Conclusion

The Samsung SSD 980 is their first DRAMless SSD for the retail market, and their first entry-level NVMe drive. The fact that Samsung is getting into this market segment at all is probably the most interesting thing about the SSD 980. It's a sign that Samsung is more willing to offer affordable consumer SSDs, rather than always aiming for top-tier performance and pricing.

As with any entry-level NVMe SSD, the performance story for the Samsung SSD 980 is a bit complicated. Compromises have to be made to keep costs low while still offering good peak performance. On lighter, easier tests, peak performance can be competitive with high-end PCIe Gen 3 drives like the Samsung 970 EVO Plus, especially when the larger SLC cache can give the SSD 980 the advantage.

The DRAMless nature of the SSD 980 means that performance can suffer under any workload that hits a lot of data, even if it's mostly or entirely reads instead of writes. Fortunately, the threshold for "a lot of data" in this context is tens of GB, which is far more than most everyday tasks involve. Stuff like full text searching of the entire drive without an index, or some antivirus scans will be noticeably slower than on a mainstream TLC drive with DRAM. But for the most part, the DRAMless design means that the drive still has decent performance where it counts, and sacrifices performance where it probably won't be missed.

Compared to its most important competitor, the year-old WD Blue SN550, the Samsung SSD 980 clearly hits better highs but also has more serious pitfalls. Both drives are DRAMless SSDs optimized for workloads that don't handle too much data at once. When a workload strays outside those limits, the WD Blue SN550 is the clear winner that holds up better under heavier workloads. Which of the two drives is preferable will largely come down to pricing.

Samsung is trying to market the SSD 980 as something of a successor to the 970 EVO. This is definitely a stretch, even if they both reach similar peak performance on the spec sheet. The SSD 980 is clearly a lower class of drive than Samsung's recent high-end PCIe Gen 3 drives. The Samsung SSD 980 is also definitely not their answer to the SK hynix Gold P31, a mainstream TLC SSD with a 4-channel controller that can keep pace with much more power-hungry 8-channel drives (because it has a DRAM cache). For that, we'll need to hope for a potential 980 EVO to arrive, and for Samsung to get serious about improving the power efficiency of its NVMe SSDs.

  240-256 GB 480-512 GB 960 GB-1 TB 2 TB
Samsung SSD 980 (MSRP) $49.99 (20¢/GB) $69.99 (14¢/GB) $129.99 (13¢/GB)  
ADATA Falcon
TLC, DRAMless, 8ch
$37.99 (15¢/GB) $57.99 (11¢/GB) $102.99 (10¢/GB) $209.99 (10¢/GB)
ADATA Swordfish
TLC, DRAMless
$37.99 (15¢/GB) $57.99 (12¢/GB) $99.99 (10¢/GB) $189.99 (9¢/GB)
Crucial P2
TLC, DRAMless
$49.99 (20¢/GB) $59.99 (12¢/GB) $104.99 (10¢/GB)  
Kingston A2000
TLC
$44.99 (18¢/GB) $60.54 (12¢/GB) $116.24 (12¢/GB)  
Mushkin Helix-L
TLC, DRAMless
$36.99 (15¢/GB)   $93.99
(9¢/GB)
 
WD Blue SN550
TLC, DRAMless
$46.92 (19¢/GB) $59.99 (12¢/GB) $104.99 (10¢/GB) $224.99 (11¢/GB)
Inland Platinum
QLC, 8ch
    $96.99 (10¢/GB) $182.99 (9¢/GB)
Sabrent Rocket Q
QLC, 8ch
  $64.99 (13¢/GB) $109.98 (11¢/GB) $219.98 (11¢/GB)
Intel SSD 670p
QLC
  $69.99 (14¢/GB) $129.99 (13¢/GB) $249.99 (12¢/GB)

The Samsung SSD 980 is launching with fairly reasonable MSRPs. It doesn't have to come down too much in price to line up with current street prices for other entry-level NVMe SSDs. It remains to be seen just how competitive Samsung wants to get with the 980. We've seen them offer very competitive street prices on their mainstream SATA SSDs, and if they do that here we could see some very interesting competition between Samsung, WD and Intel.

As we observed with the launch of the Intel SSD 670p, the standards for entry-level NVMe SSDs are improving. With several of the biggest players in the industry taking this market segment seriously, and entry-level NVMe SSDs are no longer just a step up from SATA SSDs with caveats. Intel and Samsung are now both offering entry-level NVMe SSDs that can saturate a PCIe 3.0 x4 interface under good conditions, and perform better-than-SATA when write caches are expired.

Intel's QLC-based solution offers higher capacities, but Samsung's DRAMless TLC solution should have the clear advantage in performance below 1TB. Entry level NVMe drives that top out at 2.5 GB/s are starting to look inadequate even if their real-world performance still holds up well. Western Digital's WD Blue SN550 isn't quite out of the running yet, but it could use an update. Most of the other entry-level NVMe SSDs will have to keep their pricing well under those drives to stay competitive.

 

End of review questionnaire: Samsung's recent controller names have us confused. Is there a pattern? Polaris, Phoenix, Photon, Elpis, Maru... and now Pablo. What's the connection? Anyone have any ideas?

Mixed IO Performance and Idle Power Management
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  • Kamen Rider Blade - Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - link

    Thanks to this article, I discovered the:

    SK Hynix Gold P31 1TB

    A very solid & balanced 1 TB SSD =D
    Reply
  • Samus - Thursday, March 11, 2021 - link

    I'm running the same SSD in my desktop AND laptop now. Replaced the WD Black in my desktop which kept throttling near 70C in what I'd consider an adequately cooled case. The Hynix P31 rarely even reaches 60F.

    Great drive. I wish they came in larger capacity :(
    Reply
  • fazalmajid - Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - link

    So if HMB requires host OS support, how compatible is it with Linux or less common alternative OSes like the BSDs or Solaris/Illumos? Reply
  • Billy Tallis - Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - link

    Based on a quick search of online man pages, at least FreeBSD has HMB support. A man page for Illumos dated 2018 makes no mention of HMB, and I don't think they have much reason to implement that feature since enterprise SSDs wouldn't use HMB. But it's also not too complicated to support. Reply
  • sonny73n - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    Performance is entry level but price is not. Reply
  • nvmnghia - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    How is the HBA test designed? Read some < cache size data over and over? Reply
  • nvmnghia - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    I mean HMB Reply
  • oRAirwolf - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    I don't understand why anybody would buy one of these when you can get an SK Hynix Gold P31 for the same price on Amazon. I got an Adata SX8200 Pro 1TB for $100 from best buy the other day, which has DRAM cache. Granted it is the SM2262G with Samsung 64L TLC, but I'll still take that over a DRAM-less drive any day of the week. Reply
  • XacTactX - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    Honestly I agree with you, the Hynix P31 is a top tier SSD and it costs $135 instead of $130 for this. A reasonable person should pay $5 extra. I also think the Phison E12 would be a nice alternative for ~$110, if only the manufacturers of all the E12 products would stop changing the flash memory and the controller every few months. I don't have faith in Adata, and I have only a little bit more confidence in Silicon Power Reply
  • dsplover - Wednesday, March 10, 2021 - link

    Right now “new” PCI 3.0 units are probably NOS. They’re all fast enough. This summer PCI 3 x 4 NVMe manufacturing will be competing to empty out old parts. Should be a great time for 2TB models for 149 USD. Reply

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