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

Should You Feel Bad That Your Board Only Supports SATA 3Gb/s?

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.