Best Budget NVMe M.2 SSDs in 2021: Fast Storage on the Cheap

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Affordable M.2 NVMe SSDsThe difference between a budget NVMe SSD and a high-end PCIe Gen4 M.2 drive is not as large as you might expect. In terms of your everyday user experience, it may not even be noticeable. While you will certainly see a huge difference when swapping your old hard drive for just about any SSD, the same cannot be said when exchanging one SSD for another.

But there is a difference, so when you are building a new PC and have an M.2 slot to spare, you will most likely want to use it. And if you prefer not to spend a substantial part of your budget on storage, there are now quite a few affordable NVMe SSDs to choose from.

Most manufacturers tend to focus on maximum sequential performance in their marketing, as these numbers are easy to understand and compare. However, when you look at seemingly slow drives like the now-discontinued Intel Optane SSDs – which often outperform even supposedly much faster drives – you will notice that sequential transfers are only one part of a rather complex equation. Other considerations such as random IOPS performance and latency also play a major role.

Best Value Gen3/Gen4 NVMe SSDs

We will start with the conclusion before going into more detail. Based on our own testing and others’, these would be our top choices for the best affordable M.2 SSDs in 2021:

Product
Best Affordable Gen3
Western Digital 1TB WD Blue SN570 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive SSD - Gen3 x4 PCIe 8GB/s, M.2 2280, Up to 3,500 MB/s - WDS100T3B0C
Best Affordable Gen4
Sabrent 1TB Rocket Q4 NVMe PCIe 4.0 M.2 2280 Internal SSD Maximum Performance Solid State Drive R/W 4700/1800 MB/s (SB-RKTQ4-1TB)
Image
Western Digital 1TB WD Blue SN570 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive SSD - Gen3 x4 PCIe 8GB/s, M.2 2280, Up to 3,500 MB/s - WDS100T3B0C
Sabrent 1TB Rocket Q4 NVMe PCIe 4.0 M.2 2280 Internal SSD Maximum Performance Solid State Drive R/W 4700/1800 MB/s (SB-RKTQ4-1TB)
Sequential read (max., MB/s)
3,500MB/s
4,700 MB/s
Sequential write (max., MB/s)
3,000MB/s
1,850 MB/s
Random read IOPS (4K/QD32)
460K
180K
Random write IOPS (4K/QD32)
460K
450K
Average rating
User reviews
14,586 Reviews
797 Reviews
Warranty
5 years
5 years
Endurance rating
600 TBW
200 TBW
Price
$93.99
$109.99
Best Affordable Gen3
Product
Western Digital 1TB WD Blue SN570 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive SSD - Gen3 x4 PCIe 8GB/s, M.2 2280, Up to 3,500 MB/s - WDS100T3B0C
Image
Western Digital 1TB WD Blue SN570 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive SSD - Gen3 x4 PCIe 8GB/s, M.2 2280, Up to 3,500 MB/s - WDS100T3B0C
Sequential read (max., MB/s)
3,500MB/s
Sequential write (max., MB/s)
3,000MB/s
Random read IOPS (4K/QD32)
460K
Random write IOPS (4K/QD32)
460K
Average rating
User reviews
14,586 Reviews
Warranty
5 years
Endurance rating
600 TBW
Price
$93.99
Best Affordable Gen4
Product
Sabrent 1TB Rocket Q4 NVMe PCIe 4.0 M.2 2280 Internal SSD Maximum Performance Solid State Drive R/W 4700/1800 MB/s (SB-RKTQ4-1TB)
Image
Sabrent 1TB Rocket Q4 NVMe PCIe 4.0 M.2 2280 Internal SSD Maximum Performance Solid State Drive R/W 4700/1800 MB/s (SB-RKTQ4-1TB)
Sequential read (max., MB/s)
4,700 MB/s
Sequential write (max., MB/s)
1,850 MB/s
Random read IOPS (4K/QD32)
180K
Random write IOPS (4K/QD32)
450K
Average rating
User reviews
797 Reviews
Warranty
5 years
Endurance rating
200 TBW
Price
$109.99

Last update on 2021-11-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Western Digital 1TB WD Blue SN550 NVMe Internal SSD - Gen3 x4 PCIe 8Gb/s, M.2 2280, 3D NAND, Up to 2,400 MB/s - WDS100T2B0COur current budget favorite in the Gen3 space is the WD Blue SN570, which offers better performance than its SN550 predecessor and also comes with a slightly smaller price tag compared to the Samsung 980. Much like the WD Blue SN550, the SN570 is still a DRAMless, value-oriented drive, but the latter’s specs have been greatly improved across the board to compete with Samsung’s offering.

When similarly priced, the Samsung 980 remains an attractive option. In spite of its lack of DRAM, the Samsung 980 also manages to offer real-world performance comparable to many high-end Gen3 drives – much like the WD SN750.

Sabrent Rocket Q4 4TBTo find an affordable NVMe SSD in the Gen4 segment, the entry-level options are based on cheaper QLC NAND memory chips. The Sabrent Rocket Q4 is one of just two such SSDs at the time of writing. It attempts to strike a good balance between the high sequential performance provided by the PCIe 4.0 interface and an attractive price point. However, the QLC trade-off in terms of a lower endurance rating is quite significant in the smaller capacities (starting at 1TB).

There is so far little competition in the budget Gen4 space. The other (just one) QLC-equipped alternative to the Rocket Q4 is Corsair’s MP400 Core, which uses the same Phison E16 controller as the Q4 and thus offers similar performance. Scroll down for a more detailed overview of budget Gen4 NVMe SSD alternatives.

List of Affordable PCIe Gen3 NVMe M.2 Drives

On the other hand, there are several inexpensive M.2 SSDs that use the PCI-Express 3.0 interface. Entry-level models frequently employ QLC (quad-level cell) NAND, but the TLC (triple-level cell) alternatives are still competitively priced.

Budget SSDs
(1TB version)
ProductMax. sequential read/write (MB/s)4K random read/write performance (IOPS)DRAMNAND
Type
Endurance/
Warranty
Latest
Price*
Check
Availability
WD Blue SN5703500/3000460K/460KNoTLC600 TBW/
5-Year
$93.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Samsung 9803500/3000500K/480KNoTLC600 TBW/
5-Year
$116.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
WD Blue SN5502400/1950410K/405KNoTLC600 TBW/
5-Year
$83.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Mushkin
Helix-L
2110/1700240K/260KNoTLC600 TBW/
3-Year
$85.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Sabrent Rocket Q3200/2000125K/500KDDR3LQLC260 TBW/
5-Year
$99.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Kingston
A2000
2200/2000250K/220KDDR4TLC720 TBW/
5-Year
$99.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Seagate
Barracuda Q5
2400/1700N/AN/AQLC274 TBW/
3-Year
$111.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
PNY
CS2130
3500/1800N/ADDR3QLCN/A
5-Year
$109.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Intel
670p
3500/2500220K/330KDDR3LQLC370 TBW/
5-Year
N/ANewegg
Patriot
P300
2100/1650290K/260KNoTLC320 TBW/
3-Year
$99.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Mushkin
Pilot-E
3500/3000331K/353KDDR3TLC600 TBW/
3-Year
$109.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Crucial
P2
2400/1800N/ANoTLC450 TBW/
5-Year
$83.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Sabrent
Rocket
3400/3000650K/640KDDR3TLC1665 TBW/
5-Year
$99.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK

*Prices are updated automatically at regular intervals but are subject to change between updates. See ‘Last update’ information at bottom of the page.

TLC Vs. QLC NAND

SLC, MLC, TLC, QLC NAND

Higher densities introduce durability and performance issues.

Although the incredibly high densities in today’s SSDs are a feat of engineering, the ability to write additional bits of data to each memory cell is not without downsides. The exponential increase in density from MLC (multi-level cell) via TLC (triple-level cell) to QLC (quad-level cell) NAND (Not-AND; a type of transistor logic gate) has introduced endurance and performance-related challenges.

  • Firstly, all else being equal, QLC NAND by itself performs significantly worse compared to TLC.  The higher density makes QLC slower and more error-prone, which must be corrected for by the manufacturers. This is partly accomplished by using an SLC (single-level cell) cache. Once this significantly faster cache is temporarily used up, the SSD will write directly to the QLC memory, which reduces performance to a fraction of maximum sequential rates. This is an issue with TLC-based SSDs as well, but less pronounced.
  • Secondly, the endurance ratings of affordable M.2 SSDs – QLC-based ones in particular – tend to be much lower compared to more expensive drives. This means that you can write less data to it as measured in TBW (terabytes written) before it runs out of warranty, which is mutually exclusive with the warranty in years. For the average gamer or office user, this is rarely an issue. But do keep the TBW ratings in mind if you work with e.g. video editing and other storage-intensive workloads.

However, the main problem with QLC SSDs so far is not that they are unreliable or slow (they’re not), but that they are still too expensive compared to their more durable and (usually) slightly faster counterparts. As long as the price difference is small or non-existent – and it still is among the entry-level NVMe drives – there are few reasons to choose a QLC-based SSD over a TLC-based variety.

Other Considerations When Buying an Entry-Level NVMe SSDs in 2021

Sabrent Rocket Gen3Some compromises have to be made to get the best possible value in the budget M.2 NVMe SSD space. Besides the small QLC/TLC price differences, it is also interesting to note that the difference between entry-level and mid-range drives is also relatively small. Adding around $20–30 to your budget will get you a DRAM-equipped SSD with a much higher TBW rating, such as the Gen3 Sabrent Rocket listed above.

Another issue with the entry-level M.2 SSD market is that some manufacturers are not providing detailed performance specifications (or even an endurance rating in the case of PNY). Comparing SSDs based only on maximum sequential performance alone is not sufficient, as these numbers are not reliable indicators of real-world performance outside of specific tasks. For reference, see our performance comparison further down on this page.

Warranty terms are also important. While three years sounds reasonable enough compared to other product categories, we have come to expect five years for SSDs, so anything less does not inspire as much confidence.

Those objections aside, it should be mentioned that practically all modern M.2 SSDs – even in the budget segment – are considerably more reliable in general than hard drives or even other SSDs from 5–10 years ago. Complete drive failures are very rare and, for the average user, a cheap NVMe SSD should last for the lifetime of the system, even if it has a modest TBW rating.

Entry-Level NVMe SSD (Real-World) Performance

Although high maximum sequential transfer rates are typically the manufacturers’ headline feature, these numbers do not scale with common real-world scenarios like loading apps and games. As the average user load in gaming/office use is more centered around reading and writing small chunks of data, factors like latency and random performance are arguably more interesting.

As our testing of the similarly affordable WD Blue SN550 and Sabrent Rocket Q reveals, these drives are actually not that far from competing with the theoretically much faster (and more expensive) WD Black SN850 in benchmarks measuring loading times.

The Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers benchmark is a more accurate and practical alternative to a stopwatch for measuring level loading times. Five different levels are loaded during the benchmark, which then provides a total loading time. Here, any SSD will provide a significant and clearly noticeable boost compared to any mechanical hard drive (the one used here is a comparatively fast 7,200 rpm 3.5″ model). All games behave differently, but

Unsurprisingly, the market-leading SN850 has the shortest app start-up times in PC Mark 10, but it is interesting to note that the significantly less expensive SN550 is trailing by insignificant amounts, and the same is true for Samsung’s non-Pro 980 The QLC-based Sabrent Rocket Q is trailing a bit, as is the mid-range Gen3 Corsair MP510.

Sequential performance as measured with CrystalDiskMark is a different story. These high-end, mid-range and affordable NVMe SSDs perform about as you would expect from their specifications. The 4K transfer rates are somewhat better correlated with the real-world performance benchmarks.

What About Affordable Gen4 NVMe M.2 SSDs?

Now that Intel and AMD both offer PCI-Express 4.0-enabled platforms in all price ranges, the new interface is in the process of going mainstream. Compared to Gen3, Gen4 offers no less than twice the bandwidth for devices that are able to utilize it. At this point, those devices are primarily Gen4 M.2 SSDs. So far, manufacturers have mainly been competing in the high-end space, where the price tag is less of a concern.

This will inevitably change as Gen3-only systems are slowly but certainly replaced, but the potentially more affordable QLC-based Gen4 drives are still rare. As of now, the aforementioned Sabrent Rocket Q4 and Corsair MP400 Core are the only such alternatives on the market. 

Gen4 QLC
SSDs (1TB)
ProductMax. sequential read/write (MB/s)4K random read/write performance (IOPS)DRAMNAND
Type
Endurance/
Warranty
Latest
Price*
Check
Availability
Sabrent
Rocket Q4
4700/1800180K/450KDDR4QLC200 TBW/
5-Year
$109.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Corsair
MP600 Core
4700/1950200K/480KDDR4QLC225 TBW/
5-Year
$119.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK

*Prices are updated automatically at regular intervals but are subject to change between updates. See ‘Last update’ information at bottom of the page.

These two drives use the same NAND and controller (Phison E16), so it’s not surprising that the specifications are nearly identical. The MP600 Core is slightly ahead on paper, but the actual performance difference appears to be minimal. Usually, the MP600 Core is also slightly more expensive than the Sabrent Q4. However, the latter does not include a large heat spreader.

As with most QLC SSDs, the main downside to both these affordable Gen4 SSDs is poor endurance ratings. This is particularly apparent in the smallest 1TB capacities, which

Early Phison E16 Drives Still Offer Great Value

If you are looking for the best possible value in the Gen4 NVMe M.2 space – without compromising on endurance – a better idea might be to look at the earliest SSDs to arrive on the Gen4 market. All of these were built with the highly successful Phison E16 controller that, incidentally, is the same chip that has more recently been repurposed for the aforementioned QLC SSDs.

The main difference compared to the newer and cheaper M.2 options is that the original E16 drives are equipped with TLC NAND. As a consequence, they offer somewhat better performance and much better endurance ratings. For the same reasons, you can barely tell these SSDs apart as far as specifications are concerned.

Gen4 E16
SSDs (1TB)
ProductMax. sequential read/write (MB/s)4K random read/write performance (IOPS)NAND
Type
Endurance/
Warranty
Latest
Price*
Check
Availability
Sabrent Rocket Gen4 (1TB)5000/4400750K/750KTLC1800 TBW$149.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Gigabyte Aorus Gen4 (1TB)5000/4400750K/700KTLC1800 TBW$169.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Corsair MP600 Gen4 (1TB)4950/4250680K/600KTLC1800 TBW$139.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Patriot Viper VP4100 (1TB)5000/4400800K/800KTLC1800 TBW$179.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
Seagate Firecuda 520 (1TB)5000/4400760K/700KTLC1800 TBW$169.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK
XPG Gammix S50 (1TB)5000/4400750K/750KTLC1800 TBW$799.99Amazon
Newegg
Amazon UK

*Prices are updated automatically at regular intervals but are subject to change between updates. See ‘Last update’ information at bottom of the page.

Admittedly, the Phison E16-based SSDs are not identical. There are a few different firmware variants and some of the drives come with an included (and in some cases optional) heatsink. Nevertheless, although they are no longer on par with the fastest SSDs in the category, these drives have been almost universally well-received and the price remains the most important differentiator.

Summary: Best Value in the Gen3 Space, for Now

The number of budget NVMe M.2 SSDs has greatly increased in the past couple of years and now makes up a fair share of the market. As of mid-2021, some observations stand out:

  • PCIe Gen3 NVMe SSDs offer the best value overall at this time – When comparing, for example, the WD SN850 and the much more affordable SN550 in terms of real-world loading times and user experience, the latter is not lagging by an overly significant amount. Hence, the price/performance ratio is currently more attractive in the entry-level market.
  • TLC NAND still trumps QLC in the price/performance race – Although it is technically impressive, the main selling point of QLC NAND is that the compromise between improved density and reduced endurance should result in lower prices. However, the average price difference is still too small compared to the TLC counterparts.

Do you have a different opinion of what constitutes the best affordable M.2 NVMe SSD at this time? Please share it in the comments.

Jesper Berg

As a PC gaming enthusiast since the 3dfx Voodoo era, Jesper has had time to experiment with a fair few FPS-improving PC parts over the years. His job at GPCB is to test and evaluate hardware, mainly focusing on GPUs and storage devices.

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