SSD prices down 38% in 2012, but up in Q4

Prices rise as OCZ ends deep discounts

2012 was a big year for solid-state drives. Multiple new models were released, some featuring fresh controller technology, and others with next-generation NAND. These drives were generally faster than their predecessors, but improved performance wasn't what made SSDs such a hit. Instead, it was plummeting prices.

At the beginning of the year, the median cost per gigabyte for a consumer-grade SSD was $1.64. By December 31, that figure had fallen 38% to $1.02. Drives in the 240-256GB range enjoyed the biggest decrease, dropping 44% to just $0.83 per gig by year's end. 120-128GB models didn't quite break the dollar-per-gig threshold in December, but their prices were cut by 34% over the course of the year. At least that's better than the 40-64GB SSDs we track; those currently ring in at about $1.29 per gig, a more modest 28% reduction from the beginning of 2012.

Although SSD prices fell steadily through the first three quarters of the year, they rebounded in Q4—and quite sharply in some cases. Here's a look at the numbers courtesy of the folks at Camelegg, who provided us with a bounty of data for analysis. Camelegg tracks prices at Newegg, which is a pretty good indicator of prevailing market conditions. Mail-in rebates and coupon codes aren't taken into account, though. We've limited this particular selection to drives that were in stock for the entire fourth quarter.

Whoa. Only a handful of SSDs got cheaper between October 1 and December 31 last year. The majority of drive prices went up, and most of them increased by double-digit percentages. These numbers are pretty stunning given the downward trajectory of the previous three quarters. Don't forget that Q4 was filled with Black Friday and other holiday sales, too.

OCZ's drives regressed the most, and they seem to have led the charge. Really, we shouldn't be surprised. OCZ CEO Ryan Petersen was ousted this fall, in part for "boosting" discount programs to increase market share. Those programs resulted in substantial losses for the company, and OCZ has pursued a more conservative pricing strategy ever since. The competiton, it seems, has been eager to follow.

We can get a better sense of the data by plotting the day-to-day price changes for individual SSDs. The data has been truncated to show only the previous year, and you'll want to pay particular attention to the last three months. We've also included a number of drives left out of our quarterly calculations: new models that were released mid-way through Q4 and those that were out of stock at the end of the quarter. You can click on the buttons below each graph to switch between the various drive families.

OCZ was the catalyst for Q4's rising prices, so that's where we'll start. The higher-end Vertex drives suffered the biggest price increases, but the budget Agility models weren't immune. You can actually see the Black Friday discounts toward the end of November. Too bad they didn't last.

The new Vector SSD hasn't been around long enough for its price to change dramatically. This is a premium model, and it's substantially more expensive than OCZ's other offerings.

Unlike OCZ, Intel largely resisted the urge to slash SSD prices earlier in the year. That's probably why its drives didn't become much more expensive in Q4. The 320 Series stayed flat, undoubtedly due to its appeal to deep-pocketed enterprise customers, while the other models went up and down by relatively small margins.

Look at how closely the recently released Intel 335 Series matches the price of its 330 Series predecessor. The former uses smaller 20-nm NAND chips that should be cheaper to produce than the latter's 25-nm flash. That hasn't led to lower prices yet, though. Just because next-gen flash memory costs less to produce doesn't mean the savings will be passed on to consumers right away.

On multiple occasions in the past couple years, Corsair representatives expressed doubt about whether OCZ would be able to continue competing so aggressively on price. It looks like they were right—and following OCZ's lead, to some extent. The Force Series 3 and GT both rose in price starting around mid-October. Some models have dropped a bit since, but not enough for a full recovery.

In October, the Samsung 830 Series was easily the best SSD bargain around. 830 Series drives were on sale to clear inventory ahead of the new 840 family, and the old models flew off the shelves. Prices did rebound as stocks became scarce, though. 830 Series drives can still be found here and there, but Ebay will be the only source before long.

Like the Intel 335 Series, the Samsung 840 family uses next-gen NAND. The 19-nm chips haven't translated to dramatically lower prices for the 840 Pro Series. However, the 840 Series is reasonably affordable thanks to its use of TLC memory, which squeezes an extra bit into every cell.

Crucial's m4 is one of very few drives to hold mostly steady throughout the fourth quarter. The drive is due to be replaced next month by the M500 SSD, and it will be interesting to see if prices are slashed to clear stock.

Plextor's M5S and M5P also bucked the trend of increasing prices. To be fair, Newegg ran out of several models in Q4, and some stocks have yet to be replenished. I guess consumers know good deals when they see them. It's worth noting that the M5P uses 19-nm NAND yet still costs more than the M5S, which is based in last-gen flash memory. Clearly, shrinking the flash lithograph doesn't guarantee lower prices for consumers.

We opened with the cost per gigabyte, and we'll come full circle to finish things off. For our final calculations, we used the median price for the last week of 2012. Newegg tends to keep sale prices listed even when drives are unavailable, so we've excised out-of-stock models from the results.

Almost half of the drives are below the dollar-per-gigabyte threshold. That's not bad, all things considered, but it's a bit of a disappointment given the path we were on at the end of Q3. All good things must come to and end, I guess—or at least slow to a more reasonable pace.

As was the case throughout the year, higher-capacity drives offer more value for your money. Given the direction prices are heading overall, we may have to start tracking 480-512GB models in 2013.TR

Tags: Storage

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