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Second-Gen SandForce: Seven 120 GB SSDs Rounded Up

Second-Gen SandForce: Seven 120 GB SSDs Rounded Up
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The popularity of SandForce's first-gen controller is translating to a lot of traction with its 6 Gb/s offering. Five SSD vendors sent us seven 120 GB models based on the second-gen logic. What makes them different? An extensive benchmark suite tells all.

If you're on a limited budget, there are ways to take advantage of the benefits of SSDs without breaking the bank. Platforms like Intel's Z68 Express pave the way for SSD caching. The caveat is that a good SSD delivers incredible read and write performance. Caching only really exposes the solid-state technology's advantage in read speed, though. Because data must be kept synchronized between the SSD and hard drive, writes hover around the disk's best effort instead. That's why we consistently recommend you manage your storage space manually. The ideal setup involves a large-enough SSD for your OS and apps, while a separate hard drive is used to store all of your movies, music, and pictures. But what's a "large-enough" SSD?

A 64-bit copy of Windows 7 consumes nearly 16 GB. With Office 2010, Photoshop CS5, WinRAR, Adobe Acrobat, Crysis 2, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 all installed, you're looking at more than what a 90 GB SSD can handle. If you want to enjoy the performance of an SSD without sweating capacity (and not fall back on caching), you should make 120 GB your target instead. 

Regardless of the vendor from which you buy your drive, today's most popular performance-oriented SSDs are powered by controllers from either Intel, Marvell, or SandForce. The first two sit at the heart of Intel's SSD 320 lineup, the SSD 510 family, and Crucial's m4 portfolio (we have a top-to-bottom exploration of the m4 coming up soon). Everything else seems to be driven by SandForce's logic. The company partners with a number of different vendors that leverage its technology, making it relatively easy to set up a roundup of SSDs based on the newer SF-2200 controller.

Keeping It Real

Now, here's the thing. When we review new SSDs, most vendors want to ship us the fastest model available, which is usually in the 240 GB range, with 256 GB of raw NAND flash. Unfortunately, those drives are also prohibitively expensive for most enthusiasts. They're also not representative of the performance offered by smaller drives. The ones most folks end up buying when they shop for SSDs. 

And so we sent out invitations to all of SandForce's partners, seeking 120 GB models that we knew would be more realistic to power users trying to divide up budget between fast processors and capable graphics subsystems. The seven drives in today's roundup represent a response from almost every single one. Notably missing are Kingston, which isn't quite ready with its drive yet, and OWC, which turned down our request for a 120 GB sample.

The drives that remain fall short of the performance specifications presented in OCZ's Vertex 3: Second-Generation SandForce For The Masses. However, there's no question that these 120 GB versions are still super-fast. How, exactly, do five different companies differentiate drives based on the same controller hardware? It all comes down to NAND technology and firmware. Here's what we're working with today:

Brand
Adata
Corsair
Mushkin
OCZ
OCZ
OCZ
Patriot
Model
S511
Force 3
Chronos Deluxe
Vertex 3
Agility 3
Solid 3
Wildfire
Capacity
120 GB
Sequential Write
510 MB/s
490 MB/s
515 MB/s
500 MB/s
475 MB/s
450 MB/s520 MB/s
Sequential Read
550 MB/s
550 MB/s
560 MB/s
550 MB/s
525 MB/s
500 MB/s555 MB/s
4 KB Random Write (Max)
80 000 IOPS
80 000 IOPS
90 000 IOPS
85 000 IOPS
80 000 IOPS
20 000 IOPS85 000 IOPS
Price
$240
$210
$284
$240
$200
$200
$300
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  • 6 Hide
    dauthus , July 25, 2011 4:30 AM
    The Corsair force series 3 drives should be instantly disqualified due to BSoDs etc. Go look at their reviews on newegg, it is horrifying.
  • 0 Hide
    garage1217 , July 25, 2011 4:33 AM
    Nice review. You left out the corsair Force GT 120gb however which would have compared equally to the vertex as other sites have scored it. Also I own one, it ROCKS.

    On the force 3, it got horrible reviews because of a production issue. Corsair issued a full recall and now the issues with that particular drive have been cleared up which is why it was not disqualified. Very old news.
  • 5 Hide
    dauthus , July 25, 2011 4:44 AM
    Quote:
    On the force 3, it got horrible reviews because of a production issue. Corsair issued a full recall and now the issues with that particular drive have been cleared up which is why it was not disqualified. Very old news.


    You are wrong sir.
  • 2 Hide
    gregzeng , July 25, 2011 5:56 AM
    Googling told me that SSDs are almost impossible to use with Linux (EXT4). My netbook & notebook drives are in MS NTFS-COMPRESSED partitions (not Linux NTFS-4G, 'cos no compression). MS claims compressions has 'negligible' speed costs. Is that true, for about twice then storage space?
  • 0 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , July 25, 2011 7:21 AM
    why not include the max iops editions?
    anands benchies showed that 120gb vertex3 max iops ~= 256gb vertex 3 for quite a less price
  • 0 Hide
    Hellbound , July 25, 2011 7:26 AM
    This article mentions installing the OS and applications to SSD, and the rest (movies, music) to conventional hdd's. But I'm not sure how to do that. I've google'd it and there are many suggestions how to do it. I would like to know the best way to go about this.
  • 3 Hide
    whysobluepandabear , July 25, 2011 7:47 AM
    HellboundThis article mentions installing the OS and applications to SSD, and the rest (movies, music) to conventional hdd's. But I'm not sure how to do that. I've google'd it and there are many suggestions how to do it. I would like to know the best way to go about this.

    WTF?

    Step 1.) Install SSD.

    Step 2.) Install OS on SSD and everything you want to access and run quickly.

    Step 3.) Install HDD.


    Step 4.) Send files to E, F, G, H, I, J or whatever drive the HDD is. Performance orientated apps go to the C, or whatever drive your SSD is.


    It's literally no different than if you were to plug in an external HDD via USB. You direct files and applications as accordingly.

    We'll dismiss the Z68 - which allows you to use a small SSD to boost your normal HDD - otherwise if your SSD is large enough, it's actually a worse route, and just instead use the SSD.
  • 1 Hide
    flong , July 25, 2011 8:00 AM
    This is a superb review because it deals with real-world performance. I commend Tom's for providing a thorough review - one of the most thorough that I have read on any computer site. Tom's is right, the 120 GB size SSD is the sweet spot in SSD drive performance Vs cost.

    If you read similar reviews on other sites, the Patriot Wildfire, The Corsair Force 3 GT and possibly the OCZ Vertex 3 are the top performers in the 120 GB drive performance. The Wildfire uses 32 NM Toshiba toggle flash memory which is the best. The Force 3 GT uses 25 NM memory but somehow manages to keep up with the Wildfire. Note this is not the Corsair Force 3 listed in this review, it is the Corsair Force 3 GT - emphasize the GT. The GT and the wildfire are the two fastest 120 GB drives available right now based on real-world performance benchmarks.

    The real important benchmarks to watch for are the real-world benchmarks at the end of each review. These really are the only ones that count. The other benchmarks are synthetic and they are not very accurate. The OCZ drives win all of the synthetic benchmarks but their real-world performance falls behind the Force GT and the Wildfire.

    Another critical factor is that "fill-rate" performance of the drives. This is the performance of the drives as they fill. Again, the Wildfire and the Force GT rise to the top with the Vertex 3 coming in third place.

    This review lists the Mushkin as a top performer, but it is not listed in many reviews (none that I have read) and so I have not included it in my comments. It is possible that this is a top performer also but I would like to read other reviews about it to confirm.
  • 6 Hide
    Anonymous , July 25, 2011 9:03 AM
    Same thing with OCZ, to be honest. They got an error rate of 33% over at Newegg. Honestly I won't buy a single drive from them, no matter how fast, until they've fixed their issues that have lasted for two bloody generations.

    Crucial m4 for performance and Intel 320 for value is the best.
  • 2 Hide
    compton , July 25, 2011 10:12 AM
    HellboundThis article mentions installing the OS and applications to SSD, and the rest (movies, music) to conventional hdd's. But I'm not sure how to do that. I've google'd it and there are many suggestions how to do it. I would like to know the best way to go about this.


    Besides just manually managing your files on the HDD, there is another method you can use. It's more complicated to set up, but if you can google and follow directions, you'll find it may be easier.

    With Windows 7 you can basically take your "My Documents" folder (the \Users\ stuff) and symbolically link the folders to the mechanical HDD. Everytime an application wants to save to one of your document folders, which would otherwise be on your system drive (in this case a SSD) will just end up on the HDD. From a file management perspective, you may find it easier.

    I do it manually -- just install Windows, Office Pro 2010, Pantone, Google Chrome, iTunes, ect. to the SSD. All of my music, movies, backups of my SSD (I'm only using about 22GB of my Intel 510's 111GB) end up on the HDD. My Steam folder is about 200GB as well, so it goes on the HDD.

    You just have to do stuff like change iTunes folder in advanced options to the folder on the HDD. It's really easy to do. That way, when I want to use another SSD, I have all the Steam games and media on the HDD. Fresh installs are really easy this way.

    I tried installing some of my games on a few of the SSDs I own. Some games can really benefit, but mostly the increase in speed over a fast HDD isn't worth it.

    I bought an original WD Raptor 36GB drive in 2003 that I used for many years, so I was completely comfortable trying to manage the stuff that ends up on my HDD. I ended up moving from a 60GB SSD to a 120GB SSD that is faster but I just can't bring myself to put much on it.
  • 0 Hide
    chovav , July 25, 2011 11:10 AM
    nice work guys :) 

    I do have a question though: for my own use, I need to encrypt the system drive using TrueCrypt (128bit AES). When I did that on a Vertex 2 60GB, the performance went down a hundred-fold! This apparently had to do with the fact that the data was in-compressible (bad for SandForce controllers) and the drive was completely "filled" by TrueCrypt's encryption (so you won't be able to see how much data is on it).

    This meant that the performance was actually LOWER than an encrypted mechanical hard drive, and actually almost unusable. Is there any way for you to devise a test that looks at this effect on SSD performance? This situation is not very rare, a lot of business users must encrypt their drives in order to comply with Company Policy..

    I've used AS-SSD for testing, with read/write results at around 3.5MB/s :S

    Thank you,

    Chovav
  • 0 Hide
    brenro , July 25, 2011 1:52 PM
    Tiger Direct's selling the Solid 3 for $165. That's only about 50 bucks more than a Velociraptor. I think it might be time to pull the trigger. Are these things reliable enough now to use them as the only drives in a RAID?
  • 1 Hide
    aznguy0028 , July 25, 2011 2:12 PM
    garage1217On the force 3, it got horrible reviews because of a production issue. Corsair issued a full recall and now the issues with that particular drive have been cleared up which is why it was not disqualified. Very old news.

    Nope, I had a new force 3 120gb, model 1124 (which was the one that is supposedly fixed), and I was still getting BSODs so I returned it. I waited for the whole early fiasco to be over but still had problems. Go check the Corsair forums, tons of people are still having issue. I'm staying away from any ssd that is using the SF 2281 but I'm keeping my eye on the Wildfire to see how reliable that one is.
  • -2 Hide
    garage1217 , July 25, 2011 3:13 PM
    Rocking mine just fine with no bsods or issues of any kind and tons of others are rocking their 120gb force drives with no issues. The editors of this review did not find or have issues as well, nor have other reviewers since the recall. So does that tell you anything at all?

    Sort of comes down to that old story about the girl that just cannot keep a man. She complains and moans about how it is always the guys fault or she cannot find the right guy and they all suck. She never thought it was her retarded self that was the real issue things never worked out lol So along those lines, have you ever considered it is YOUR equipment and setup, not the drive that is causing the issue? I hear crap like this every day from people with oc'ed systems that they claim is stable when it really is not causing issues that really show themselves with ssd drives. Or people that really have no clue what they are doing in the bios mucking things up and causing problems that may be tolerable to one piece of equipment and not another so when they switch, issues arise. Or a ton of other combos of crap that just do not workout at all together like a junk power supply causing instability issues, or trying to install the latest equipment on quite old hardware.

    Bottom line, I am not seeing any issues at all, tons of others are not seeing any issues and if you care to look at other reviews on say newegg of other brands, you will find the same thing across all ssd manufacturers, not just one in particular. You also find the same thing with mobos, standard drives, optical drives, power supplies, video cards. Really throws up red flags when the person claims in a review "i have tried 5 of these and not a one works!!!" Duh morons, wake up and realize what the real issue is, a lack of troubleshooting skills and the knowledge to properly use a device.
  • -1 Hide
    acku , July 25, 2011 3:29 PM
    SSDs are more problematic than just about every other piece of hardware. It's like a Jenga puzzle, you remove one block and something else goes wrong. Just look at the Solid 3 and Agility 3. Identical hardware, different performance due to firmware.

    That said, I believe that each SSD manufacturer is experiencing their own unique issues. I personally haven't experienced any BSOD issues in the lab. As an example, our workstations are allowed to sleep, which has been a cited issue with the new OCZ SSDs. Anand has the same experience - no BSOD errors in his lab. That's a similar sentiment shared by other reviewers.

    Overall, SSDs are kind of like cars. You may experience something on the road, but once you bring it to your mechanic, nothing seems wrong. Problems with SSDs are highly correlated with configuration and how they are used (what is written, how fast it is written, how much is written, etc...). And I'd go so far as to chalk 99% of the "soft errors" to be related to the flash translational layer (FTL).

    If you're looking for rock solid reliability, you're better off with a hard drive. It doesn't matter if you own a hard drive or a SSD, everyone should practice good backup practices.

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    Tomshardware.com
  • 0 Hide
    banthracis , July 25, 2011 3:51 PM
    Current Cost per GB on newegg for the reviewed drives

    OCZ agility 3 120gb $1.50/gb (includes rebate. $1.75/gb without )
    OCZ solid 3 120gb $1.62/gb (includes rebate. $1.79/gb without)
    Crucial M4 128gb/256gb $1.67/gb
    Corsair Force 3 120 $1.75/gb
    Intel 320 120gb $1.83/gb
    AData s511 120 $1.91/gb
    OCZ Vertex 3 120 $1.91/gb (includes rebate. $2.08 without)
    Mushkin Chronos Deluxe 120gb $2.16/gb
    Intel 510 120gb $2.30/gb
    Patriot wildfire 120gb $2.50/gb

    Going through your benchmarks, it actually looks like the Crucial M4 drives are the best choice with consistent good performance and very low cost/gb.
    In fact, the 256 gb M4 particularly stands out for having the same $/gb as the 120gb M4, yet top of the pack performance throughout the benchmarks.

    Edit: Forgot the Deluxe in Mushkin Chronos. Price/gb was correct though.
  • 0 Hide
    acku , July 25, 2011 3:55 PM
    That's because we test with 4kb transfer sizes in random accesses. The 256 GB and 512 m4s have a native 8kb page. We're going to cover all of that in another article dedicated to m4s.

    If you want nothing to do with compression and still want a performance SSD, m4s are probably the best choice. That's why they're often included in the best SSDs for the money.

    FYI, we used a Chronos Deluxe ~= Wildfire. The regular Chronos is the async stuff, same as Force 3 and regular Vertex 3.

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware.com
  • -1 Hide
    garage1217 , July 25, 2011 3:56 PM
    Quote:
    SSDs are more problematic than just about every other piece of hardware. It's like a Jenga puzzle, you remove one block and something else goes wrong. Just look at the Solid 3 and Agility 3. Identical hardware, different performance due to firmware.

    That said, I believe that each SSD manufacturer is experiencing their own unique issues. I personally haven't experienced any BSOD issues in the lab. As an example, our workstations are allowed to sleep, which has been a cited issue with the new OCZ SSDs. Anand has the same experience - no BSOD errors in his lab. That's a similar sentiment shared by other reviewers.

    Overall, SSDs are kind of like cars. You may experience something on the road, but once you bring it to your mechanic, nothing seems wrong. Problems with SSDs are highly correlated with configuration and how they are used (what is written, how fast it is written, how much is written, etc...). And I'd go so far as to chalk 99% of the "soft errors" to be related to the flash translational layer (FTL).

    If you're looking for rock solid reliability, you're better off with a hard drive. It doesn't matter if you own a hard drive or a SSD, everyone should practice good backup practices.

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    Tomshardware.com


    I will agree to that :)  SSD drives in general are not perfect, but they are not the horrid plague that some make them out to be.
  • 0 Hide
    acku , July 25, 2011 4:01 PM
    Quote:
    nice work guys :) 

    I do have a question though: for my own use, I need to encrypt the system drive using TrueCrypt (128bit AES). When I did that on a Vertex 2 60GB, the performance went down a hundred-fold! This apparently had to do with the fact that the data was in-compressible (bad for SandForce controllers) and the drive was completely "filled" by TrueCrypt's encryption (so you won't be able to see how much data is on it).

    This meant that the performance was actually LOWER than an encrypted mechanical hard drive, and actually almost unusable. Is there any way for you to devise a test that looks at this effect on SSD performance? This situation is not very rare, a lot of business users must encrypt their drives in order to comply with Company Policy..

    I've used AS-SSD for testing, with read/write results at around 3.5MB/s :S

    Thank you,

    Chovav


    I actually hadn't thought of using TruCrypt with a SSD. But your experience with a SandForce drive makes a lot of sense. Near to no compression being done, which is horrible for SF's garbage collection which relies on "extra" space made available by compression. Basically, you're completely throttling the drive and every write leaves little to no time for idle garbage collection because everything written is encrypted. This would be the same as running Iometer with completely random data over the course of weeks at a time. That's why performance is going to be better on a hard drive. I'd recommend trying an m4 if TruCrypt is a must.

  • 0 Hide
    mariush , July 25, 2011 4:40 PM
    gregzengGoogling told me that SSDs are almost impossible to use with Linux (EXT4). My netbook & notebook drives are in MS NTFS-COMPRESSED partitions (not Linux NTFS-4G, 'cos no compression). MS claims compressions has 'negligible' speed costs. Is that true, for about twice then storage space?


    The compression algorithm used by the NTFS system can at best compress text and various uncompressed stuff down to about 50% of the original size, with little CPU usage.

    It will not compress at all the most often found files such as mp3, avi, mkv, docx, which are already compressed. Also, the majority of games' files are already compressed so enabling NTFS compression really won't save a lot of disk space.
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