Best SSD: 10 of the top SSDs on test

17th Jan 2013 | 13:00

Best SSD: 10 of the top SSDs on test

Get better PC performance with one of these fine SSDs

Introduction

How big, how fast and how reliable? Boil the solid-state storage buying procedure right down, and these are the three key questions you need to be asking.

It sounds simple enough, but as soon as you pop open Pandora's SSD box, the complexities come bursting out. How fast, you ask? Do you mean sequential read and write performance? What about random access? And hang on - if you're wondering about sequential performance, are you talking compressible or incompressible data?

Sure, there are nuances when it comes to processor or graphics performance, like single-threaded versus multi-threaded performance on a CPU, but there aren't quite so many dramatic contrasts.

There's loads to keep track of in terms of technology too, from controller tech to memory types and storage interfaces. All of that makes solid-state storage seem daunting, but it's still the most exciting thing happening to the PC. It's the final frontier of performance - the wild west of components - and the latest wave of SSDs look like the best yet.

That exciting edginess is both a bane and a boon. You can't just fire up any old SSD and expect it deliver indefinitely. It's more complicated than that. Unlike CPUs, for example, solid-state storage still isn't a fully mature technology. It's riskier and more unpredictable. Quite frankly, it's a bit more fun.

If you don't already have an SSD, it's likely that an upgrade to solid-state will do more to transform the feel of your PC's day-to-day performance than anything else. If you have an early SSD, you might be surprised at just how far the game has come in the last couple of years.

So we've brought 10 of the best new SSDs together. There have been some hot developments in terms of capacity and performance in recent months, along with a new contender in the all-important controller market.

There's plenty to ponder. Capacity. That's the real headache when it comes to solid-state drives, not performance or reliability, though both of those can be patchy. Nope, it's plain old storage capacity that prevents SSDs from being no-brainers.

As we write these words, a conventional 1TB hard drive can be had for about £50. The cost for a similarly capacious SSD? We could only find one non-PCIe example: the OCZ Octane 1TB, listed at £1,812. It's frankly offensive. Hell, you can have a 2TB hard disk for about £70 and a 3TB beast for about £100. When it comes to conventional magnetic drives, the cost of storage is fast approaching free.

Now, our argument has often been that you can get by with a relatively small SSD if you combine it with a conventional drive for mass storage, and that's true up to a point, but as the years tick by, it's a compromise we're less and less keen on making.

The biggest problem is games. A half decent Steam library, for instance, soaks up hundreds and hundreds of gigabytes. Realistically, that means either picking and choosing how many games you have installed at any one moment, or sticking the whole shebang in mass storage. Either way, the argument for SSDs is instantly that little bit weaker.

What we really want are SSDs big enough to swallow all our performance-critical data without having to even think about it, but when's it going to happen?

Price wars

magnetic drives

Earlier this year, we saw perhaps the biggest ever price drop in solid-state storage. Prices for drives in the 120GB to 128GB range suddenly plummeted from around £120 to nearer £70.

Why did it happen? Partly it's ye olde supply and demand. For starters, a glut of DDR memory chips annihilated RAM prices. Most SSDs have some RAM, so that all-important bill of materials was lowered.

Of course the flash memory chips are the real expense, and a combination of new production facilities along with shrinking production tech contributed to significant price drops there, too.

But there's also another theory - a more sinister notion. The scuttlebutt is that the big players in the SSD market want to squeeze out the little guys, so they've triggered a price war that the smaller solid-state operators simply cannot sustain. Who's behind this - if indeed it's happening at all - isn't clear, but the SSD market certainly has some major imbalances.

Samsung, for instance, made a profit of $7 billion in its most recent quarter. That's $7 billion in three months. Over the same period, OCZ made a loss on revenues of $113 million. Talk about David and Goliath.

You might think it's all gravy so long as SSD prices go down, but what happens when all the little guys are dead? Will the big beasts be so keen to keep prices low? It's something to think about, at least.

With all that in mind, it's somewhat ironic that Samsung is the one pushing the envelope in terms of technologies that should give SSD pricing another boot to the soft and danglies. Its new 840 series SSD is the first to use TLC (triple-level cell) memory, increasing data density by 50 per cent at a stroke.

At the same time, the South Korean company has pushed on to 21nm silicon production for its latest flash memory cells. You can read more about the 840 overleaf, but suffice to say the combination of TLC memory and 21nm flash should soon translate in record lows for SSD cost per gigabyte.

Realistically, we're still several years away from affordable multi-terabyte drives, but SSDs in the 240GB to 256GB range are increasingly affordable, and if you can live with 128GB, there are some real bargains to be had.

Solid performance

SSD performance

As for SSD performance, three interrelated subjects are currently in vogue. First of all, there's a new entrant into the SSD controller market in the form of Link A Media Devices. Corsair is the first SSD maker to jump in with LAMD.

Another controller-related issue is IOPS performance, or how many input/output operations a drive can manage. Arguably, it's IOPS performance and not measures of peak throughput that really defines how responsive a drive feels, subjectively speaking.

That said, the huge sequential throughput of the latest SSDs is creating problems of its own, which brings us to the third SSD performance issue of the moment: the interface bottleneck.

SATA 6Gbps

Even the SATA 6Gbps setup isn't quick enough for the latest drives. That's why we're seeing peak sequential performance benchmark results bunch up at a little over 500MB/s. The interface doesn't really allow for more.

As capacities rise and larger drives drop into affordability, the impact of capacity on performance becomes more relevant too. The specific issue here involves memory channels, the number of chips attached to each one, and keeping those channels busy. You can find out more about that in our individual drive reviews, but the good news is that larger drives tend to perform better.

The final part of the SSD puzzle is reliability. The introduction of the TRIM command with Windows 7 made things much less scary, and stuttery SSDs are mostly a thing of the past. That said, the introduction of Samsung's TLC, or triple-level cell memory, does reignite the reliability debate to an extent.

TLC can't cope with as many write cycles as MLC memory, which is one reason why Samsung is now quoting mean-time to failure for its new SSDs, rather than how many cycles the memory chips are good for. It's a complicated issue when you factor in things like write amplification. Send the same data to two different drives and you'll get a very different number of writes.

Anyway, the point is that SSD reliability isn't quite a done deal, but don't let that put you off. There are some great drives here, some of which are available for very attractive prices. If you haven't already gone solid or if you're putting up with an early, stuttery SSD, now's the time.

SSDs on test

1. Corsair Neutron 240GB

Corsair Neutron 240GB

The chaps at Corsair must be awfully well endowed. The PC component market is brutal, and a generous pair of cojones is needed to roll the dice on something new and unproven like, say, an SSD controller chipset nobody's heard of when there are well-established players like SandForce, Marvell, Toshiba and Samsung in the market.

We speak of the Link A Media Device LM87800. It's not the first SSD controller from Link A Media Devices, but it's the first time to be used on a consumer drive. That said, the LM87800's specs are reassuringly familiar in many regards.

It's an eight-channel device with support for up to four flash memory chips per channel and SATA 6Gbps. The same as several other controller chips.

Read the full Corsair Neutron 240GB review

2. Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB

Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB

Just how schooled is the average SSD buyer in the finer points of solid-state storage technology? That's a problem Corsair must have wrestled with when specifying its new Neutron family of drives.

For instance, does Joe Punter have a clue regarding the difference between ONFi 2.0 synchronous flash memory as produced by the Intel/Micron alliance, and Toshiba's latest toggle NAND? Are minutiae like that something he should even care about?

On the other hand, how do you reconcile the fact that SSD technology is nuanced at the best of times with the need for clear and simple product differentiation that the average buyer can understand? In other words, how can you communicate differences without expecting punters to understand the flash memory tech?

Read the full Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB review

3. Intel 330 Series 180GB

Intel 330 180GB

What on Earth is Intel still doing slogging it out in the solid-state storage game? Or more specifically what is Intel doing flogging consumer-grade SSDs?

To be clear, we're not asking that question because Intel's SSDs are irretrievably crappy. In some ways, which we'll come to presently, they're among the very best on the market. But they're not clearly the best all-round, and they're no longer based purely on Intel's own technology either.

Indeed, Intel has had to eat some humble SSD pie and jump onto the SandForce silicon bandwagon. More than enough for an upset stomach, we're sure you'd agree.

The problem is, Intel jumped late and the SandForce controller has since been overtaken by many metrics. More to the point, by virtue of buying in controller chipsets, Intel is both diluting the 'Intel Inside' proposition and squeezing its margins.

Read the full Intel 330 Series review

4. KingSpec Challenge 240GB

Kingspec challenge

Never heard of KingSpec? Until recently, nor had we, but we always welcome new entrants that might keep the competition on its toes is a good thing.

What's more, the KingSpec Challenge E3000 240GB is based on some reassuringly familiar technology. We're talking the SandForce SF-2281 controller. Until recently, the SF-2281 was our favourite SSD controller and while it's just beginning to look past its best, it's still a decent goer.

What we're not clear on is from whence the E3000's firmware has come. There are several options, starting with simply taking SandForce's reference firmware off the shelf to giving it a tweak or cooking up something entirely bespoke. In the absence of much of a hullabaloo regarding the latter, we suspect it's one of the first two.

Read the full Kinspec Challenge 240GB review

5. KingSpec PCIe MultiCore 1TB

Kingspec PCIe

Exotic sports cars ain't what they used to be. Hurl a gold Rolex over your shoulder almost anywhere in West London today, and odds are you'll take out a Ferrari, Lamborghini or perhaps a Pagani. You could say the same about PC components.

The frisson of the truly unusual has been dampened by broader adoption of high performance kit and a narrowing of the performance delta between mid-range and the top-rung kit. But a 1TB solid-state drive sporting a super-fast PCI Express interface, whole gigabytes per second of bandwidth and a £1,000 price tag? That's got to qualify. It's the McLaren P1 of PC components with specs that are simply out of this world.

However, unlike hypercars, the KingSpec PCIe SSD can justify its existence in purely practical terms. The fact is, the SATA interface is proving to be an increasing bottleneck when it comes to peak data transfer rates with the latest SSDs.

Read the full KingSpec MultiCore PCIe 1TB review

6. Kingston HyperX 3K 120GB

Kingston HyperX

Do we spend too much time banging on about controller chipsets and not enough thinking about the other work that goes into a good solid-state drive? Line up Kingston's HyperX 3K against the other SandForce-based drives here, and that seems a possibility.

After all, the HyperX sports precisely the same SandForce SF2281 controller chip as the Intel 330 and KingSpec E3000 drives. But they're a world apart by some metrics. As we'll see, this Kingston drive proves there's a little life left in ye olde SF-2281.

But first, let's have a quick look at the specs. The HyperX 3K is the slightly more aggressively priced of Kingston's HyperX SSD pairing. This is achieved by using cheaper flash memory. In this case we're talking NAND that supports fewer write-erase cycles.

Read the full Kingston HyperX 3K 120GB review

7. OCZ Vertex 4 256GB

OCZ Vertex 4

We remember the days, when drives had valves and pistons, and turny-turny things, and speediness generally meant flakiness. In this brave new age of solid-state computing, the idea is that the absence of moving parts means there's no downside to cranking up the clocks and letting things loose.

So far, however, that hasn't fully applied to solid-state drives. In fact, the sheer scale of vagaries that apply to solid-state storage continues to bemuse us. It makes getting consistent results from comparative benchmarks a bit of a 'mare.

Enter the OCZ Vertex 4, a super-speedy SSD with a rep for falling over. Now, there's an awful lot we like about this drive. For starters, we like the fact that OCZ has its own controller chip and firmware. Well, that's not quite true as our understanding is that the Vertex 4's Indilinx Everest 2 controller is a rebadged Marvell chip. But by several metrics, the firmware is every bit as important and that's defi nitely OCZ Indilinx.

Read the full OCZ Vertex 4 256GB review

8. Plextor M5 Pro 128GB

Plextor M5 Pro

Controller chips for SSDs are very tough to get right. So tough, in fact, that Intel was forced to buy in third party chips to keep its consumer SSDs in the game. What hope, therefore, for a relatively small player like Plextor? Plenty, actually.

For starters, the odd truth is that several of the leading SSD controller chipsets hail from pretty puny outfits. Brands like SandForce and Indilinx are not the brainchildren of mighty global outfits. What's more, firmware for controller chipsets is every bit as important as the hardware itself.

And it just so happens that Plextor has a track record for knocking out some nifty firmware. The old Plextor M3 Pro was among the best SSDs to use the Marvell 88SS9174 controller, for instance.

Read the full Plextor M5 Pro review

9. Samsung 840 250GB

Samsung 840

Finally, the SSD industry is getting a little TLC. A painfully obvious pun, perhaps, but the arrival of triple-level cell flash memory in a mainstream SSD is such a big deal, we're willing to take the flack.

That Samsung is the one to deliver it, however, is not a huge surprise. The Korean giant is currently cranking out world-beating kit in several segments, from smartphones to ARM chips and HDTVs. That includes pushing the boundaries of SSD tech.

Samsung is pretty much alone these days in being able to bring together the key ingredients inside a solid-state drive. No other company does its own flash memory, controller chipset and even DRAM. It's the complete Samsung package.

Of course, that in-house edge means Samsung can give itself first dibs with key developments. No doubt its new TLC memory will appear fairly soon in a wide range of SSDs from several brands. But here and now, it's unique to the new Samsung 840.

Read the full Samsung 840 250GB review

10. Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

Samsung 840

Yes, we know what you're thinking. Well over £200 for a 256GB SSD? Aren't SSD prices supposed to be going down, not up? Generally speaking, the answer would be a clear affirmative. But there's always space for something a little special at the top of the price lists.

The question Samsung's asking, therefore, is just how much are you willing to pay for the ultimate in SSD oomph. Perhaps the toughest comparison for the 840 Pro is Samsung's own 830, which can be had in equal 256GB capacity for about £60 less. The new drive is going to need some pretty nifty moves to justify that price differential.

Technologically speaking, there's a triple whammy of critical enablers that might just make that possible: new flash memory, new firmware and a new controller chipset. The new memory is Samsung 21nm Toggle NAND complete with a 400Mbps interface.

Read the full Samsung 840 Pro 256GB review

Verdict

Benchmarks

Every time we think we've cracked this SSD testing lark, it just gets tougher.

In the early days, it was all about raw sequential grunt. Then it became clear that drives performed differently with compressible and incompressible data, so that had to be factored in.

Of course, real-world PC performance depends on much more than mere sequential throughput, so random access performance was stirred into the mix. Bung in some actual application tests and we were beginning to think we had a pretty good feel for overall drive performance.

And so we were, but only at a given moment in time, and a given state of drive usage and wear. Unfortunately, the reality is that fully torture-testing every solid-state drive we review to destruction is impractical. We'd need months if not years with each drive, and by the time we finally published our results, the model in question would probably have disappeared.

However, what we've added to our standard battery of tests this time around is an extra endurance test. We always fill and then empty each drive of data before testing, but this time we added another two fill-and-delete cycles, then compared the drives' before and after performance. The results are certainly interesting.

bench 1

bench 2

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And the winner is… OCZ Vertex 4 256GB

OCZ Vertex 4

Things change fast in SSD land. A year ago, it was all about previously little known outfit SandForce. Today, SandForce isn't exactly dead, but the competition is significantly more lively.

What's really interesting, however, is the mix of players and technologies involved. On one hand you have the likes of Samsung, the megabeast of tech, pushing the envelope with its new triple-level cell memory and fourth generation in-house controller. On the other, you've got relative minnow OCZ cooking up a remarkably competitive alternative with its own Indilinx controller technology.

Then there's a whole bevy of players pulling together interesting SSDs using a mix of off-the-shelf tech and some agile thinking. It's all very different from CPUs and graphics cards, where two major players dominate the key technologies. For the most part, that makes the SSD market more fun, vibrant and competitive.

Test of time

But there's another side to the wild west of SSDs, and that's the frustrating fact that performance and reliability remain patchy. With the best will in the world, it's hard to know how reliable any SSD is going to be, or how well its performance will hold up with heavy usage.

To be clear, a lot of progress has been made. The awful, stuttery drives of a few years ago are history, but we're not yet at the point where SSDs just work - where you can choose based on simple metrics of price and performance. Choosing a pecking order for this batch of SSDs isn't easy, but a few are immediately defenestrated due to wonky performance numbers or silly pricing.

The first to go is KingSpec's epic 1TB PCIe card. In some tests it delivers the 2GB/s goods. In others, it's slower than a £70 SSD. That's not nearly good enough given the £1,000 sticker.

Other losers are the Plextor M5 Pro, KingSpec E3000 and Corsair Neutron GTX. Whatever you say about them - and the Plextor and Corsair are good drives - they're simply too expensive.

Kingston's HyperX 3K takes an early bath due to poor application performance.

From here on in, the competition is very close. In fact, it's even closer than our scoring suggests. That's because we've included a wide range of metrics in our reckoning. But it's entirely legitimate, for instance, to favour reliability above all else, in which case an older, proven drive not in this group - like Samsung's 830 - might get the nod.

With that in mind, you might find Intel's 330 Series compelling. Nobody does more validation work than Intel. Then again, Corsair's Neutron balances performance and price pretty nicely, as does Samsung's new 840, though you'd arguably give Samsung the benefit of the doubt regards reliability.

That leaves us with two drives: Sammy's new 840 Pro and the OCZ Vertex 4. If there's ever been a tighter finish on a group test here on PC Format, we can't remember it.

You can make strong arguments for both drives. The 840 Pro is super quick and comes with Samsung's outstanding record for SSD endurance, but the Vertex 4 is even quicker, and dirt cheap.

The choice comes down to your attitude towards risk. The Vertex 4 has a five-year warranty, so if the worst happens, you're covered. But a loss of data can be worse than the cost of a drive, and we have first-hand experience of failing Vertex 4s.

So good is the Vertex 4's performance (and that includes our endurance test), we feel compelled to give it top honours, but even so we still find it hard to ignore an older, proven SSD. You pays your money. You takes your choice.

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