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Samsung's 830 Series solid-state drive


The dark horse rides again
— 5:40 PM on February 2, 2012

Manufacturer Samsung
Model 830 Series
Price (256GB) $360
Availability Now

Despite being a consumer electronics giant that makes everything from smartphones to home appliances, Samsung has always been something of a dark horse in the PC storage industry. For years, the company cranked out some of the finest desktop hard drives around, yet they were often difficult to find in stock at online retailers. We got the sense that Samsung was far less interested in selling bare drives to the enthusiast community than the other hard drive makers.

Indeed, Samsung has now bailed out of selling hard drives completely. This past spring, Seagate announced plans to acquire Samsung's hard drive business. The deal doesn't include Samsung's SSD division, but it does stipulate that Seagate use Samsung flash memory in its hybrid and solid-state drives. Hmmm.

As one of the world's largest producers of flash memory—and slim computing devices too small for traditional hard drives—Samsung's solid-state focus makes a lot of sense. The firm is in the enviable position of being one of very few in the industry capable of producing all the key components within an SSD. It's been doing so for years, and as with hard drives, the focus has largely been on catering to big-name PC vendors and system builders.

Perhaps because PC enthusiasts have been quick to adopt SSDs in their desktop systems, Samsung has recently seemed more intent on catering to us. A little more than a year ago, it released a 470 Series SSD with slick packaging, competitive performance, and only a few weaknesses. Now, Samsung is back with an 830 Series drive that promises to be substantially faster without breaking the bank. In a nod to enthusiasts, the drive even comes with a free copy of Batman: Arkham City. It'll take more than a fancy game bundle to impress us, so we've run Samsung's latest through our usual gauntlet of storage tests to see how it stacks up. The results might surprise you.

Slim shady
Solid-state drives are undeniably premium storage solutions, and they should really look the part. Alas, all too many are clad in uninspired cases that look particularly out of place considering the associated price tags. Not the Samsung 830 Series, whose case features a brushed metal face with nicely beveled edges. Although there's nothing particularly flashy about the design, it at least gives the impression of a high-end product.

The 830 Series is skinnier than the competition, too. Though it has the same footprint as a standard 2.5" drive, it's only 7 mm thick. Most solid-state drives, like the OCZ Octane pictured on the left in the image above, have a 9.5-mm thickness. The same goes for most 2.5" mechanical hard drives. With a thinner profile, this new Samsung SSD should offer better compatibility with the increasing number of ultra-slim notebooks on the market.

The only thing I don't like about the case is how difficult it is to pry open. SSD enclosures are typically held together with miniature screws that are easily removed; the biggest barrier to entry is usually a warranty sticker over one of the screws. Samsung instead uses a press-fit case that appears impossible to crack open without breaking a few of the internal plastic clips holding things together. Gingerly sliding a pocket knife around the edge of the top piece was enough to do the trick, but this sort of surgery will definitely void your warranty.

Will end users ever need to bust open their drives? Probably not. But Samsung shrouds much of this new model in mystery, so we couldn't resist the opportunity to peek up its skirt.

The chips at the heart of the drive are particularly important because Samsung makes each and every one of them. Quick, name another SSD company that produces its own controller, flash memory, and cache. Toshiba is the only one that comes to mind, and it isn't exactly a big player in the consumer SSD market. (Intel does produce its own flash memory and controllers, but it's made a habit of using third-party controller tech for high-end drives.)

Samsung was tight-lipped about the controller in its 470 Series SSD, and the firm has remained secretive regarding the MCX chip in the 830 Series. We know the chip has a 6Gbps interface, which is a step up from the 3Gbps SATA link in the old model. We also know the MCX controller has three processor cores based on the ARM9 architecture, and that those cores can execute different instructions in parallel. Samsung is quite explicit about the fact that the controller doesn't engage in any funky write-compression trickery, but it can encrypt bits with a 256-bit AES algorithm. That's about it as far as details are concerned.

We've asked Samsung to reveal more specifics about the MCX chip and how it differs from previous generations, but our questions remain unanswered. Samsung pushed the 470 Series as a "multi-CPU" design, so the new MCX may not be its first triple-core controller. This isn't the company's first ARM-based SSD controller; the chip in the 470 Series was prominently inscribed with the ARM name, too.

Since solid-state drives extract much of their performance from parallelism, both within their controllers and in the attached NAND arrays, I suspect the MCX chip may have more memory channels than its predecessor. Unfortunately, Samsung has declined to reveal the number of channels in each controller. We do, however, know a little bit more about the memory chips in this new SSD.