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A 1400 MB/s SSD: ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 And Samsung's XP941

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

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.

  • aminebouhafs
    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.
    Reply
  • JoeArchitect
    Very interesting article and a great read. Thanks, Chris - I hope to see more like this soon!
    Reply
  • wussupi83
    great article! - although z97 still seems boring
    Reply
  • Eggz
    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 :)
    Reply
  • Amdlova
    Chris test the asrock z97 itx... and another thing... my last 3 motherboard from asrock and i want to say Asrock Rock's!
    Reply
  • Damn_Rookie
    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!
    Reply
  • hotwire_downunder
    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!
    Reply
  • alidan
    @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
    Reply
  • Eggz
    13445787 said:
    @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.
    Reply
  • cryan
    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


    Reply