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Samsung’s 960 Pro 2TB SSD reviewed

Tony Thomas Former Tech Writer Author expertise
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Last fall, Samsung took the high-end storage market by storm with the release of its 950 Pro drives. While others had gotten lightning-fast NVMe drives to market first, Samsung’s effort was notable for combining a cohesive set of cutting-edge features at just the right time. NVMe had just gotten native Windows support, and Skylake motherboards were armed with M.2 slots and PCIe lanes aplenty to let those drives run.

One year later, it’s clearer than ever that M.2 and NVMe are here to stay, so perhaps the time is right for cautious late adopters to join in on the fun. To entice such holdouts, Samsung took the wraps off the 950 Pro’s successor at its SSD Global Summit last month. Much like its predecessor, the 960 Pro is powered by Samsung’s V-NAND in MLC configuration, gobbles up four lanes of PCIe bandwidth, slots into an M.2 2280 port, and uses the NVMe protocol instead of AHCI. Sounds like more of the same, right?

Wrong. Just look at it. The sticker is completely different! Samsung has integrated a “thin copper film” into the label on the underside of the drive. Despite looking and feeling like an ordinary (if somewhat thick) label, the new sticker supposedly dissipates heat much better than the 950 Pro used to. Nobody likes thermal throttling. Anyway, the 960 Pro comes in three bestickered capacities.

Samsung 960 Pro
Capacity Max sequential (MB/s) Max random (IOps) Price
Read Write Read Write
512GB 3500 2100 330k 330k $329
1TB 3500 2100 440k 360k $629
2TB 3500 2100 440k 360k $1299

The 950 Pro and 960 Pro lineups only share a 512GB version between them. Comparing the 512GB drives from each series, it’s clear that Samsung expects a whole lot more performance out of the new one. The company claims sequential speeds roughly 50% higher than the 950 Pro’s already-blistering figure. In the real world, the 950 Pro 512GB is one of the fastest drives we’ve ever tested, too. A lot of hopes are riding on that fancy stick-on heatspreader.

Samsung sent us the 2TB 960 Pro to test. Yes, two freakin’ terabytes on a drive barely larger than a stick of gum. Despite the 960 Pro’s outward similarities to the 950 Pro, the guts of the drive have actually changed quite a bit (joking about the label aside). First, the flash itself. Gone are the 32-layer, 128Gb V-NAND chips we saw in the 950 Pro, and in their place are the latest and greatest: Samsung’s third-generation, 48-layer 256Gb V-NAND. We were recently impressed by IMFT’s 384Gb 3D TLC chips, but Samsung’s 256Gb MLC chips prove that the density wars are still in full swing. All three versions of the 960 Pro bundle their V-NAND into four packages on one side of the PCB, but they vary the number of dies stuffed into each package. Our 2TB sample uses what Samsung calls Hexadecimal Die Packages, meaning that the packages each have 16 chips stacked inside.

And speaking of packaging, even the controller isn’t immune to the stacking trend. Samsung’s brand-spanking-new “Polaris” controller is making its debut underneath the drive’s DRAM in a space-saving package-on-package design. We may never get to see its pretty face. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, though, and Polaris packs five cores to shuttle data around. Well actually, four cores for shuttling data, since one of the cores is dedicated to “optimizing the communication between the host and controller.” Samsung credits a large part of the 960 Pro’s performance gain over the 950 Pro to Polaris, so we’re looking forward to seeing what effect the chip will have on speeds as it proliferates throughout the manufacturer’s SSD lineup.

All these improvements come at a cost. Samsung is asking a whopping $1300, or about 65 cents per gig, for the 2TB drive we’ve tested. As NVMe storage goes, that price isn’t really so bad. For the price of admission, you get TCG Opal-compliant 256-bit AES hardware encryption and a 5-year warranty. The 2TB version is rated to endure 1.2 petabytes written, so longevity should be no concern unless you’re some kind of SSD sadist.

No more dilly-dallying. Let’s see if Samsung can redefine top-shelf performance once again.

 

IOMeter — Sequential and random performance
IOMeter fuels much of our latest storage test suite, including our sequential and random I/O tests. These tests are run across the full capacity of the drive at two queue depths. The QD1 tests simulate a single thread, while the QD4 results emulate a more demanding desktop workload. For perspective, 87% of the requests in our old DriveBench 2.0 trace of real-world desktop activity have a queue depth of four or less. Clicking the buttons below the graphs switches between results charted at the different queue depths.

Our sequential tests use a relatively large 128KB block size.



Um. It’s not often that one feels giddy after opening a results spreadsheet. The 960 Pro’s sequential speeds are astonishing. At both queue depths, it puts up the fastest read speeds we’ve ever seen, nearly breaching the 2000 MB/s barrier. And while the 960 Pro can’t claim the sequential write crown (thanks to that meddling datacenter drive, the P3700), its results are still head and shoulders above the other client SSDs. If the drive’s random response times are as strong, the 960 Pro will be a fearsome contender indeed.



Whoo! It’s been a long time since a drive has delivered such an irreproachable performance in both our sequential and random tests. Again, the 960 Pro breaks the record for random read response times. And again, only Intel’s high-end NVMe stuff stops the 960 Pro from snagging the write record. So far, this drive looks crazy fast. If this keeps up, we’ll have a new top dog in our overall performance index. Let’s see if some more nuanced testing can reveal any weaknesses.

 

Sustained and scaling I/O rates
Our sustained IOMeter test hammers drives with 4KB random writes for 30 minutes straight. It uses a queue depth of 32, a setting that should result in higher speeds that saturate each drive’s overprovisioned area more quickly. This lengthy—and heavy—workload isn’t indicative of typical PC use, but it provides a sense of how the drives react when they’re pushed to the brink.

We’re reporting IOps rather than response times for these tests. Click the buttons below the graph to switch between SSDs.


Hm. Something odd is going on here. For the first several minutes of the test, the 960 Pro gasps and wheezes at barely over 100 IOps. Then it springs to life, jumping to heights only probed by Intel’s NVMe drives before now. We re-ran our sustained tests a few extra times without getting meaningfully different results. We saw this sort of behavior before back when we reviewed the Intel 750 Series drives, but we never reached a satisfactory conclusion as to why it occurred. We’ve reached out to Samsung in case the company can shed any light on the situation.

To show the data in a slightly different light, we’ve graphed the peak random-write rate and the average, steady-state speed over the last minute of the test.

Luckily for the 960 Pro, these graphs don’t capture the sluggish start—they only care about peak speed and the steady-state speed reached near the end of the time period. Both of those metrics cast the 960 Pro in a wonderful light.

Our final IOMeter test examines performance scaling across a broad range of queue depths. We ramp all the way up to a queue depth of 128. Don’t expect AHCI-based drives to scale past 32, though—that’s the maximum depth of their native command queues.

For this test, we use a database access pattern comprising 66% reads and 33% writes, all of which are random. The test runs after 30 minutes of continuous random writes that put the drives in a simulated used state. Click the buttons below the graph to switch between the different drives. And note that the P3700 plot uses a much larger scale.


Another record for the 960 Pro! It’s the first drive since the P3700 to force us to alter the standard 0-to-35000 IOps scale we like to use for this graph. The 960 Pro scales far better than anything we’ve seen recently. It offers nearly linear scaling until QD32. The 950 Pro didn’t scale anything like this, as the next set of graphs will make clear.


The 950 Pro of yesteryear scaled up to QD4 but then flatlined. The 960 Pro, on the other hand, outscales even Intel’s formidable 750 Series SSD all the way up to QD64, which is where the Samsung drive regresses in speed.

IOMeter synthetics were a massive win for the 960 Pro. Next, we see what kind of performance $1300 gets you in the real world.

 

TR RoboBench — Real-world transfers
RoboBench trades synthetic tests with random data for real-world transfers with a range of file types. Developed by our in-house coder, Bruno “morphine” Ferreira, this benchmark relies on the multi-threaded robocopy command build into Windows. We copy files to and from a wicked-fast RAM disk to measure read and write performance. We also cut the RAM disk out of the loop for a copy test that transfers the files to a different location on the SSD.

Robocopy uses eight threads by default, and we’ve also run it with a single thread. Our results are split between two file sets, whose vital statistics are detailed below. The compressibility percentage is based on the size of the file set after it’s been crunched by 7-Zip.

  Number of files Average file size Total size Compressibility
Media 459 21.4MB 9.58GB 0.8%
Work 84,652 48.0KB 3.87GB 59%

The media set is made up of large movie files, high-bitrate MP3s, and 18-megapixel RAW and JPG images. There are only a few hundred files in total, and the data set isn’t amenable to compression. The work set comprises loads of TR files, including documents, spreadsheets, and web-optimized images. It also includes a stack of programming-related files associated with our old Mozilla compiling test and the Visual Studio test on the next page. The average file size is measured in kilobytes rather than megabytes, and the files are mostly compressible.

RoboBench’s write and copy tests run after the drives have been put into a simulated used state with 30 minutes of 4KB random writes. The pre-conditioning process is scripted, as is the rest of the test, ensuring that drives have the same amount of time to recover.

Let’s take a look at the media set first. The buttons switch between read, write, and copy results.



For the most part, the 960 Pro lands near the top of the PCIe cluster, including record performances in 1T read and 8T write. The P3700 often beats it, but as we said before, that drive has datacenter mojo and a price to match. We won’t hold those results against the consumer 960 Pro.

Now for our work set. The 960 Pro was blisteringly fast in our IOMeter random results, so we’re confident it will do just fine against our work set, as well.



Pretty solid performance all around. The 8T write test reveals the 960 Pro’s weakest performance yet. Here, the 960 Pro gets beat out not only by the 950 Pro, but also by a couple of higher-end SATA drives: the Vector 180 960GB and 850 EVO 1TB. Our work set is hard work.

The 960 Pro put up a good performance in the work set and a great performance in the media set. It’s time for our last set of tests, in which we use the drive as the primary boot device.

 

Boot times
Until now, all of our tests have been conducted with the SSDs connected as secondary storage. This next batch uses them as system drives.

We’ll start with boot times measured two ways. The bare test depicts the time between hitting the power button and reaching the Windows desktop, while the loaded test adds the time needed to load four applications—Avidemux, LibreOffice, GIMP, and Visual Studio Express—automatically from the startup folder. Our old boot tests focused on the time required to load the OS, but these new ones cover the entire process, including drive initialization.

The 960 Pro boots at least as quickly as the 950 Pro, but not markedly quicker than your average SATA SSD. No surprises here.

Load times
Next, we’ll tackle load times with two sets of tests. The first group focuses on the time required to load larger files in a collection of desktop applications. We open a 790MB 4K video in Avidemux, a 30MB spreadsheet in LibreOffice, and a 523MB image file in the GIMP. In the Visual Studio Express test, we open a 159MB project containing source code for the LLVM toolchain. Thanks to Rui Figueira for providing the project code.

The 960 Pro can add new records for LibreOffice and Visual Studio to its belt. These might be the least impressive ones, but a record is a record. Last, let’s fire up some games.

Chalk up one last record to the 960 Pro for its speed in loading Tomb Raider, and we’re done. Using a 960 Pro 2TB as a dedicated Steam library drive would be an unconscionable waste of money, but it would do the job perfectly well.

We’re all out of tests for the 960 Pro to ace. Hit the next page for a breakdown of our test methods, or jump ahead to the conclusion if you like.

 

Test notes and methods
Here are the essential details for all the drives we tested:

  Interface Flash controller NAND
Adata Premier SP550 480GB SATA 6Gbps Silicon Motion SM2256 16-nm SK Hynix TLC
Adata XPG SX930 240GB SATA 6Gbps JMicron JMF670H 16-nm Micron MLC
Crucial BX100 500GB SATA 6Gbps Silicon Motion SM2246EN 16-nm Micron MLC
Crucial BX200 480GB SATA 6Gbps Silicon Motion SM2256 16-nm Micron TLC
Crucial MX200 500GB SATA 6Gbps Marvell 88SS9189 16-nm Micron MLC
Crucial MX300 750GB SATA 6Gbps Marvell 88SS1074 32-layer Micron 3D TLC
Intel X25-M G2 160GB SATA 3Gbps Intel PC29AS21BA0 34-nm Intel MLC
Intel 335 Series 240GB SATA 6Gbps SandForce SF-2281 20-nm Intel MLC
Intel 730 Series 480GB SATA 6Gbps Intel PC29AS21CA0 20-nm Intel MLC
Intel 750 Series 1.2TB PCIe Gen3 x4 Intel CH29AE41AB0 20-nm Intel MLC
Intel DC P3700 800GB PCIe Gen3 x4 Intel CH29AE41AB0 20-nm Intel MLC
Mushkin Reactor 1TB SATA 6Gbps Silicon Motion SM2246EN 16-nm Micron MLC
OCZ Arc 100 240GB SATA 6Gbps Indilinx Barefoot 3 M10 A19-nm Toshiba MLC
OCZ Trion 100 480GB SATA 6Gbps Toshiba TC58 A19-nm Toshiba TLC
OCZ Trion 150 480GB SATA 6Gbps Toshiba TC58 15-nm Toshiba TLC
OCZ Vector 180 240GB SATA 6Gbps Indilinx Barefoot 3 M10 A19-nm Toshiba MLC
OCZ Vector 180 960GB SATA 6Gbps Indilinx Barefoot 3 M10 A19-nm Toshiba MLC
Plextor M6e 256GB PCIe Gen2 x2 Marvell 88SS9183 19-nm Toshiba MLC
Samsung 850 EV0 250GB SATA 6Gbps Samsung MGX 32-layer Samsung TLC
Samsung 850 EV0 1TB SATA 6Gbps Samsung MEX 32-layer Samsung TLC
Samsung 850 Pro 500GB SATA 6Gbps Samsung MEX 32-layer Samsung MLC
Samsung 950 Pro 512GB PCIe Gen3 x4 Samsung UBX 32-layer Samsung MLC
Samsung 960 Pro 2TB PCIe Gen3 x4 Samsung Polaris 48-layer Samsung MLC
Samsung SM951 512GB PCIe Gen3 x4 Samsung S4LN058A01X01 16-nm Samsung MLC
Samsung XP941 256GB PCIe Gen2 x4 Samsung S4LN053X01 19-nm Samsung MLC
Toshiba OCZ RD400 512GB PCIe Gen3 x4 Toshiba TC58 15-nm Toshiba MLC
Toshiba OCZ VX500 512GB SATA 6Gbps Toshiba TC358790XBG 15-nm Toshiba MLC
Transcend SSD370 256GB SATA 6Gbps Transcend TS6500 Micron or SanDisk MLC
Transcend SSD370 1TB SATA 6Gbps Transcend TS6500 Micron or SanDisk MLC

All the SATA SSDs were connected to the motherboard’s Z97 chipset. The M6e was connected to the Z97 via the motherboard’s M.2 slot, which is how we’d expect most folks to run that drive. Since the XP941, 950 Pro, RD400, and 960 Pro require more lanes, they were connected to the CPU via a PCIe adapter card. The 750 Series and DC P3700 were hooked up to the CPU via the same full-sized PCIe slot.

We used the following system for testing:

Processor Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz
Motherboard Asus Z97-Pro
Firmware 2601
Platform hub Intel Z97
Platform drivers Chipset: 10.0.0.13
RST: 13.2.4.1000
Memory size 16GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Adata XPG V3 DDR3 at 1600 MT/s
Memory timings 11-11-11-28-1T
Audio Realtek ALC1150 with 6.0.1.7344 drivers
System drive Corsair Force LS 240GB with S8FM07.9 firmware
Storage Crucial BX100 500GB with MU01 firmware
Crucial BX200 480GB with MU01.4 firmware
Crucial MX200 500GB with MU01 firmware
Intel 335 Series 240GB with 335u firmware
Intel 730 Series 480GB with L2010400 firmware
Intel 750 Series 1.2GB with 8EV10171 firmware
Intel DC P3700 800GB with 8DV10043 firmware
Intel X25-M G2 160GB with 8820 firmware
Plextor M6e 256GB with 1.04 firmware
OCZ Trion 100 480GB with 11.2 firmware
OCZ Trion 150 480GB with 12.2 firmware
OCZ Vector 180 240GB with 1.0 firmware
OCZ Vector 180 960GB with 1.0 firmware
Samsung 850 EVO 250GB with EMT01B6Q firmware
Samsung 850 EVO 1TB with EMT01B6Q firmware
Samsung 850 Pro 500GB with EMXM01B6Q firmware
Samsung 950 Pro 512GB with 1B0QBXX7 firmware
Samsung XP941 256GB with UXM6501Q firmware
Transcend SSD370 256GB with O0918B firmware
Transcend SSD370 1TB with O0919A firmware
Power supply Corsair AX650 650W
Case Fractal Design Define R5
Operating system Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Thanks to Asus for providing the systems’ motherboards, to Intel for the CPUs, to Adata for the memory, to Fractal Design for the cases, and to Corsair for the system drives and PSUs. And thanks to the drive makers for supplying the rest of the SSDs.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

Some further notes on our test methods:

  • To ensure consistent and repeatable results, the SSDs were secure-erased before every component of our test suite. For the IOMeter database, RoboBench write, and RoboBench copy tests, the drives were put in a simulated used state that better exposes long-term performance characteristics. Those tests are all scripted, ensuring an even playing field that gives the drives the same amount of time to recover from the initial used state.

  • We run virtually all our tests three times and report the median of the results. Our sustained IOMeter test is run a second time to verify the results of the first test and additional times only if necessary. The sustained test runs for 30 minutes continuously, so it already samples performance over a long period.

  • Steps have been taken to ensure the CPU’s power-saving features don’t taint any of our results. All of the CPU’s low-power states have been disabled, effectively pegging the frequency at 3.5GHz. Transitioning between power states can affect the performance of storage benchmarks, especially when dealing with short burst transfers.

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1920×1080 at 60Hz. Most of the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Conclusions
The 960 Pro broke a slew of our storage testing records, so we have little doubt it will take first place in our performance rankings. Drumroll, please…

First place, and how! It’s a meaty margin of victory. Intel’s 750 Series drive is forced to relinquish its prime position, while the once-tempting 950 Pro and RD400 suddenly seem slow and ungainly—at least in in a relative sense. The 960 Pro is a genuine triumph for Samsung. Other drive makers need to either scramble production on newer, faster offerings or slash prices on the existing ones if they expect to keep up. For now, the 960 Pro stands in a performance class all its own.

So what’s the price landscape like? Let’s take a look at our time-honored scatter plots. We’re going by Samsung’s suggested prices for the 960 Pro, since the drive isn’t quite on the market yet. Use the buttons to switch between views of all drives, only SATA drives, or only PCIe drives. The most compelling position in these scatter plots is toward the upper left corner, where the price per gigabyte is low and performance is high.


The message is clear. If you were going to buy a 950 Pro or Intel 750 Series SSD, well, don’t. The 960 Pro is around the same price per gig, and it’s much, much faster. The RD400 might still be a worthwhile purchase at five cents per gigabyte cheaper, but I think I’d be inclined to shell out a bit more for the big performance jump.

Samsung 960 Pro 2TB
October 2016

Well, there you have it. Rarely have we seen an SSD turn in such an unqualified success in our tests. With one or two minor exceptions, Samsung has vastly improved on the formula it pioneered with the 950 Pro. The only beef one might have with the drive is that it’s expensive, but it’s priced right in line with its competitors and even a little bit cheaper than its predecessor. If you have to ask yourself “is this really worth the cost?” then the answer is almost certainly no. If you must have absolute top-shelf performance (whether out of quantifiable need or merely for bragging rights), you’re going to want to get your hands on a 960 Pro.

With performance like the 960 Pro’s on tap, it’s no surprise this drive is going home with our coveted Editor’s Choice award. The 960 Pro 2TB’s peerless sequential performance set our hearts ablaze in the way only a new Samsung product can. We’re thrilled with the generational improvements the company has eked out of its V-NAND, the strong debut of its Polaris controller, and the sheer ingenuity of its sticker technology. We’re excited to see some of these advances eventually filter down to the rest of Samsung’s SSD lines. Samsung will follow the 960 Pro with a more affordable 960 EVO line shortly, and we can’t wait to see what those drives will mean for more affordable NVMe goodness.

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Tony Thomas Former Tech Writer

Tony Thomas Former Tech Writer

Tony Thomas is a talented writer and former contributor at TechReport. His main passions and areas of expertise included storage devices, graphics cards, and PC components. Tony could make the most complex tech easy to understand and approachable for a range of audiences

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