A quick look at Kingston's HyperX Max USB 3.0 SSD

Combining solid-state with SuperSpeed
— 11:48 PM on January 27, 2011

USB 3.0 is the most sorely needed peripheral interface upgrade in recent memory. Think about all the people you know who store, carry, or pass around data on USB sticks or portable hard drives. Now consider that even a 5,400-RPM notebook drive has high enough transfer rates to exceed the roughly 37MB/s that second-gen USB ports give you in the real world. With peak theoretical throughput of 500MB/s, SuperSpeed USB has more than enough headroom for this and future generations of external storage devices.

If you're in the market for copious amounts of speedy external storage capacity, look no further than a USB 3.0 enclosure and a cheap notebook hard drive. Even 7,200-RPM drives are pretty affordable these days, and the fastest examples can push well over 100MB/s.

What you want something even faster? If the whole point behind the SuperSpeed USB standard is higher performance, why not use a solid-state drive? The nearly instantaneous access times inherent to flash memory won't help much when copying files back and forth, but SSDs typically have higher sequential transfer rates than their mechanical counterparts. Don't forget that solid-state storage has much better shock tolerance than spinning platters—an important consideration for external drives likely to be tossed into pockets and packs without due care.

Rather than expecting users to combine 2.5" SSDs with separate enclosures, drive makers have come out with their own external offerings. The latest to do so is Kingston, whose HyperX Max 3.0 SSD borrows the circuit board used in the company's SSDNow V+100 solid-state drive. Instead of wrapping the PCB in a standard 2.5" drive casing, Kingston opts for a custom enclosure that accommodates SATA-to-USB bridge circuitry. The end result is a device that's slightly longer but no wider or thicker than a bare notebook hard drive.

Cracking the HyperX open reveals the underside of a circuit board that appears to be glued in place. On the other side sits a Toshiba T6UG1XBG flash controller and 128GB worth of MLC memory chips. The 128GB model is the middle child of a lineup that includes 64 and 256GB variants.

Kingston quotes maximum sequential read and write speeds of 195 and 160MB/s, respectively. Those are a little lower than the 230 and 180MB/s read and write rates listed for the V+100, suggesting that some performance is lost in the translation from Serial ATA to USB. As far as we're aware, TRIM commands can't be passed over USB, either. The HyperX drive will have to rely on the Toshiba controller's garbage collection routines to maintain performance over the long term.

Obviously, the HyperX will be at its best when plugged into a SuperSpeed port. Kingston includes a 19" cable that nicely prevents the drive from interfering with adjacent expansion ports.

A small LED just to the left of the slim USB 3.0 connector lets users know whether they're running at full speed. The light shines green when you're connected to a second-gen USB port and glows blue when you're hooked up via USB 3.0.

To get a sense of the HyperX's performance, we ran it against the only other USB 3.0 flash drive we have in have in house, Super Talent's RAIDDrive. Performance was tested on the same rigs we use to benchmark hard drives and SSDs. First up: a series of directed tests included in CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1. The drives were put through sequential and random-4KB read and write speed tests with the 50MB and 1GB test sizes.

  Sequential (MB/s) Random 4KB (MB/s)
Read Write Read Write
50MB 1GB 50MB 1GB 50MB 1GB 50MB 1GB
HyperX Max 3.0 154 190 157 169 19 17 41 37
RAIDDrive 137 249 133 106 1 10 1 2

An onboard RAID array helps the Super Talent drive achieve a higher sequential read speed than the HyperX with the 1GB test size. However, that's the only time the RAIDDrive is out ahead. The Kingston SSD has faster write speeds at both test sizes and a higher read rate at the 50MB test size.

The scores aren't even close when we look at performance with random 4KB reads and writes. The RAIDDrive seems to be optimized for reads at the 1GB test size, but even then, it's well behind the HyperX.

Unless you're planning on using a USB SSD as your system drive, its performance with random 4KB reads and writes isn't nearly as important as how it handles real-world file transfers. To test this capability, I copied nearly 7GB worth of data to and from each USB drive. The data included movies, MP3s, application files, and a chunk of my TR work folder. A Crucial RealSSD C300 was used as the source and target disk to extract as much speed as possible from each USB drive.

The Kingston SSD only has a 9MB/s lead over the Super Talent with reads. Writes are a different story, with the HyperX outpacing the RAIDDrive by a huge margin.

Curious to see how the drives handled a quick torture test, I hammered them with 4KB random writes for half an hour before running our copy tests once more. The HyperX only lost 5MB/s of write performance, while the RAIDDrive's transfer rate was cut almost in half. Clearly, Kingston has the more resilient solution. (Read speeds were unaffected by our torture test.)

With a street price of $320 online, the HyperX Max 3.0 is definitely an expensive proposition. That's to be expected from a solid-state drive with a fancy new interface. However, I didn't expect the price gap between the HyperX and its 2.5" SATA counterpart to be so wide. An SSDNow V+100 with the same capacity is currently selling for only $264, making the difference between them much more than the cost of an external enclosure. The HyperX is a little smaller than any external solution you can put together yourself, but the price difference irks me nonetheless. The fact that OCZ's Enyo offers a similarly slick casing and an identical capacity for only $290 certainly doesn't help.

USB 3.0 solid-state drives are definitely a luxury items, so the folks buying them probably aren't overly price sensitive. If you're in the market for a shock tolerant, high-performance external drive with USB 3.0 connectivity, the HyperX Max 3.0 is a pretty good option—it's just one of the more expensive ones.

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Tags: Storage