Buyer beware: Solid-state drive prices vary--a lot

The solid-state drive has arrived, but its prices are all over the map. Usually, but not always, higher-price SSDs use better controllers and larger cache memory.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

Updated at 9:40 a.m. PST with additional information about SLC-based solid-state drives.

Some solid-state drives are more equal than others--or, to put it another way, command higher prices than rival drives, despite being seemingly quite similar.

SanDisk's G3 Series of SSDs offer capacities up to 240GB
SanDisk's G3 Series of SSDs offer capacities up to 240GB SanDisk

SanDisk and Toshiba offer a good lesson. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, SanDisk said it would start shipping 240GB SSDs in "mid 2009," priced at only $499. (Next to a comparable hard-disk drive, that may be a lot of money, but for a solid-state drive, it's dirt cheap.)

At the Toshiba booth, however, the story was very different. A Toshiba representative said his company's comparable 256GB SSDs are priced at $800. And this discrepancy is coming from two companies that get their flash chips from the same source: a joint-manufacturing operation in Japan.

Below are the prices Toshiba representatives were stating on the show floor versus prices that SanDisk announced.

Toshiba/SanDisk solid-state drive pricing:

  • Toshiba 512GB: $1,600, SanDisk N/A
  • Toshiba 256GB: $800, SanDisk 240GB: $499
  • Toshiba 128GB: $400, SanDisk 120GB: $249
  • Toshiba 64GB: $175, SanDisk 60GB: $149

Throw Intel into the mix, and it gets more confusing. "Introductory" pricing for Intel 160GB versions of its X25-M and X18-M Serial ATA (SATA) solid-state drive is $945 for less than 1,000 units.

All these drives are based on newly developed multilevel cell technology (which allows the larger capacities), and all suppliers claim superior performance and endurance. (Intel's stellar x25-M SSD performance has actually been validated in reviews.)

SanDisk, for instance, says its new G3 SSDs are "more than five times faster than the fastest 7,200 rpm HDDs and more than twice as fast as SSDs shipping in 2008," and provide Long-term Data Endurance (LDE) "sufficient for over 100 years of typical user usage."

So what makes for the price discrepancy? Usually, but not always, higher-price SSDs use better controllers--the secret sauce suppliers use to differentiate performance--and other tricks, like larger cache memory, to boost read and write speeds. The stated, or guaranteed, durability of the SSD is also a factor. And some SSDs use an older Parallel ATA (PATA) interface, while newer drives use a faster Serial-ATA (SATA) II interface.

"The difference in controllers and expected reliability probably explains the difference in price," says Avi Cohen, managing partner at Avian Securities, which tracks the memory chip market.

Also, in some cases, SSDs targeted at corporate enterprise customers are based on faster (but more expensive) Single-Level Cell (SLC) technology. In 2009, however, SLC-based SSDs will not typically be marketed to consumers.

Overall, with manufacturers claiming similar attributes, it can get confusing for the average consumer.

Additional comments: Note the Toshiba drives are MLC not SLC (Single-level cell) and these are prices quoted by the manufacturer.