Sorry State

SSD prices are insanely low right now—but manufacturers focused on bottom line have built computers designed to prevent consumers from leveraging this trend.

By Ernie Smith

In a perfect world, the price of data-driven mediums should always be on the decline.

As I pointed out in a piece about an infamous 1980s RAM shortage, when the market is working, the price-per-megabyte or price-per-gigabyte should always be dropping.

But I think what we’re currently seeing with the SSD market is much sharper than that current trend. And honestly, it’s good for consumers—but unfortunately, it also underlines the ways that manufacturers do consumer-unfriendly things.

At this time, it is possible to buy 2 terabytes of NVMe storage for as low as $65 on Amazon. It’s not the most high-quality stuff; it’s a slower PCIe gen 3 variant and produced by a no-name manufacturer. But the faster PCIe gen 4 stuff, being sold by Samsung, goes for a still-quite-reasonable $120. And 4TB of storage can be had for as low as $145.

This is pretty wild to think about, because SSD pricing is getting quite close to the price of traditional hard drive platters, but with significant size and speed advantages that make SSDs a better purchase for day-to-day storage needs. (Long-term storage, hard drives still win.)

I’m not the only one to notice this, either. Per PCPartPicker, the average cost of a 1-terabyte M.2 NVMe SSD was at $150 at the beginning of March 2022. Currently, you can get one for around $90 on average, with extremes in some cases falling below the $50 mark. This is probably no surprise if you’ve done even light research on Amazon.

Even more surprising is that the storage sweet spot is increasingly hitting around the 2-terabyte mark, with SSDs at that storage level currently priced around the point where the 1-terabyte models were a year and a half ago.

Strangely, though, older SATA-based drives, which are slower but remain in wide use in older laptops and desktop machines, have actually gone up in recent weeks, with a 1-terabyte drive averaging well above $100 in recent days.

What the heck is happening? Simply, longstanding storage trends are accelerating. Recent commentary from Jim Handy of Objective Analysis notes that, in 2005, it cost about than $100 to buy a single gigabyte of NAND flash storage (which was reflected in the price of the iPod nano, released that year). In 2012, it was about a dollar a gig. Now, it’s about 10 cents.

“There are fluctuations, and in relatively rare instances, NAND prices do increase—but for the most part, they decline,” Handy wrote in TechTarget. “If there is a shortage, then they go flat for a while.”

Another way to put this is that the natural dip in prices that happens because of innovation is being accelerated by an oversupply issue. At the moment, the issue is becoming serious enough that some of the big SSD manufacturers, particularly Samsung and SK Hynix, are considering cutting back on manufacturing to help the market right itself.

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This is creating the potential to use SSDs in new ways. Already, there have been attempts to give GPUs their own dedicated SSDs as a way to accelerate their memory use. Another GPU manufacturer, ASUS, just shoved a spot for an SSD on its GPU just to take advantage of unused PCIe lanes.

All this is good for consumers, and if you have a lingering need for storage, now is a good time to take advantage of that need.

But it’s not quite as good a deal as it could be, unfortunately—not because the storage isn’t cheap, but because of decisions by some laptop manufacturers to solder storage chips onto their mainboards, making it so that you’re stuck with the storage on the device.

Admittedly, the math is likely to work differently for laptop or tablet manufacturer than it will an end user. Odds are that they will have purchased their NAND storage in bulk, making it somewhat less susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the market.

But it’s hard to look at an Apple or Dell laptop with soldered storage, noting that it costs $200 to upgrade from 256GB to 512GB, at a time you can buy a 4TB SSD for $160. It feels entirely unreasonable, and essentially the fault of a manufacturing process that was designed to discourage consumers from taking advantage of market price disparities.

There is no practical reason to do it this way. NVMe drives are the size of a stick of gum. They only add a modest amount of vertical space to the device. And if the reason is physical security—say, the 0.0001% chance a spy is going to open up your laptop and nab the SSD, which should presumably already be encrypted—that doesn’t feel particularly compelling as a reason. If it isn’t obvious, this was done for nakedly anti-consumer reasons.

We are missing out on a positive trend for consumers because of decisions manufacturers made to capture the value for themselves. This is horrible for repairability and long-term reliability, as the right-to-repair advocate Louis Rossmann notes. But it’s also bad for people who want to save money—they have to buy the best laptop at time of purchase, rather than upgrading later, or go with another manufacturer entirely.

(It’s my point of view that Apple started soldering everything on because it was the only way to ensure that it got its full cut of any attempts to upgrade their devices. Case in point: The last device they offered with user-upgradeable RAM, the 2019 Mac Pro, was made many thousands of dollars cheaper if you supplied the RAM yourself. Apple Silicon, as nice as it is, exists to rein in these instincts.)

But this isn’t just a problem at the high end; many Chromebooks have soldered-on storage, too, for example. And many smartphones have opted out of offering expandability that would keep the devices in use over longer periods.

The result is that, unless you’re at all technical, you won’t get to take advantage of a trend that should be beneficial to consumers, but isn’t. Sure, plenty of computers come with expandable SSD storage. Heck, you can even upgrade it on your PS5 and Steam Deck these days. But these savings should be getting passed down to the average user and, in many cases, they’re not. And anti-consumer choices at the manufacturing level are to blame.

Right now is an excellent time to build a file server, or purchase an NVMe drive with an enclosure that you can use as a backup device. It’s possible this glut of SSDs won’t last forever.

But it’s worth questioning why many people won’t be able to take advantage of this storage windfall in the most obvious way.

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It must be infuriating to devote your life’s work to highlighting labor issues only to see a dude go viral for the same reason by punching down. Billy Bragg takes on Oliver Anthony and ends up with a beautiful result.

There’s a guy with dark brown hair and a prominent bushy mustache in the Panera I’m writing this in, and he is much less of a Mario than the retiring Charles Martinet is.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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