The world of solid state drives is expanding. What began as 2.5” drives running through SATA like your old mechanical drive has grown into NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express), chips even smaller than your RAM and fast enough to run on the same bus as your $1000 graphics card. We’ve looked at two such drives in the past several months and today we’re looking at another major player in the storage world: Western Digital. The WD Black PCIe SSD is the company’s flagship solid state drive and comes in cheaper than almost every major competitor. Does it have the performance to match up? Let’s take a closer look.
If you haven’t yet entered into the world of solid state drives, some of the terms being thrown around may be mystifying. Solid State Drives make use of non-volatile flash memory (NVM), not unlike the RAM powering your computer or the hard drive in your cell phone. In 2013, the first non-volatile memory express (NVMe) drive hit the mainstream with many more to follow in the years after. These new drives use the much faster PCI Express bus, allowing them to achieve speeds more than five times faster than a traditional SSD - say, 3000MB/s versus 550MB/s on a 2.5” drive. This year, new memory cell technology is making its way to the public, likely driving the prices of existing drives to an all time low.
In short, it’s time to get serious about NVMe.
When we reached out to Western Digital and explained the gaming focus of our site, they immediately suggested their WD Black PCIe. As far as speeds go, this M.2 is their top of the line. Quoting speeds of 2050MB/s and 800MB/s read and write, the Black is nearly 400% faster their next closest drive. No surprise they would recommend it for gamers. Given the easy-as-pie “put it in the slot and tighten the screw” installation of M.2 drives, it also makes for an easy upgrade for gamers who might not be experienced digging around in their guts of their system.
Yet, those back of the box speeds are slower than other drives we’ve tested, particularly in write speed. Likewise, the endurance of the drive is only 160TBW, a notable drop from the offerings of some of the more expensive competitors (though WD offers an impressive 5-year warranty on the Black). But given that this drive $30-50 cheaper than the competition, we wanted to know what the real world impact of these reduced speeds, and is it worth the sacrifice to save splurging on the next drive? Let’s take a look.
Test system: i7-7700k at 4.5GHz, MSI Z270 Gaming M7 motherboard, 16GB DDR4 G.Skill at 3200MHz, MSI GTX 1080ti DUKE OC/NVidia GTX 1080ti Founder’s Edition (SLI), 2.5TB HDD, Corsair HX1050 1050-watt PSU.
The first test we ran was ATTO. ATTO is one of the most common benchmarks used by manufacturers as it tests sequential reads and writes. In practice, the vast majority of actual used relies on random reads and writes, which makes these benchmarks theoretical high water marks. We run them here to see for ourselves, under such optimal conditions, how the drive will perform. Our results showed sequential read speeds of 1794MB/s and write speeds of 808MB/s. The reads are a little lower than expected, but the write speed is spot on specification.
Next, we move onto AS SSD. AS SSD tests sequential speeds and random speeds and includes tools to simulate the expected transfer rates for ISO files, standard programs, and games. As you can see, the sequential read speed is a touch lower and continued to be across multiple tests. What we really want to pay attention to in the top portion is the 4K-64Thrd test, which gives us closer to real world results. Note that random access speeds are always much lower by the nature of the task being performed. Looking down below, it’s interesting to see that the transfer rates for “program” and “game” simulations are almost identical to those of of the higher specced and priced Samsung 960 EVO we looked at last month.
Next, to validate these findings we loaded up CrystalDiskMark, another synthetic benchmark. Here, we find sequential speeds of 1598MB/s read and 824.1MB/s write. Random access speeds at 32-bit depth were 676MB/s read and 508.3MB/s write.
What we really care about, though, is real world performance. To assess that we look at two common use cases, copying large files between drives and in-game load times. Here’s what we found.
Here we find average transfer speeds when copying from a mechanical drive to the WD Black of 161MB/s with a nearby peak of 179MB/s. When going the other way around, the average transfer speed is much slower due to the write limits on the mechanical drive. When copying and pasting to itself, the write speed limitations are apparent. The Zotac Sonix 10 Year Anniversary Edition and the Samsung 960 EVO were able to complete the 20.9GB operation in 39s and 29s respectively, whereas the Black drive took a full 1 minute and 41 seconds.
But how about in games, where we’ll be looking at results of our purchasing decision most often?
And this is where we come down to it. The WD drive is slower than the other two SSDs we’ve looked at by a good 1GB/s; however, the real world impact was no more than 2 seconds in any game we tested.
NVMe drives are expensive. There’s no way around that. For first time buyers, it can be a confusing prospect deciphering the real world benefit of such high speed drives when you’re already paying a premium. In the case of the WD Black, the write speeds are definitely slower and file transfers take notably longer. However, it’s the read speeds where we most regularly observe the improvement of solid state drives. Once the file is on the drive, as in the case of an OS or a game directory, the performance difference between the Black and those that are far more expensive is a matter of one and two seconds. If you do a lot of copy and pasting of very large files, you’ll be better suited with a speedier drive. But, if you’re like most gamers who install a game and leave it, and aren’t concerned about single seconds of improvement, the WD Black offers a more affordable way to experience NVMe performance.
The product discussed in this review was provided by Western Digital for purposes of review.