Hardware innovation doesn't usually happen overnight. The inertia inherent to component manufacturing prevents sweeping changes from coming around too often. The storage realm is no exception. SATA 6Gbps SSDs have been around since 2009, and they still have yet to be displaced as the staple of any mainstream enthusiast build.
However, a storage revolution has been brewing steadily for last few years. PCIe drives have long been available to those with thousands to spend on storage, but costs have come down considerably. These days, any mid-grade to high-end laptop worth its salt comes with a PCIe storage option, and M.2 slots can be found on nearly every modern Intel motherboard. Blessedly, notebook and motherboard manufacturers seem to have settled on a single physical form factor and connector (M.2 2280) to dedicate to consumer PCIe storage.
Intel’s Skylake platform takes full advantage of these developments. The Z170 chipset offers an abundance of PCIe Gen3 lanes for next-generation storage devices, allowing builders to run graphics cards and PCIe SSDs in tandem without cannibalizing precious bandwidth.
The next piece of the puzzle is NVMe. Poised to replace the aging AHCI standard, the NVMe protocol is engineered to scale much better with the broadly parallel NAND configurations in most SSDs nowadays. Windows 8.1 and 10 both support NVMe natively for secondary storage. Additionally, most Z97 and Z170 boards now support booting from an NVMe drive, either out of the box or with a firmware update.
So we have the interface, we have the connector, we have the protocol, and we have the software to support it all. The final piece of puzzle is an NVMe SSD—one built in the M.2 2280 form factor and driven by four PCIe Gen3 lanes. Samsung has already released one such drive: the NVMe version of its SM951 SSD. The SM951 wasn't meant for consumers, though. It lacked support for Samsung's Magician utility, and it was primarily focused towards OEMs.
Today, we have Samsung’s first consumer-friendly next-gen SSD. Say hello to the company’s latest and greatest, the 512GB version of the 950 Pro SSD. This drive represents the intersection of two novel technologies: V-NAND and the NVMe protocol. Let's see if they play nice together.
Samsung has done a good job making this drive stand out aesthetically. Every other M.2 drive we’ve seen is just a wee sliver of green PCB with a sticker covering its naughty bits. The 950 Pro is a similar bite-sized chunk, but it sports a black-on-black look that lends a little personality to the otherwise drab hardware.
Underneath the sticker, we find the drive's controller, its memory, and two NAND packages, which are loaded with Samsung’s 32-layer, 128Gb MLC V-NAND chips. This is a Pro-series drive, after all, so purists can rejoice. There’s no TLC flash here. The brain of the drive is the same UBX controller that Samsung developed to power the SM951 NVMe.
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Aside from the 512GB drive we have on hand, the 950 Pro also comes in a smaller 256GB variant, which is a bit slower in theoretical terms and more expensive per gigabyte. All 950 Pros will eventually have a full set of security features: 256-bit AES encryption is already implemented, and Samsung promises that Opal and eDrive support will be coming in a future firmware update. Additionally, the 950 series will launch alongside version 4.8 of the firm's Magician software. This utility will have a few new tricks up its sleeve to handle drive maintenance NVMe-style. Samsung warrants the drive for five years or 400 total terabytes written.
A change in our test setup
Before we go any further, let’s talk about some changes to our test setup. Say goodbye to the old old TR storage rig, and say hello to the new old TR storage rig. Our beefy main storage-testing system is back in commission, so the Endurance Experiment box we brought out of retirement for the last couple of reviews can head back out to pasture.
Since this is the same hardware that we were using to test SSDs not so long ago, we have access to a much larger set of data to compare fresh drives against. The backbone of the rig, the Asus Z97-Pro, has been updated to the latest firmware so that we can boot from NVMe PCIe drives. We’ve done extensive validation to ensure our secondary storage testing results have not changed between firmware revisions.
That said, the boot performance has changed enough that we can’t recycle the old numbers. Therefore, you will notice that while our IOMeter and RoboBench result sets are chock full of data, our boot and load time results include a much smaller set that we re-tested.
Now that we're all ready to test the 950 Pro, let's get down to it.