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For storage, we'll be looking at three categories of devices: system drives, mass-storage drives, and optical drives. The idea is to buy the best combination of the three that you can afford, based on your individual needs. This time around, we're also looking at a pair of PCIe drives, for those who need face-melting storage performance.

System drive
The system drive is where the operating system and 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 usually out of the question, but the rest of our recommendations are solid-state drives. Budget buyers may not be able to afford an SSD, but everyone else should spring for one and grab an auxiliary mechanical drive for their mass-storage needs. Upgrading from a hard drive to solid-state storage probably offers the single most noticeable performance improvement of any component upgrade in a modern PC.

There are a few things to keep mind when shopping for an SSD. Currently, 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 for smaller SSDs. Lower-capacity drives don't have as many flash chips, so they can't saturate all of their controllers' memory channels. That dynamic usually translates into slower write speeds for smaller drives. For most older SSDs, write performance falls off appreciably in drives smaller than 240GB to 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 ones.

If you're concerned about the write endurance of SSDs, the final results of our SSD Endurance Experiment should put those worries to rest. Our test subjects handled hundreds of terabytes of writes at a minimum, while our champion, the Samsung 840 Pro, held up to an incredible 2.4 petabytes of writes before giving up the ghost. Most consumers will never come anywhere close to writing that much data.

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.

Product Price
WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $52.99
OCZ Arc 100 120GB $59.99
Crucial BX100 250GB $84.99
Samsung 850 EVO 250GB $99.99
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB $179.99
Crucial BX100 1TB $339.99
Samsung 850 EVO 1TB $369.99

Can't afford an SSD or auxiliary mechanical storage? Then the WD Blue 1TB will do just fine. It has a fast 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and its 1TB capacity is more than enough to handle both system and mass-storage needs.

We're leaving a 120GB solid-state drive in our picks for now, but we really think you ought to consider a 240-256GB drive at minimum, especially if you plan to keep games on it. Modern titles can easily gobble 50GB to 60GB each, and it's no fun to shuffle games on and off an SSD. If stepping up isn't an option or your storage needs are modest, OCZ's Arc 100 is a decent option—but seriously, get a 256GB-class drive.

The 250GB version of Crucial's BX100 is our pick for that mid-range sweet spot. It's aggressively priced, reasonably fast, and made by a company with a solid track record for reliability. Another option at this capacity is Samsung's 850 EVO 250GB, which performs about as well as the BX100 but offers niceties like hardware-accelerated encryption that the Crucial drive lacks.

At the 480-512GB tier, the SSD market's price fluctuations favor Samsung for now. The 500GB 850 EVO is a great performer, and its $180 price tag is reasonable for a drive of this caliber.

At the 1TB tier, Crucial's BX100 represents a good, basic 1TB drive for $340 or so, while Samsung's 850 EVO 1TB is more fully-featured for about $30 more. Along with AES encryption support, the Samsung drive offers excellent performance, a five-year warranty, and a high endurance rating. The Crucial drive doesn't support hardware-accelerated encryption, and it's only warranted for three years.

PCI Express SSDs
The Skylake platform is ready for blazing-fast PCIe storage, but there's just one problem: nobody, save for Samsung and Intel, has shown up to the party yet.

Samsung's SM951 PCIe SSD is the only M.2 PCIe 3.0 drive available on Newegg as of this writing. It's lightning-quick, but it tends to throttle under sustained workloads without dedicated cooling. Thankfully, most desktop workloads are more intermittent in nature, but the SM951's thermal-performance issues are a worry, especially for motherboards whose M.2 slots reside next to their main PCIe x16 slots. Putting the SM951 underneath a power-hungry GPU could degrade its performance.

Intel's 750 Series solid-state drives, on the other hand, are monster performers descended from datacenter-class hardware. They leave the pokey SATA 6Gbps interface behind for four lanes of blazing-fast PCIe 3.0 connectivity, and they ditch the old AHCI protocol for NVM Express. The real challenge is finding desktop workloads that can take advantage of the performance on tap.

Product Price
Samsung SM951 256GB $219.99
Intel 750 Series SSD 400GB $389.99
Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB $1039.99

Compared to other consumer-grade PCIe drives, the 750 Series offers wicked-fast sequential speeds and substantially higher random I/O rates. You get robust power-loss protection, too, plus a five-year warranty and a high endurance rating. Just keep in mind that the add-in cards we're recommending require full-sized expansion slots with Gen3 connectivity. Intel also makes a 2.5" version with a cabled PCIe connection, but motherboards don't support it natively yet.

Mass-storage drive
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 in a RAID 1 configuration, which will add a layer of fault tolerance. (Remember that RAID is not backup, though.)

Product Price
WD Green 4TB $134.99
WD Red 4TB $159.99
WD Black 4TB $199.99
WD Green 6TB $222.99

Based in part on Backblaze's reliability studies, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we're continuing to recommend Western Digital hard drives for this edition of the System Guide. Hitachi drives did even better than WD's, according to Backblaze, but they seem to have poorer Newegg reviews, so we feel less confident about them.

There are other reasons to favor WD's mechanical drives. The ones we've tested have been faster and quieter than their Seagate counterparts.

The 4TB 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 prices. Since we're not recommending these drives 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 choice 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.

Finally, we've included one 6TB drive: a WD Green model. Like other 6TB mechanical drives out today, this one costs more per gigabyte than comparable 4TB options, so we'd only recommend it for high-capacity systems or small-form-factor builds with limited expansion. WD also makes a 6TB Red drive with similar features as its 4TB counterpart.

Optical drives
Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some people still like their DVD and Blu-ray discs, though, and we're happy to oblige.

Product Price
Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner $19.99
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $74.99

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 5,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it. On the Blu-ray front, we recommend the Asus BW-12B1ST, which provides adequate performance backed up by solid user reviews.