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.
* 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.