Is anyone still buying mechanical hard drives? In 2018 Solid State Drives had a stranglehold on the consumer storage market due to aggressive price competition, performance improvements and ever more capacious capacities.
This year was a watershed period for the M.2 NVMe SSD drive standard in the consumer PC space. Although it has for some time been a defacto choice for ultrathin laptops, the near universal presence of the M.2 slot on all motherboards purchased since 2017, whether they be based on AMD or Intel chipsets, has meant that the potential market for drives has grown significantly. Tracking alongside that has been a reduction in price for NVMe drives of viable ‘OS drive’ capacities (i.e. 250GB and higher) and new performance milestones.
Corsair and Samsung have lead the way in performance, offering drives that can now almost saturate the four lane PCI-Express 3.0 I/O available to M.2. Samsung’s 970 EVO is widely accepted as the market leader thanks to sequential read speeds up to 3500MB/s and write speeds as high as 2500MB/s, but Corsair’s MP510 is no slouch either. Both drives have traded blows in our reviews.
Just as M.2 SSDs have improved and deepened the variety of models available, so standard SATA SSDs have fallen out of vogue. Price pressures have driven manufactures to embrace technologies that increase drive capacity (or density), sometimes at the expense of fine performance metrics. Drives as large as 4TB are now available in the 2.5” form factor with SATA III connector, but latency and IOPS will often be poorer than smaller drives released years ago. Triple-Layer Cell technology has given way to Quad-Layer Cells (storing 4 bits per cell), but with that comes a commensurate decrease in write durability. Both Micron/Crucial and Samsung introduced their QLC NAND technologies in 2018, with Samsung launching the 860 QVO in November.
Despite understandable stagnation in performance, mechanical HDDs continued to increase in capacity in 2018. Western Digital’s Ultrastar Enterprise HDD platform for example hit 14GB in April, and mechanical drives remain the most affordable option for large capacity local storage and NAS systems both at home and in enterprise environments. Mechanical drives certainly aren’t dead yet, but they’re becoming a niche product as SSDs take over the mainstream.
Finally, we should also mention Intel Optane. These drives remain something of an unknown factor in the market, representing only a small fraction of sales in both the consumer and enterprise space. The technology is just as exciting as it was when it debuted – latency is low, while on-paper write endurance is exceptional – but despite great promise, performance is not quite so barnstorming when compared with modern NVMe SSDs as opposed to those of 2015 vintage. A factor in that is also the price and current capacity limitations, making the drives more appropriate for ‘caching’ and multi-tier storage configurations than stand-alone OS drives.
In October Micron announced their intention to buy Intel’s remaining 49% share of the IM Flash joint-venture and develop their own 3D XPoint products for 2019. It remains to be seen what that means for Intel and Optane.