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Samsung's 960 EVO SSD reviewed


More affordable NVMe magic
— 9:05 AM on November 21, 2016

NVMe may still have that new-tech smell to it, but the reality is that SSDs using that protocol have been on the market for a couple of years now. Sadly, those drives have remained out of reach for all but the deepest pockets. The new protocol purported to unlock all of the performance of highly parallel flash storage, and manufacturers weren't bashful about making the cost of entry similar to that of an on-Broadway showing of Hamilton.

Samsung's 950 Pro was perhaps the first NVMe drive sold at a merely steep price point rather than a ludicrous one. Its recent follow-up, the 960 Pro, pushes the performance boundary even higher, but it does little to make NVMe more accessible to the masses. Builders can rejoice now, though, because last week Samsung launched the 960 Pro's little brother, the 960 EVO. In a radical departure from previous EVO drives, the latest drives are M.2 gumsticks with NVMe support. We've been graced with 250GB and 1TB samples to test for you, and a 500GB drive rounds out the lineup.

Samsung 960 EVO
Capacity Max sequential (MB/s) Max random (IOps) Price
Read Write Read Write
250GB 3200 1500 330k 300k $129
500GB 3200 1800 330k 330k $249
1TB 3200 1900 380k 360k $479

The 960 EVO shares much of the same underlying technology that powers the 960 Pro. As it did with its top-end 960 SSD, Samsung pairs 3D V-NAND and its Polaris controller. To make the EVO more affordable, that V-NAND uses a TLC configuration this time around rather than MLC, and that move lowers potential performance and endurance. To at least offset the speed loss, Samsung equips these EVO drives with TurboWrite, the company's proprietary pseudo-SLC caching scheme. This time around, they're calling it "Intelligent TurboWrite," and the technology does indeed sound like it's gotten a little smarter.

Previous iterations of TurboWrite used a fixed slice of storage—usually a meager handful of gigabytes—to act as a high-speed SLC buffer for incoming writes. This "Intelligent" revision uses a similar dedicated SLC portion, but also allows the drive to seize additional buffer space if it's available. The 960 EVO 250GB has a fixed 4GB TurboWrite cache that can be supplemented with another 9GB of the drive's capacity. The 1TB has a fixed 6GB cache, and it can commandeer a whopping 36GB more for use as a buffer. Savvy users already avoid filling their SSDs to capacity, so Samsung is shrewdly exploiting this habit to eke out even more performance than the TLC flash could attain on its own. In a worst-case scenario, a 960 EVO filled to the brim will still have its dedicated TurboWrite partition available to accelerate writes.

With their stickers peeled off, the 250GB and 1TB drives are difficult to tell apart. In each drive, the Polaris controller, DRAM cache, and two NAND packages all lie on a single side of the PCB. The EVO drives don't use the "package-on-package" controller design Samsung previously used in the 960 Pro 2TB, so this time around we can actually see the Polaris chip. Both drives use Samsung's latest 48-layer, 256Gb V-NAND packages, but the 250GB drive uses a specially-packaged version of that flash to maximize performance in spite of its lower capacity.

Samsung's price sheet indicates that the 960 EVO 250GB will sell for $129, and the 1TB version will go for $479. If you're willing to cough up that much dough, you get 256-bit AES hardware encryption and TCG Opal support for your trouble. Samsung warrants the drives for three years, par for the course with the EVO series. The company expects the 250GB drive to last 100 terabytes written, while the 1TB drive should take a 400-terabyte beating.

Now that we've met the 960 EVO, it's time for some action. Samsung dazzled us with the 960 Pro, so we hope the 960 EVO produces a similar impression at a lower cost.