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A look at new SSDs from Corsair, Kingston, Plextor, and WD

Fresh faces throw their hats into the ring

We've all done it. You find yourself at the computer late at night. It's dark out, and maybe the lights are off. You're alone. Inevitably, your mind wanders from the task at hand to a far more carnal desire... for the perfect enthusiast's PC. Some build dream rigs in their heads, while others prefer to fill online shopping carts with their perfect mix of components. Occasionally, I'll consider the sort of world-beating machine I'd assemble if money were no object. But I'm a realist at heart, and most of the time I end up contemplating a sweet spot rig—the perfect mix of components that I'd actually buy if tasked with building myself a new desktop.

At the moment, my hypothetical sweet spot sits somewhere between our system guide's Utility Player and Sweeter Spot configs. As much as I'm tempted by the Sweeter Spot's Hyper-Threading-equipped Core i7-860, the Utility Player's quad-core i5-750 is plenty of CPU for the sort of things I do with my desktop on a day-to-day basis. I'd spring for the Sweeter Spot's Radeon HD 5850 graphics card in a heartbeat, though. This perfect desktop of mine is paired with three 24", 1920x1200 IPS panels for multitasking real estate, and I want enough horsepower to handle recent games in a three-way Eyefinity config.

I also want my ideal desktop to be as quiet as possible, which is why I'd move upmarket from the Sweeter Spot's single hard drive to a hybrid combo that melds an SSD with a pair of low-RPM mechanical hard drives running in a fault-tolerant RAID 1 array. This sort of setup isn't cheap, but it offers jaw-dropping performance backed by redundant mass storage that barely makes a peep.

Solid-state drives have been on the radar for a while now, but they've long been regarded as far too expensive to be practical, even with phenomenal performance. Prices have fallen dramatically in recent years, though, and we're finally at a point where it isn't so outlandish to consider seriously purchasing an SSD for a high-performance desktop PC.

There's little doubt in my mind that increasing competition has played a role in forcing SSD prices downward. Unlike the world of mechanical hard drives, which is made up of only a small handful of well-established players, the SSD market is teeming with fresh faces looking to claim territory. New drives are popping up faster than Justin Bieber memes, and to get the lay of the land, we've assembled four of them for closer inspection.

In this latest batch of SSDs, we have Corsair's Nova V128, Kingston's SSDNow V+, Plextor's PX-128M1S, and Western Digital's SiliconEdge Blue. As one might expect, all four use the 2.5", 9.5-mm mobile hard drive form factor that has become de rigueur for solid-state drives. This drive size is a perfect fit for most laptops, although the 3.5" drive bays found in typical desktop enclosures will require an adapter. Fortunately, Corsair provides the necessary bracket with the Nova. You'll have to seek out an adapter with the other three or resort to duct tape, which isn't that bad of a solution considering that SSDs can be run in any orientation and require no vibration damping. Some newer desktop cases do feature 2.5" drive bays, but those models are still few and far between.

Of course, the casing is the least interesting element of a modern SSD. The underlying controller and flash memory largely determine drive performance, making those elements the most interesting to us. As luck would have it, each of the four drives we're looking at today features a different controller under its thin, metal skin.

Corsair's Nova V128 sports a new spin on an old favorite. Indilinx burst onto the SSD scene last year with its Barefoot controller that promised TRIM support long before Windows 7's release. The Nova uses a revised version of that controller dubbed the Barefoot ECO. According to Indilinx, this latest Barefoot revision should offer near-equivalent performance to the original when used with flash memory built on a 5x-nm node. The ECO also improves compatibility with newer flash memory built using 3x-nm process technology. Corsair says the chip can offer better performance than its predecessor when used with newer flash chips.

And that's just what has been done with the Nova. Interestingly, Corsair pairs the ECO with 34-nm flash memory chips from IM Flash Technologies—Intel's joint venture with Micron. A total of 16 MLC flash chips populate our 128GB Nova, with eight of them appearing on each side of the drive's circuit board. Like Barefoot implementations of old, you'll also find 64MB of cache memory onboard.

As one might expect, the ECO controller retains the original Barefoot's TRIM support and garbage-collection scheme. Garbage collection is actually a part of each of the SSDs we've assembled today, although TRIM support is not.

Although Indilinx has quickly made a name for itself in SSD circles, you don't hear as much about Toshiba. Kingston's SSDNow V+ series is our first glimpse of Toshiba's T6UG1XBG controller, which is predictably paired with Toshiba's own MLC flash memory chips. My apologies for the blank-looking chips in the picture above. The squishy rubber pad that sits between the SSDNow's circuit board and casing has all but stripped our chips of their silk-screened markings. All that's left are faint black-on-black letters that proved too difficult to photograph.

Few details are available on the Toshiba controller. However, we can tell you that it offers TRIM support and uses a 3Gbps Serial ATA interface. SSDs may be the only devices with a chance of actually exploiting a 6Gbps Serial ATA link, but none of the drives in this bunch employ the next-gen standard.

Unlike the other drives, which spread memory across both sides of their circuit boards, all of the SSDNow's memory chips can be found topside. Our 128GB drive has eight 43-nm flash chips in total, and there's a 128MB DRAM cache thrown in for good measure.

The PX-128M1S is not only Plextor's first SSD, but also our first look at Marvell's "Da Vinci" 88SS8014 controller. This chip has since been succeeded by a new 88SS9174 that has a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface and appears in Crucial's RealSSD C300. However, Plextor doesn't plan on offering an SSD with the new controller until this summer.

Although I wouldn't write off the old Marvell controller simply because there's a new one, the Da Vinci design has a potentially fatal flaw: it doesn't support the TRIM command. The block-rewrite penalty associated with flash memory has long been the scourge of SSD performance, and without support for TRIM, the Plextor drive comes into this round-up at a distinct disadvantage.

Perhaps in an attempt to make up for controller shortcomings, Plextor endows the PX-128M1S with a generous 128MB DRAM cache that can be found on the underside of the circuit board. The drive's memory chips are provided by Samsung, and their part number doesn't reveal the process technology used to build the chips. I suspect they were fabbed on a 40-nm node. The 16 MLC flash chips are divided evenly between the two sides of the board.

With the SiliconEdge Blue, Western Digital has become the first traditional hard drive maker to get into the desktop SSD market. Don't let the logo on the controller chip fool you, though. WD didn't build the chip, and it wouldn't say who did. The folks over at AnandTech have learned that the controller is a JMicron JMF612, though.

Early SSDs powered by JMicron's old JMF602 flash controller were plagued with stuttering issues, which may be why WD was reticent to reveal the controller's roots. Still, the JMF612 appears to be a contemporary design, complete with built-in garbage collection and TRIM support. Western Digital says it spent a great deal of time tuning the SiliconEdge's firmware, as well. Those firmware enhancements are unique to the SiliconEdge Blue and won't be made available to other SSD makers who use the JMicron chip.

Western Digital pairs the JMF612 with a 64MB DRAM cache and MLC flash memory from Samsung. Our drive, a 256GB model, came with a whopping 32 flash chips split evenly between the top and bottom of the circuit board. The chips themselves are double-stacked, allowing WD to increase the drive's capacity in the same form factor without resorting to higher-density chips. Samsung's data sheets don't say, but I suspect these chips are 40-nm units, just like the ones on the Plextor drive.