The SSD Landscape
The market is now flooded with SSDs, and although this type of storage still isn't mainstream, SSD technology is now vastly popular, readily available, and considered the premier choice for enthusiasts and anyone else looking to eliminate performance bottlenecks. All SSDs presented in this review provide read performance between 150 MB/s and 320 MB/s. They substantially change your experience during boot-up and heavy multi-tasking. In fact, utilizing a decent SSD has a more subjective performance impact than a faster processor or more RAM. Is this worth a few hundred dollars? You bet.
Although only few companies design and manufacture solid state drives, there are roughly 30 vendors selling the drives, everyone from A-Data to Western Digital. Keep in mind that most of them utilize flash memory and controllers provided by only a few key companies.
With its X18- and X25-series SSDs shipping for almost two years, Intel is one of the few companies that designs and manufactures all components, from the controller to the flash memory. I/O performance and throughput are state-of-the-art thanks to a 10-channel flash design, but write speeds are somewhat limited. This isn’t an issue for most consumer environments, though. Several other vendors sell Intel hardware under their own labels. You can recognize these both by the performance discrepancy between reads and writes, and by the exterior. The second-generation X25 drives based on 34 nm flash memory are considered excellent client SSDs.
The Korean and Japanese memory specialists have been very active in the SSD space, but neither has been aggressive in retail markets—yet. Products from both companies are rebranded and sold by multiple memory vendors and used by system builders. Samsung and Toshiba design SSD controllers, and they both utilize their own NAND flash memory. We found that Samsung and Toshiba SSDs tend to be more focused on overall balance than breaking performance records. Toshiba’s T6UG1XBG controller and Samsung's S3C29RBB01 both utilize a SATA 3Gb/s interface, but Toshiba does not support NCQ.
Indilinx, JMicron, SandForce
These three companies offer SATA 3Gb/s SSD controllers. Each meets performance expectations, but effective performance can vary due to different firmware optimizations and the number of flash channels used by SSD vendors. The latest models are Indilinx’s Barefoot controller, with up to 64 MB of cache and four-channel, 16-bit flash, and Indilinx's Amigos controller. Modified versions with more channels should follow soon, as the 6 Gb/s successor (Jet Stream) won’t be available before 2011.
JMicron’s JMF612 supports up to 256 MB of DDR2 cache and eight 8-bit flash channels. This controller also supports USB 2.0.
SandForce’s SF-1200 series is another eight-channel device with built-in, 256-bit AES encryption. SandForce provisions some of the NAND flash for transaction buffering, hence these solutions don’t have an external cache memory.
The RealSSD C300 by Crucial, based on Marvell’s 88SS9174, is the first SSD to utilize the faster SATA 6Gb/s interface. So far, this drive is by far the fastest when it comes to read performance. I/O performance is average, and application performance varies from good to excellent. You need a SATA 6Gb/s controller and Windows 7 with TRIM support to take full advantage of these drives.
While the RealSSD did not fully convince when we first tested it, Crucial made a few significant changes to its firmware. The version we tried first was 001; consequently the update is named 002. In a nutshell, Crucial tweaked the TRIM feature to be more aggressive, along with a few more details. Here is the change log:
- Improved Power Consumption
- Improved TRIM performance
- Enabled the Drive Activity Pin (Pin 11)
- Improved Robustness due to unexpected power loss
- Improved data management to reduce maximum write latency
- Improved Performance of SSD as it fills up with data
- Improved Data Integrity
Many of the changes are hard to trace, but the performance features that are based on efficient TRIM support require Windows 7 or another operating system that supports it. We’d expect significant performance impacts without TRIM.