Second-Gen SandForce: Seven 120 GB SSDs Rounded Up

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:

Force 3
Chronos Deluxe
Vertex 3
Agility 3
Solid 3
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