Samsung 990 PRO Review: Another Solid SSD

Samsung today made available its latest flagship NVMe solid-state drive, the 990 PRO. The company first announced this drive in late August. The new internal SSD aims to replace the previous model, the 980 PRO, that came out more than two years ago.

As it turned out, this latest Samsung SSD still supports PCIe 4.0 and not PCIe 5.0, dashing the hope of Samsung SSD fans. That’s the bad news.

The good news is the 990 PRO ups the performance by a small margin and comes with a more affordable price tag than its predecessor. Specifically, the two immediately available capacities — 1TB and 2TB — carry the suggested retail prices of $169.99 and $289.99. Each also has a heatsink version that costs $20 more.

The 4TB version will be available in 2023, with pricing being announced then.

You won’t be able to get the new 990 PRO drive today. Samsung says you can pre-order it starting November 1, and the drive will ship later in the month.

Here’s the bottom line: With little in the novelty department, the Samsung 990 PRO is not a must-have; but it proved in my week-long testing to be an excellent personal purchase (or a gift) among the upcoming holidays’ many tech deals. Keep an eye out for it!

Dong’s note: I first published this piece on August 24, 2022, as a preview and updated it to an in-depth review on October 18 after hands-on testing.

Samsung 990 PRO SSD out of the boxSamsung 990 PRO SSDs in action
The Samsung 990 PRO out of the retail box and in action

Samsung 990 PRO Series: Pushing the PCIe 4.0 Envelope

By itself, the 990 PRO is quite exciting — it’s a top-tier NVMe SSD. However compared with the previous model, the 980 PRO, the new drive has little noteworthy.

It’s an incremental step in Samsung’s effort to push the performance of the PCIe 4.0 standard a bit further. And it has little to show.

PCIe
Gen
Commercially Available Rate per lane
(rounded)
x1 
Speed
x2
Speed
x4
Speed
x8
Speed
x16 Speed
1 2003 2 Gbps 250 MB/s 0.5 GB/s 1.0 GB/s 2 GB/s 4.0 GB/s
2 2007 4 Gbps 500 MB/s 1 GB/s 2.0 GB/s 4 GB/s 8.0 GB/s
3 2010 8 Gbps 984.6 MB/s 1.97 GB/s 3.94 GB/s 7.88 GB/s 15.8 GB/s
4 2020 16 Gbps 1969 MB/s 3.94 GB/s 7.88 GB/s 15.75 GB/s 31.5 GB/s
5 2022 32 Gbps 3938 MB/s 7.88 GB/s 15.75 GB/s 31.51 GB/s 63 GB/s
PCI Express PCIe in brief
Note: 1 Gigabyte per second (GB/s) = 1000 Megabyte per second (MB/s) | 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) = 125 MB/s

And that’s likely because there’s not much left to push. In the 4-lane configuration used in NVMe SSDs, the PCIe 4.0 standard maxes at 7.9GB/s or about 7900MB/s. And as you can see in the specifications table below, on paper, the 990 PRO is as fast as PCIe 4.0 can be after overhead.

Samsung 990 PRO SSDs front boxSamsung 990 PRO SSDs back box
The front and back of the 2TB Samsung 990 PRO SSD’s retail box

Hardware specifications: Samsung 990 PRO vs 980 PRO

The 990 PRO is almost identical to the 970 PRO. The two share the same design and many features and can work interchangeably.

What sets them apart is the fact the former is slightly faster and available only in the 1TB and 2TB capacities.

Samsung 990 PRO SSD Samsung 980 PRO SSD
Capacities 1TB, 2TB, 4TB 250GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Interface PCIe Gen 4.0 x4, NVMe 2.0 PCIe 4.0 x4, NVMe 1.3c
Design M.2 (2280)  M.2 (2280) 
Dimensions Naked: 80 x 22 x 2.3
Heatsink: 80 x 24.3 x 8.2 mm
Naked: 80 x 22 x 2.3
Heatsink: 80 x 24.3 x 8.2 mm
Controller Samsung in-house Controller Samsung Elpis Controller
NAND Flash Memory Samsung V-NAND TLC Samsung 1xx-layer V-NAND 3-bit MLC
Cache
DDR4
1GB (1TB)
2GB (2TB)
4GB (4TB)
512MB (500GB, 250GB)
 1GB (1TB)
2GB (2TB) 
Security AES 256-bit Full Disk Encryption, TCG/Opal V2.0, Encrypted Drive (IEEE1667) AES 256-bit Full Disk Encryption, 
TCG/Opal V2.0, 
Encrypted Drive (IEEE1667)
Sequential Read 7,450 MB/s Up to 7,000 MB/s
Sequential Write 6,900 MB/s Up to 5,000 MB/s
Random Read  1,200K IOPS (1TB)
1400K IOPS (2TB)
(QD 32 Thread 16)
Up to 1,000K IOPS
(QD32 Thread 4)
Random Write  1,550K IOPS
(QD 32 Thread 16)
Up to 1,000K IOPS
(QD32 Thread 4)
Endurance 
(Terabyte Written)
2400TBW (4TB)
1200TBW (2TB)
600TBW (1TB)
1200TBW (2TB)
600TBW (1TB)
300TBW (500GB)
150TBW (250GB)
Software Samsung Magician Samsung Magician
Usage Application Client PCs,
Sony PlayStation 5
Client PCs,
Sony PlayStation 5
Warranty 5 years 5 years
Hardware specifications: Samsung 990 PRO vs 980 PRO

The same endurance

The 990 PRO shares the same feature set as the 980 PRO. It has built-in hardware encryption and an endurance rating that’s half of Samsung PCIe 3.0 SSDs, like the 970 PRO.

Specifically, the 1TB has a life span of 600 terabytes written — you can write up to 600 terabytes to it before it becomes unreliable — and the 2TB and 4TB have double and quadruple that.

Still, 600TB is a lot of data. If you write some 100GB, which is a lot, a day and do that every day to the 1TB version, it’ll take some 15 years to wear the drive out. And the 2TB version will take you 30 years.

On top of that, Samsung includes a generous 5-year warranty with its PRO drives. The point is: there’s no need to fret about the 990 PRO’s longevity.

Familiar specs, now with better power efficiency and thermal control

Samsung says the new drive uses its V-NAND TLC memory as its storage. V-NAND means memory cells are stacked vertically in many layers to increase density at the expense of endurance and performance.

And the low endurance mentioned above results from this type of flash. But the drive has high-performance specs thanks to its controller, which, among other things, has better heat management.

Samsung 990 PRO SSDs front on handSamsung 990 PRO SSD back
The front and back of the Samsung 990 Pro

Samsung doesn’t disclose the details of the 990 PRO’s controller other than calling it “the world’s first 8nm controller for consumer SSDs” that “improves its power efficiency up to 50% compared to the 980 PRO.”

Samsung says the 990 PRO “employs a nickel coating on the controller and a heat spreader label on the drive for reliable thermal management.”

That new design, plus Samsung’s Dynamic Thermal Guard technology, helps keep the drive’s temperature within the optimal range even during heavy loads. As a result, the 990 PRO can maintain high performance even in extended operations.

Most importantly, the new drive is slated to run cooler than the previous models.

Yet, there’s still the heatsink version, like the case of the 980 PRO. But this time around, other than helping to lower the accumulated heat, the 990 PRO’s heatsink also works as gaming-related bling integrated RGB lights — similar to the case of the WD BLACK P40.

You can manage these lights, synced with any RGB gear, via the Samsung Magician dashboard software. Clearly, you need to use a gaming rig with a transparent case to appreciate that. And only then are they worth the extra $20.

The familiar Samsung Magician software

The Samsung 990 PRO is a familiar NVMe SSD thanks to the fact it comes with Samsung Magician dashboard software that works with all previous Samsung SSDs.

Samsung 990 PRO Magician Software 7.2
The Samsung 990 PRO uses the Samsung Magician 7.2 software to deliver various features. Note the new LED setting section of the software that handles the drive’s new heatsink bling.

The latest 7.2 version comes with a more streamlined interface and several features. You can use it to check the drive’s status, upgrade its firmware, customize its performance and overprovisioning, manage its RGB lights (when applicable), and other handy tools.

Samsung 990 PRO: Fast performance

I tested a “naked” 2TB 990 PRO for over a week, and the drive proved to be very fast though not consistently or decidedly speedier than the 980 PRO, or other high-end PCIe 4.0 SSDs, as you will notice in the charts below.

Specifically, in random access performance, the new drive topped the chart in reading, but its writing performance was behind a handful of others.

Samsung 990 PRO SSD Copy Performance
The Samsung 990 PRO’s random access (IOPS) performance

The drive took 2nd place on the chart in sequential (copy) tests, slightly slower than the WD BLACK SN850X. However, the differences between the two were within the margin of error.

It’s worth noting, though, like the case of other similarly-specced NVMe SSD, the 990 PRO had very high read or write performances individually. But in the combo tests where it did both writing and reading simultaneously, it delivered only slightly over 1700MB/s.

Samsung 990 PRO SSD Random Access Performance
The Samsung 990 PRO’s copy performance

As in real-world, generally anecdotal usage, it was impossible for me to “feel” the difference between the Samsung 990 PRO and most other PCIe 4.0 drives, likely because they all had already come very close to maxing out the standard’s bandwidth.

The new drive indeed ran relatively cool in my testing — and I used it in the highest performance setting. I could feel that it got a bit warmer with my finger, but never to the point where I’d call it “hot.” It’s only safe to say that the heatsink version will be even cooler.

Pros

Excellent PCIe 4.0 performance

Helpful Samsung Magician software with lots of useful settings and features

Cros

No new or break-through features

Conclusion

The new Samsung 990 PRO NVMe SSD didn’t come with a bang — it would have if it supported the much-anticipated PCIe 5.0 standard.

Instead, it proved to be another familiar and excellent Samsung internal drive you can safely get for your computer or game console. And its reasonable price tag doesn’t hurt.

If you’re looking to pimp that PCIe 4.0 (or even PCIe 5.0) rig, consider one today.

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