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OCZ's Vector SSD reviewed

Indilinx rides again, for real this time

OCZ deserves a lot of credit for helping to popularize solid-state drives among PC enthusiasts. So does Indilinx, whose Barefoot controller powered the original OCZ Vertex SSD. The two firms became one in 2011, when OCZ bought Indilinx for $32 million. That acquisition gave OCZ in-house controller expertise, a resource many of its SSD rivals lack, and we eagerly awaited the inevitable offspring.

The first products spawned by the marriage weren't quite what we were expecting. OCZ introduced Octane, Vertex 4, and Agility 4 SSDs tagged with "Indilinx Infused" badges that referred not to the controller silicon, but to the accompanying firmware. Those drives all used off-the-shelf Marvell controller chips combined with custom firmware developed by OCZ. And so we waited some more.

The Indilinx badge has popped up again on OCZ's new Vector SSD, but this time it has a deeper meaning. Yes, the Vector boasts custom firmware like its similarly infused predecessors. Unlike those other drives, though, the Vector has controller silicon all its own: the Indilinx Barefoot 3. This long-anticipated chip makes its debut in the Vector, and we've run the drive through its paces to see whether it's been worth the wait.

Inside the Vector
Even at first glance, the Vector is clearly different from OCZ's existing drives. There's the slimmer 7-mm case, which has rounder corners and a bigger sticker than the firm's previous 9.5-mm designs. Despite being thinner, the Vector is noticeably heavier, tipping the scales at 116 grams. For reference, the equivalent Vertex 4 model weighs 92 grams, while the Intel 335 Series and Samsung 840 Series are just 81 and 53 grams, respectively. Those differences are essentially meaningless for desktop use, but weight-obsessed notebook users may want to take note. For what it's worth, the thick metal walls responsible for the Vector's heft also make the drive feel practically bombproof.

A Phillips screwdriver is all that's required to crack open the case and reveal the circuit board inside. On it, we find the Barefoot 3 controller surrounded by a collection of OCZ-branded memory chips. We'll get to the flash in a moment, but first, let's take a closer look at the controller. OCZ has supplied a helpful block diagram identifying the most interesting parts:

There are two cores inside the Barefoot 3 chip: an ARM-based Cortex processor and an Aragon co-processor of OCZ's own creation. Earlier this year, former OCZ CEO Ryan Petersen described Aragon as a 32-bit processor with an SSD-specific RISC instruction set. This computational sidekick is tasked with efficiently managing the flash interface, OCZ says, but we couldn't pry additional details from the company. OCZ wouldn't get into more specifics on the ARM-based core, either, noting only that it's based on the "Cortex" architecture. I suspect this is a Cortex-R variant, which is what ARM recommends for use in storage controllers.

A hardware randomizer appears in the Barefoot 3's block diagram, suggesting that the Vector has full-disk encryption support. Except it doesn't. Encryption is supported by the controller, but that functionality has been disabled in the Vector; OCZ doesn't think consumers are all that interested in scrambling data stored on the drive. Having been forced to downgrade the encryption support of its SandForce-based drives due to a problem with the associated controller, OCZ may be in a good position to judge the importance of full-disk encryption among its customers. The company is "continuing to evaluate enabling this functionality," suggesting it might be possible to unlock the feature via firmware update. At the very least, I'd expect OCZ to release an enterprise-oriented SSD that taps into the Barefoot 3's encryption support.

OCZ says the Vector and its associated Barefoot 3 controller have been tuned to offer high performance and endurance without compression or lost capacity. If you've been following the solid-state storage business over the past couple years, you might interpret that assertion as a thinly veiled dig at SandForce—a company that supplied the controllers for two generations of multiple OCZ SSD families before the infamous BSOD bug reared its ugly head.

To accelerate performance and reduce NAND wear, SandForce controllers compress incoming data when writing it to the flash. The benefits of this approach hinge on the compressibility of the data, so the results can vary based on the file type. Since the Vector's Barefoot 3 controller doesn't use compression, it should be equally adept at shuffling everything from plain text files to highly compressed movies.

The bit about lost capacity likely refers to RAISE, a RAID-like flash redundancy scheme used by most SandForce-based SSDs. This feature guards against data loss due to physical flash failures, but you lose some capacity to store the necessary parity data. That's why typical SandForce drives offer 120, 240, and 480GB of storage despite having 128, 256, and 512GB of flash memory onboard. The Vector doesn't dedicate any of its flash capacity to RAID-like schemes, freeing up extra gigabytes for user storage.