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OCZ's Vertex 450 solid-state drive reviewed

Home sweet home?

The OCZ Vertex was one of the very first SSDs to become popular among PC enthusiasts. Announced in 2008, the drive combined a four-channel Indilinx controller with up to 250GB of 50-nm flash memory. Even with a gen-two SATA interface and maximum read and writes speeds of 200 and 160MB/s, respectively, the Vertex was a nice step up from mechanical storage. At $3-4 per gig, it was also a pricey proposition.

In the years that followed, the Vertex family spawned multiple generations based on new controllers from SandForce and Marvell. Performance went up thanks to improvements in those chips, smarter firmware, and faster flash. Finer fabrication techniques also reduced the cost of flash memory, allowing SSDs to dip into more affordable territory.

The latest addition to the lineup is the Vertex 450. This fifth-generation drive costs less than a dollar per gig, promises 2-3 times the peak throughput of the original, and packs double the maximum capacity. The Vertex 450 also returns to the brand's roots: a fresh revision of Indilinx's Barefoot 3 controller lurks inside.

OCZ has owned Indilinx since 2011, and it's making good use of the acquisition. Late last year, we watched the Barefoot 3 propel OCZ's Vector SSD to the top of our overall performance standings. The Vertex 450 combines a tweaked "M10" version of that chip with 20-nm NAND and a lower price tag. Naturally, we had to take a closer look.

Vector Lite
Since the Barefoot 3 M10 sits at the heart of the Vertex 450, that's the best place to start. This derivative differs from the standard chip in only a few ways. The clock generator has been tweaked to improve power efficiency, and the frequency of the processor cores has been decreased "slightly." Also, support for 20-nm flash memory has been added. (In the Vector, the initial Barefoot 3 chip is paired with older 25-nm NAND.)

Apart from those changes, the original Barefoot 3 architecture is intact. The chip sports eight NAND channels and can address up to four NAND dies per channel. Dual processor cores sit between the flash interface and the 6Gbps Serial ATA connection to the host. One core is an off-the-shelf ARM design, while the other is a custom OCZ Aragon solution with an SSD-specific RISC instruction set.

Along with those processing resources, the Barefoot 3 has a hardware randomizer built with encryption in mind. OCZ didn't take advantage of that capability in the Vector, citing weak demand for encryption among the consumers targeted by the drive. The firm still doesn't believe encryption is a key feature for consumers. However, the old Vertex 4 supports 256-bit AES encryption, so the Vertex 450 adds that functionality to maintain consistency. We asked OCZ whether encryption support might make its way to the Vector, and we were told that a follow-up to that drive is in the works. The features for the Vector redux haven't been finalized, but it appears encryption support is a possibility.

The Vertex 450 is lined with NAND built on Micron's 20-nm lithography tech. Each die weighs in at 64Gb (8GB), and multiple dies are consolidated in the individual chip packages that populate the circuit board.

Capacity Die config Max sequential (MB/s) 4KB random (IOps) Price $/GB
Read Write Read Write
128GB 16 x 64Gb 525 290 75,000 70,000 $130 $1.02
256GB 32 x 64Gb 540 525 85,000 90,000 $230 $0.90
512GB 64 x 64Gb 540 530 85,000 90,000 $550 $1.07

64Gb dies are used throughout the Vertex 450 lineup, which somewhat handicaps the 128GB model. Only 16 of those 8GB dies are required to reach 128GB. As the performance ratings suggest, that's not enough to fully exploit the controller's internal parallelism. The Barefoot 3 can address four dies per memory channel, making 32-die configs the minimum for optimal performance. Only the 256 and 512GB variants of the Vertex 450 meet that requirement.

Between those higher-capacity units, only the 256GB model dips below the dollar-per-gig threshold. Unfortunately, it's out of stock everywhere. OCZ says the limited first batch of drives has sold out already. The Vertex 450 is in mass production, though, and OCZ says the larger capacities will be available "soon." Amazon and Newegg both have the 128GB model in stock.

The Vertex 450 is rated for 20GB of writes per day for the length of its three-year warranty. That limit applies to typical client workloads, and it's similar to the endurance ratings attached to other mid-range SSDs. Three-year warranty coverage is also pretty standard for drives in this price range.

Unfortunately, the length of the warranty doesn't tell us much about actual reliability. OCZ has a spotty history on that front, and some of the firm's problems can be attributed to its previous use of immature third-party platforms. Since the Barefoot 3 controller and firmware are all OCZ's own, there's no one else to blame if issues crop up with the Vertex 450. For a sense of how reliable the underlying Indilinx platform might be, we pored over Amazon and Newegg user reviews of its Barefoot 3-based Vector sibling.

Both online vendors have more one-star and otherwise negative reviews for the Vector than they do for rivals like the Intel 335 Series and Samsung's 840 and 840 Pro Series. At Amazon, which lumps together reviews for all capacities within a given drive family, 14% of the Vector reviews have one-star ratings compared to just 3% for the Samsung SSDs and zero for the Intel 335 Series. The story is similar at Newegg. There, we can isolate the Vector 256GB, whose one-star ratings total 15%. Similar models in the Intel 335 Series and Samsung 840 family have 5-8% one-star ratings.

A closer inspection of the negative Vector reviews reveals numerous reports of premature failures. There are similar complaints in the negative reviews of competing drives—just not nearly as many.

In March, OCZ released updated Vector firmware to address "detection issues on some platforms" and a "corner case issue with firmware corruption after unexpected sudden power loss." It's unclear whether the problems targeted by that release are responsible for the higher failure rates reported by users, but OCZ recommends that drives be updated to the latest revision.

OCZ support staff have responded to most of the negative online reviews, and their messages contend that the Vector "has been proven to be an ultra-reliable SSD with extremely positive reviews, both in print and online." When asked to share the data behind its ultra-reliable claim, OCZ told us the Vector's defect rate is less than 1%. The company also reaffirmed its commitment to working with users to resolve problems and improve its products. To its credit, OCZ has an active support forum, and it's clearly trying to engage users who are reporting issues. A clear majority of Vector users seem to be quite happy with their drives, as well.

Reliability testing is tricky, especially if you want to obtain results within a reasonable timeframe. We can, however, run the Vertex 450 through an exhaustive suite of benchmarks to see how the drive's performance measures up.