When shopping online, what you see isn't always what you get. That seems to hold especially true for budget solid-state drives. Over the past week or so, we've seen an uproar over what some folks perceive as bait-and-switch tactics by SSD vendors Kingston and PNY. That uproar has led to a boycott organized by Reddit's /r/buildapc subreddit. The folks leading the boycott are vowing not to purchase or recommend Kingston or PNY products "until an apology or admission of guilt is made by either company."
So, what's the story here?
Earlier this year, Kingston quietly switched from using synchronous to asynchronous NAND flash in its SSDNow V300 solid-state drives. Initial reviews of the V300 had shown solid performance, but as AnandTech and others discovered, the transition to asynchronous NAND led to a measurable slowdown in a number of benchmarks. This discrepancy led us to drop the V300 from our February 2014 System Guide recommendations.
Then, last week, TweakTown received an e-mail from a reader who purchased one of PNY's Optima SSDs based on the site's recommendation. While TweakTown had given a favorable review to the Optima based on the performance of its Silicon Motion controller, the reader discovered that his Optima drive came with an LSI SandForce controller. There was no indication of whether that version of the drive matched the performance of the Silicon Motion-based model.
Voicing concern over these inconsistencies in component sourcing, TweakTown concluded, "Sadly, we no longer have faith in PNY or Kingston SSDs as both companies have acted with poor judgment and misled SSD product reviewers, our readers and the buying public."
In response, both Kingston and PNY issued statements to the press. Here's the statement we received from Kingston earlier this week:
Our strategy for the V300 has always been, and will continue to be, focused on using NAND from various manufacturers in an effort to ensure a good user experience at a great price. Internally, we focused on performance features such as quick boot, application opening and the industry standard ATTO and IOmeter benchmarks. As a result, all builds of our V300 meet our published ATTO and IOmeter specifications. We realize that we underestimated the importance of other benchmarks that the more technical segment of our customers use when testing the performance of their SSDs.
To ensure that customers have a complete understanding of what the minimum performance will be with the benchmarks in question, we have included additional benchmarks on our datasheet available here: http://www.kingston.com/datasheets/sv300s3_us.pdf. A brief that includes a wider range of benchmarks was also published in March. That is available here: http://media.kingston.com/support/downloads/V300_Benchmark_Brief_MKF_586.pdf
These benchmarks are among the most extensive information available for any entry-level SSD in today's market. In addition to benchmark utilities, a regular part of Kingston’s overall SSD testing is putting the drive through common everyday tasks to best replicate real-world use. These include word processing, Internet surfing, email, gaming and multimedia such as streaming music and video playback. With both benchmarks and real world applications, our testing focuses on providing an exceptional user experience. We believe that the best metric of all is your day-to-day use especially when it comes to booting up, shutting down, opening and closing programs and other common everyday tasks. Armed with these figures and the real-life benefits of our SSD over HDD technology coupled with our aggressive price points, we believe that the V300 will continue to be the most popular entry-level SSD in the marketplace.
Kingston's strategy of sourcing components from multiple vendors is understandable. Budget SSDs sell in large quantities and carry tight profit margins. For drive makers that don't produce their own NAND internally, keeping costs down can require tapping multiple suppliers. Expecting absolute consistency from all entry-level drives may therefore be unrealistic.
On the other hand, I find it more difficult to swallow Kingston's assertion that it "underestimated" the relevance of benchmarks used by the "more technical segment" of its user base. The company's own data show a 37% difference between the synchronous and asynchronous versions of the SSDNow V300 in PCMark 8's storage bandwidth test. That test, by Kingston's own account, "uses traces from World of Warcraft, Battlefield, Adobe Photoshop, In Design, After Effects, Illustrator and Microsoft Office applications." Those are hardly enthusiast-specific corner cases. One would expect a major SSD vendor like Kingston to take them into account when validating the performance of a new SSD.
In any case, Kingston is at least being somewhat transparent about the discrepancies between different V300 models. The "benchmarking brief" containing the numbers above is linked right on the SSDNow V300 product page. The first page of the brief states, "In order to achieve a balance of price and performance, we must maintain the flexibility to source NAND Flash components from various Tier 1 NAND manufacturers. At times, this will mean that there is a difference in benchmarked performance, where certain builds outperform our advertised specification (450MB/s Read / Write) while other drives will meet the advertised specification." That's probably not the wording we would have used, but the benchmark results are right there in the same document.
The situation with PNY seems a little more straightforward. The Optima's product page clearly states, "The PNY Optima™ SSD line utilizes multiple qualified controllers to offer the best available solution to our customers." In a statement to TweakTown, PNY went on to note:
Yes we did ship some Optima SSD's with SandForce controllers, but only if they meet the minimum advertised performance levels (in most of the benchmark tests, LSI controllers outperform SMI controllers). The readers assumption that PNY has abandoned SMI controllers is wrong as we have been shipping mostly SMI controllers, but also utilizing LSI to fill in the gaps.
Earlier today, one of the folks from the /r/buildapc subreddit purchased and tested a retail PNY Optima drive based on the SandForce controller. According to that person, "The versions of the PNY Optima that have switched over to a Sandforce controller are actually just PNY XLR8 drives. The XLR8 was, and still is, almost universally regarded as an equivalent or better drive than the Silicon Motion based Optima." The benchmarks in the Reddit post—CrystalDiskMark, AS-SSD, ATTO, and Anvil—show the SandForce-based Optima and the XLR8 performing almost identically.
When buying a product based on an online review, most of us expect our purchase to match the reviewed item. It's hard not to feel some degree of trepidation when that doesn't happen, especially if the performance implications of such a discrepancy are unclear. Since component variability seems to be a key part of keeping budget SSD prices down, we'll likely see more examples of this in the future, and there's no telling whether the component variances will or won't impact performance, stability, longevity, and so forth.
Is a blanket boycott the best way to prevent that from happening? Probably not. Again, variability in component sourcing may be difficult to avoid in budget SSDs from some vendors.
However, there's no question that SSD vendors should be forthright about this sort of thing, particularly when dealing with reviewers. If the first round of reviews for both the V300 and Optima had clearly indicated the potential for component variability, we wouldn't be here today. The answer, then, may simply be for us reviewers to demand more transparency from SSD vendors so that we can include the appropriate caveats in our coverage. That's what we'll be doing in the future.