 510MB/s writes

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. It's also available in two form factors: compact, cable-less M.2 or standard 2.5-inch. You can even combine the MX500 with a SATA to USB cable or enclosure to use as external storage for game consoles, including the Xbox Series X/S, PS5, Xbox One or PS4.

Fastest SATA SSD: Samsung 870 Evo

870evo
Type: 2.5-inch SATA SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB | Sequential speeds: up to 560MB/s reads, up to 530MB/s writes

The Samsung 870 Evo is a TLC (3-bit NAND) alternative to the company's QLC (4-bit NAND) 870 Qvo drive. By storing fewer bits per cell compared to the earlier Qvo drive, cost per gigabyte increases but performance is also improved. This is particularly true for random performance, where small pieces of data are being read or written rather than long, sequential chunks - think gaming rather than copying a large video file, for example. Write endurance is also increased, as demonstrated by the 870 Qvo's three year warranty compared to the five-year warranty offered by Samsung for the 870 Evo.

In our testing, the 870 was the fastest SATA drive we've ever tested, beating out the Crucial MX500 and Samsung's own 860 Evo. For that reason, the 870 Evo is a great choice if you need top-tier performance and you don't have the luxury of a higher-speed NVMe slot.

Best cheap NVMe SSD: WD Blue SN550

sn550
Type: M.2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB | Sequential speeds: up to 2400MB/s reads, up to 1950MB/s writes

What's faster than a SATA SSD but cheaper than a high performance NVMe drive? The answer is WD's Blue SN550, a budget NVMe drive that offers sequential read speeds of 2400MB/s and sequential write speeds of 1950MB/s. That's substantially faster than any SATA SSD (which top out around 550MB/s) but doesn't really challenge the performance of something like a Sabrent Rocket, XPG SX8200 Pro or Samsung 970 Evo Plus (which are closer to 3500MB/s). If you're operating on a limited budget, choosing a DRAM-less SSD like this one is a canny choice for lighter workloads like gaming and we didn't run into any issues during our testing. With that said, if you can stretch to one of our best value picks (below), you will get better sustained performance, something that's particularly useful for content creation tasks like 4K video editing.

Alternative option: Samsung SSD 980

ssd980
Type: M.2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB | Sequential speeds: up to 3500MB/s reads, up to 3000MB/s writes

The Samsung SSD 980 is another great option that offers slightly better sequential performance than the WD SN550, up to 3500MB/s reads and 3000MB/s writes on the 1TB model. However, it performs less well in sustained random reads and writes, making it marginally worse in tasks like game loads. The SSD 980 is the first Samsung SSD to lack a suffix like QVO, Evo or Pro, as it belongs to a new product line - it's a DRAM-less NVMe SSD paired with a modern controller, a large SLC cache and high-speed 3D TLC flash memory. Despite costing relatively little, the drive still comes with a five-year warranty, suggesting Samsung is confident in the drive's endurance.

We were only able to test the smallest 250GB drive, which isn't able to reach the heights of the 1TB model, reaching around 2900MB/s reads and 1400MB/s writes in our testing. Regardless, it remains snappy to use, with speeds only dropping after the ~45GB SLC cache was exhausted; the larger 500GB and 1TB drives offer even bigger SLC caches of ~100GB and ~160GB, which should permit longer sustained performance.

The SSD 980 is available in three sizes: 250GB ($50/£50), 500GB ($70/£70) and 1TB ($130/£130). We recommend going with whichever drive is cheapest in your region.

Best NVMe SSD for the money: Adata XPG SX8200 Pro

pro
Type: M.2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Sequential speeds: up to 3500MB/s reads, up to 3300MB/s writes

This cut-price NVMe drive offers similar real-world performance to the Samsung 970 Evo Plus at a dramatically lower price. In our testing, the SX8200 Pro delivered class-leading random read performance, while still offering strong sequential results. Game load times were also impressive, with some of the best results we've seen outside of the (incredibly expensive) Intel Optane 905P. The drive is also very power-efficient, making it a good candidate for use in laptops. All in all, this is the best NVMe drive on the market for the money.

Alternative option: Sabrent Rocket Q4

rocketq4

The Sabrent Rocket Q4 is another strong option that uses the more modern PCIe 4.0 standard to boast a more efficient package. It uses four lanes of PCIe 4.0, rather than eight lanes of PCIe 3.0, but still manages to hit speeds of around 4500MB/s in our testing. As it uses QLC NAND, you can pick it up in sizes of up to 4TB for a reasonable price, and the presence of a DRAM cache ensures that sustained random performance is good enough to use this as your primary drive. We even popped this drive in a PS5, where it performed admirably despite technically being below Sony's 5500MB/s recommendation, with loading times within a few percentage points of Sony's solution. Given its competitive price compared to other PCIe 4.0 drives, the Q4 is definitely worth a look.

Best NVMe SSD for mixed workloads: WD Black SN750

sn750_heatsink
Type: M.2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Sequential speeds: up to 3430MB/s reads, up to 3000MB/s writes

The WD Black SN750 is a great choice for mixed workloads, eg computers that are used for both gaming and content creation tasks like video editing. The drive turns in strong sequential performance and offers good power efficiency, although it comes up a bit short in random read and write tasks compared to its main rival, the Samsung 970 Evo. The SN750 is currently the cheaper drive by a significant margin, so it has become the better choice for most people. You can also get a model with a heatsink attached for a small premium, which may come in handy for M.2 mounts in laptops, on the back side of your motherboard or other cramped locations with little airflow. This helps the drive maintain a high level of performance, making it a canny choice.

Best PCIe 4.0 SSD for the money: Sabrent Rocket NVMe 4.0

sabrent_rocket
Type: M.2 NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD | Capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Sequential speeds: up to 3400MB/s reads, up to 3000MB/s writes

The Rocket is one of the most affordable PCIe 4.0 drives on the market, with a 1TB model costing less than competing drives like the Cosair MP600 and Gigabyte Aorus PCIe 4.0. Despite being cheaper and of a lesser-known brand, the Rocket drive offers essentially the same performance - thanks to its use of the same Phison controller and 96-layer TLC NAND as the other PCIe 4.0 options. Note that game load times aren't significantly better with PCIe 4.0, but you'll notice better performance in more intensive content creation tasks. If your motherboard doesn't include NVMe heat sinks or pads, you may want to opt for the slightly more expensive Rocket that does include a heatsink or one of the other PCIe 4.0 options.

Fastest PCIe 4.0 SSD: WD Black SN850

sn850
Type: M.2 NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD | Capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Sequential speeds: up to 7000MB/s reads, up to 5300MB/s writes

If you've got the need for (storage) speed, the WD Black SN850 is an excellent option and the fastest consumer drive we've ever tested. The SN850 offers some of the highest sequential read and write speeds on the market, thanks to its use of high-speed NAND, a top controller and the next-gen PCIe 4.0 interface. Its random speeds are impressive too, only losing out to Intel's Optane 900P and 905P cards - but these 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 WD Black SN850 is the standout choice.

There's even a version which comes with a heatsink for a small premium. This add-on helps maintain peak performance and prevent thermal throttling, especially in cramped cases with minimal natural airflow.

Best RGB NVMe SSD: XPG Spectrix S40G

spectrix
Type: M.2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Sequential speeds: up to 3500MB/s reads, up to 3000MB/s writes

RGB has become a major trend in PC components and peripherals, and SSDs are no exception. Early RGB SSDs had a tendency to overheat, but that issue seems to have been improved in more recent examples. The fastest we've tested is the Spectrix S40G from XPG, which approaches the sequential speeds of its flagship SX8200 Pro NVMe drive recommended above. However, it does show some temperature-related throttling during during sustained loads, suggesting that those hungry for the best possible performance should skip RGB for the meantime. If you do opt for an RGB SSD, then we suggest mounting it in a position to benefit from airflow from nearby case fans while avoiding the hot exhaust from graphics cards.

Best portable SSD: Crucial X8

portable
Type: USB 3.2 Gen 2 NVMe SSD | Capacities: 500GB, 1TB | Sequential speeds: up to 1000MB/s reads, up to 900MB/s writes

Crucial's X8 SSD is the best portable option we've tested, thanks to its compact frame and extremely high speeds. Essentially an NVMe drive tucked into a compact and bespoke enclosure, the X8 delivered sequential reads of 933MB/s and sequential writes of 878MB/s in our testing of the 1TB model; random I/O performance was also strong. That makes it convenient to ferry around the house or the office, while also ensuring that games load quickly and files copy over in a flash.

The short cable in the box works with both USB-C and full-size USB-A ports, so ensure you're connecting to your system's fastest USB port (ideally a USB 3.2 Gen 2 USB-C port) to unlock the drive's full potential. As well as working on PCs and Macs, the drive can also be used for game storage on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4 and PS5. (Note that the default firmware on some models may not play well with the PS5, so you can follow instructions here to upgrade the firmware and solve the issue.)

Best external SSD for PS5 and PS4

A good alternative to the Crucial X8 that works perfectly with the PS5 and PS4 is the Samsung T7. This drive is around 20 per cent smaller and has a more professional-looking metal enclosure. Its overall sequential and random speeds are extremely similar to the X8, maxing out around 910MB/s in sequential reads, although performance would sometimes drop during extended use. However, wider compatibility makes this a great choice for anyone planning to use the drive with PlayStation hardware.

Best cheap portable SSD: Surefire GX3 SSD or Crucial X6

surefire
Type: USB 3.2 Gen 1 SATA SSD | Capacities: 500GB, 1TB | Sequential speeds: up to 450MB/s reads, up to 430MB/s writes

The Surefire Gaming Bunker GX3 SSD is a good value USB SSD that provides around 440MB/s reads and 395MB/s writes in our testing of the 500GB model, making it around half the speed of the Crucial X8. However, random reads and write speeds are broadly similar, so game load times will be more or less the same. Depending on your usage needs, this could make the Surefire and other SATA-calibre SSDs like the Crucial X6 the better value options. The X6 is normally cheaper than the Surefire and performs a tad better, but the Surefire feels better made and comes with RGB lighting; either is an acceptable choice if the costs are similar.

Fastest SSD overall: Intel Optane 905P

905p
Type: U.2/M.2 or PCIe NVMe SSD | Capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 1.5TB | Sequential speeds: up to 2600MB/s reads, up to 2200MB/s writes

If you want the absolute fastest loading times possible and money is no object, then the Intel Optane 905P is as good as it gets right now. We recorded the fastest loading times with this drive in our testing, thanks to its unbeatable random read and write performance. However, copying files and other sequential tasks will be accomplished faster by the substantially cheaper Samsung 970 Pro. Still, if you're building the ultimate gaming PC or you absolutely need professional-grade performance, the Optane 905P is the current top dog.

Common terms

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 which your 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.

Frequently asked questions

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 250GB 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 500GB or 1TB drive makes more sense. Right now these 500GB and 1TB drives are in the price-per-gig sweet spot, so spring for them if you can. 2TB SSDs are starting to become reasonable in price too, and if you stick with SATA speeds, you can pick up a gargantuan amount of solid state storage for a few hundred dollars.

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 and PS4 Pro 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 an internal upgrade on the PS4 and PS4 Pro, we recommend a budget 2.5-inch SSD, such as the Crucial MX500 we highlighted above. If you go the external storage route, we recommend picking up the portable SSD highlighted above or one of the other SSDs we've recommended with a matching enclosure (e.g. a 2.5-inch USB enclosure for a 2.5-inch SATA SSD).

What about next-gen consoles?

The Xbox Series X - and presumably the PlayStation 5 - use internal NVMe drives that operate at significantly faster speeds than their last-gen spinning disk counterparts. The Series X uses its own special form factor for expandable storage, although you can still use USB-attached storage for running original Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One games on the Xbox Series X. Choosing a portable SSD drive might make sense to cut down load times for the previous-gen titles you don't want to install to your Series X's internal drive.

Do you want to know more? Read our investigation into whether SSDs are essential for gaming.

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About the author

Will Judd

Will Judd

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry  |  wsjudd

A bizarre British-American hybrid, Will turns caffeine into technology articles through a little-known process called 'writing'. His favourite games are Counter-Strike, StarCraft and Fallout 2. Will also tweets the latest tech deals at @DealsFoundry.

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