9 solid state superstars: which is best for you?

26th Oct 2013 | 10:01

9 solid state superstars: which is best for you?

We find out which is the best SSD for your money

Solid state explained

Size matters. And when it comes to SSDs, size costs too. At least, it did. Back in 2008, Intel launched its first solid state drive aimed at mere punters rather than enterprise customers. You forked out £400 and you received 80GB in return. Yeah, just 80GB.

Okay, conventional hard disks were also pricier per gigabyte in 2008, but it was still roughly a case of swapping the 'GB' and '£' symbols around. Less than £80 bought you more than 400GB of spinning magnetic platters even then.

So size has definitely been a source of insecurity for SSDs. Sure, you can combine a tiny SSD with a fat old magnetic drive and theoretically have the best of both worlds: speed and performance. Even the tiniest solid state drive will soak up a Windows installation. Simply chuck the rest in the big old data bin that is a cheap conventional hard disk.

The problem with that theory is applications. They like storage performance too - especially games - and a decent games library needs some fairly serious space. For us, that means an absolute minimum of 250GB, and ideally closer to the 500GB mark.

Cheaper SSDs

The good news is that's now becoming much more realistic. SSDs in the 500GB region can now be had for under £250. Okay, you'll have to pay more to get the latest and fastest models, but we're no longer talking about silly money for truly usable solid state storage.

If the size problem is nearly solved, there's plenty more keeping solid state storage interesting. While CPU and GPU development seems to be tailing off, SSDs are still a fairly early phase technology. Part of their development path involves things like controller chipsets and the flash memory chips themselves. That's good old Moore's law in action regarding the latter, and it's probably going to have more impact on SSD prices and performance than it will on processors or graphics chips in the near future.

Then there's the question of storage interfaces. SSDs have been developing much faster than the interfaces that hook them up to PCs. Already, SSDs have too much game for SATA 6Gbps. An alternative is needed, but what?

First things first. We need to deal with the elephant in our group test. Or rather, the elephant that's not in our group test, but which you might have expected to amble along and make an appearance. Whatever. We've got a problematic pachyderm, and its name is PCI Express.

According to some, it's the next big thing in solid state storage and that's because we've hit the wall with regard to some aspects of the SATA storage interface. Already, pretty much all high-performance SATA SSDs are limited by the 6Gbps maximum throughput of the current top-end SATA interface. That's why drives tend to bunch up at a little over 550MB/s for sequential reads and writes. That's all a SATA 6Gbps connection can manage.

Macbook air

Enter PCI Express. The latest 3.0 spec delivers just under a GB/s of bandwidth per lane, and even the old PCI Express 2.0 does nearly 500MB/s per lane. Of course, you can string together as many as 16 lanes and end up with some pretty epic theoretical bandwidth, but it's really only graphics cards that go for the full 16-lane monty. For storage, we're typically talking two to four lanes. Whether you're talking PCI Express 2.0 or 3.0, that's enough to give SATA a good, firm spanking.

A handy recent example is the latest MacBook Air from Apple. Okay, it's not exactly a PC, but the hardware is all PC-derived and it's a nice example of just what can be achieved thanks to PCI Express, even in an ultraportable form factor. For the record, the MacBook uses PCI Express in 2.0 trim with two links available to its SSD, and therefore has a peak theoretical throughput of around 1GB/s.

In early tests, the actual throughput is about 750MB/s for reads and writes, and is very likely limited by the drive, not the interface. Anyway, that's serious bandwidth by any measure. It's getting on for 50 per cent quicker than anything you can by in SATA format, and we're talking about one of the slimmest ultraportable notebooks you can buy. Incredible.

But it's only part of the story. We haven't tested a MacBook, but it will almost definitely fall foul of the same limitations as any other PCI Express SSD. And that's random access. Currently, even the very fastest SATA SSDs fail to get into three figures when it comes to MB/s for random access. That's nowhere near the limit for SATA 6Gbps.

Random element

Samsung NAND Wafer

The same goes for the PCI Express alternative. It's not the interface putting a cap on random access performance, it's the drive itself. And here's the thing: when it comes to the subjective feel of your PC, random drive performance is at least as important as sequential throughput. Maybe more so.

In fact, random access performance is also the metric by which SSDs really separate themselves from the fastest conventional hard drives. An SSD might be two or three times faster for sequential work loads, but it might be 20, even 50 times faster for random access tasks. And that's why I've just blown the last 500 words banging on about it.

PCI Express, or the posited SATA Express hybrid of the two interfaces, is very probably the future of storage, but it's likely not the panacea you might have thought. It's important to understand that.

What else is new in solid state, then? Capacity, that's what. Ever since SSDs first came on the scene, perhaps the biggest single drawback has been lack of capacity. At first we tried to kid ourselves that you could use an SSD as small as 40GB as a boot drive and have a conventional magnetic drive for the mass storage duties, and that does kind of work, but it's not ideal.

No, 'ideal' would be an SSD big enough for everything that's performance critical, including a mahoosive games library. That thinking has lead to some pretty spectacular mental gymnastics.

First, we pretended 128GB might just be workable. Then 250GB-odd became the realistic option. For some people, that might just be workable, but once you hit around 500GB or more, then you are really gaming with gas. There will be some for whom even that isn't enough, but for us, it's the point at which the storage limitation drawback truly fades into the background.

The good news is that prices for such drives are now approaching attainability for mere mortals. As I write these very words, the good people at www.scan.co.uk will do you a 480GB OCZ Agility drive based on the SandForce SF-2281 controller for just £200. That's not exactly chump change - and things have moved on from the days when the SandForce SF-2281 was the daddy of all SSD controllers - but it's not crazy money either, and it would be a pretty darn nice drive to use in the real world.

Control freaks

Asus mobo

So we come to SSD controllers in general - ever the hot topic for solid state storage. Things have slowed down a bit lately. It's probably the quiet before the gathering storm that will eventually be SATA Express.

In any case, there hasn't really been a flurry of hot new controller chipsets quite yet. One of the newer offerings is the LAMD LM87800, as seen in Corsair's Neutron GTX drives. Not all that much is known about it, other than it's a dual-core ARM chip. Other than that, it's largely the usual suspects.

Then there's the Barefoot 3 from OCZ-owned Indilinx, which pairs an ARM core with OCZ's somewhat mysterious Aragon co-processor. Apart from that, SandForce's once world-beating SF-2281 soldiers on, while Marvell's 9174 and Samsung's MDX remain pretty competitive.

As for other technical advances, well, you can read about the details in our solid state drive reviews, but the usual progress applies, including the ever-shrinking size of NAND memory cells.

That said, one thing that hasn't really taken off is TLC, or triple-level memory cells. It looks like it will be a few years yet before that hits the mainstream. If that's disappointing, remember that memory prices have still been dropping in the meantime. The widespread adoption of TLC and the increased memory density it delivers will only make big SSDs even cheaper.

Faster, bigger, cheaper: What's next for SSDs?

PCI-E based ssd

Now we know big SSDs are getting cheaper, what else can we expect to see in the near future? As we've discussed, PCI Express is going to help lift the lid on peak sequential performance, and Apple's MacBook Air offers around 750MB/s for both reads and writes, but that's just the beginning.

ADATA has announced the SX2000, and the numbers it delivers are truly spectacular. For starters, it weighs in at an enormous 1.6TB. Then there are read and write speeds of 1.8GB/s. And here's the clincher: ADATA is claiming it's also good for 200,000IOPS. So random performance should be mighty impressive, too.

For the record, that's made possible by the new SSF-8639 interface, which is essentially a four-lane PCI Express solution. It won't be cheap, though; we expect pricing somewhere north of £1,500. It's really an enterprise class drive, but it does hint at the future of drives for desktop PCs.

Another interesting development is Thunderbolt - Intel's superfast general purpose connection. The second generation of Thunderbolt is good for 20Gbps, which puts it in similar territory to a four-lane PCI Express interface. Intel has recently been showing off a 128GB Thunderbolt 2.0 thumb drive prototype. The idea of a thumb drive that outperforms today's SSDs is intriguing.

As for the development of the memory chips themselves, things keep getting smaller. Toshiba has just announced its latest 64Gb NAND chips, claimed to be the smallest yet. And as these chips get smaller, they should hopefully get cheaper too.

Even better, Toshiba says it's tooling up to produce triple-level-cell (TLC) memory on the same process, later this year. So far, only Samsung has sold TLC memory into the mainstream. Toshiba says its TLC chips are initially targeted at smartphones and tablets, where memory density is super-critical. But the new chips are also destined for PC SSDs. 500GB drives for well under £200 next year? That looks very likely indeed.

9 SSDs on test

Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB

£191 LAMD Controller

COrsair Neutron GTX

Send that mousy old SandForce controller back to the brothel, then have the lovely new LAMD controller oiled and brought up to my chambers. So said the head of Corsair. Or at least, it's the sort of thing the head of Corsair might have said if he were some sort of debauched medieval robber baron.

All of which seems rather tangential to the subject of SSD controllers. And it is, except for one thing: Corsair has tired of using SandForce for its highest performing drives. It had no choice really, if it wanted to keep somewhere near the cutting edge, because the SandForce SF-2281 is looking rather, well, used.

In its place, and liberally lubricated, comes the LAMD LM87800. Not brilliant branding, although the LAMD bit stands for Link A Media Device, which is a bit of a mouthful itself.

Read the full Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB review

Crucial M500 480GB

£285 Marvell controller

Crucial M500 480GB

A 480GB SSD with one of the best controller chipsets in Christendom? Made by one of the biggest brands in computer memory? For well under £300? Don't bother with supper and a movie, we've slipped into something more comfortable already.

But hang on, maybe we should play a little harder to get. After all, SSDs are perhaps the most mercurial of all PC components. The specs and claimed performance numbers never tell the full story, and that's just for the initial experience. The long term reliability is even trickier. So, let's recap.

The M500 is a 480GB drive from our old friends at Crucial. Crucial, of course, is the consumer brand name for Micron, one of the biggest memory chip makers on the planet. Indeed, Micron and Intel have teamed up to make memory chips together. It's a major player.

Read the full Crucial M500 480GB review

Intel 520 480GB

£391 Sandforce controller

Intel 520 480GB

Back when the very notion of a solid-state drive was sexy and new, Intel's opening gambit, the X25-M, cast all asunder. It was the best SSD money could buy, albeit for a metric tonne of money. Fast forward a mere four and a half years and everything has changed.

In that time, we learned that the performance of Intel's early SSDs fell off a cliff with sustained use. Then we learned that the TRIM command helped prevent the build-up that turned those early SSDs into stuttering wrecks. We also learned that making a great SSD controller is no mean feat.

In fact, it's so hard Intel threw in the towel, at least temporarily, and shoehorned the smash-hit SandForce SF-2281 into the 520 Series SSD.

Read the full Intel 520 480GB review

OCZ Vertex 450 256GB

£197 Indilinx controller

OCZ Vertex 450 256GB

Samsung and its 840 Pro are the unassailable overlords of SSDdom, so say hello to the Winston Smith of solid state storage. A gin-soaked basket case destined to have its face eaten off by rats, you muse? Er, no. Let's start again.

The point is that the OCZ Vertex 450 is a beacon of hope and courage in the face of almost totalitarian power. In financial terms, OCZ is but a rounding error on Samsung's balance sheet, so we doff our entire wardrobe to it for bringing this competitive SSD to market.

This is no simple re-badge job. Nor does OCZ simply half-inch components from other companies' shelves. Well, it does have to take memory chips from the open market. For the record, OCZ uses Micron's 20nm MLC NAND.

Read the full OCZ Vertex 450 256GB review

Samsung 840 Pro 512GB

£379 Samsung controller

Samsung 840 Pro 512GB

Right, we want to make one thing extremely clear from the get go: we absolutely welcome our new Samsung overlords. You hear that, Samsung? Whether it's components like memory chips, processors and LCD panels or retail clobber like phones and TVs, Samsung is assimilating everything.

In that context, two things are immediately apparent. The first is that you'd better not be in the bad books when the People's Republic of Samsung comes into force, as seems to be inevitable. The second is that it should really come as no surprise that Samsung makes damn fine SSDs.

For starters, Samsung makes its own flash memory. It's the snazzy 21nm Toggle NAND sort, so it's basically about as speedy as it currently comes. Samsung also makes its own controller chipsets, and as far as anyone can tell, those are about as good as it gets too.

Sandisk Extreme II 240GB

£175 Marvell controller

Sandisk Extreme II 240GB

Pinch a controller chipset off the shelf, bung some memory chips onto a PCB and you're in the SSD business. That's what it felt like for a while, what with everyone jumping on the SandForce bandwagon, and the fact that SandForce controllers come with ready-cooked firmware and few options to stand out.

At least, that was true until Intel came along with its own take on SandForce SSDs, but even then, the performance profile was all very familiar. We suspect Intel's tweaks to the SandForce firmware focused on reliability.

These days, of course, the customer chipset of choice is none other than the Marvell 9187. The difference is, you have to bring your own firmware to the party - Marvell doesn't supply one. That mainly means two things.

Seagate 600 480GB

£358 LAMD Controller

Seagate 600 480GB

Scary thing, solid-state storage. At least, it is if your bread has been historically buttered by traditional magnetic hard drives, as it has for Seagate. Yup, SSDs are a pretty epic problem on every level for old school hard drive makers.

Their technical expertise in designing and engineering magnetic platters counts for nought. Ditto their investment in manufacturing facilities. In fact, SSDs may as well be graphics cards for all the tech they share with magnetic drives, which is to say almost none.

So we don't entirely blame Seagate for crashing the SSD party so late with the 600 series - its first drive aimed at consumers. Seagate would probably argue that it's only recently that punters have been buying SSDs in numbers worth worrying about. And it's been making SSDs for servers for a while, so it's not entering the market short on experience.

Read the full Seagate 600 480GB review

Toshiba Q Series 256GB

£201 Toshiba controller

Toshiba Q Series 256GB

Curse Henry F Phillips and his self-centring screws. Sure, the simple Phillips-head screw was a key enabler of mass production and thus the industrial revolution, but super-small Phillips-head screws can be awfully fiddly. On this occasion, a quartet of the blighters got in the way of us cracking open the shiny new Toshiba Q Series 256GB.

It's the first we've seen of the thing and unfortunately Tosh isn't hugely forthcoming with some of the key specs. A teeny screwdriver in my man hands though and we're in. And what's inside is rather interesting.

Inevitably Toshiba is using its own 19nm Toggle MLC NAND chips, but the actual controller silicon is from Marvell, but with a Tosh twist. All of which bodes well for performance. And, after all, what actually matters is the drive's performance in the real world, not its quoted, on-paper hypothetical speed.

Read the full Toshiba Q Series 256GB review

Transcend SSD720 512GB

£417 Sandforce controller

Transcend SSD720 512GB

Transcend. Never heard of it? Actually, it's been in the memory game for longer than most, and was one of the very first outfi ts to flog solid state drives aimed at punters with PCs rather than just to big business. Indeed, dig a little deeper and you'll find that the gubbins inside the Transcend SSD720 series is pretty familiar. Perhaps a little too familiar.

The controller chipset is none other than ye olde SandForce SF-2281. Of course, you might think it's a bit rich to talk about the SF-2281 as though it's some desiccated spinster at death's door. It wasn't all that long ago we were hailing it as the greatest advance in solid-state technology since some chap in a lab coat sacrificed his personal hygiene to develop a better alternative to the vacuum tube.

Read the full Transcend SSD720 512GB review

How we tested

We're approaching the end of an era. That applies both to this crop of SSDs and our testing. The result is a set of benchmark scores that, for the most part, are very tightly grouped.

Part of the problem is the SATA interface. All these drives are, at least in part, restricted by the 6Gbps limitation of the current SATA interface. PCI Express-derived drives are on the way, of course, so we have a rough idea of what the future looks like for interfaces.

Part of it is generational. Only recently have random access and IOPS performance really been viewed as critical, and that takes times to work through the development process. We expect the next year or two will see some major progress when it comes to random access.

The final part is our testing. The simple fact is that these latest drives have caught up with our benchmarks. The file decompression and game installation tests are clearly limited, at least in part, by other parts of the platform. We'll be looking very closely at introducing some new tests that really sort the best from the rest.

In the meantime, this is one of the closest group tests in PC Format's history. There are no duds here, but once you take into account pricing and extras like the warranty, one or two drives certainly stand out.

Benchmarks

Zip file decompression
ZIP: Seconds: Quicker is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 23
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 23
Crucial M500 480GB: 23
Intel 520 480GB: 24
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 23
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 24
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 23
Seagate 600 480GB: 23
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 24
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 22

4K random read performance (incompressible)
AS SSD: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 23
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 23
Crucial M500 480GB: 21
Intel 520 480GB: 24
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 19
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 26
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 23
Seagate 600 480GB: 22
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 20
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 18

4K random write performance (incompressible)
AS SSD: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 18
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 50
Crucial M500 480GB: 54
Intel 520 480GB: 19
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 54
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 51
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 54
Seagate 600 480GB: 44
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 18
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 45

Sequential read performance (incompressible)
AS SSD: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 505
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 503
Crucial M500 480GB: 492
Intel 520 480GB: 499
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 504
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 520
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 515
Seagate 600 480GB: 508
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 502
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 514

Sequential read performance (compressible)
ATTO: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 551
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 556
Crucial M500 480GB: 539
Intel 520 480GB: 545
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 551
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 561
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 555
Seagate 600 480GB: 554
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 538
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 552

Sequential write performance (incompressible)
AS SSD: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 298
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 470
Crucial M500 480GB: 414
Intel 520 480GB: 218
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 497
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 500
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 468
Seagate 600 480GB: 437
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 259
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 469

Sequential write performance (compressible)
ATTO: Megabytes per second: Higher is better

AData XPG SX900 512GB: 519
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 506
Crucial M500 480GB: 432
Intel 520 480GB: 475
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB: 534
Samsung 840 PRO 512GB: 535
Sandisk Extreme II 240GB: 518
Seagate 600 480GB: 473
Transcend SSD720 512GB: 465
Toshiba Q Series 256GB: 519

And the winner is… Crucial M500 480GB

Crucial M500 480GB

We're wheeling out the electron microscope this month, because never before have we had such a closely matched contest. Things are about to get positively forensic.

That said, we do actually have a clear winner in this group test. There's also an obvious group of also-rans, but just below the top rung it's a six-way tie for second place. Remarkable. Of course, the cruel fact is that somebody has to lose, and it says a lot about the way solid state technology changes that the easiest group of drives to exclude from the final reckoning are the SandForce-controlled trio.

Eighteen months ago, you stuck a SandForce controller into your SSD, chucked it out onto the market and you sat back waiting for the cash to roll in. Today, SSD technology has moved on and ye olde SF-2281 ain't the controller it used to be. It's therefore the Transcend SSD720 512GB that's first for the chop. It's definitely not a bad drive by most metrics, but it's painfully pricey for an SSD based on increasingly uncompetitive SandForce technology. Goodbyeee, therefore.

The dubious honour of penultimate placing goes to the Intel 520 480GB. Again we're talking SandForce efforts and, like the Transcend, while it remains a good product, the simple fact is that you can do better these days. That said, if you're really worried about reliability, the Intel 520 remains worth a look.

As for the ADATA, it's a nice drive at a decent price. Unfortunately there are better SSDs that are clearly superior, so it's also a goner.

Next up is that six-way tie. You can make an argument for each and every one of these drives being a best buy. We certainly like the Samsung 840 Pro as a money-no-object purchase. The OCZ Vertex 450 is an extremely impressive effort from a smaller independent outfit, and it's super quick by some metrics.

We also like what Corsair has done with its mix of components for the Neutron GTX, and the Link A Media Device controller plus Toggle NAND is a nice package. Then there's Toshiba's Q Series, which is an intriguing all rounder that tops our real-world application tests, albeit by a margin that's probably within testing errors. Meanwhile the SanDisk Extreme II and Seagate 600 give you a handy choice between two of the best customer chipsets currently on the market. Marvell or Link A Media - the choice is yours.

But in the end, the spoils of victory can only go to one drive, and it's Crucial's M500. It's not the fastest drive overall, but it's near enough that it doesn't actually matter. We very much doubt any other drive on test this month would feel tangibly faster inside your PC. Factor in seriously aggressive pricing, a reassuring brand name and enough capacity for all but the biggest games library, and it's a done deal.

SSDs solid state drives hard drives storage TRBC TRBCFeature
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