This week we'll show you how to transform your PC or notebook with an SSD -- it’s easier than you might think.
Nothing you can do to your PC or notebook improves performance as much adding a solid state drive. Not adding a new CPU, graphics card or motherboard. An SSD drive swapped in for a mechanical drive just lights a rocket under your machine.
If you’ve never upgraded a PC component before now’s the time to do it. We’ve selected the best drives for different budgets and we'll show you how to physically carry out the upgrade with our step-by-step tutorials this week.
If you have a little spare time on your hands, do yourself a favour and upgrade to an SSD. You'll be amazed at the performance boost for your system.
Solid state drives – the big picture
It might seem like solid state drives were invented just a few years ago but they’re actually based on technology that's been around since the 1950s. Unfortunately for most PC users this technology was extremely expensive, limiting its performance benefits to supercomputers housed in banks and universities.
If you wanted to play with this superman-fast storage you had to be a student or a commercial programmer. Like any technology, over the years it evolved and became more affordable, finally filtering down to the business level – by 2007 many server farms were using SSD storage for the most demanding environments. With the explosion in popularity of devices based on flash memory, led by Apple’s iGadgets, memory prices began to tumble and suddenly it became possible to fill a 128GB drive with solid state memory yet still remain affordable. The age of the SSD was upon us.
The first consumer drives that didn’t require refinancing hit Australian shores back in late 2008, and Intel led the charge with the mighty X-25M. This was the SSD against which all other SSDs were measured, offering blistering performance along with rock solid reliability. It wasn’t long before a wave of challengers came after Intel’s SSD throne, but they were plagued with extremely high failure rates and strange performance issues, tarnishing the good SSD reputation that Intel had worked so diligently to build. It wasn’t until a small start-up firm by the name of SandForce released its own disk controller that Intel’s dominance was challenged.
2011 – SandForce reigns supreme
Three years later and the SSD scene has changed beyond recognition. In 2011 Intel was left to play catch-up, with SandForce now dominating the third generation of consumer SSDs that have recently hit store shelves. SandForce itself has been acquired by LSI Corporation, a Californian based semiconductor firm, for the sum of US$370 million. OCZ, one of the leading manufacturers of SandForce based drives, acquired Indilinx in March last year, finally giving the company the knowledge necessary to start building its own controllers. Strangely, all the OCZ drives we’ve seen recently are still based on SandForce technology, while Indilinx controllers can still be found in competing hard drives.
The biggest change in the last year has been the widespread adoption of 25nm NAND memory, thanks to the efforts of IMFT, or Intel-Micron Flash Technologies. This joint venture between Intel and Micron began back in 2006 and has been a leading supplier of SSD memory ever since. By moving to the new 25nm process down from last year’s 34nm process, makers can now squeeze twice the amount of memory into the same space. As a result we’ve seen SSD capacity continue to increase, with the 120GB to 240GB capacity now the sweet spot for most SSD buyers. Those with the cash now have even bigger options to choose from, such as the 480GB OCZ Vertex 3.
Asynchronous versus synchronous
With the move to this new type of memory, there were further differences to be found, with two major varieties of the new 25nm NAND flash. First is the more expensive synchronous flash memory, or ONFi 2.x, while the cheaper asynchronous version is referred to as ONFi 1.0. These are both standards created by the Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFi) group, a collection of more than 100 companies involved in the NAND flash business.
ONFI 2.x is able to move data on both the rising and falling edge of the signal wave and, similar to the way DDR-RAM offered double the data rate of SD-RAM, delivers much higher theoretical performance than ONFi 1.0, which can only use one edge of the signal wave. ONFi 2.x is capable of speeds up to 133MB/s, more than double the 50MB/s of the asynchronous ONFi 1.0. However, in the real world this does not mean that drives with synchronous memory are more than twice as fast as those with asynchronous memory, as the highly parallel method used by the disk controller to access several NAND flash chips in unison removes much of the difference. Yet in very specific tests, such as the 4K QD16 test in our SSD benchmark, the synchronous memory performs much faster, at around double the speed. This equates to better overall real-world performance for drives with synchronous memory, but this memory comes at a much higher price.
The other major change to the SSD market has been the widespread adoption of SATA 6Gb/s SSDs and again it’s largely thanks to the efforts of SandForce. It introduced the SF-2281 controller to the market and this wonder-chip is found in basically every SATA 6Gb/s drive available at the time of printing. With SATA 6Gb/s offering theoretical bandwidth of 6Gb/s, or 768MB/s, it’s great to see many of today’s better SSDs making the most of this connection during the transfer of large files (referred to as sequential performance). The fastest result we saw during our benchmarking was a whopping 511MB/s, almost twice the speed of the previous generation of SATA 2 drives. The launch of this controller wasn’t trouble-free though, with early versions suffering from serious BSOD problems.
Unfortunately the problem seemed to strike at random, regardless of firmware version, so blame bounced back and forth between SandForce, motherboard manufacturers and drive manufacturers. However, new firmware versions have been released that reportedly solve the problem; we didn’t suffer a single crash during any of our benchmarking.
Thanks to decreasing memory prices, the move to SATA 6Gb/s and the maturation of data protection technology, it’s never been a better time to finally upgrade to an SSD. Starting at less than $100 for a 60GB SATA 2 variant, all the way up to several thousand for the most demanding of users, there’s a massive range of options to suit every build imaginable. We'll highlight some of the best models this week, and show you the ins and outs of how to upgrade your PC or notebook to SSD.