Rounding out our series of articles taking a look back at 2018, the past year has been one of the most exciting years in the SSD space since the drives started to go mainstream. Competition is up and prices are down. Existing technologies like 3D NAND and NVMe are now delivering their full potential, and new technologies like QLC NAND are off to a good start.
3D NAND Hits Its Stride At 64 Layers
2018 was the first full year where all the major NAND flash manufacturers were in volume production of 64-layer or higher 3D NAND. 64-layer 3D TLC from the Intel/Micron and Toshiba/SanDisk/Western Digital partnerships proved to be very competitive with Samsung’s own 64-layer NAND, putting the largest suppliers on an even playing field for the first time in years.
Intel and Micron were the second to deliver 3D NAND overall after Samsung, but their initial 32-layer generation was decidedly slow and was clearly not ready to challenge Samsung’s V-NAND head-on, even though it was good enough to warrant mass production. Whereas their second generation did far more than just double the layer count: performance and power efficiency are significantly improved.
Meanwhile Toshiba and Western Digital/SanDisk samsung memory 16gb never shipped a product using their first-generation 3D NAND, and only shipped a single niche product with their second generation, but their 64-layer third generation BiCS 3D NAND was ready for prime time. SK Hynix has been trying to run ahead of the rest of the market in layer count (currently at 72), but this hasn’t been enough and their NAND is seeing little use in SSDs aside from their own models. (SK Hynix 3D NAND has been easier to find in memory cards, USB storage, and smartphones.)
With good yields and strong competition, NAND flash memory prices began to tumble in 2018. And they are expected to continue dropping in early 2019, even with plans from the manufacturers to slow or halt production capacity expansions. All of the current turnkey drive designs from the SSD controller vendors are based around 3D NAND and the transition away from planar NAND flash is now complete for every brand and product segment.
SSD prices in general have been dropping faster than at any time in the past several years, and all of the price increases caused by shortages during the transition to 3D NAND have been erased. Entry-level DRAMless SATA SSDs are now down to just $20 for a 120GB drive, and 1TB drives are starting to reach $100. Mainstream SATA drives from top brands are only 30-40% more expensive, which means they’ll likely also reach 10¢/GB in 2019. These lower prices mean we are also starting to see many more options for 2TB consumer SSDs, even before the widespread introduction of QLC NAND. So far, Samsung is still the only one trying to sell 4TB SSDs into the consumer market, but this is likely to change in 2019.