Good Lord, NVMe Drives Are Fast

It wasn’t that long ago that I spent a ton of money building what was going to be my hardcore gaming PC. It had two GTX 780’s, 32GB of RAM, a solid gaming CPU, a new gaming monitor (remember EIZO?) and all the bells and whistles that came with that. I knew I’d be doing a lot of recording, so I had to have plenty of storage. But SSDs were expensive as all hell back in 2012, especially beyond the 500GB mark. So I resorted to the next best alternative: a series of fast SATA drives, striped together in RAID 0 to give me the speed and storage I’d need.

But man, how times have changed.

The reason why I ran a RAID 0 setup – which I’m still using today as a scratch drive – was because video files are enormous. That’s especially the case if you’re mucking around with lossless footage, and that was before there was much demand for 1440p and 4K footage, particularly among Australians with our turd-tier broadband.

But now that those resolutions are fairly normal, hardware encoders are supremely efficient and average Aussie internet speeds have reared themselves slightly out of the toilet, people want more. And hard drive technology has come an astounding long way, especially since NVMe storage was introduced a few years ago.

So before we go into the value proposition, here’s a quick primer for everyone.

The base standard in most PCs is mechanical hard drives, the chunky things you might have tossed at a LAN once or twice and the cheapest things on the market right now. You can get 4TB of storage for as little as $155, which is crazy good value.

Next up from that is SSDs, which rely on a non-volatile type of flash memory called NAND. There’s no moving parts in these drives, as they’re made entirely of semiconductors. They’re smaller, miles faster and, since the price of NAND Flash has plummeted, replaced mechanical drives in almost every laptop.

There was some initial concerns when SSDs were first introduced. The NAND flash cells in SSDs degrade over time as more and more data is written to the drive (reading doesn’t affect their lifespan), and people were worried with the early SSD generations about their hard drives dying after one or two years. But those concerns are basically kaput now – the vast majority of users will upgrade their computer, or their drive, well before an SSD will come even close to dying.

And as SSDs have grown in size, they’ve become cheap enough to replace mechanical drives for most users. You’ll still see the old tech around in places – gaming laptops will commonly pair an older SATA hard drive with an SSD for extra storage, without blowing the cost of materials out too much.

But it’s NVMe drives that are all the rage these days.

Like the image above, NVMe drives are miniscule even compared to the SSDs – and they’re barely bigger than the palm of your hand.

In the simplest terms, NVMe is basically a way to hypercharge the communication speed between the SSD and your computer, by using your motherboard’s PCIe lanes instead of the older SATA technology. PCIe is a hell of a lot faster than SATA, but there’s other benefits: NVMe drives can talk directly to your computer’s CPU, instead of having to go through the SATA controller on the motherboard first.

Naturally, they’re shitloads faster at doing everything. Kingston has a very simple infographic breaking it down a little more, but those are the basics.

So provided you’ve got a new-ish enough motherboard with support for NVMe drives (or you’ve forked out for an NVMe PCIe adapter to do the job), you can pop in an NVMe drive or two.

And these drives are real fast. My standard “gaming” SSD is a Samsung 850 EVO SSD. It’s a solid performer, even after a few years of being battered. Some tests with AS SSD and ATTO Disk Benchmark, a couple of staples for testing the sequential read and write performance of hard drives, showed that the 850 EVO is still capable of knocking out a maximum read/write performance around the 500MB/s mark.

For a comparison, that’s a few hundred MB on what my RAID 0 array can do. Which sounds good, until you compare it to the 2.5GB/2.8GB read and write speeds an NVMe drive, like the Western Digital Black SN750 after a few weeks of standard usage.

In case you’re wondering about the “4K” in the AS SSD test above, that’s a specific test using small chunks of data – 4KB – on random locations on the drive. It’s not how fast you can record a 4K video file, or anything like that.

It’s astonishingly quick, no doubt about it. And it’s why every laptop you’ve seen over the past year boots and loads programs in a heartbeat, because most of them have converted to the smaller size NVMe drives. You can get that blistering speed too if you used an NVMe drive for your Windows install, provided your motherboard supports it.

But if we’re being ruthlessly practical, how many people are going to notice the difference between a second or two when booting up their PC?

That’s the real kicker with these drives at the moment. It’s not that they’re not fast (and if you’re running the tests on the SN750, or any SSD after a fresh install, those speeds are even better). It’s that the workload for the vast majority of users wouldn’t see any extra benefit from an NVMe drive. If you were upgrading from a mechanical platter drive, that’s a different story – but then the speed gains from today’s SSDs are more than sufficient.

That’s not to say there aren’t some usecases where the supreme read/write speeds aren’t worth it for some. If you’re doing film-grade video editing, mucking around with 10-bit or 12-bit raw footage, the improved seek time will definitely make a difference. Your videos won’t really render any faster – that’s on your CPU, RAM and maybe the GPU depending on the kind of video you’re doing – but the editing process will be smoother, and an NVMe will definitely save you a chunk of time.

Another use case would be someone running a lot of virtual machines, or someone dual-booting Linux and Windows. If you found yourself transferring a lot of large files on a frequent basis, the NVMe speeds would definitely come in handy.

For power users like that, the cost of NVMe drives are pretty good. The SN750 1TB is selling for $319 at PLE Computers, which is a pretty reasonable price if you’ve already committed to spending a few grand on a solid gaming/video editing workstation.

But if you’re just gaming, browsing, streaming video and occasionally downloading large files here and there, the bottleneck in your PC isn’t going to be your hard drive. It’ll be the CPU, the RAM, or the GPU. Sure, an NVMe drive is super handy when moving your Steam installs from one drive to the next, but that’s not something anyone does often enough to warrant the extra money.

Mind you, prices have come down so far that you might end up buying an NVMe drive in the next year anyway. While the WD SN750 is currently selling for $319 at its cheapest, it’s possible to pick up good brand name 1TB NVMe drives for as little as $220. That’s only $60 more than what a Samsung 860 QVO 1TB SSD is going for these days, which isn’t much money given the vast difference in speed.

I’d still argue that a bigger SSD would serve most gamers better, though. But prices are coming down, to the point where the savings on a standard SSD might not be worth it in a year or two. Even now, there’s only $70 between good 2TB SSDs and their 2TB NVMe counterparts.

And eventually video games will start to be developed around the potential read/write speeds that NVMe drives are capable of. Remember when Intel launched their XPoint memory tech with Star Citizen developer Chris Roberts?

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