For storage, we'll be looking at three categories of devices: system drives, mass-storage drives, and optical storage. The idea is to buy the best combination of the three that you can afford, based on your individual needs.
The system drive is where the operating system, and hopefully most of your games and applications, ought to reside. We've included a 1TB mechanical hard drive for budget builds where a two-drive config is out of the question. The rest of our recommendations are SSDs. Budget buyers may not be able to afford an SSD, but everyone else should spring for one and get an auxiliary mechanical drive for their mass-storage needs. Solid-state drives offer huge improvement in transfer rates and load times, which are more than worth the extra expense.
There are a few things worth keeping in mind when shopping for an SSD. Most mid-range and high-end drives offer similar overall performance. Pricing differences tend to have a bigger impact on which products deliver better value. (See our scatter plots.)
Drive capacity can affect performance, especially at lower capacities. Lower-capacity drives don't have as many flash chips as their larger counterparts, so they can't exploit as much controller-level parallelism. That dynamic usually translates into lower write speeds in smaller drives. For most older SSDs, write performance only falls off appreciably on drives smaller than 240-256GB. Newer drives with higher-density flash chips can require 480-512GB to deliver peak performance. Small SSDs are still much faster than mechanical hard drives, so we still recommend them to folks who can't spring for larger drives.
Also, you may be familiar with our long-term SSD Endurance Experiment. The results we've gathered so far show that drives with two-bit MLC flash are more resilient than models with three-bit TLC NAND. No surprise there. With that said, our TLC drive only started accumulating bad blocks after 100TB of writes, which works out to more than 50GB per day for five years. That total is well beyond the endurance ratings attached to most SSDs, and it's far more data than most desktop users will need to write to their drives. As a result, we have no reservations about including TLC-based SSDs in our recs.
The recommendations below are the most cost-effective options today, but they may not be the best values tomorrow. SSD prices fluctuate a fair bit. Shopping around for discounts is a good idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$59.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 120GB||$91.99|
|Intel 335 Series 240GB||$159.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 500GB||$299.99|
|Crucial M500 960GB||$469.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 1TB||$559.99|
Can't afford an SSD or auxiliary mechanical storage? Then the WD Blue 1TB will do just fine. Its 7,200-RPM spindle speed isn't terribly slow, and the 1TB capacity is sufficient for both system and secondary storage.
Updated 3/5/14: On the SSD front, we've changed our 120GB SSD recommendation from Kingston's SSDNow V300 based on a recent AnandTech story. That story shows newer versions of the V300 use much slower flash chips than before, putting the drive at a severe performance disadvantage even compared to Samsung's EVO and Crucial's M500.
The Samsung 840 EVO 120GB seems to be the fastest drive in that pricing tier. Its high-density flash chips make for poor controller-level parallelism, but its SLC cache compensates for that shortcoming somewhat. For a faster option, you might want to consider Kingston's HyperX 3K 120GB, which has lower-density chips and has not, to our knowledge, been downgraded like the V300.
The sweet spot is probably the Intel 335 Series 240GB, which has great read and write speeds, ample capacity, and a reasonable cost per gigabyte. Folks with deeper pockets can spring for one of the higher-capacity Crucial and Samsung models listed above. Those drives are cheaper per gigabyte, and they have enough flash chips to extract good performance from their controllers. See our scatter plots for a quick peek at overall performance.
In any case, we'd advise getting the highest-capacity SSD you can afford, especially for a gaming build. Games take up a surprising amount of space, and some future titles will have even greater appetites for storage. Titanfall, for example, will require 48GB of free capacity. The last thing you want is to install some games on sluggish mechanical storage, which will stretch out level load times.
Since SSDs still aren't capacious enough to take over all storage duties in a desktop PC, it's a good idea to get a secondary drive for large video files, downloads, personal photos, and the like. In this role, a mechanical drive can be used either by itself or with a twin sibling in a RAID 1 configuration, which will introduce a layer of fault tolerance to the whole setup.
|WD Green 3TB||$114.99|
|WD Green 4TB||$164.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$184.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$259.99|
In part based on Backblaze's recent reliability study, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we've biased our selections toward the Western Digital camp. Hitachi drives did even better according to the study, but they seem to have poorer Newegg reviews than comparable WD models, so we feel less confident about them.
There are other reasons to favor WD's mechanical drives, of course. The ones we've tested lately have been faster and quieter than their Seagate counterparts.
The WD Green and Red drives have spindle speeds around 5,400-RPM, which translates to slightly sluggish performance but good power-efficiency, low noise levels, and affordable pricing. Since these drives oughtn't be used for OS and application storage, their longer access times shouldn't pose a problem. The Reds have some special sauce that makes them better-behaved with RAID controllers than the Greens, and they have longer warranty coverage, as well: three years instead of two.
We'll throw in an honorable mention for Seagate's Desktop HDD.15 4TB. It did almost as well as the WD Green 3TB in the Backblaze study—and it has slightly fewer one-star Newegg reviews than the Green 4TB. Keep in mind that the Desktop HDD.15 is louder and slower overall than the competing WD drives, however.
WD's Black 4TB drive has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed and is tuned for high performance, at least by mechanical storage standards. It's a better option than the Green or HDD.15 for storage-intensive work that may exceed the bounds of reasonably priced SSDs. The Black is also quicker than what Seagate offers at this capacity.
Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some folks still like their DVDs and Blu-rays, though, and we're happy to oblige them.
|Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner||$19.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$67.99|
Asus' DRW-24B1ST DVD burner has been a staple of our System Guides for quite a while. It costs only 20 bucks, reads and burns both DVDs and CDs, and has a five-star average out of more than 4,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it.
On the Blu-ray front, the LG WH14NS40 has spent almost as long as our Blu-ray burner of choice. Like the Asus DVD burner, this drive is one of the most affordable of its kind, and it's also earned lots of positive reviews.