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Upgrade Advice: Does Your Fast SSD Really Need SATA 6Gb/s?

Upgrade Advice: Does Your Fast SSD Really Need SATA 6Gb/s?
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Are you mulling the potential benefit of an SSD upgrade on a system without 6 Gb/s SATA connectivity? We run the benchmarks on several different solid-state storage architectures in order to determine how much performance you give up on an older machine.

When it comes to high-end PC hardware, pushing the performance bar higher is always a matter of stomping out bottlenecks. We still remember all the way back to 2008 when Intel announced to the press at its Developer Forum that the next generation of processors would be so fast as to outpace modern hard drives. The company told us that, without something faster than conventional disks, our benchmark numbers would be artificially hampered. Crazy, right? And then it handed over its first-generation X25-Ms.

At the time, the magic of an SSD wasn't necessarily that it could shoot dizzying amounts of data through your SATA ports (although they could, in fact, do that). Rather, solid-state technology dazzled with its ability to respond to storage requirements with near-instantaneous speed. Response time doesn't demand a fat pipe, so even folks on older platforms stood (and still stand) to enjoy the benefits of flash-based storage.

As SSDs have evolved, though, they've become much faster. Now they're able to almost fully saturate any SATA port you plug them into, and that's in addition to still serving up those lightning-quick response times.

And so, the question we're left with is: do you need a platform capable of accommodating 6 Gb/s transfer rates in order to enjoy what modern storage enables? If you're on an older machine, can a new hard drives or SSD still alter your system's performance? That's what we're here to explore. 

When we benchmark, we take every possible step to alleviate potential bottlenecks, and that always means using 6 Gb/s-capable SATA ports. That's precisely why the above question goes unanswered, though. We're stepping our usual methodology back a notch to better represent the real-world conundrum that many folks find themselves in when it comes time to upgrade and there's not enough cash around for a complete overhaul.

SSDs From Intel, Crucial, Samsung, And SandForce's Partners

Although there are a great many vendors selling SSDs, and a great many models in each of those vendors' portfolios, the number of unique combinations of controller, NAND flash, and firmware are more limited than you might think. 

As a result, we can fairly safely narrow down the scope of our exploration by looking at Intel's SSD 320 (based on the company's proprietary controller hardware), Samsung's 830 (also based on a proprietary controller), Crucial's m4 (which, like a number of other drives, uses a Marvell controller), and OCZ's Vertex 3 (one of many second-gen SF-2200-based SSDs).

Yes, this means we lose some of the nuances that surface as a result of switching between asynchronous ONFi, synchronous ONFi, and Toggle DDR memory, along with the vendor-specific tweaks that sometimes find their way into firmware releases. In the grand scheme of things, though, we're more concerned about general drive behavior than a few MB/s here or there.

On the next page, you'll also see that we're using higher-capacity drives for testing. This is a deliberate decision in order to represent the performance potential of each architecture. As you scale down in capacity, it's natural for performance to drop in certain tests as well. That's not what we want. So, the pricier 240, 256, and 300 GB models will have to tell our tale.

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  • 13 Hide
    compton , February 1, 2012 3:29 AM
    Buying the best drive rather than the perceived fastest is good advice. I have fast drives and slow drives, but I prize the reliable ones. The good news is that there are drives which are both fast and reliable, so don't buy a drive just because of its Vantage score or simply because of the speed with which it handles 0-fill data.
  • 10 Hide
    sincreator , February 1, 2012 4:22 AM
    What about quality? Is there any way to stress them till they start to fail? It just seems that if there isn't much difference in the drives in real world applications, then the next logical thing a buyer would want to know would be how much average data particuar drives can read/write before a failure. Like actual stress testing in a controlled environment. Come on Tom's, don't you want to destroy a few perfectly good SSD's? lol. These are things i would like to know more than anything else so I could make a very informed decision before a purchase.

    I asked before but no one answered. Anyway here goes... If SSD's are supposed to be more reliable than spinning drives, why are most warranties for 3 years instead of the usual 5 years on high end conventional spinning drives? It seems like the companies are not to confident in their products to me, and that's why I ask this question and the one that preceded it. It would be nice to get some honest answers......
Other Comments
  • 13 Hide
    compton , February 1, 2012 3:29 AM
    Buying the best drive rather than the perceived fastest is good advice. I have fast drives and slow drives, but I prize the reliable ones. The good news is that there are drives which are both fast and reliable, so don't buy a drive just because of its Vantage score or simply because of the speed with which it handles 0-fill data.
  • -1 Hide
    compton , February 1, 2012 3:39 AM
    Which FW is the 830 using? The Test Setup and Benchmarks page lists it as CXM0. There are currently 3 FWs, CXM[01,02,03]B1Q. The page simply lists CXM0.
  • 6 Hide
    phamhlam , February 1, 2012 3:44 AM
    Crucial m4, Samsung 830, and Intel 320 are all good drives. 128GB drives go for $180. They are the best value.

    I find it interesting that SATA 3 doesn't make a difference in file copy. Most SATA 3 drives cost the same as a SATA 2 so no need to save a few dollars.
  • -2 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , February 1, 2012 4:09 AM
    So basiucly what this is saying is even thought SATA 3 looks impressive on paper, when it comes to actual real world results it's really not any faster than SATA 2 in performaning everyday real world task.
  • -1 Hide
    dark_knight33 , February 1, 2012 4:11 AM
    I think I wrote you an email asking for this article when I was looking to buy my SSD a few weeks/months ago. Even though your article came after I purchased mine, thanks for addressing it. I'm rocking a Vertex III 240GB on my Sata II x58 MB and I don't regret it one bit.
  • -1 Hide
    a4mula , February 1, 2012 4:11 AM
    I can say this. I'm running 2x OCZ Solid first gen SSDs off SATA 3Gb/s ICH10R. When new they benched at about 300/100 sequential read/write. Compared to current generation drives this is pretty slow. When researching my current build I asked a friend that just put together a rig with a 64GB M4 on Intel 6Gb/s if I could give it a spin. While his machine boots faster w/o a doubt, I attest most of this to the RAID verification I face when I boot. Inside Win7 I couldn't tell a difference at all. While I'm sure his system is faster, it just wasn't obvious or noticeable in my opinion.
  • 10 Hide
    sincreator , February 1, 2012 4:22 AM
    What about quality? Is there any way to stress them till they start to fail? It just seems that if there isn't much difference in the drives in real world applications, then the next logical thing a buyer would want to know would be how much average data particuar drives can read/write before a failure. Like actual stress testing in a controlled environment. Come on Tom's, don't you want to destroy a few perfectly good SSD's? lol. These are things i would like to know more than anything else so I could make a very informed decision before a purchase.

    I asked before but no one answered. Anyway here goes... If SSD's are supposed to be more reliable than spinning drives, why are most warranties for 3 years instead of the usual 5 years on high end conventional spinning drives? It seems like the companies are not to confident in their products to me, and that's why I ask this question and the one that preceded it. It would be nice to get some honest answers......
  • 3 Hide
    compton , February 1, 2012 4:41 AM
    sincreatorWhat about quality? Is there any way to stress them till they start to fail? It just seems that if there isn't much difference in the drives in real world applications, then the next logical thing a buyer would want to know would be how much average data particuar drives can read/write before a failure. Like actual stress testing in a controlled environment. Come on Tom's, don't you want to destroy a few perfectly good SSD's? lol. These are things i would like to know more than anything else so I could make a very informed decision before a purchase. I asked before but no one answered. Anyway here goes... If SSD's are supposed to be more reliable than spinning drives, why are most warranties for 3 years instead of the usual 5 years on high end conventional spinning drives? It seems like the companies are not to confident in their products to me, and that's why I ask this question and the one that preceded it. It would be nice to get some honest answers......


    Well, the warranties are mostly 3 years, but some drives like Intel's 320s and Plextor's M3S drives do have 5 years of coverage.

    As for stress testing... well... some have taken this matter in their own hands to answer that very question. So far, it's far more than anyone could imagine. And for complex reasons, a drive only writing 10GB might not wear out it's NAND in over a century. A drive's endurance is typically way underestimated. No one is going to wear out any 3xnm or 2xnm NAND in 5 years, except in the most extreme cases. Most drives die from firmware problems, or physical damage to the PCB or components, or some other unknown phenomenon. Only the factory could do a proper autopsy, and since the FW, FTL, controller, etc. are usually trade secrets or covered under NDA, no one in the know is going to volunteer.

    There is an SSD endurance thread on the XtremeSystems forum:

    http://www.xtremesystems.org/forums/showthread.php?271063-SSD-Write-Endurance-25nm-Vs-34nm/page1


  • -1 Hide
    heezdeadjim , February 1, 2012 5:30 AM
    You probably aren't going to see much of a difference in speed while on the desktop from one SSD to another. It's when loading programs and game levels that you might see a real difference in.

    I know when I first got my 1st gen OCZ Vertex nearly when it first came out, I was always the first person on the map for Counter Strike. While other players were still loading the level, I would rush in from the side and lob a grenade and take a few people out because they didn't think anyone could get there so fast (now with more people with SSD's, it's not quite so funny anymore).

    I do appreciate being able to open PS CS5 in less than 2 seconds (for quick photo re-edits) and opening Premiere a lot faster too. Transferring large RAW photo folders (think 50+GBs total) to and from backup HDD's, I could use the extra MB's from these new 6Gb/s versions.
  • 1 Hide
    cmcghee358 , February 1, 2012 5:38 AM
    I've read this article entirely too many times. Except this time it looks much better than the version I saw. Good job Mr. Angelini!
  • -2 Hide
    SpadeM , February 1, 2012 7:25 AM
    While I do appreciate any SSD tests, I have to ask why do all the test include "big" capacity drives? I believe and hope that you should test with the lower end SSD (64 90 128) to paint a better picture for the user. You might not know this but most people believe that the difference between SSDs of the same maker is only in capacity not actual speed/iops which is wrong, very wrong. Therefor I suggest using lower capacity drives that are in larger numbers sold, then using more expensive drives that only skew the real numbers for the majority. The only refuge is in your own SBM for the cheaper systems in which you go for a lower tier SSD but since tests there focus on gaming, we aren't getting much. Informative article non the less.

  • -1 Hide
    jemm , February 1, 2012 8:22 AM
    Good food for thought.
  • 0 Hide
    cmcghee358 , February 1, 2012 9:37 AM
    SpadeM,

    you obviously didn't read the article as there were plenty of references to the 60/64 GB SSD round from a couple months ago.
  • -4 Hide
    LORD_ORION , February 1, 2012 12:22 PM
    I cringe when I hear "buy what you can afford" when it comes to hard drives.

    YOU MUST GET A 5 YEAR WARRANTY if you want to be happy. They really do determine their hard drive warranty based on average time to fail results from quality control tests.

    Intel 320 80GB looks like a nice intro SSD drive.
  • -6 Hide
    deanjo , February 1, 2012 12:57 PM
    As expected, you are better off with a couple off with a couple of mechanical drives in raid 0 for items like video editing. More capacity, faster sequential read/writes, and cheaper.
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , February 1, 2012 1:08 PM
    I have run my VM over a USB 2.0 on an SSD and still got similar performance to Sata II. Its the latency that is the issue, 30MB/s is actually fine as long as the response is there. Of course, when you want move large files its a different story.
  • 0 Hide
    jaquith , February 1, 2012 2:30 PM
    Interesting article, relatively narrow in scope. On consumer lines it is very difficult to choose the 'best' SSD. On Enterprise it's more about Write cycles and IOPS; so I look at IOPS over max R/W speeds. When I buy I look at: Cost, Reliability, IOPS (R/W), Warranty and Capacity. A lot of 'bad' reviews, not all, are over Firmware problems and before I even install the SSD I update the Firmware. I don't care about 1~3 second 'Boot' time difference. Even for me it gets mind numbing to choose, but for most 'PC' uses Capacity vs Cost is the tipping point.

    I wish it were simple to choose a consumer SSD, but it's not and Reviewers often choose different SSD's typically based upon their need aka preferences.

    I thought the following might help (note the operative words 'Up to'):

    Samsung 830 MZ-7PC256D/AM
    MTBF 1,500,000 hours
    Warranty 3 Years
    Max Sequential Read Up to 520 MB/s
    Max Sequential Write Up to 400 MB/s
    4KB Random Read: Up to 80,000 IOPS
    4KB Random Write: Up to 36,000 IOPS

    Crucial M4 CT256M4SSD2 ; 5 models which was tested?
    MTBF 1,200,000 hours
    Warranty 3 Years
    Max Sequential Read Up to 550 MB/s ; 415~550 MB/s
    Max Sequential Write Up to 260 MB/s
    4KB Random Read: Up to 45,000 IOPS
    4KB Random Write: Up to 50,000 IOPS

    OCZ Vertex 3 VTX3-25SAT3-240G ; 3 models which was tested?
    MTBF 2,000,000 hours
    Warranty 3 Years
    Max Sequential Read Up to 550 MB/s ; 415~550 MB/s
    Max Sequential Write Up to 520 MB/s ; 500~520 MB/s
    4KB Random Read: Up to 40,000 IOPS 36,000~55,000 IOPS
    4KB Random Write: Up to 60,000 IOPS 55,000~60.000 IOPS

    Intel 320 Series SSDSA2CW300G310 ; 5 models which was tested?
    MTBF 1,200,000 hours
    Warranty 1 Year (most) ; SSDSA2CW300G3B5 5 years
    Max Sequential Read Up to 270 MB/s
    Max Sequential Write Up to 205 MB/s
    4KB Random Read: Up to 39,500 IOPS some models unlisted
    4KB Random Write: Up to 23,000 IOPS some models unlisted
    /only SATA2 interface/
  • -3 Hide
    mcd023 , February 1, 2012 2:36 PM
    Thanks for the article! I was wondering about what to do since my mobo only has SATA 2. It looks like my plan for a couple of kingston 64GB in RAID 0 might still be a good idea.
  • -3 Hide
    SpadeM , February 1, 2012 2:52 PM
    cmcghee358SpadeM,you obviously didn't read the article as there were plenty of references to the 60/64 GB SSD round from a couple months ago.

    And you obviously didn't bother understanding my post. This isn't something that only Tom's does, most if not all sites when it comes to SSD testing, go for higher capacity drives while the low end kind of gets the short end of the stick. And since performance for SSD is even capacity related, then the majority of ssd sold (those under 128GB) should get more lime light.

    I do hope now my point gets across, if not, I'm sorry but there's nothing I can do to fix it.
  • -1 Hide
    OntarioHero , February 1, 2012 3:48 PM
    comptonWell, the warranties are mostly 3 years, but some drives like Intel's 320s and Plextor's M3S drives do have 5 years of coverage.As for stress testing... well... some have taken this matter in their own hands to answer that very question. So far, it's far more than anyone could imagine. And for complex reasons, a drive only writing 10GB might not wear out it's NAND in over a century. A drive's endurance is typically way underestimated.


    Well, that seemed to be the case initially - users were wondering why these ssds were covered for 30TB or less when they could write more than 10x that reliably. But it turns out that once nand cells go over the rated write cycles, the ability to retain data in long term decreases significantly. It's something the folks at xtremesystems didn't notice at first because they were running the test 24/7 - the cells were getting flashed with new data before the data had a chance to degrade.

    In more realistic usage scenarios where the pcs may be turned off for more than a day (or when nothing is being written to ssd and cells are not continuously flashed with new data), the manufacturer's endurance claims are pretty realistic.
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