An SSD drive will transform your PC into a speed demon, but the technology has only just become reliable after a bumpy start last year. Bennett Ring tests and picks the top drives.
In late 2009 APC took an extended look at SSDs, drives which have the ability to turn a plodding PC into a multi-tasking speed demon. During that roundup it became clear who was leading and who needed to play catch-up. How things have changed. Since then we’ve seen several new players enter the market and the segment has been turned on its head. New technologies have been implemented in SSD drives, leaders become the losers and some budget brands have taken the lead.
Some of the big changes include:
THE WIDESPREAD ADOPTION OF TRIM
SSD drives suffer a performance decrease over time due to the way each drive erases and writes to blocks of memory. Thankfully there’s a solution called TRIM. It’s native to Windows 7, but in late 2009 not every drive supported it. This is no longer the case — every drive we tested here now supports TRIM, ensuring that performance remains optimal over time.
THE ARRIVAL OF SANDFORCE
One company has shaken up the SSD industry like no other. Its name is SandForce
, and its controllers are the hottest chips on the SSD scene. Established in 2007, it’s only the last few months that its controllers have started to see widespread adoption. One of the company’s mantras is to deliver extreme performance from cheaper Multi Level Cell (MLC) memory, where in the past the more expensive Single Level Cell (SLC) drives were seen as the fastest. And it succeeded. As our benchmarks show, those drives outfitted with SandForce controllers deliver phenomenal speeds. Indilinx was one of the major players late last year, and its Barefoot controllers are still proving to be popular. Intel has seen its performance lead eroded by the newer controllers, and is now starting to target the value segment instead. Toshiba, a company that was absent from the last roundup, has also started to make its mark on the scene, but not to the same extent as SandForce.
PERFORMANCE HAS SOARED
When we last tested SSD drives, many focused on sequential data transfers — that is, filling up extremely large sections of the drive at a single time, such as copying over tens of gigabytes of data. That’s great for storing and retrieving large files, but it’s no good when you’re running an operating system or application off a drive. In these circumstances, it’s far more important to have better read and write performance of smaller file sizes, as well as higher I/O operations per second. And it’s in this scenario that most SSDs are used. It seems that SSD manufacturers have figured this out, as performance in this regard has soared through the roof.
One thing that we can’t test is how long these drives last — we simply don’t have the ability to bend the space time continuum to perform the necessary tests. We asked several manufacturers what the failure rate on their drives were, and none of them replied with any hard percentages or statistics. Rumours abound that certain drives have suffered shocking failure rates of up to 20% and 30%, an extremely worrying - if unprovable - figure. However, anecdotally we can say that we’ve noticed an abnormally high failure rate on the last generation of drives - but not the latest generation tested in this roundup. Several of the APC team have had SSDs from the last gen fail on them, and the author has personally seen two fail in the past six months. As a result we strongly recommend frequent backups, and to take special note of the warranty for your chosen drive. Many of the new controllers claim to have focused on reliability, so hopefully the failure rates of the past remain firmly in the past.
[Please note, all prices below in Australian dollars]
A-RAM PRO Series 256G A-RAM
is a Hong Kong-based company with a focus on delivering affordable SSDs. At a mere $3.12 per gigabyte it’s safe to say it’s delivered on this goal. Its Indilinx Barefoot controller is a popular choice, being one of the most common SSD controllers on the market. This helps contribute to the lower overall price of the drive. The Barefoot has been around for a while though, and — despite firmware updates — seems to be stuck with the thinking that sequential read/writes were the be all and end all. It uses the cheaper MLC chips, and requires the use of a jumper for flashing. There’s no 2.5in to 3.5in mount included in — in fact, there’s nothing in the pack except the drive and jumper. It has a meagre two-year warranty — slightly worrying considering it’s the shortest in the roundup. Considering the budget price point, we weren’t expecting stratospheric performance. HD Tach showed strong sequential performance, with the A-RAM placing fourth overall. CrystalMark and AS SSD backed up these numbers with excellent sequential performance. But sequential performance isn’t really that important — we’re more concerned with the drive being able to handle lots of I/Os per second and fast read/writes of small files. And it’s here that the drive shows its budget focus, with a 400% slower 4k write time than the leaders of the pack. Pros
: Cheapest per gigabyte; strong sequential performance.
: Slow at small read/writes; poor warranty.
Corsair Nova Series 256GB
In our last SSD roundup, Corsair
’s X128 proved to be our pick of the bunch. Unfortunately the same X128 sample died just a week ago, luckily we’ve got this new Corsair instead. Doubling the capacity of the X128, the 256GB Nova is well priced at just $3.62 per gigabyte, the second cheapest in the roundup. Like the other cheapie, it too uses the Indilinx Barefoot controller — great at sequential performance, not so stellar when it comes to tiny tasks. Corsair helpfully includes a 3.5in bay mount, while the two-year warranty is scarily identical to the other Indilinx-powered drive, the A-RAM. Considering the last Corsair we tested blew our performance socks off, we had high hopes for this drive. But it wasn’t to be, with the Nova delivering middling performance. It performed admirably in HD Tach and the longer sequential read/write tests, but throw anything involving 4k files at it and it doesn’t know what to do, coming dead last in our CrystalMark 4k write test. Iometer showed that it could only handle 2,070 I/Os per second, a long way from the 5,927 I/Os per second of our roundup leader. How things have changed, with Corsair going from the top of our last roundup to one of the least desirable in today’s. Like the A-RAM, it’s still a massive improvement on a mechanical drive, but it can’t compete with the new SandForce powered beasts. It just goes to show how long six months in the SSD world is. Pros
: Great price. Cons
: Poor warranty; lacklustre performance.
Intel X25-M (80GB)
Rewind one year, and Intel
drives didn’t just hold the performance crown — its dominance was so complete that it owned the entire performance empire. Nothing could come close to Intel SSDs, especially when it came to the itty bitty files that determine how responsive your PC feels while the OS is writing to the hard drive. So what has Intel done over the past year to maintain that lead? Apparently not much. Before we look at the disappointing performance figures, let’s look at that price. Ouch. $7.49 per GB, making this by far the most expensive drive in the roundup. Thankfully the three-year warranty goes some way to justifying this. . . until we see the same warranties on much cheaper drives. Then we see the disappointing benchmark results. Where Intel was once several lengths ahead, it now finds itself stuck in the middle. While the HD Tach results were exceptional, everything else was dismal. It came in at just over half the speed of the best drives in Iometer, and was one of the worst in CrystalMark’s. However, it did redeem itself in the 4k tests, outshining the drives that used older controllers. For the price though, we expected much more. If Intel is to continue to be the most expensive when it comes to SSD storage, it needs the performance numbers to back it up. Pros: Anecdotally, the brand is more reliable than other SSDs. Cons: Very expensive; disappointing performance.Pros
: Anecdotally, the brand is more reliable than other SSDs.Cons
: Very expensive; disappointing performance.
Intel X25-V (40GB)
The V stands for value, and at first glance the price suggests the same. For only $275 you can shift your OS to an SSD, an Intel one no less. Now that’s a bargain. . . or is it? Looking at the $6.88 per gigabyte, this is the second-most-expensive drive in the roundup. Not quite the value offering suggested. Having said that, overall it is the cheapest, and you can squeeze an operating system onto it. However, at only 40GB, you’ll soon find that no matter how careful you are, you’re going to have a full drive. Trust us — we’ve been there. It’ll start with your virus scanner (“I need to check my files quickly”), then iTunes (“After all, I do sync my phone every few hours”), and before you know it your drive is showing up as a glowing red bar in My Computer. You might be more disciplined than us — and get away with a mere 40GB. In which case this drive’s disappointing performance is bound to be a letdown. Sure, it’s better than the Indilinx-controlled drives, but it’s left eating SandForce’s dust. In many of our tests, the X25-V came dead last. Oh how the mighty have fallen. If there is a reason to go with the Intel drives, it’s that we’ve heard of fewer failures with the brand than the others. But with the new SandForce drives also claiming amazing reliability, Intel needs to go back to the drawing board sooner rather than later. Pros
: Lowest overall price.Cons
: High price per GB; average-to-low performance.
Kingston SSDNow V+ Series 64GBKingston
pitches this drive as part of an SSD upgrade kit, and it has done a great job of doing so, including every accessory you could possibly need. The usual 3.5in adaptor is included, along with an external case that can convert this drive into a portable USB drive. A SATA cable is also packed in, but most impressive is disk-mirroring software. This allows you to mirror your existing mechanical drive’s content onto the new SSD. Having said that, we tried to use the software and encountered a bunch of errors with the new install, and further examination suggests that cloning to an SSD is a bad idea. With such an excellent starter kit, it’s a pity that the drive itself isn’t that exciting. While it’s aimed at the value segment, the price per GB is a hefty $5.30. The three-year warranty is reassuring, but still behind the five years offered by Patriot’s SandForce behemoth. A Toshiba controller is used within this drive, making this the first Toshiba-powered drive we’ve tested. Sequential performance in CrystalMark was fantastic, leading the charts, but the rest of the story isn’t so rosey. In most tests the Kingston drive was in the tail end of the performance — very surprising considering it’s in the high end of the pricing regime. While we admire the overall package, the fact remains that the drive itself is overpriced yet under-delivers. Pros
: Excellent accessory bundle. Cons
: High price; lack lustre performance.
OCZ Vertex Limited Edition (100GB)OCZ Technology
took a big gamble when it signed up with SandForce. At the time, SandForce’s controllers were unproven. It turned out to be a smart punt though, with SandForce delivering spectacularly. The controller in this drive is a version of the SF-1500 used in Enterprise drives, and boy does it deliver. It’s so special that OCZ only made an extremely limited number, making them rarer than hens’ teeth. The three-year warranty is healthy, while the price per GB is only $4.99, putting it squarely in the middle of the bunch. The same can’t be said of its performance, with this drive performing very well, provided we look at the tests that we value most. Where the older controllers focus on sequential transfers at the cost of small writes, this drive seems focused on the opposite. It doesn’t do amazingly well when we look at HD Tach or the sequential results in CrystalMark or AS SSD, but it’s in the highest rungs of the performance ladder when we examine the smaller file transfers. At 4k this drive is a speed demon, second only to the other SandForce drive, and leading the other drives by a large margin. This makes it perfect as a drive for your OS, although it’s not quite so good for a video or image editing storage drive, where longer file transfers are more important. Considering the excellent price point and solid warranty, this drive is hard to ignore. Highly recommended. Pros
: Excellent small file and I/O performance. Cons
: Not so great at sequential files.
Patriot Inferno - 200GB
We’ll be honest with you — the APC team has personally had two of the older-generation Patriot drives fail on us. If this new Patriot drive hadn’t performed so spectacularly, we wouldn’t have given it a second look. But it blew the opposition away, leaving us with no choice but to rethink our position on Patriot
. At its heart lies the new SandForce SF-1222 controller, which shares many similarities to the OCZ drive’s controller. However, this drive has a newer firmware, and the results are amazing. Before we get to that, we should point out that this drive’s five-year warranty is unheard of in consumer SSDs, going a long way to restoring our faith in Patriot’s reliability. It’s also affordable, at $4.50 per GB. Where most drives tend to be good at either sequential transfers or small file transfers (but never both), the Inferno is adept at whatever duty it’s undertaking. It’s not quite the best at sequential transfers, but it’s also not totally inept. And the slight performance drop with larger files is offset totally by the number of benchmarks it won — easily scooping more performance metrics than any other drive. We’re left very impressed by this drive, despite our earlier misgivings based on our prior experience with Patriot. Given that this drive uses a totally different controller than our two dead drives, we’re willing to give Patriot another shot. Pros
: Fantastic performance; long warranty; great price per GB. Cons
: Past experience with the brand’s reliability is worrying.
WD SiliconEdge - Blue 128GB
We tried very hard to find out which controller this SiliconEdge Blue used — after checking with the local Western Digital
public relations guy, we discovered that Western Digital’s official line is that it does not reveal the manufacturer of the components used within its SSDs. It’s a pity, as it would give us a better idea of why this drive performed the way it did. As with most Western Digital products, pricing is at a premium for the SiliconEdge, costing a whopping $6.88 per GB. A three year warranty is pretty stock standard thest days, better than the meagre two years of certain drives but still well short of Patriot’s five-year whopper. When we first looked at this drive a few months ago, we gave it a good rating. . . but that was well before we’d seen the new SandForce drives that have clearly cleaned up in this roundup. Since then, as our benchmarks show, this drive sits smack bang in the middle of the performance charts. It’s taken a balanced approach, offering solid performance in both sequential transfers and the smaller I/O operations required by applications. As such, it’s not really noteworthy in any regard, other than its high price point and mystery controller. A solid brand, with solid performance. Very expensive; doesn’t shine in any area.Pros
: A solid brand, with solid performance.Cons
: Very expensive; doesn’t shine in any area.
HOW WE TESTED
Testing SSDs is still a relatively new art, and a difficult one at that.
Due to the way these drives degrade over time — and as some drives are
better at specific tests than others — we had to be very careful in our
benchmarks. Read on to see how our SSD testing environment has evolved
since the last roundup. To ensure our testbench wasn’t the limiting
factor, it was loaded with high-end components:
- Intel i7-870
- Sapphire Vapor-X ATI Radeon 5870 video card
HyperX DDR3 1,600MHz
- 300GB WD VelociRaptor
- Windows 7
Within the BIOS our SATA controller was set
to AHCI mode. All drives were tested with the default firmware — with
new versions released every other day, it’s simply impossible to keep
them up to date, and using the default firmware should provide good
insight into the manufacturer’s grasp of SSDs. As explained in our last
SSD roundup, these drives have a tendency to slow down as they’re filled
with data due to the way they write. Take an SSD out of the shrink wrap
and it’ll be blazing fast; six months later the same drive could slow
down to mechanical drive speeds, or worse. To replicate this phenomenon,
we filled each drive with junk data before testing, and then deleted it
all. We then fired up a handy little app created by the folks at OCZ
called ForceTRIM, which forces Windows 7’s TRIM function to clean up the
drive. Only after this laborious task could the fun benchmarking begin.
From there we used a new benchmark that has been doing the SSD rounds
called AS SSD, created by Alex Intelligent Software, with the sole
purpose of synthetically testing SSDs in a manner that replicates
real-world use. We also used our favourite disk test, CrystalDiskMark 3,
to confirm these results, as both tests focus on the same areas of
performance. Then it was time to dust off our old Iometer from Intel,
using the same boot profile that we used in the last SSD roundup, built
to deliver a rough approximation of performance in a Windows install.
PCMark Vantage is a favourite when it comes to putting hardware through
the wringer, and has its very own dedicated HD section to test a variety
of different usage scenarios. However, after testing several drives
using this, we noticed extremely strange discrepancies. Simply rerunning
the test on the same drive in the same testbench saw results
fluctuating by as much as 100%. As a result we’ve removed this from our
SSD tests until we can resolve the issues.
The final weapon in our
benchmarking arsenal was HD Tach. Sure, it’s old and simple, but some
folks still swear by its accuracy. Testing an SSD using a single
synthetic benchmark is guaranteed to return some, shall we say,
interesting results. However, we’re comfortable that our combination of
four different tests combine to provide the best possible indication of