The Samsung SM961 NVMe SSD was all the rage circa 2017 but the system builder drives have reached end of life, and unsold OEM stock is available at 2019 prices.
The SM961 is one of the last 2-bit per cell (MLC) SSDs from Samsung's SSI group that sells custom drives to large system builders like Dell, Lenovo, and HP. The series sports impressive performance and was the first consumer SSD I tested to surpass 11,000 random read IOPS at queue depth 1. With that kind of performance, the user experience is excellent, even compared to today's high-performance NVMe standards.
In 2018, Samsung released the PM981 SSD based loosely on the 970 EVO, for system builders. The SM961, based on the older 960 Pro, fell out of favor due to its high cost, older 48-layer V-NAND technology, and slightly higher power consumption.
When I first tested the 1TB SM961 in July 2016, the drive cost north of $500. The same drive today sells for just $169.99 from MyDigital Discount. MyDigital also has the 256GB SM961 in stock on Amazon for just $46.99. All SSD prices have dropped since 2017, but you simply can't find a cheaper MLC SSD today.
Low-cost SM961 NVMe SSDs would be enough for a daily news post, but this is a review of two pieces coming together to make a storage system.
The second portion of the review comes from Intel's VROC or Virtual RAID On-Chip technology. The SM961 is one of the few non-Intel branded SSDs on the official support list. The list consists of nineteen Intel NVMe SSDs (four being Optane-based), and twelve non-Intel SSDs with six from Samsung. Intel and Samsung SSDs appear, at the time of writing, to be the only vendors with modern models recently added.
Samsung's consumer-branded drives, like the 950, 960, and 970 Series lack support in VROC, only the OEM drives from Samsung SSI, 951, 961, and 983 (note the current Samsung PM981 is not supported). Support for newer products from other vendors is lacking. For instance, the Toshiba XG3 is a supported model but not the newer XG5 or XG6. The Micron 9100 and 9200 Series show support but not the new 9300 Series.
Many of the supported drives fall under the datacenter category. Buying multiple drives adds up quickly with these models. Newer Datacenter SSDs often lack an SLC buffer but make up for the loss in burst performance by using expensive (and hot) controllers utilizing up to 16 channels. If your goal is to build a cost-effective workstation, datacenter SSDs are often out of reach for many shoppers. This is what makes the Samsung SM961 at its current price the ultimate VROC SSD for budget-minded shoppers today.
On paper, the Samsung SM961 doesn't share the same high peak performance numbers as modern SSDs using 3-bit per cell flash. Paper is a funny thing, though. When it comes to performance, paper is virtually useless unless it shows real workload performance charts taken over time. Peak performance is useful in a consumer workload but not for long sustained tasks that can take several hours to complete.
Pricing, Warranty, and Endurance
MyDigital Discount has two SM961 capacities, 1TB and 256GB. The 1TB drive sells on both Amazon and the MyDigital Discount website for $169.99. The 256GB model sells on Amazon for $46.99 but $59.99 on the MyDigital Discount website.
Like other OEM drives from Samsung, the warranty goes back to the OEM or seller, in this case, MyDigital Discount. The company covers the SM961 SSDs with a full 5-year warranty that is limited by the endurance. The endurance count comes from the WMI indicator. Samsung never published endurance data for the SM961, not even in the multipage datasheet given to system builders. The 1TB 960 Pro held an 800 TBW endurance rating. Samsung never released a 960 Pro in 256GB.
Accessories and Software
Samsung's Magician and Data Migration software doesn't work with the SSI drives. Free third-party tools will give you just as much information and allow you to clone your existing data with ease. The 960 Pro and other MLC SSDs from Samsung never supported the DRAM cache feature to accelerate desktop workloads with system memory, so you don't lose any features.
Updating the SM961's firmware is a different story. The drives from MyDigital Discount all use H1 at the end of the model name. This indicates they are from HP. HP and Lenovo both published several firmware upgrades for the SM961, and it's possible to update these drives to the latest firmware in Linux. Updating the drives in Windows is more difficult. Some of the firmware update tools are specific to OEM systems, and the software looks for hardware IDs outside of the actual SSD you want to update. A quick search will lead you to workarounds online if you absolutely must run a firmware update. We found the drives from MyDigital Discount worked just fine as is.
A Closer Look
The SM961 hasn't changed since we first spotted the drive in mid-2016 (with mass availability in early 2017 for gray market sellers). All capacities use a single-sided design that most system builders demand. This makes it easy for shoppers to know if this will fit their slim notebook. The M.2 2280 single-sided design is the most used by system builders and the thinnest available.