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Samsung's Portable SSD T1 reviewed

A pocketable 850 EVO

Samsung introduced a portable version of its 850 EVO SSD during the barrage of CES news earlier this month. The USB 3.0 drive crams up to a terabyte of storage into a tiny, featherweight shell small enough to fit inside the extra little pocket on a pair of blue jeans. We've been playing with the Portable SSD T1 in our labs, and we can now tell you what it's like to actually use the thing.

Here's the requisite money shot of the drive poking out of my Levis:

The 850 EVO is an ideal candidate for portable deployment for several reasons. First, its flash-based storage has much better shock tolerance than mechanical alternatives, allowing the drive to be tossed in and out of bags and pockets with impunity. Unlike mechanical drives, SSDs are actually fast enough to take advantage of the USB 3.0 interface. And, as we saw in our review of the SATA version, the EVO's especially tiny circuit board is well-suited to a smaller portable enclosure.

With the accompanying cable detached, the T1 is a compact 2.8" x 2.1" x 0.36". More impressively, our 500GB sample weighs just 0.93 ounces. The cable brings the total up to 1.32 oz, or 38 grams, which feels like practically nothing. I could have sworn the case was empty when I first picked it up.

The Portable SSD T1 (left) and its 2.5" EVO sibling (right)

Although the weight—or lack thereof—is great for portability, the drive feels a little flimsy as a result. There just isn't a lot of mass. The fact that the top and bottom walls flex slightly when squeezed doesn't impart a sense of solidity, either. The chassis seems robust enough to handle a reasonable amount of rough treatment, but I wouldn't leave it unattended in the hands of a destructive toddler.

Much of the exterior is textured plastic that's easy to grip. The finish resists fingerprints and smudges, but the same can't be said for the glossy stripe that runs around one end of the body. That part of our sample is a mess of smeared prints after just a few days of handling, while the textured portion looks good as new.

The only other aesthetic adornment of note is the single activity light next to the Micro-B USB port. The blue glow is pleasantly subdued, unlike the blinding output of all too many LEDs.

Samsung ships the T1 with a 5.1" cable that plugs into conventional USB jacks. Reversible Type-C connectivity would be nice, along with support for the faster USB 3.1 spec, but hosts systems that support those standards were few and far between on the CES show floor, let alone in the real world. The current-gen setup ensures compatibility with pretty much every PC on the planet.

The cable is long enough to avoid interference from adjacent USB devices, and it's flexible enough to fold over the drive without too much of a bulge. It feels sturdy, too, though I worry about repeated folding fracturing the internal wiring over time. It would be nice if there were another way to attach the cable to the body, even if it were just for transportation.

We didn't have the courage to perform open-heart surgery on our drive, but Samsung tells us the T1 uses the same eight-channel controller and 32-layer V-NAND as the 850 EVO. Like in the 2.5" version, the NAND is split between single-bit SLC and three-bit TLC zones. The faster SLC zones are used by TurboWrite, a caching scheme that buffers incoming writes before passing them along to TLC main storage. TurboWrite does a good job of accelerating write performance for short bursts, but sustained transfers will eventually burn through its capacity, forcing writes to proceed directly to TLC cells at slower speeds.

The 850 EVO's controller has a SATA interface, so there's probably a USB bridge chip lurking under the hood. According to Samsung, performance is ultimately bound by the USB interface. Peak sequential throughput is pegged at 450MB/s, compared to 520MB/s for the EVO. The difference in maximum random IOps is even more striking: 8k/21k read/write for the Portable SSD versus 90k/80k for the EVO. In a moment, we'll see how the drive performs in our own sequential and random tests.

Before that, we should address the initial setup process. The T1 ships unactivated, with only a 128MB partition visible to the host. Windows and Mac installers on that partition unlock the drive's full capacity and give users the option to protect the contents with a password. That password protection is tied to 256-bit AES encryption and handled by Samsung's own software, which must be installed on any host that wants to access locked drives. Unencrypted drives can be used without additional software, though. When paired with the requisite USB OTG adapter, the unencrypted T1 even works with my Android smartphone.

On the next page, we'll see what the drive can do when connected to a modern Windows machine.