When it comes to value SSDs, there’s such a thing as false econ­omy. A cheap drive from an un­known brand looks great on pa­per, with plenty of ca­pac­ity and ap­peal­ing per­for­mance num­bers. But therein lies dan­ger.

En­gi­neer­ing a flash-based SSD that de­liv­ers good long-term per­for­mance and re­li­a­bil­ity is no sim­ple task. It re­quires deft in­te­gra­tion of mul­ti­ple com­po­nents and qual­ity cod­ing of the drive’s firmware. Specif­i­cally, one of the ma­jor chal­lenges in­cludes ef­fec­tive garbage col­lec­tion that mit­i­gates the in­her­ent loss of per­for­mance over time as NAND blocks fill with data. For that you need a qual­ity con­troller chip and good firmware al­go­rithms. Big­ger brands can in­vest in such tech­nolo­gies and share the cost over a wide range of prod­ucts.

An­other prob­lem for cheap drives in­volves the re­lated is­sues of over­pro­vi­sion­ing and cache mem­ory. Over-pro­vi­sion­ing of mem­ory al­lows a drive to main­tain ca­pac­ity even as wear causes cells to fail. It also al­lows a chunk of mem­ory to op­er­ate in faster sin­gle-level cell mode. The very cheap­est drives typ­i­cally of­fer lim­ited over-pro­vi­sion­ing for wear and to act as SLC cache. While we’re talk­ing cache, cheap drives of­ten also omit a DRAM cache, which will fur­ther im­pact their per­for­mance.

With all that in mind, what do we rec­om­mend? In the 2.5-inch SATA mar­ket, we would go for the Cru­cial MX500. It’s a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive than its BX500 si­b­ling, but it’s prop­erly con­fig­ured with both DRAM and dy­namic SLC cache. Ex­pect to pay about $50 for a 250GB drive and $80 for the 500GB ver­sion. 1TB is yours for around $150.

As for a main­stream M.2 NVMe op­tion, we elect the Sam­sung PM961. It’s a bare-bones OEM ver­sion of the pop­u­lar 960 Evo, com­plete with the same TLC NAND, Po­laris con­troller, and DDR3 DRAM. 256GB vari­ants cur­rently start at around $65. It’s a lot of SSD for the money.

Cru­cial’s MX500 is the ob­vi­ousSATA op­tion.

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