Zotac Sonix NVMe SSD Review: Our First E7 Tests

Over the past four years, we've seen Zotac introduce a couple of SSD families, but not until recently did it achieve any real success. The early entry-level models only surfaced in Asia, trickling into the U.S. and Europe through resellers. Then, in 2015, Zotac launched the Premium Edition SSD. That turned out to be a class-leading drive. In fact, it paved the way for Zotac to herald the arrival of Phison's PS5007-E7 controller. Today, we get to test Zotac's first NVMe-based processor in a retail product, before Phison has the chance to give us an official introduction of its own.

The Phison PS5007-E7 first sparked excitement at Computex in June 2015, where it appeared in the booths of several storage companies. We tested the controller in a closed-door session with Phison and came away impressed by the stunning performance results. It looked like it'd be a real challenger in the enthusiast NVMe market, which currently includes products from Intel and Samsung. Those two companies are known for their high-end SSDs. But they're also expensive.

Phison builds the controller, firmware and reference design, then allows partners like Zotac to brand it and sell it. At Computex, no fewer than 10 of the companies we talked to were looking to launch E7-based drives, and that number grew at CES in January. They'll all battle for your dollars by varying their warranty terms, accessory packages and, most importantly, prices.

Of course, NVMe is still a premium feature for its ability to reduce latency and facilitate higher performance. Zotac's Sonix is the first step in making that technology more mainstream, a classification bound more by price than performance.

Specifications

* Phison's Performance Measurement

Zotac is committing to just one capacity point for its Sonix—480GB. The drive houses a full 512GB of flash, but reserves some of it for background activities like wear-leveling, garbage collection and bad block management. That puts it between Intel's SSD 750 with 400GB of user space and Samsung's 950 Pro, which boasts 512GB.

NVMe allows the Sonix to hit performance levels not possible on older AHCI-based SSDs. Zotac claims it can read data sequentially at up to 2600 MB/s and write at up to 1300 MB/s, while Phison says its E7 can do 350,000 random read and 250,000 random write IOPS.

Normally you'd see us preview a new flash processor before reviewing retail-ready drives armed with it. But Phison hasn't officially launched the PS5007-E7 yet, so we aren't privy to all of its technical intricacies. At least we have the following list of features:

  • End-to-end data path protection
  • SmartECC RAID data protection
  • AES-256, TCG Opal 2.0, TCG enterprise compliant (PS5007-A7 derivative)
  • P-fail protection with additional SmartFlush technology
  • Advanced read disturb management with SmartRefresh technology
  • Advanced global wear-leveling
  • 28nm CMOS process
  • Quad-core processor design
  • Support for 1xnm MLC / TLC large block (8K/16K page) NAND

Again, we expect four or five SSD vendors to sell drives using the PS5007-E7 controller in the next couple of months. Zotac got a jump on its competition by launching the Sonix with release-candidate firmware rather than waiting for a mass-production build. This caught a lot of folks by surprise, including Phison. Technical documentation explaining some of the new trademarked features simply doesn't exist yet. We do know, at least, that the PS5007-E7 is designed to work with existing planar multi-level cell and triple-level cell flash, along with future 3D flash.

The Sonix features end-to-end data path protection that ensures information in flight reaches the flash, even after a power failure. Proprietary technologies called SmartFlush and GuarateedFlush play a role here, though we don't have any further details about them.

SmartRefresh protects against noisy-neighbor conditions in the flash and charge loss, which is what caused so many problems with Samsung's 840 EVO. It impacts TLC NAND more than MLC since there are eight charge levels to distinguish between.

Zotac's Sonix supports hardware-based AES-256 encryption with TCG Opal 2.0. A future firmware revision will enable the L1.2 low-power state, but the release-candidate build doesn't have this feature.

Pricing, Warranty And Accessories

Zotac is already selling the Sonix on Amazon. The 480GB model is available for $370 with Prime free shipping. Just be careful where you're clicking. The listing is a bit of a mess; one page includes SATA- and PCIe-based drives at multiple capacities, and remember the Sonix is only available at 480GB. Further, the reviews for all five of that page's products are lumped together.

The Sonix does include a three-year warranty not bound by an endurance rating. Upon probing for information, Zotac told us that the flash is rated for 3000 program/erase cycles, and the 480GB drive is good for 698 terabytes written. Zotac's warranty terms do not list a TBW ceiling, though.

Although you get a multi-page installation guide with the Sonix, we'd really like to see a list of NVMe-capable motherboards. Most Z97 and newer platforms expose the technology after a firmware update. But older boards often lack support. Zotac's drive also includes a half-height bracket that works in 2U servers and certain small form-factor cases.

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17 comments
    Your comment
  • 2Be_or_Not2Be
    Is it too much to ask that all of your graphs keep the same colors for each product? One page the Intel 750 is light blue; the next page, it's black. Consistency here would help the reader.
    4
  • CRamseyer
    The different colors for the first and later parts of the review is a one off. We added the compressible / incompressible tests to the tests early in the review so there was a shift. In the future I'll just use a red dotted line if adding something special.
    1
  • Kewlx25
    Correction:
    "For a bit of context, AHCI operates on one command at a time, but can queue up to 32 of them. NVMe can operate on as many as 256 commands simultaneously, and each of those commands can queue another 256."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NVM_Express#Comparison_with_AHCI
    NVMe
    65535 queues;
    65536 commands per queue
    1
  • CRamseyer
    You are correct, that was my fault. I built a test that does 256 / 256 to see how it works. I'll make the correction.
    2
  • josejones
    Good article, Chris Ramseyer.

    "Real-world software rarely pushes fast storage devices to their limits"

    Chris, I am curious about what all holds back NVMe SSD's from getting their full potential? What all needs to come together to reach their full potential? Will Kaby Lake and the new 200-Series Chipset Union Point motherboards help to get better performance out of the new NVMe & Optane SSD's? I've heard we need a far bigger BUS too. I am holding out for an NVMe SSD that will actually reach the claimed 32 Gb/s or close to it - minus overhead.
    0
  • TbsToy
    So Chris what is your opinion on which of these drives should be used where. Workstation, PC desktop, laptop etc. as the most 'suitable' drive among this group for which machine?
    W.P
    0
  • TbsToy
    So Cris which of these drives to you consider to be the most useful with which type of machine, server, workstation, PC, or laptop?
    W.P.
    0
  • Kewlx25
    Quote:
    Good article, Chris Ramseyer.

    "Real-world software rarely pushes fast storage devices to their limits"

    Chris, I am curious about what all holds back NVMe SSD's from getting their full potential? What all needs to come together to reach their full potential? Will Kaby Lake and the new 200-Series Chipset Union Point motherboards help to get better performance out of the new NVMe & Optane SSD's? I've heard we need a far bigger BUS too. I am holding out for an NVMe SSD that will actually reach the claimed 32 Gb/s or close to it - minus overhead.


    This is my semi-educated guess.

    1) The storage chips need to be faster, but they are pretty fast.
    2) Controllers need to be faster. Less complicated overhead, better command concurrency, etc
    3) There is a latency vs throughput issue. If most programs are making one request at a time and waiting for the response for that request, then you need really low latency to have high bandwidth. On the other hand, if a program makes many concurrent requests, then it just multiplied its theoretical peak bandwidth.

    Similar issue with why TCP has a transmit window. Waiting for a response over high latency slows you down. The main difference is TCP pushes data. Reading from the harddrive pulls data.
    0
  • CRamseyer
    Opine will change things a bit because it lowers the QD1 latency. It will make your computer feel faster thus increasing the user experience.

    Beyond that, we need a complete overhaul to effectively utilize NVMe in regular computers. The software needs to reach out for more data at the same time. The Windows file systems (other than ReFS) are all aging. We need a big shift in software across the board. It's just like with video games and other software right now. Nothing pushed the limits of the hardware. VR could be change that but I suspect we are still 5 years away from VR for anyone other than enthusiasts.

    TbsToy - NVMe accelerates all tasks by lowering latency. We're starting to see the tech ship in notebooks from MSI and Lenovo. Custom desktops from companies like Maingrear and AVA sell with NVMe as well. I would say use it wherever you find a place. The Samsung NVMe drives sell for a very small premium over the SATA-based 850 Pro. You get workstation and in some cases enterprise-level performance capabilities for the rare instances when the load gets that high.
    2
  • jt AJ
    Quote:
    Opine will change things a bit because it lowers the QD1 latency. It will make your computer feel faster thus increasing the user experience.

    Beyond that, we need a complete overhaul to effectively utilize NVMe in regular computers. The software needs to reach out for more data at the same time. The Windows file systems (other than ReFS) are all aging. We need a big shift in software across the board. It's just like with video games and other software right now. Nothing pushed the limits of the hardware. VR could be change that but I suspect we are still 5 years away from VR for anyone other than enthusiasts.

    TbsToy - NVMe accelerates all tasks by lowering latency. We're starting to see the tech ship in notebooks from MSI and Lenovo. Custom desktops from companies like Maingrear and AVA sell with NVMe as well. I would say use it wherever you find a place. The Samsung NVMe drives sell for a very small premium over the SATA-based 850 Pro. You get workstation and in some cases enterprise-level performance capabilities for the rare instances when the load gets that high.


    cpu is hitting a dead limit due to software not capable of taking advantage of new instruction hence we see 5% improvement on cpu year after year, and thats also because microsoft window legacy support and why so many old software still work on new windows.

    when software programmed to take advantage of cpu's new instructions we'll see a huge jump in cpu performance and would mean more data taken from SSD overall just faster.
    -1
  • jt AJ
    @Chris, when will optane come along, for consumer in a package of NVMe M.2 SSD?
    1
  • g-unit1111
    Interesting drive, but for the price I would rather go for a Samsung 950 Pro M2. I'd also be curious to see how the two drives compare in terms of read - write performance.
    0
  • CRamseyer
    I'm not sure when we will see Optane used in consumer or enterprise applications. It's coming but I don't know when or even how we will see it first. I hate to even speculate but I do see a few paths that make it economical, yet still useful, in the client SSD market. It would make an excellent cache for TLC for instance.

    G-Unit - I think when Phison has the M.2 version ready the price will drop quite a bit. The current card version, the first to market at that, is expensive but the M.2 should be fairly cheap. I hear Phison has a new firmware coming soon that will increase the low queue depth performance. That should make it much more competitive with existing NVMe products on the market.
    2
  • photonboy
    This feels like a rush, "first to market" to exploit those people who think a PCIe SSD solution will beat any 2.5" or similar SSD solution.

    Beta testing doesn't install long-term confidence to me. I'll wait and take a STABLE product thanks (but then I know better... as said most shoppers on Amazon do not).
    0
  • epobirs
    Intel has made it clear they're pitching Optane to Enterprise first. Less price sensitive and the applications, such as big transactional databases, are far more obvious.

    It's going to take some work on the OS side to make use of it in a way that is transparent to consumers while justifying the price.
    0
  • epobirs
    Quote:
    Opine will change things a bit because it lowers the QD1 latency. It will make your computer feel faster thus increasing the user experience.

    Beyond that, we need a complete overhaul to effectively utilize NVMe in regular computers. The software needs to reach out for more data at the same time. The Windows file systems (other than ReFS) are all aging. We need a big shift in software across the board. It's just like with video games and other software right now. Nothing pushed the limits of the hardware. VR could be change that but I suspect we are still 5 years away from VR for anyone other than enthusiasts.

    TbsToy - NVMe accelerates all tasks by lowering latency. We're starting to see the tech ship in notebooks from MSI and Lenovo. Custom desktops from companies like Maingrear and AVA sell with NVMe as well. I would say use it wherever you find a place. The Samsung NVMe drives sell for a very small premium over the SATA-based 850 Pro. You get workstation and in some cases enterprise-level performance capabilities for the rare instances when the load gets that high.


    100% is a small premium? I can get a Samsung 512GB 850 for around $150 on short notice. The lowest I've seen the 950 512GB on a promotion is around $290.
    0
  • jt AJ
    Quote:
    100% is a small premium? I can get a Samsung 512GB 850 for around $150 on short notice. The lowest I've seen the 950 512GB on a promotion is around $290.


    well you're comparing TLC to MLC drives aint the same.
    0