Solid State of the Union: 5 Top SSDs Reviewed

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We take stock of today's SSDs—what they have to offer, how they've progressed, and which should have dominion in your PC

At the end of our November 2008 solid-state-drive roundup , we concluded that those NAND-flash-based drives just weren’t ready for prime time, thanks to astronomically high prices, small capacities, and flaky first-gen controllers.

Flash forward to mid-2010. Not only have newer drive controllers thoroughly washed the bad taste of the first-gen SSDs out of our mouths, but performance has shot through the roof. And the slowdowns that early SSDs experienced when writing to memory blocks where data had been deleted have been vanquished by the TRIM command. Implemented in modern SSDs as well as in Windows 7 and Linux, TRIM’s garbage-collection functionality has helped SSDs overcome one of their remaining hurdles.

Of course, there’s still the matter of price. While solid state drives have several advantages over their mechanical hard drive brethren—durability, reliability, and speed among them—they still cost a lot more. A one-terabyte mechanical hard drive costs less than $100, but a 256GB SSD can cost close to $800. Nevertheless, today’s SSDs have significantly dropped in price, and combined with the technological advances, are a much improved value. Is that enough to get your purchasing dollars? We were compelled to find out, Maximum PC –style.

We gathered five newly released SSDs to see how far the field has come since late 2008. We ran each through a gamut of tests: HDTune 4.01 for sustained read and write speeds as well as random-access times and 4KB random reads and writes (historically the Achilles’ Heel of SSDs); PCMark Vantage x64 to simulate performance during common Windows tasks; and Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 to measure sequential writes by writing an uncompressed AVI to the disk. We’ll tell you how they compare to our current Best of the Best pick, the 128GB Patriot Torqx (the cumulative benchmark results can be found here ), and even explore a budget-SSD option. So let’s see how the state of the SSD union fares.

The Reviews

Read the First Review >>

Go Straight to The Benchmarks >>

Crunching the Numbers

Talk is cheap—it's the benchmarks that matter.

We poked, prodded, and pummeled these drives with our benchmarks—we even discarded a whole week’s worth of testing when we discovered a mysterious bug with our original test bed—all in our tireless effort to determine which SSD is best for you. In the process, we learned a lot about the state of the SSD market, and even a little bit about ourselves.

OK, we didn’t actually learn anything about ourselves. But we did learn that if you have the cash, a solid state drive is a lot more compelling than this time last year, thanks mainly to advances in controller technology. Of the five drives in our roundup, the highest all-around scores went to the two with SandForce SF-1500 controllers, with sustained write speeds averaging around 225MB/s and sustained read speeds of just under 200MB/s. They didn’t have the fastest random reads, but in random writes, only the Intel X-25M is superior. If you want fast random writes (and who doesn’t), you’ll pay a slight premium over Barefoot-controller drives like the Corsair V128 or our current champion Patriot Torqx—the OWC Mercury and OCZ Vertex LE are both around $400 on the street, while the Corsair Nova and the Torqx are closer to $370 for 128GB. And for their part, the Barefoot drives have faster reads.

Beyond the SandForce and Barefoot drives, however, lie dragons. Plextor’s PX-128M1S, which uses Marvell’s 88SS8014-BHP2 controller, is just a bad drive. Whether it’s the firmware or the controller, its read speeds are last-gen and its writes are worse than your average mechanical hard drive—yet it’s barely cheaper than the Corsair drive. You’re better off with a Western Digital VelociRaptor.

Speaking of Western Digital: We can’t currently recommend the SiliconEdge Blue. Whether it’s the fault of the controller or the firmware, the drive stutters during extended writes. That’s unacceptable in 2010.

At $4 per GB, SSDs are still a lot pricier than their mechanical counterparts. But capacity is going up, performance has never been better, and given Windows 7’s TRIM support and easy-to-configure Libraries, an SSD boot drive with enough capacity to hold your favorite games and apps is more feasible than ever. My fellow Maximum PC power users, the state of the union is solid.

BENCHMARKS
WD SiliconEdge Blue
Plextor PX-128M1S OWC Mercury
OCZ Vertex LE
Corsair Nova
Patriot Torqx
WD VelociRaptor
Capacity
256GB
128MB
100GB 100GB 128GB 128GB 300GB
Controller
Unknown
Marvell Da Vanci
SandForce SF-1500 SandForce SF-1500
Indilinx Indilinx WD
HDTune 4.01
- Avg Read (MB/s)
204.3
136.7
191.4 197.5 210.8 220 101.6
- Random Access Read (ms)
0.2
0.2
0.2 0.1 0.1 0.1 7.1
- Burst Read (MB/s)
143
138.3
205.2 207 222.8 220 221
- Avg Write (MB/s) 109.6
51.7
227.1 223.5 163.9 162.3 109
- Random Access Write (ms)
3.3
0.2
0.2 0.3 0.2 0.2 7.1
- Burst Write (MB/s)
142.9
136.6
209.6 191.8
223 221.7 223.4
- 4KB Read (IOPS) 4,508
7,392 5,245 5,050 7,439 7,084 153
- 4KB Write (IOPS)
1,330
1,144 5,319 5,271 2,829 3,435 302
Premiere Pro (sec)
452
530 383 381 361 364 387
PCMark Vantage HDD
24,037
22,057 32,140 35,655 24,796 23,674 6,188

Best scores bolded. All drives tested on our hard drive test bench: a stock-clocked Intel i7-920 CPU on a Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R with 6GB DDR3, running Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. All tests performed using Intel south-bridge SATA chipset with Windows 7 default AHCI drivers unless specified.

Next Page: Two budget SSDs vs. One high-performance SSD >>

Fiscal Conservatism

How do two budget SSDs compare to a single high-performance model?

In the midst of our SSD test-stravaganza, a letter arrived from Intel with an intriguing idea. Why buy one expensive SSD, it asked, when you can buy two 40GB X-25Vs and run them in RAID 0? You’ll get better performance, the argument went, and for a lower cost. Well, let’s consider that. One 40GB X-25V (the V is for Value) costs $125, so $250 nabs you 80GB of storage, versus about $330 for a 128GB Patriot Torqx. So is it worth it to buy two of the value drives?

Since the whole point of running two value SSDs in RAID 0 is to save money, we decided against using an add-in RAID card—instead, we built RAID 0 arrays using the Intel south-bridge on our test bed and the Gigabyte-branded Marvell-manufactured onboard RAID controller, and tested them under the same conditions as the other drives in our roundup.


Intel's X-25V value SSDs, like the rest of the X-25 line, prioritize random writes over sequential.

While a single Intel X-25V drive got 161MB/s average read speeds and 40MB/s average sustained writes—acceptable for a value drive—a two-disk RAID 0 on the Intel SATA controller did nearly twice as well. Sustained average reads were pushed to over 240MB/s, while writes approached 75MB/s. But random writes are where Intel drives have always excelled and the X-25V, despite its “value” moniker, is no exception. Both a single drive and a RAID 0 array produced 4KB random writes of more than 15,000 IOPS—three times the speed of any other drive in the roundup, as well as the Patriot. Sustained writes, especially in our Premiere Pro encoding test, were less impressive.

So is a RAID 0 array of value Intel SSDs actually a value? It depends. Read speeds and random writes are fantastic, of course, while sustained writes will likely leave you frustrated. But you won’t be doing too many sustained writes to an 80GB drive, now will you? Your SATA chipset will play an important role as well—the Intel SATA chipset on our test bed gave us the best numbers, while sustained writes on a RAID built on the Gigabyte-branded RAID controller were half as fast.

There’s another catch, too: By using a RAID array, you’re giving up OS-level TRIM support, as TRIM commands aren’t passed through the RAID controller. You can manually optimize your drives with Intel’s tools, but until TRIM commands can be passed to RAIDed SSDs, Windows 7 users should consider a single-drive solution. A 64GB Indilinx-based drive with TRIM support can be had for as little as $200. If 64GB is enough for you, we think that’s the better deal.

BENCHMARKS
Single Intel X-25V
Two X-25VS (RAID 0)
Two X-25VS (RAID 0)
Patriot Torqx
Capacity
40GB 80GB
80GB 128GB
Controller
Intel Intel chipset
Marvell chipset
Indilinx
HDTune 4.01
- Avg Read (MB/s)
161.5
242.1
125.3
220
- Random Access Read (ms)
0.1
0.1
0.1
0.1
- Burst Read (MB/s)
123.4
115.3
70.5
220
- Avg Write (MB/s)
40.6
73.5
78 162.3
- Random Access Write (ms)
0.1
0.1
0.4 0.2
- Burst Write (MB/s)
115.9
111
27.8
221.7
- 4KB Read (IOPS)
6,112
6,634
5.211
7,084
- 4KB Write (IOPS)
16,115
15,238
11,037
3,435
Premiere Pro (sec) 635
450 470
364
PCMark Vantage HDD
10,135
27,928 15,970
23,674

6Gb/s SATA: Does It Make a Difference?

Say you’re one of the increasing number of users with 6Gb/s SATA ports on your fancy new motherboard. But what you don’t have—yet—is a drive with a 6Gb/s SATA controller. Can you put those onboard ports to use anyway? Some drive vendors claim that even SATA 3Gb/s drives benefit from the improved native command queuing and greater bandwidth of 6Gb/s SATA. To put this claim to the test, we took two drives from our roundup—the SandForce-toting OCZ Vertex LE and the Marvell-controlled Plextor PX-128M1S—and retested them on a mobo with both SATA 3Gb/s and SATA 6Gb/s ports onboard.

Our tests showed that some benchmark scores for both drives were better on the 6Gb/s SATA controller, but not significantly so. The Vertex drive showed higher average and maximum sustained read speeds on a 6Gb/s port, but average sustained writes fell, as did 4KB random writes. The Plextor drive showed slight improvement in 4KB random reads and writes. Premiere Pro and PCMark Vantage HDD test scores for both drives were higher on the 6Gb/s controller. Most other scores were nearly identical on either controller.

We’ll soon start seeing SSDs with native SATA 6Gb/s controllers, and those will likely see marked improvements in SATA 6Gb/s mode compared to 3Gb/s. Until then, the only reason to run in SATA 6Gb/s mode (other than very minor gains in some areas) is if you need to use your 3Gb/s ports in IDE or RAID mode and want an AHCI-enabled SATA port for your SSD.

BENCHMARKS
Vertex LE (SATA 3Gb/s)
Vertex LE (SATA 6Gb/s) Plextor (SATA 3Gb/s)
Plextor (SATA 6Gb/s)
HDTune 4.01
- Avg Read (MB/s) 191.5
196
135.5
137.6
- Random Access Read (ms)
0.2
0.2
0.2
0.2
- Burst Read (MB/s)
202.6
214.4
126.9
132.2
- Avg Write (MB/s)
216.8
204.4
46.8
45.4
- Random Access Write (ms)
0.2
0.2
0.3
0.2
- Burst Write (Mb/s)
201.5
215.1
136.8 138.7
- 4KB Read (IOPS)
5,296
5,392
4190 4,359
- 4KB Write (IOPS) 5,431
5,378
1069
1,190
Premiere Pro (sec) 277
260 495
476
PCMark Vantage HDD
31,880
34,790 21,093
23,107

Best scores are bolded. All tests performed on an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with a Core i7-X980 CPU @3.33GHz with 6GB DDR3/1600 running Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. SATA 3Gb/s tests performed on onboard Intel chipset; SATA 6Gb/s tests performed using onboard Marvell 9123 chipset.

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