NVMe drives have seen storage capacity and speeds increase throughout 2020, whilst prices have fallen. This is a cut-throat market and there’s little in pricing between drives. In this article, we’ll highlight some of the best NVMe solid-state drives (SSDs) that keep costs down but won’t hurt your PC’s performance.
How much difference is there between NVMe drives?
Whilst it’s easy to get bogged down in reviews and compare drives based on individual benchmark results, our own testing of these drives in the real world shows minimal difference. In fact, in our benchmarking of drives across the performance spectrum from the Intel 660p, Western Digital SN550, Adata SX8200 Pro, and the Sabrent Rocket PCIe 4.0 drive there was no measurable difference in real-world metrics like boot time or game loading times. Even heavy usage such as 4K video editing is equally smooth on any of these drives. Ultimately it’s other factors such as CPU speed that dictate the PC’s overall performance and any current NVMe SSD is plenty fast enough for gaming, general use, and even light productivity work. Unless you’re running active databases, multiple virtual machines, or engaging in high demand use like constant video editing or data analysis, you don’t need a top-tier SSD.
Some budget drives make use of QLC NAND to further reduce costs. This flash memory packs four bits into each cell to increase data density. This means it can store more data, but that’s at the cost of read and particularly write speeds. Drives like the Crucial P1 and Intel 665p use clever controller algorithms to mask the inherent slowness of the QLC NAND from the user, and whilst such drives are perfectly acceptable for most uses, it usually isn’t worth the savings when there are so many excellent TLC NAND based drives for just a few dollars more. However, they can be a good option if you just want a large, cheap drive for bulk storage and speed isn’t a priority.
All of the recommended drives are M.2 format, meaning they’ll fit directly to the motherboard. There’s no need to purchase any additional cables, and installation is quick and easy with just a single screw holding them in place which is supplied with the motherboard – you can watch our installation video here. Most motherboards come with at least one M.2 heat sink but these are largely aesthetic and NVMe drives do not need additional cooling under normal workloads. If you want to neaten up the look of your drive, simple aluminum heat spreaders are available from major retailers, such as Amazon.
So, let’s take a look at our picks for the best budget NVMe SSDs in 2021. We’ve grouped them by model, with links to the various capacities available. We’d always advise buying the largest drive you can afford: no-one ever wished they had less storage space!
Best Budget NVMe SSDs- Our Recommendations
Best Sweet Spot Budget NVMe SSD
The Kingston A2000 was released in the middle of 2020 and is an NVMe SSD with great performance at a low price. It uses high-performance and high endurance Micron 96 layer TLC NAND and has a 1GB DRAM buffer, all controlled by the Silicon Motion SM2663ENG controller chip. The performance of this drive is excellent, rivaling the much more expensive and ‘industry standard’ Samsung Evo 970. It uses a 4 channel controller instead of 8 but this doesn’t impact performance in general use. If you’re looking for an SSD to act as your primary boot and program drive this is an excellent choice and makes the additional $5-6 over slower options a worthwhile spend. Even the 500GB version is backed with a 300TBW endurance rating and 5-year warranty whilst the 1TB option extends the endurance rating to 600TBW.
Best Value NVMe SSD
The Adata Swordfish is a mid-range NVMe SSD offering released in the latter half of 2020. It has a solid specification and adds features like hardware encryption which is a nice bonus at this low price point.
Like many mid-range NVMe drives it lacks DRAM cache opting instead for ‘Host Memory Buffer’ – it uses the system memory as a small working cache. This has an imperceptible impact on performance vs a full DRAM cache and isn’t a concern for general use. Meanwhile, this budget NVMe drive delivers 1,800MBps read speeds and 1,400MBps write speeds, plenty for all normal tasks. It will perform excellently as a boot drive and primary gaming and program drive, and will even stand up to light use in video or photo editing without impacting your system’s performance. It has a 5-year warranty and a 480TBW Endurance rating. The 1TB version is just over $100 making it a great choice: With 1Tb at your disposal, you’ll be able to get your system up and running with just a single drive.
Just creeping towards the $100/TB barrier the 2TB version makes a strong case for itself. Like the 1Tb version, this NVMe SSD uses TLC NAND and a Realtek controller to ensure performance is consistent and reasonably fast, with 1,800MBps Sequential Read and 1,400MBps write speeds. Again it has hardware encryption, a 5-year warranty, but owing to the larger capacity a 960TB lifetime endurance rating. Again you can use this as the only system drive, or else it makes excellent fast storage for games or frequently accessed data at an attractive price.
Best All Rounder Budget NVMe SSD
The Western Digital SN550 is another mid-range NVMe SSD with TLC NAND and makes use of HMB in place of DRAM Cache. It does however have a small but very fast SRAM Cache to boost performance. It performs slightly better than the Adata Swordfish in benchmarks but lacks hardware encryption. Sustained read speeds are around 2,400 MBps, read speeds are about 1,750MBps and the controller handles more realistic queue depth requests well too. We’ve used this drive for about 6 months in the Premium Builds test rig and it’s been rock solid throughout, with lag-free performance and no issues to speak of. The 1TB has a 600TBW Endurance rating and a 5-year warranty and pricing across the capacity range are impressive, and for a general-purpose PC, it’s perfect as the main system drive.
Best Budget NVMe SSD for Creators
For users who subject their drives to heavier workloads – like photo or video editing or other content creation – the PNY CS3030 NVMe drive offers a sweet spot between performance and price. It’s a TLC-based SSD using Toshiba 56L NAND, and a DDR4 RAM cache to boost performance and responsiveness. Speeds are high, at 3,500MBps read and 3,000MBps write, and the endurance is exceptional at 3,100 TBW for this 2Tb version. In benchmarks, it competes with drives the next price band up, such as the Samsung 970 Evo whilst costing significantly less. Overall this drive is a high-performance solution if you need a lot of fast storage and will subject it to heavy use, or if you’re just looking for a NVMe drive with slightly better performance but at a keen price.
Best Budget 2TB NVMe SSD
If you’re looking for a cheap large SSD for data storage or games then the Crucial P2 is a great choice. It’s ideally suited to use as a secondary drive, where outright speed matters less than cost per GB. This drive uses TLC NAND, a Phison E13T controller, and HMB to deliver 2,400MBps Read and 1,750MBps write speeds. With only slightly more expensive and better-performing drives available we wouldn’t recommend this as a boot drive, but if you’ve got a slot spare and want more storage with the convenience of the m.2 form factor then this is a good option.
Best Budget PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD
If you want to take advantage of the PCIe 4.0 interface on a Ryzen or Intel Rocketlake system, then the Adata Gammix S50 Lite offers entry-level PCIe 4.0 NVMe performance at the price of a PCIe 3.0 drive. It uses a Silicon Motion SM2267EN controller and fast Micron 96 Layer TLC NAND and boasts peak speeds of 3,900MBps read and 3,200MBps write. This combined with a very fast IOPS rating meaning it’s responsive under varied and demanding workloads. It also has hardware encryption. It’s not as fast as premium PCIe 4.0 drives, limited by a 4 channel controller, but we’re really splitting hairs here and only the most demanding users would need anything faster than this. In benchmarks this drive outperforms more expensive high-performance PCIe 3.0 drives in almost all metrics, making it an excellent choice for a compatible system whilst keeping costs in check.