Nine recipes for solid-state bliss
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of drives we've assembled for testing today—there are nine of 'em, after all. To help you get a sense of the pack, here's a handy chart that lines up the key characteristics of each drive for easy comparison.
|Corsair Force Series 3||120GB||SandForce SF-2281||25-nm Micron async
|Corsair Force Series GT||120GB||SandForce SF-2281||25-nm Intel sync
|Corsair Performance 3 Series||128GB||Marvell 88SS9174||34-nm Toshiba
|Crucial m4||128GB||Marvell 88SS9174||25-nm Micron sync
|Intel 320 Series||120GB||Intel PC29AS21BA0||25-nm Intel
|Intel 510 Series||120GB||Marvell 88SS9174||34-nm Intel
|Kingston HyperX||120GB||SandForce SF-2281||25-nm Intel sync
|OCZ Agility 3||120GB||SandForce SF-2281||25-nm Micron async
|OCZ Vertex 3||120GB||SandForce SF-2281||25-nm Intel sync
The first thing you might notice is the fact that we have SSDs at two capacity points: 120 and 128GB. The 120GB drives offer 112GB of formatted capacity in Windows, while the 128GB models report 119GB.
Most SSDs reserve a percentage of their total flash capacity as overprovisioned "spare area" dedicated to the controller. This segment of flash isn't accessible to the operating system, leading to a lower usable capacity than the sum of the NAND chips on a given drive. Overprovisioning isn't the only element that demands a slice of SSD capacity, either. The hardware-level XOR and RAISE redundancy schemes built into 320 Series and SandForce-powered SSDs require additional flash capacity to store parity data, which is why those drives have slightly lower capacities.
We'll get into cost-per-gigabyte calculations a little later, but it's worth keeping in mind that the m4 and Performance 3 offer 7GB more than their counterparts. That's a substantial chunk of storage when you're trying to squeeze as many games as possible onto an OS and applications drive.
Take note of the price column over on the right, too. The cost of each drive has been factored into our value graphs, and there's quite a spread between the $166 Force 3, and the $279 510 Series. The Intel drive is by far the most expensive of the bunch, and the 320 Series is surprisingly pricey given its sluggish 3Gbps interface.
With two more years of warranty coverage than the competition, the 320 Series has at least one unique attribute to help justify its price tag. There's also an array of capacitors on the circuit board that should keep the drive alive long enough to complete outstanding write operations if the power cuts out. The 510 Series doesn't enjoy either of those perks, but it does have the unique distinction of being Intel's first shot at building an SSD with someone else's controller technology. Intel cooked up its own firmware optimizations for the 510 Series, and they'll have to be quite effective to account the premium the drive commands over Crucial and Corsair SSDs based on the same Marvell controller.
Corsair's Performance 3 Series is the elder of the other two Marvell models. Despite being introduced at CES earlier this year, we heard only last week that the drive may not be long for this world. The SSD market moves quickly, and as we move through our performance results, it will become clear why we're not sad to see the Performance 3 go.
If you're interested in the Marvell controller, Crucial's newer m4 SSD is definitely more appealing. The m4 is cheaper, for one, and it's decked out with double the number of NAND chips (16 in total), all of which are fabbed on a 25-nm process. As the consumer brand of parent company Micron, you can probably guess who supplies the flash and DRAM cache chips for the m4. Crucial is one of only a handful of SSD makers with NAND production capacity of its very own.
Over half of our group of nine SSDs is based on one controller: SandForce's SF-2281. Corsair and OCZ offer Force 3 and Agility 3 drives that match the controller with asynchronous memory, and both implementations use 16 of the same Micron NAND chips. None of the SandForce-based drives features DRAM cache memory, which isn't required by the controller.
The Force Series GT, HyperX, and Vertex 3 all use the same combination of the SandForce controller and 16 synchronous NAND chips, making them brothers from different mothers. The synchronous NAND comes from Intel rather than Micron. (Incidentially, the two companies do have a joint flash venture dubbed IM Flash Technologies. It doesn't supply flash memory for any of the SSDs in this round-up, though.)
While the Vertex 3 wraps everything up in a nondescipt black case, the GT is decked out in an ultra-bright shade of red that wouldn't look out of place on a Ferrari. The paint job won't make the drive any faster, but it's nice to see a little bit of effort being put into making SSDs look and feel as expensive as they are.
If you think the GT looks good, then get a load of Kingston's HyperX. The drive looks nothing like the firm's previous SSD efforts, which were comparatively sedate. This is Kingston's first foray into SandForce territory, and at least as far as aesthetics are concerned, it's the most attractive SSD on the market. Unfortunately, the case is secured with a set of trick Allen bolts, preventing us from popping it open to peek at the circuit board. Kingston assures me that it hasn't hidden a JMicron controller under the hood.
If that's not enough SandForce variety for you, we should note that OCZ has two more SSD models based on the SF-2281. A cheaper Solid 3 drive is positioned below the Agility 3, while a pricier Max IOps variant of the Vertex 3 fills out the other end of the spectrum. OCZ's middle children seem to be the most popular members of the family, which is why they're the focus for today.
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