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Samsung's 960 Pro 2TB SSD reviewed

Holy crap
— 9:00 AM on October 18, 2016

Last fall, Samsung took the high-end storage market by storm with the release of its 950 Pro drives. While others had gotten lightning-fast NVMe drives to market first, Samsung's effort was notable for combining a cohesive set of cutting-edge features at just the right time. NVMe had just gotten native Windows support, and Skylake motherboards were armed with M.2 slots and PCIe lanes aplenty to let those drives run.

One year later, it's clearer than ever that M.2 and NVMe are here to stay, so perhaps the time is right for cautious late adopters to join in on the fun. To entice such holdouts, Samsung took the wraps off the 950 Pro's successor at its SSD Global Summit last month. Much like its predecessor, the 960 Pro is powered by Samsung's V-NAND in MLC configuration, gobbles up four lanes of PCIe bandwidth, slots into an M.2 2280 port, and uses the NVMe protocol instead of AHCI. Sounds like more of the same, right?

Wrong. Just look at it. The sticker is completely different! Samsung has integrated a "thin copper film" into the label on the underside of the drive. Despite looking and feeling like an ordinary (if somewhat thick) label, the new sticker supposedly dissipates heat much better than the 950 Pro used to. Nobody likes thermal throttling. Anyway, the 960 Pro comes in three bestickered capacities.

Samsung 960 Pro
Capacity Max sequential (MB/s) Max random (IOps) Price
Read Write Read Write
512GB 3500 2100 330k 330k $329
1TB 3500 2100 440k 360k $629
2TB 3500 2100 440k 360k $1299

The 950 Pro and 960 Pro lineups only share a 512GB version between them. Comparing the 512GB drives from each series, it's clear that Samsung expects a whole lot more performance out of the new one. The company claims sequential speeds roughly 50% higher than the 950 Pro's already-blistering figure. In the real world, the 950 Pro 512GB is one of the fastest drives we've ever tested, too. A lot of hopes are riding on that fancy stick-on heatspreader.

Samsung sent us the 2TB 960 Pro to test. Yes, two freakin' terabytes on a drive barely larger than a stick of gum. Despite the 960 Pro's outward similarities to the 950 Pro, the guts of the drive have actually changed quite a bit (joking about the label aside). First, the flash itself. Gone are the 32-layer, 128Gb V-NAND chips we saw in the 950 Pro, and in their place are the latest and greatest: Samsung's third-generation, 48-layer 256Gb V-NAND. We were recently impressed by IMFT's 384Gb 3D TLC chips, but Samsung's 256Gb MLC chips prove that the density wars are still in full swing. All three versions of the 960 Pro bundle their V-NAND into four packages on one side of the PCB, but they vary the number of dies stuffed into each package. Our 2TB sample uses what Samsung calls Hexadecimal Die Packages, meaning that the packages each have 16 chips stacked inside.

And speaking of packaging, even the controller isn't immune to the stacking trend. Samsung's brand-spanking-new "Polaris" controller is making its debut underneath the drive's DRAM in a space-saving package-on-package design. We may never get to see its pretty face. It's what's on the inside that counts, though, and Polaris packs five cores to shuttle data around. Well actually, four cores for shuttling data, since one of the cores is dedicated to "optimizing the communication between the host and controller." Samsung credits a large part of the 960 Pro's performance gain over the 950 Pro to Polaris, so we're looking forward to seeing what effect the chip will have on speeds as it proliferates throughout the manufacturer's SSD lineup.

All these improvements come at a cost. Samsung is asking a whopping $1300, or about 65 cents per gig, for the 2TB drive we've tested. As NVMe storage goes, that price isn't really so bad. For the price of admission, you get TCG Opal-compliant 256-bit AES hardware encryption and a 5-year warranty. The 2TB version is rated to endure 1.2 petabytes written, so longevity should be no concern unless you're some kind of SSD sadist.

No more dilly-dallying. Let's see if Samsung can redefine top-shelf performance once again.