When consumer-grade solid-state drives first hit the market back in 2009, in the form of Intel's X25-M series, they began a quiet revolution that has been percolating through the PC market ever since. Any consumer who's tried a system with an SSD and gone back to a system without one needs no explanation as to the benefits the SSD offers. Instant response times, quick boot up, zero noise and nearly zero heat production. Until recently, serious capacities have been out of reach at hard drive-level prices, but even that is now changing.
And so we find ourselves at an inflection point. At CES 2016, We sat down with the three biggest vendors of SSDs in the world, Samsung, Crucial, and SanDisk, to get a sense of what they have to offer for the coming year, as well as where they view the SSD market as going. The opinions we heard really couldn't haven't been more different.
Samsung: Moving From a Position of Strength
There's just no doubt about it: Samsung is now the sole dominant player in the SSD market. Whereas Intel essentially created the market, Samsung now owns it. Perhaps it's not too surprising that it took a big company, with full vertical integration, to truly conquer the SSD market, and perhaps it's also not too surprising that all the smaller players that have taken a run at SSDs have fallen by the wayside. One look at Samsung's current lineup shows that it has a lock from top to bottom on consumer SSDs:
From the blazing-fast 950 Pro, which we're told will soon be launching at 1TB (wow!), down to the ultra-compact and affordable 850 Evo M.2, Samsung has something for just about every market. See that little "4TB" figure under the 850 Evo listing... that's no mis-print. Samsung is indeed going to be bringing a 4TB drive to the market very soon, leveraging Samsung's new 48-layer NAND technology (up from the current 32-layer), allowing the company to truly dominate in terms of price, speed, and capacity.
That doesn't mean Samsung isn't also being affected by the maturing of the market. Samsung's representatives informed us that we really shouldn't expect any SATA-based replacement for the 850 Pro - there just isn't anywhere to go in terms of performance on that interface. The future, according to Samsung, is in the ultra-high-end PCIe M.2 interface, the affordable and compact SATA M.2 interface, and potentially in more lower-cost drives based on 3-bit V-NAND.
Interestingly, the only new drive that Samsung introduced at CES 2016 was one that serves yet another untapped market. Samsung's T3 is an ultra-high-capacity, high-performance mobile storage solution. The Samsung representative wanted her hand in the photo for context, and indeed, the T3 is palm-sized, much smaller than a 2.5" laptop-class SSD. Samsung will be offering these drives in sized up to 2TB, a capacity that is simply unmatched by anyone else in the industry.
Crucial: Taking the Slow Road
We have no photos to share of Crucial products, because, quite frankly, none were introduced or demonstrated at CES 2016. Crucial's representative was still kind enough to take 15 minutes or so to sit with us and discuss the SSD market as Crucial sees it. The first reality: despite the revolution in performance offered by SSDs, the storage market is still split 70% mechanical, 30% solid-state. The second reality: capturing that remaining 70% is all about cost.
And that means Crucial simply isn't going to be pushing into the ultra-high-performance drive market. They have no current PCIe-based models on offer, and no immediate plans to release one. And while the BX200, Crucial's newest drive (released in October 2015) was universally panned by critics as too slow, Crucial says this model was exactly what the market needed: a low-cost drive with decent performance. And frankly, Crucial is on to something here: even if the BX200 only offers performance equivalent to Intel's X25-M released in 2009, it's still leagues ahead of the mechanical storage on the market today. We challenged Crucial on the issue of the BX200's initial high street price, but Crucial countered that they only set a suggested price, and that the market has since set its own price (currently an astonishing $65 for the 240GB drive!).
In our opinion, Crucial may have been a bit out of the loop in terms of consumer mass marketing, not too surprising given the institutional orientation of its parent Micron. If the BX200's contribution to the market was ultra-low cost, Crucial should have communicated this from the outset by setting an ultra-low price that could be published in day-one reviews. Crucial missed the boat here, and the BX200's sales may never reach their potential because of it.
SanDisk: Standing Still?
SanDisk met with us for over 30 minutes, painstakingly detailing its USB-based storage devices for the phone, tablet, and professional camera markets. And indeed, it's new stylish red-and-black Extreme 510, shown here, is a very special drive. SanDisk responded to demands of its extreme photographer clientele with a backup solution that can be taken into the field without fear of losing data. With its rubber-insulated USB cap and protective side bumpers, it can be tossed, dunked, and generally mistreated without skipping a beat (or losing a bit!). It will retail for $250, and will come in just one size: 480GB. Apparently, smaller drives just didn't offer enough appeal to professionals, and larger drives probably wouldn't fit in this pocket-sized enclosure. It truly is in a different class from Samsung's already-small T3. The Extreme 510 can easily fit in your back pocket... and survive even if you take a fall on your next epic photography adventure!
As for client SSDs, SanDisk appears to practically be pulling out of the market. Its last high-performance drive, the Extreme Pro 960GB, was released nearly two years ago, and SanDisk has no immediate plans to replace it. And while SanDisk did demo the impressive single-sided X400 1TB M.2 drive (shown here), this drive is bound for OEMs, not the consumer market. It's a great solution, but not one enthusiasts can get super-excited about. It's a shame it won't be widely-available for use in the Intel NUC, the very platform SanDisk used to demonstrate it. Hopefully a few samples will slip into the consumer market so NUC builders looking for extreme capacity can grab one!
A discussion of SanDisk's product lineup really isn't complete without reference to Western Digital's announced, but not yet executed, buyout of SanDisk for $19 billion. Clearly, Western Digital believes SanDisk has valuable IP and intends to leverage it, but the SanDisk representatives were coy as to what would change under Western Digital's leadership. We know that WD has tried in the past to enter the SSD market with little success; hopefully its experience thus far in the market will benefit SanDisk's offerings, rather than tarnish them.