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The best SSDs of 2021: Intel says goodbye to Optane in desktops

Switching to a solid-state drive is the best upgrade you can make for your PC. These wondrous devices obliterate long boot times, speed up how fast your programs and games load, and generally makes your computer feel fast. But not all solid-state drives are created equal. The best SSDs offer solid performance at affordable prices—or, if price is no object, face-meltingly fast read and write speeds.

Many SSDs come in a 2.5-inch form factor and communicate with PCs via the same SATA ports used by traditional hard drives. But out on the bleeding-edge of NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) drives, you’ll find tiny “gumstick” SSDs that fit in M.2 connections on modern motherboards, SSDs that sit on a PCIe adapter and slot into your motherboard like a graphics card or sound card, futuristic 3D Xpoint drives, and more. Picking the perfect SSD isn’t as simple as it used to be.

That’s where this guide comes in. We’ve tested numerous drives to find the best SSDs for any use case. Let’s take a look at PCWorld’s top picks, and then dive into what to look for in an SSD. Quick note: This roundup only covers internal solid-state drives. Check out PCWorld’s guide to the best external drives if you’re looking for a portable storage solution.

Updated January 19 to add a report to our news section detailing Intel killing Optane desktop SSDs, and remove Optane drives from the article.

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Best SSD for most people

Samsung’s mainstream EVO series of SSDs has sat atop our recommended list ever since 2014, and the current Samsung 860 EVO is still a great option for people who want a rock-solid blend of speed, price, compatibility, and the reliability of Samsung’s 5-year warranty and superb Magician management software. But for the first time in recent memory, the king has been knocked off its thrown, and by a newcomer that isn’t really new whatsoever.

Most people would be better off buying the SK Hynix Gold S31. Not only is it among the fastest SATA SSDs we’ve ever tested, but the price is right too. At $44 for a 250GB drive, $57 for a 500GB drive, or $105 for 1TB, the Gold S31 costs much less than Samsung’s line, which charges $75 for a 500GB model. “When all was said and done in those real-world 48GB copies, the Gold S31 proved the fastest drive we’ve ever tested for sustained read and write operations,” our review proclaimed. Enough said.

Well, maybe not. Let’s talk a bit about the brand itself, since SK Hynix isn’t exactly a household name. Despite that, it’s one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers on the planet. The company has been developing NAND and controller technology since the get-go, and while it’s been the SSD manufacturer for numerous large computer vendors, it generally hasn’t taken a place for itself on the shelves. Now it has, and the results are sterling.

If you need larger capacities, though, still look to the Samsung 860 EVO, which is available in 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB models as well, albeit at steeper premiums. The Samsung 870 QVO is another strong contender, with capacities ranging from 1TB all the way to a whopping 8TB, but we’ll discuss that in the next section.

Windows 10X leaks: Hands-on with Microsoft’s new, simplified OS

Microsoft’s Windows 10X has leaked, and it’s boring.

Well, it’s designed to be boring. Simple, really—uncomplicated, straightforward, without the fuss and clutter of “traditional” Windows. We wrote last year that Windows 10X now appears to be the new Windows 10 S (Windows 10 in S Mode); after spending some hands-on time with the leaked build, we believe those impressions have been confirmed.

We’d like to say that Windows 10X has been graphically overhauled, with a variety of new features. However, the fact is that if you read our early Windows 10X coverage a year ago—when Microsoft was visualizing Windows 10X as the future of dual-screen devices—little has changed. (Here’s our original Windows 10X hands-on video for reference.) Well, there’s been one major tweak, of course: Windows 10X is now designed for single-screen PCs.

The leaked build, version 20279, can be run only under one of Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtual machines for right now. While a virtual machine allows the OS to be isolated, or sandboxed, away from the rest of the operating system, the tradeoff is speed. Windows 10X ran extremely slowly on a VM on a Surface Laptop 3, as you should expect from a beta build run on a virtual machine.

Remember, you probably won’t have an opportunity to download and install Windows 10X yourself. The OS is expected to be shipped preinstalled on low-cost PCs, most of which would presumably be designed for education or corporate environments.

Starting up Windows 10X

The theme of simplicity begins with the setup experience. There’s no Cortana to assist you. Windows 10X opens with a brief flourish of the Windows logo before getting right to it.

If you’re a fan of local accounts, don’t buy a system with Windows 10X—the OS asked for a Microsoft account, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. You do have the option of specifying whether Windows 10X will be used for home or business, however, seemingly implying that you’ll be able to buy a Windows 10X machine at retail.

Microsoft Windows 10X personal or business Mark Hachman / IDG

Windows 10X allows you to choose whether the PC will be used for home or business.

Windows 10X actually goes to some pains to advise you of what data it collects, and allows you to select among a variety of privacy options available for Windows 10X, such as permitting targeted advertising. At least on our build, there seems to be none of the usual stalling while Windows checks for subsequent updates. Once you choose your privacy settings, Windows 10X ushers you into the main screen.