The first PCIe Gen 5 drives are here and fast, but do you have a need for speed?

The first PCIe Gen 5 solid state drives (SSDs) are starting to hit the market with big promises of speed boosts. I’ve been testing Crucial’s T700 PCIe Gen 5.0 NVMe solid state drive over the past few weeks alongside Seagate’s latest FireCuda 540 in an effort to discover if this latest generation of storage will change PC gaming or how it could improve workflows for those who work with large files daily.

PCIe Gen 5 NVMe SSDs are at the very early stages of life, with Crucial and Seagate part of a handful of manufacturers to actually sell this storage in stores right now. PCIe Gen 5 is expected to deliver theoretical read speeds of 14,000MBps for NVMe SSDs, compared to the theoretical maximum of 8,000MBps on PCIe Gen 4 drives. That’s a 75 percent bump in speed, but it comes at an upgrade cost.

You’ll need a motherboard that supports PCIe Gen 5 and, naturally, the corresponding CPU, both of which are at the pricey end of the PC building market right now. You’re also looking at $179.99 for a 1TB Crucial T700 model (without a heatsink) all the way up to $629.99 for a 4TB model with a heatsink. Likewise, Seagate’s FireCuda 540 is available at $189.99 for a 1TB model or $319.99 for a 2TB version. Considering you can easily get a 1TB Samsung 980 Pro, a well-reviewed Gen 4 drive that’s a few years old, for $79.99, that’s a big price premium. So, is it worth it?

I tested Crucial’s 2TB T700 and Seagate’s 2GB FireCuda 540 against a 1TB Samsung 980 Pro. You might be thinking, why not a 2TB 980 Pro? There can be variations between read and write speeds of 1TB and 2TB models, but the 2TB version of the Samsung 980 Pro only bumps sequential write speeds up to 5,100MBps, compared to the 5,000MBps found on the 1TB model, effectively a wash.

Impressive speeds from Crucial’s T700.

Crucial’s 2TB T700 is supposed to deliver read speeds of 12,400MBps and write speeds of up to 11,800MBps. In testing with CrystalDiskMark 8, I came incredibly close to hitting the maximum sequential write speeds, at 11,789MBps, 99.9 percent of the advertised speed. Even sequential read speeds weren’t that far off at 12,251MBps (98.8 percent of advertised).

Seagate’s 2TB FireCuda 540 is rated at 10,000MBps for both sequential read and write speeds. In testing, I saw just over 10,000MBps for both. Not quite as fast as Crucial’s T700, but sequential read and write speeds aren’t everything.

Speeds from Seagate’s FireCuda 540.

Compared to the older 980 Pro, both Crucial’s T700 and Seagate’s FireCuda 540 deliver some incredibly impressive sequential read and write speeds that will be ideal for working with larger files. But for ordinary tasks like loading a game, opening documents, or launching apps, we need to look at the random read and write performance. This is far less impressive on the T700 and FireCuda 540 compared to the older 980 Pro.

I saw this play out clearly in game loading times, where it was difficult to spot an improvement with the Gen 5 drives. Loading up Gears 5 was the most noticeable, but in games like Returnal, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Cyberpunk 2077, the results were practically identical.

This latest PCIe 5.0 storage arrives just as Microsoft, Nvidia, and others are trying to push developers to take advantage of SSDs more in PC gaming. We’re finally at the point where it looks like SSDs will become the new minimum spec for modern PC games, with Starfield requiring SSD storage and CD Projekt Red now requiring an SSD for the minimum specs of Cyberpunk 2077, with plans to phase out spinning hard disk (HDD) support.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has also just arrived on PC with the impressive level load times we’ve seen on the PS5. The game can run on an HDD at minimum specs and at a much lower resolution than 4K, but it’s really designed for an SSD and will work far better in a PC that’s equipped with one.

There’s also DirectStorage on the horizon. Microsoft has been pushing the ability to stream big amounts of data from NVMe solid state drives directly to a GPU without having to use a CPU to decompress it. This should speed up load times in games that are designed this way, but unfortunately, we haven’t seen enough examples yet. Forspoken was one of the first games to support DirectStorage and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is the latest, but it’ll probably be years until developers really get to grips with designing games specifically for high-speed SSD storage and DirectStorage.

The random read / write speeds from Samsung’s 980 Pro aren’t far behind Gen 5 drives.

That leaves PCIe 5.0 drives in a weird spot right now for PC gaming. Yes, they’re far faster at sequential read and write, but the more important random read and write performance isn’t a big enough improvement for PC games right now.

If you’re working with big video files or duplicating, copying, or writing big amounts of data, then this sequential read and write performance is important. I saw noticeable speed improvements using 50GB files on the latest Gen 5 drives.

As you can see from most tests, the Crucial T700 just edges past the Seagate FireCuda 540 thanks to its better sequential read and write speeds. The Samsung 980 Pro 1TB scored 2505 on 3DMark’s storage benchmark, with the 2TB Crucial T700 hitting 4262 and Seagate’s FireCuda 540 reaching 4121.

Thermals are also a concern with Gen 5 drives, as they can generate even more heat than we’ve seen with Gen 4 drives. I tested both the T700 and FireCuda 540 without any built-in heatsinks, relying on my motherboard’s heatsink and cooling solution. MSI has a rather solid PCIe 5.0 enclosure for its single slot on the MEG X670E ACE, which seemed to do a good job of cooling both drives and avoiding the thermal throttling you’d see if you didn’t use an adequate heatsink. The T700 hit 60 degrees Celsius max during a workload, while the FireCuda 540 reached 64 degrees Celsius.

If you’re a PC gamer looking to upgrade to PCIe 5.0 drives, I’d say save your cash right now and grab a more affordable PCIe 4.0 drive. If you use a PC for a combination of gaming and professional tasks, then it might be worth looking at PCIe 5.0, but really, it’s only content creators and professionals that should even be considering these drives right now.

And just as we’re looking at consumer-level SSDs that make use of PCIe 5.0, the next generation (you guessed it, 6.0) is around the corner. It took almost 10 years to go from PCIe 3.0 to 4.0, but the gap from 5.0 to 6.0 looks like it’ll be more like two years. The PCIe 6.0 specification was finalized last year, and we’re now waiting on Intel and AMD processors and motherboards that are capable of supporting theoretical read speeds of 28,000MBps for NVMe SSDs of the future. That’s not likely to happen until at least 2024, so if you’re set on a speed bump to Gen 5, then upgrades are available right now.

Photography by Tom Warren / The Verge