How Cheap is Too Cheap? – Part 1


If you are trying to design or build a computer system, whether it is a desktop system or a server class system, there is usually some level of motivation to control the hardware cost of the components in the system. For example, perhaps you have a hard limit on your hardware budget, or you just want a certain level of performance for a given amount of money.

If you are dealing with an absolute hardware budget limit, then you need to make wise choices on each component in the system in order to stay under budget. As you consider each component choice, you should try to determine the “point of diminishing returns” from frugality. You want to avoid choosing a component that hurts performance by a much larger amount than the money it saves.

System Storage

In this case, I am specifically talking about the boot drive for your operating system. With many lower cost desktop systems, it is common to only have one storage drive. Most lower cost laptop systems also only have a single internal storage drive.

Here are the current main traditional choices for system storage:

  • 2.5″ or 3.5″ magnetic SATA AHCI hard drive
  • 2.5″ NAND SATA AHCI solid state drive (SSD)
  • M.2 NAND PCIe NVMe solid state drive (SSD)

I talk about some of the differences betyween different drive types here:

Given current pricing and model availability, I think 1TB is the smallest size you should consider for a boot drive. With NAND SSDs, smaller capacity models have lower performance and actually cost more per GB than a 1TB model.

Magnetic Drives

I think old school magnetic hardware drives should automatically be eliminated as a good choice for a boot drive in a new desktop system in 2023. Years ago, magnetic hard drives were a common choice because they were much more affordable per GB than any sort of solid state storage. Those days are over.

Looking at Micro Center, sorting internal magnetic drives by cost, the least expensive drive today is a WD Blue Mainstream 1TB 7200 RPM SATA III 6Gb/s 3.5″ Internal CMR Hard Drive that is $44.99.

How Cheap is Too Cheap? - Part 1


These are the commonly available 2.5″ NAND SATA AHCI drives that have been around for over ten years. They are what many people first think of when you say “you have an SSD.” SATA SSDs are a huge step up over traditional magnetic hard drives, both for random I/O performance and sequential I/O performance.

This type of storage makes an immediate and very noticeable improvement for common daily tasks like system startup, application loading, and moving data around.

Looking at Micro Center, sorting internal 2.5 SATA SSDs by cost, the least expensive drive today is an Inland Platinum 1TB SSD 3D TLC NAND SATA III 6Gb/s 2.5″ Internal Solid State Drive that is $49.99. This 1TB SATA SSD is only $5.00 more than the 1TB SATA HDD. This would be $5.00 that would be very much worth the extra cost!

How Cheap is Too Cheap? - Part 1

If you have an older system with a magnetic HDD for a boot drive, cloning that drive to a new SATA SSD (with the free disk cloning software that most storage vendors offer) is an easy way to make a huge improvement in overall performance. I have done this for many friends and relatives over the years.


This is the type of drive that you should prefer for a boot drive. They are usually M.2 2280 form factor drives that fit in an M.2 slot in your motherboard. M.2 drives are easy to install and you don’t have to use SATA data or power cables like you do with SATA drives.

These drives use the Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) interface and the Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) protocol which give them much better performance than older SATA AHCI drives.

Right now, you can buy PCIe 3.0, PCIe 4.0 and PCIe 5.0 NVMe SSDs. Which type you want (and whether your system can fully leverage it) depends on your CPU, chipset and motherboard and what M.2 slot you use. It is a good idea to consult your motherboard manual to get the details. I have a post that talks about PCIe 5.0 drives here:

Until recently, M.2 PCIe NVMe drives were considerably more expensive per GB than SATA AHCI drives. That is no longer the case, which might surprise you.

Looking at Micro Center, sorting M.2 PCIe NVMe SSDs by cost, the least expensive TLC NAND drive today is an Inland Premium 1TB SSD 3D NAND M.2 2280 PCIe NVMe 3.0 x4 Internal Solid State Drive that is $49.99. This M.2 1TB PCIe NVMe SSD is the same cost as the 2.5″ 1TB SATA SSD.

How Cheap is Too Cheap? - Part 1

A M.2 PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSD like this will give you much better random I/O performance and sequential I/O performance than a SATA SSD. You will probably notice the difference in some daily tasks, but it won’t be nearly as dramatic as the jump from a HDD to a SATA SSD was.

Loading large video or image files from disk to memory will be much faster. If you have more than one M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD in your system, copying or moving large files between them will be dramatically faster than with a SATA SSD. I happen to run SQL Server on many of my personal systems for testing and presentation purposes, so M.2 PCIe NVMe SSDs make a big difference to me.

Affiliate Links

NAND SSD prices have declined very rapidly over the past several months, so there are a lot of bargains available! These are some affiliate links from Amazon, in case you are not close to a Micro Center.

Final Words

If the cost difference between a 1TB SATA HDD, SATA SSD and a PCIe NVMe SSD is less than $10-$15, I can’t think of a good reason why you would not want an M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD for a boot drive in a new system. There really is no significant cost advantage from prefering a SATA HDD or SATA SSD, and you give up a lot of performance if you go that route.

Choosing a boot drive that is less than 1TB is also a mistake, since the actual cost reduction is neglible and your cost per GB is much higher. Adding insult to injury, smaller capacity PCIe NVMe SSDs from the same product line also have less performance, usually because they have fewer NAND cells.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments.

If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerryThanks for reading!

Categories PC Hardware, StorageTags

2 thoughts on “How Cheap is Too Cheap? – Part 1

  1. Have you tried the 3 of them?
    How can we tell if they are really worth the buy?

    1. I have not tested or benchmarked those exact three drives (but I might). The main point of my blog post is that you should not use a magnetic HDD for a boot drive and that you should prefer an M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD for a boot drive, especially since there is virtually no cost difference. The second point is that 1TB is the smallest size you should choose for a boot drive.

Please tell me what you think

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