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SATA III SSD Round-Up: OCZ, Corsair, Patriot, Crucial
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Date: Jul 12, 2011
Section:Storage
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

We’ve opened our last few SSD round-ups with comments regarding the break-neck pace at which the solid state storage market has advanced these last few years. At the risk of repeating ourselves, the SSD market continues to show no signs of slowing down. New drives are being introduced constantly and along with updated interfaces, drivers and firmware, manufacturers continue to push the envelope.

Consider this; Solid State Drives have gone from essentially non-existent on the desktop to the preferred storage medium of enthusiasts in less than three years. And they’ve offered significant performance improvements along the way. Many would even argue (myself included) that upgrading your boot volume from a standard hard drive to an SSD will have the most significant impact on day to day computing, provided the rest of the system is up to snuff, of course.

With all of the new products to hit the market recently, we thought it was a good time to pull together a varied sampling of cutting edge SATA III solid state drives to see how they stack up. We’ve got six drives on tap for this piece, two apiece from OCZ and Corsair, one from Patriot and another from Crucial. Their main features and rated specifications are outlined in the table below, but we’ll follow up with more details and a full performance profile on the pages ahead...


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SATA III SSD-Round Up - OCZ, Corsair, Patriot, Crucial
Specifications & Features
Total
Capacity
Drive
Controller
SATA
Interface
Max.
Read
Max.
Write
Max. 4K
IOPS
TRIM
Support
Warranty
Crucial M4 256GB Marvell 88SS9174 SATA III 415MB/s 260MB/s 50K Yes 3-Years
OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS 240GB SandForce
SF-2281
SATA III 550MB/s 520MB/s 85K Yes 3-Years
OCZ Agility 3 240GB SandForce
SF-2281
SATA III 525MB/s 500MB/s 85K Yes 3-Years
Corsair Force GT 120GB SandForce
SF-2281
SATA III 555MB/s 515MB/s 85K Yes 3-Years
Corsair Force Series 3 120GB SandForce
SF-2281
SATA III 550MB/s 510MB/s 85K Yes 3-Years
Patriot Wildfire 120GB SandForce
SF-2281
SATA III 550MB/s 520MB/s 85K Yes 3-Years

As you can see, five of the six drives we’ll be featuring in this article are based on the same SandForce SF-2281 controller, but that doesn’t mean they’ll perform identically. The drives have different capacities and different flash memory configurations which will impact performance in some workloads.

We should mention that we've already covered the underlying technology at the heart of both controller types used in these drives in previous articles. If you'd like a more technical deeper-dive into the SandForce SF-2000 familiy of controllers, we'd recommended perusing this article from back in February and the Marvell controller used in the M4 was covered in this piece detailing Micron's C300.


From Left To Right: Corsair Force GT, Corsair Force 3 Series, OCZ Agility 3, Patriot Wildfire, OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS, and Crucial M4

What all of these drives have in common are their 2.5” form factors, which is the de facto standard for desktop and notebook SSDs, and their SATA III interfaces. They also have similar 3-year warranties. These drives, however, for the most part at least, offer different performance as our testing will show. So, picking the right drive for your next build may be more difficult than you think. Take a look—OCZ’s up first.

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OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS and Agility 3

Pictured here are the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS edition and more affordable Agility 3 solid state drives. OCZ has been fiercely active in the solid state storage market. The company offers products targeted at virtually every market segment. These two drives represent their top-of-the-line (Vertex 3 Max IOPS) and high-performance mainstream (Agility 3) desktop-class SSD products.

  
240GB OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS Edition - Click To Enlarge

The OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS edition is somewhat of a cross between the enterprise-class Vertex 3 Pro and standard Vertex 3 we showed you here and here. The OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS edition drive sports the same 32nm Toshiba MLC NAND found in the Pro model, but like the standard Vertex 3 the Max IOPS drive lacks the expensive Super-CAP, that provides the drive with short-term power in the event of an outage. The drive you see here is a 240GB model outfitted with 16 pieces of NAND, but 120GB drives with half that number are also available. There is a total of 256GB of flash memory in the drive we tested though (128 in the 120GB drive); the unused space is provisioned for wear-leveling, error correction, etc.

  
240GB OCZ Agility 3 - Click To Enlarge

Although built around the same controller as the Vertex 3 Max IOPS edition, the OCZ Agility 3 is a different sort of animal. The Agility 3 is paired to 25nm Intel / Micron MLC NAND flash memory and uses a different PCB. The drive you see here is also a 240GB model, but other capacities are available as well.

Both of these drives use MLC flash memory, have TRIM support, and offer SATA III interface speeds, thanks to their SandForce SF-2281 controllers.

Before continuing, we should point out that a number of users have reported issues that cause BSODs or system hangs with these (and some other SF-2000 based) drives, but in all of our testing, through multiple firmwares, and drive types, we have not experienced any issues. Should you want one of these drives, just be sure to install the latest firmware and secure erase it before finalizing your setup. And it couldn’t hurt to make sure your motherboard’s BIOS and your storage drivers are up to date, and that you’re using a new, SATA III-compatible cable. Just some things to keep in mind.

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Corsair Force GT and Force 3

Next up we have a couple of drives from Corsair, the Force 3 Series and Force GT. Like the OCZ drives on the previous page, these two are both built around the SandForce SF-2281 controller, but Corsair’s drives use different PCB layouts and one of them is outfitted with different Flash memory.

  
120GB Corsair Force GT - Click To Enlarge

The Force GT drive you see here is a 120GB model outfitted with 128GB of Micron 25nm synchronous NAND flash, model 29F64G08CBAAB. The drive is rated for max reads and writes of 555MB/s and 515MB/s, respectively, making it the highest-performing drive in Corsair’s current line-up. In attempt to make the Force GT stand-out, it sports a bright-red enclosure, which looks pretty awesome if you ask us.

  
120GB Corsair Force 3 Series - Click To Enlarge

The Force 3 Series drive is very similar to the Force GT. This drive, however, is outfitted with 25nm asynchronous NAND Flash memory, model 29F64G08CBAAAB. The Force 3 and Force GT use the exact same PCB though. In terms of its specifications, the Force 3 is only marginally slower than the Force GT according to Corsair, with max reads and writes of 550MB/s and 510MB/s. The lower performance is due to firmware differences in the drives and the Force 3’s use of asynchronous NAND. We’re not going to cover the low-level technical differences between the two types of NAND, but suffice it to say asynchronous NAND flash is more affordable, but it also doesn’t perform as well when fed incompressible data through its SandForce controller.

For those wondering, this is the drive Corsair recalled last month due to stability issues. This particular drive is the updated revision, which is what consumers will be able to find on store shelves currently. The issues that forced the recall have been resolved. Throughout testing the Force 3 behaved perfectly.

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Patriot Wildfire and Crucial M4

Finally we have the new Patriot Wildfire SSD and Crucial M4. For all intents and purposes, Patriot’s Wildfire is the company’s direct competitor to the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS drive. And the Crucial M4 is the company’s follow up to the C300 which debuted last year.

   
120GB Patriot Wildfire - Click To Enlarge

The Patriot Wildfire drive pictured here is the 120GB model. The drive is actually equipped with 128GB of flash memory, but again, that extra “unused” space is provisioned for wear leveling and other drive maintenance and performance related features. The particular NAND used on the drive is of the 32nm Toshiba variety, like OCZ’s Max IOPS drive, which when paired with the SF-2281 offers strong all-around performance, even with incompressible data.

One thing that’s immediately apparent is how clean the PCB used in the Wildfire is; there are very few components on the thing compared to OCZ’s PCB.

  
256GB Crucial M4 - Click To Enlarge

Here we have the 256GB Crucial M4. The M4 is the follow-up to Micron’s popular C300, which was one of the higher-performing SSDs to hit the market when it was first released. Like the C300, the M4 is built around a Marvell 88SS9174 controller, albeit an updated revision that reportedly offers increased IOPS performance. The C300 had a Marvell 88SS9174-BJP2, while the M4 uses 88SS9174-BLD2. The M4 is outfitted with 25nm Micron synchronous flash memory (16 pieces in all) for a total capacity of 256GB. Also on the PCB (but not visible) is a 256MB DRAM cache, which isn’t necessary on SandForce-based drives. In addition to the tweaked controller, the M4 has a completely re-worked firmware that further improves performance over the C300. The M4 is rated for max reads and writes of 415MB/s and 260MB/s, respectively.

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Test Setup, IOMeter 1.1 RC and SANDRA

Our Test Methodologies: Under each test condition, the Solid State Drives tested here were installed as secondary volumes in our testbed, with a standard spinning hard disk for the OS and benchmark installations. Out testbed's motherboard was updated with the latest BIOS available as of press time and AHCI mode was enabled. The SSDs were secure erased and left blank without partitions wherever possible, unless a test required them to be partitioned and formatted, as was the case with our ATTO, PCMark 7, and CrystalDiskMark benchmark tests. Windows firewall, automatic updates and screen savers were all disabled before testing. In all test runs, we rebooted the system and waited several minutes for drive activity to settle before invoking a test.

HotHardware Test System
Intel Core i7 and SSD Powered

Processor -

Motherboard -


Video Card -

Memory -

Audio -

Hard Drives -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Core i7-2600K

Asus P8Z6-V Pro
(Z68 Chipset, AHCI Enabled)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285

4GB Kingston DDR3-1600

Integrated on board

WD Raptor 150GB (OS Drive)
OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS (240GB)
OCZ Agility 3 (200GB)
Corsair Force GT (120GB)
Corsair Force 3 Series (128GB)
Patriot Wildfire (120GB)
Crucial M4 (256)

OS -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-


Relevant Software:
Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 x64
Intel 9.2.0.1030, iRST 10.5.1027
DirectX 11

NVIDIA GeForce 275.33

Benchmarks Used:
IOMeter 1.1.0 RC
HD Tune v4.61
ATTO v2.47
AS SSD
CrystalDiskMark v3.01 x64
PCMark 7
SiSoftware Sandra 2011

IOMeter
I/O Subsystem Measurement Tool

As we've noted in previous SSD articles, though IOMeter is clearly a well-respected industry standard drive benchmark, we're not completely comfortable with it for testing SSDs. The fact of the matter is, though our actual results with IOMeter appear to scale properly, it is debatable whether or not certain access patterns, as they are presented to and measured on an SSD, actually provide a valid example of real-world performance for the average end user. That said, we do think IOMeter is a gauge for relative available throughput with a given storage solution. In addition there are certain higher-end workloads you can place on a drive with IOMeter, that you really can't with most other benchmark tools available currently.

In the following tables, we're showing two sets of access patterns; our Workstation pattern, with an 8K transfer size, 80% reads (20% writes) and 80% random (20% sequential) access and IOMeter's default access pattern of 2K transfers, 67% reads (34% writes) and 100% random access.

Our IOMeter results didn't reveal any surprises. The OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS edition drive turned in the highest scores overall, but all of the other SandForce powered drives finished very close behind. The Marvell-based Crucial M4, however, performed significantly lower than the other drives here.

SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic HDD Benchmarking

Next we ran SiSoft SANDRA, the the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. Here, we used the Physical Disk test suite and provided the results from our comparison SSDs. The benchmarks were run without formatting and read and write performance metrics are detailed below.

Because SANDRA's Physical Disk benchmark shows some variation from run to run, it wouldn't really be fair to declare any drive the "winner" here. Technically, the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS edition drive put up the best Read score and second best Write score, but all of the SandForce-based drives are closely bunched together. The Crucial M4 trailed by wide margins, however.

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ATTO Disk Benchmark
ATTO is another "quick and dirty" type of disk benchmark that measures transfer speeds across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and graphs them out in an easily interpreted chart. We chose .5kb through 8192kb transfer sizes and a queue depth of 6 over a total max volume length of 256MB. ATTO's workloads are sequential in nature and measure raw bandwidth, rather than I/O response time, access latency, etc. This test was performed on blank, formatted drives with default NTFS partitions in Windows 7 x64.

ATTO Disk Benchmark
More Information Here: http://bit.ly/btuV6w

The overall ATTO Disk Benchmark results are ultimately tell the same story as our previous results, with the SandForce-based drives closely grouped together in terms of reads and writes, with the Marvell-based Crucial M4 mostly trailing the other drives. It's worth noting, however, with block sizes of 4K and smaller, the M4 has a slight performance advantage over the other drives tested here.

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HD Tune Benchmarks
EFD Software's HD Tune is described on the company's web site as such: "HD Tune is a hard disk utility with many functions. It can be used to measure the drive's performance, scan for errors, check the health status (S.M.A.R.T.), securely erase all data and much more." The latest version of the benchmark added temperature statistics and improved support for SSDs, among a few other updates and fixes.

HD Tune v4.61
More Info Here: http://www.hdtune.com





HD Tune's results look to be all over the map. However, the margins separating most of the drives are quite small in most instances and there is some variation between test runs with this benchmark, so please keep that in mind. With that said, as we've seen in our other testing thus far, the SandForce-based drives put up the highest transfer speeds of the bunch overall. It's also worth pointing out, though, that the drives using Micron NAND flash memory seem to offer the lowest latency.

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CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks

CrystalDiskMark is a synthetic benchmark that tests both sequential and random small and mid-sized file transfers. It provides a quick look at best and worst case scenarios with regard to SSD performance, best case being larger sequential transfers and worse case being small, random transfers.

CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks
Synthetic File Transfer Tests





We had some interesting behavior with CrystalDiskMark when testing the OCZ Agility 3 and Corsair Force 3 series drives. As you can see, those two drives, which both happen to use Micron NAND, perform much lower than the rest of the pack in the sequential transfer tests. This is due to the incompressible nature of the data used in the tests and the NAND flash configuration of the drives. The other drives perform much closer to their rated specifications, and once again, the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS edition puts of the highest scores overall.

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AS-SSD Compression Test

Next up we ran the Compression Benchmark built-into AS SSD, an SSD specific benchmark being developed by Alex Intelligent Software. This test is interesting because it uses a mix of compressible and incompressible data and outputs both Read and Write throughput of the drive. We only graphed a small fraction of the data (1% compressible, 50% compressible, and 100% compressible), but the trend is representative of the benchmark’s complete results.

AS SSD Compression Benchmark
Bring Your Translator: http://bit.ly/aRx11n

There are three main things to take away from these AS SSD Compression Benchmark results. First, notice that the performance of the SandForce-based drives tapers off as the data become less compressible. Second, the performance of the SandForce-based drives equipped with Micron NAND show a much sharper drop-off than the drive with Toshiba NAND. And finally that the Marvell controller-based Crucial M4 performs identically regardless of how compressible the data is.

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PCMark 7 Storage Benchmarks
We really like PCMark 7's Secondary Storage benchmark module for its pseudo real-world application measurement approach to testing. PCMark 7 offers a trace-based measurement of system response times under various scripted workloads of traditional client / desktop system operation. From simple application start-up performance, to data streaming from a drive in a game engine, and video editing with Windows Movie Maker, we feel more comfortable that these tests reasonably illustrate the performance profile of SSDs in an end-user / consumer PC usage model, moreso than a purely synthetic transfer test.

Futuremark's PCMark 7 Secondary Storage
http://www.futuremark.com

PCMark 7's Secondary Storage Benchmark had the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS edition drive taking the top spot, followed closely by the Patriot Wildfire, and then Corsair's Force GT. As we tunnel down into the individual results, though, it becomes clear that only one of the modules seven tests showed relatively large deltas separating the drives.

All of the drives performed within a megabyte or two per second of each other (give or take a fraction) in six of the seven tests, here. In the "Starting Applications" tests, however, the three fastest drives also ended up being the top three performers overall, at least according to PCMark 7.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: Three of the drives featured here consistently offered ‘best of class’ performance throughout our testing, the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS, the Corsair Force GT, and the Patriot Wildfire. Not surprisingly, all three of these drives feature the same SandForce-built controller and synchronous NAND flash memory. These drives offered the highest transfer rates in the majority of tests, and while performance does drop off as the data being used gets more incompressible, performance still remained very high overall.

That is not to say the other drives didn’t perform well. It’s quite the contrary, in fact. All of the drives we tested here offered excellent performance and would be huge upgrade over any standard hard drive. It’s just that some of the drives—namely the three we mentioned--offer higher transfer speeds in most test cases. With that said, users would be hard pressed to “feel” or a see a perceptible difference between any of these drives in typical day-to-day use. We should also point out that the Crucial M4 offered the lowest access times and most consistent performance with highly compressible or incompressible data.

 
So Nice, We Used This Pic Twice...

 Now that we have the performance results covered, it’s time to see how all of these drives stack up in terms of price. The chart posted below lists all of the drives featured here, along with their current street price as of press time, and completely capacity details. Please note, cost per GB was calculated using actual formatted / usable capacities.


* Prices Current As Of 3PM EST, July 12, 2011 

As you can see, the Crucial M4 was by far the least expensive drive looking at its cost per GB. If you want a high capacity drive and work with lots of incompressible data, the M4 is a fine choice. For all out performance, the Corsair Force GT offers a good balance; its cost per GB is lower than the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS drive despite offering similar performance. For best all out performance, price be damned though, the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS and Patriot Wildfire drives are the ones to beat. They’re the most expensive, but it shows in the numbers they put up throughout our testing.


Corsair Force GT
OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS
Patriot Wildfire


Crucial M4
OCZ Agility 3
Corsair Force 3 Series



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