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ASRock's Z97 Extreme6: Only Satisfied By Samsung's XP941

A 1400 MB/s SSD: ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 And Samsung's XP941
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If you're into storage like I'm into storage, ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 is something special. On one board, it exposes SATA, two-lane M.2 attached to the platform controller hub (at second-gen signaling rates), SATA Express, and four-lane M.2 wired straight into the CPU (at third-gen signaling rates).

Of course, compromises abound, mostly imposed by Intel's chipset. Using the Ultra M.2 slot means borrowing PCI Express connectivity from your graphics card, pulling it into x8 mode. That doesn't leave enough lanes for multi-card arrays. Then again, dropping drives onto Z97 can be tricky, too. The M.2 and SATA Express interfaces share ports with SATA, cutting you to four available 6 Gb/s interfaces if you utilize either interface. 

Will most of our readers need to worry about overpopulating the PCH? No. Do enthusiasts typically push more than 1600 MB/s of data through their mainstream motherboards? No. But if anyone needs to know about the limitations of Z97 Express, it's you, the Tom's Hardware reader.

Our First Four-Lane M.2 SSD

Samsung's XP941 SSD is nice, to start. It's not perfect; that'd take NVMe support. But Samsung isn't to blame for the ecosystem not being ready yet. NVMe won't make it into Intel's driver until the Rapid Storage Technology 3.7 release, slated for introduction at the end of 2014. For now, then, we have AHCI, which leeches away some of the goodness the XP941 could have otherwise enabled. You can still flog this thing and generate insane sequential transfer rates exceeding what two SATA 6Gb/s could do in RAID 0.

Still, the XP941 only makes sense in one special place: thin, light, and expensive laptops. In that application, it cannot be matched. Practically, though, you're going to have a hard time justifying the purchase. And that's assuming you can buy/use it at all. Samsung's XP941 shows up on Amazon from a couple of smaller vendors, marked up substantially. Because it's an OEM product lacking option ROM information, you'll also have a hard time using it as a boot drive on many platforms. Really, unless you're buying ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 for a desktop build, the XP941 is little more than a footnote at this point.

Although I do appreciate the technology exploration, the real revolution in storage is going to happen later, as NVMe rises to prominence and we get SATA Express-attached drives. As we get closer to Intel's Skylake introduction, two generations down the road, more emphasis will be placed on increasing SSD performance as platform controller hubs are equipped with PCIe 3.0 signaling. 

During the course of my testing with the Z97 Extreme6, I used a number of different M.2-based SSDs. ASRock's layout is clever in that its storage sockets lay horizontally between PCIe slots. In this way, installed drives never conflict with GPUs or RAID cards mechanically. The company's special Ultra M.2 interface is only useful if vendors create drives able to utilize it. Surely there is some interest in incredibly fast storage, and what is currently a feature on one board from one manufacturer could balloon into something of a cult hit. Remember, X99 is coming soon, and Haswell-E is going to have PCIe connectivity to spare. Might we see Ultra M.2 resurface on an ASRock board?

Hopefully. PCIe-based SSDs have been around for years. And although they first surfaced as inelegant SATA-based devices attached to HBAs, we're now looking at very small solutions natively designed to communicate across the PCI Express bus. The obscene price premiums that previously kept PCIe storage out of enthusiast desktops is diminished. And to match the XP941's performance, you'd need much more expensive enterprise-oriented drives. 

That's why it's worth considering an M.2 PCIe SSD for your next storage upgrade. ASRock gets credit for innovating on its Z97 Extreme6, embracing the one product out there able to exploit a four-lane link and building a board that takes four lanes from the CPU to enable screaming sequential throughput, without tripping over the DMI's limited bandwidth. It's just too bad that the ecosystem and market are so far apart on the concept right now. It'll be much easier to make the case once NVMe (as an interface), SATA Express, and M.2 (as form factors) gain some traction early in 2015. By then, we'll hopefully be seeing more motherboards able to exploit the capabilities of super-speed SSDs.

Display all 20 comments.
  • -7 Hide
    aminebouhafs , June 5, 2014 5:16 AM
    Once an SSD in plugged into the Ultra M.2 slot, the bandwidth between central processing unit and graphics processing unit is cut-down by half. Therefore, while the end-user gets additional SSD performance, the end-user may lose some GPU performance because of insufficient bandwidth between it and the CPU.
  • 8 Hide
    JoeArchitect , June 5, 2014 7:18 AM
    Very interesting article and a great read. Thanks, Chris - I hope to see more like this soon!
  • 0 Hide
    wussupi83 , June 5, 2014 8:21 AM
    great article! - although z97 still seems boring
  • -1 Hide
    Eggz , June 5, 2014 9:54 AM
    This makes me excited for X99! With 40 (or more) lanes, of PCI-e (probably more), there will be no need to compromise. We have to remember that the Z97 Chipset is a consumer-grade product, so there almost has to be tradoffs in order to justify stepping up to a high-end platform.

    That said, I feel like X99, NVMe, and and M.2 products will coincide nicely with their respective releases dates. Another interesting piece to the puzzle will be DDR4. Will the new storage technology and next-generation CPUs utilize it's speed, or like DD3, will it take several generations for other technologies to catch up to RAM speeds? This is quite an interesting time :) 
  • 5 Hide
    Amdlova , June 5, 2014 9:56 AM
    Chris test the asrock z97 itx... and another thing... my last 3 motherboard from asrock and i want to say Asrock Rock's!
  • 0 Hide
    Damn_Rookie , June 5, 2014 11:27 AM
    While storage isn't the most important area of computer hardware for me, I always enjoy reading Christopher's articles. Very well written, detail orientated, and above all else, interesting. Thanks!
  • 0 Hide
    hotwire_downunder , June 5, 2014 8:58 PM
    ASRock has come along way, I used them a long time back with disappointing results, but I have started to use them again and have not been disappointed this time around.

    Way to turn things around ASRock! Cheap as chips and rock steady!
  • 0 Hide
    alidan , June 5, 2014 10:51 PM
    @aminebouhafs if i remember right, didn't toms show how much performance loss there is when you tape gpu cards to emulate having half or even a quarter of the bandwidth? if i remember right back than the difference was only about 12% from 16 lanes down to either 4 or 8
  • 1 Hide
    Eggz , June 6, 2014 7:39 AM
    Quote:
    @aminebouhafs if i remember right, didn't toms show how much performance loss there is when you tape gpu cards to emulate having half or even a quarter of the bandwidth? if i remember right back than the difference was only about 12% from 16 lanes down to either 4 or 8


    PCI-e 3.0 x8 has enough bandwidth for any single card. The only downside to using PCI-e lanes on the SSD applies only to people who want to use multiple GPUs.

    Still, though, this is just the mid-range platform anyway. People looking for lots of expansion end up buying the X chipsets rather than the Z chipsets because of the greater expandability. I feel like the complaint is really misplaced for Z chipsets, since they only have 16 PCI-e lanes to begin with.
  • 2 Hide
    cryan , June 8, 2014 5:22 AM
    Quote:
    Once an SSD in plugged into the Ultra M.2 slot, the bandwidth between central processing unit and graphics processing unit is cut-down by half. Therefore, while the end-user gets additional SSD performance, the end-user may lose some GPU performance because of insufficient bandwidth between it and the CPU.


    Well, it'll definitely negate some GPU configurations, same as any PCIe add-in over the CPU's lanes. With so few lanes to work with on Intel's mainstream platforms, butting heads is inevitable.

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan


  • 3 Hide
    cryan , June 8, 2014 5:23 AM
    Quote:
    While storage isn't the most important area of computer hardware for me, I always enjoy reading Christopher's articles. Very well written, detail orientated, and above all else, interesting. Thanks!


    Awww, shucks!

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan
  • -1 Hide
    obamaliar , June 8, 2014 12:08 PM
    Supercool review, Just as a note though any pair of good SATA Based SSD's will blow the doors off of that x941. For example I am getting 740.00MB/s bandwidth at steady 5 and 948.37MB/s at recovery 5 for PCM8 extended photoshop heavy from a pair of Intel 730's
  • -1 Hide
    obamaliar , June 8, 2014 12:10 PM
    Supercool review, Just as a note though any pair of good SATA Based SSD's will blow the doors off of that x941. For example I am getting 740.00MB/s bandwidth at steady 5 and 948.37MB/s at recovery 5 for PCM8 extended photoshop heavy from a pair of Intel 730's
  • 1 Hide
    Evolution2001 , June 8, 2014 8:08 PM
    obamaliar, how do you reckon that your 740MBps or 948MBps is faster than 1400MBps? (referencing the sequential read of the tested drive)
    SATA3 has a theoretical max of 6Gbps (750MBps). However, the practical max is more around 600MBps.
    Assuming you are running your Intel 730's in RAID-0 and achieving the max practical throughput, you'd still only come up with ~1200MBps which is slower than what Tom's saw at 1400MBps ON A SINGLE DRIVE.
  • -1 Hide
    obamaliar , June 9, 2014 8:55 AM
    Quote:
    obamaliar, how do you reckon that your 740MBps or 948MBps is faster than 1400MBps? (referencing the sequential read of the tested drive)
    SATA3 has a theoretical max of 6Gbps (750MBps). However, the practical max is more around 600MBps.
    Assuming you are running your Intel 730's in RAID-0 and achieving the max practical throughput, you'd still only come up with ~1200MBps which is slower than what Tom's saw at 1400MBps ON A SINGLE DRIVE.

    Quote:
    obamaliar, how do you reckon that your 740MBps or 948MBps is faster than 1400MBps? (referencing the sequential read of the tested drive)
    SATA3 has a theoretical max of 6Gbps (750MBps). However, the practical max is more around 600MBps.
    Assuming you are running your Intel 730's in RAID-0 and achieving the max practical throughput, you'd still only come up with ~1200MBps which is slower than what Tom's saw at 1400MBps ON A SINGLE DRIVE.
    Evolution 2001, I am referring to OS simulated performance IE CRYAN's PCMark 8 extended testing. Please read the article and you would understand that sequential performance is really a non-factor in comparison to random performance in an OS environment. Right now, SATA RAID has vastly superior random performance to PCIe drives like the X941, even if you were to soft RAID a pair of X941's together they cannot match a pair of good SATA SSD's in RAID in an OS environment. I cannot show you that exactly because Soft RAID is not bootable. look here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1445011539065390/ there ia a pair of X941's soft raided getting their asses kicked by SATA RAID. The reason? 4K writes do not scale on PCIe drives. When PCIe drives can be RAIDed, bootable in RAID and have an RST type driver that allows for write caching Then they will become the superior OS disk.
  • 2 Hide
    cryan , June 10, 2014 11:57 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    obamaliar, how do you reckon that your 740MBps or 948MBps is faster than 1400MBps? (referencing the sequential read of the tested drive)
    SATA3 has a theoretical max of 6Gbps (750MBps). However, the practical max is more around 600MBps.
    Assuming you are running your Intel 730's in RAID-0 and achieving the max practical throughput, you'd still only come up with ~1200MBps which is slower than what Tom's saw at 1400MBps ON A SINGLE DRIVE.

    Quote:
    obamaliar, how do you reckon that your 740MBps or 948MBps is faster than 1400MBps? (referencing the sequential read of the tested drive)
    SATA3 has a theoretical max of 6Gbps (750MBps). However, the practical max is more around 600MBps.
    Assuming you are running your Intel 730's in RAID-0 and achieving the max practical throughput, you'd still only come up with ~1200MBps which is slower than what Tom's saw at 1400MBps ON A SINGLE DRIVE.
    Evolution 2001, I am referring to OS simulated performance IE CRYAN's PCMark 8 extended testing. Please read the article and you would understand that sequential performance is really a non-factor in comparison to random performance in an OS environment. Right now, SATA RAID has vastly superior random performance to PCIe drives like the X941, even if you were to soft RAID a pair of X941's together they cannot match a pair of good SATA SSD's in RAID in an OS environment. I cannot show you that exactly because Soft RAID is not bootable. look here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1445011539065390/ there ia a pair of X941's soft raided getting their asses kicked by SATA RAID. The reason? 4K writes do not scale on PCIe drives. When PCIe drives can be RAIDed, bootable in RAID and have an RST type driver that allows for write caching Then they will become the superior OS disk.


    Actually, the 4 KB writes are really an artifact of the AHCI controller/API. If you took the same flash and controller on the Sammy, but rigged it to use NVMe, I think you'd see a big bump in random 4 KB performance. I've said over and over that desktop users, for now, are better off by using a couple SATA drives in RAID. More than just adding bandwidth, which isn't always important (strictly speaking), it lowers service times significantly. Plus, it's great to just keep adding cheap drives and getting more performance and capacity (when striped). See the Plextor M6e PCIe review for my thoughts on this.

    It's all academic anyway, since you can only buy the XP941 from a few random places, and it's $750. If I had a laptop which could use it, maybe I go that route, but even there SATA is just more power efficient. Give me a 1 TB EVO or M550 instead..... at least for the time being.

    PS: Is this Jon C??

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan
  • 0 Hide
    obamaliar , June 10, 2014 1:24 PM
    Thanks for the reply love your stuff C Ryan :) 
  • 1 Hide
    Eggz , June 10, 2014 3:42 PM
    Quote:
    Give me [either a 750 GB] or a 1 TB EVO or M550 instead..... at least for the time being.


    Totally agree! For now.

    I also added the 750 EVO in there because (I believe) the only difference between the 1TB and the 750GB is capacity, unlike the smaller drives, which actually have less performance (i.e. 120, 250, & 500 GB).
  • 0 Hide
    logainofhades , June 27, 2014 11:59 AM
    I would rather use a single powerful GPU anyway, so the cut to 8x due to the ultra M.2 slot doesn't bother me at all. This is definitely and interesting board. I want an Ultra M.2 slot on a mini-itx board. :D 
  • 0 Hide
    lukebutters , July 15, 2014 7:32 PM
    If the RAID controller is set up with 4 disks in RAID 10, will the DMI limit be reached?
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