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.
To evaluate the Portable SSD T1’s performance, we connected it to a Haswell-based Z97 system using one of the Intel chipset’s native USB 3.0 ports. We don’t have an exact SATA match for our 500GB sample, so we drafted the 850 EVO 1TB to provide a frame of reference.
The original plan was to test the EVO not only with its usual SATA connectivity, but also with a SuperSpeed USB link using Thermaltake’s BlacX 5G drive dock. That setup would have given us a nice sense of how the T1’s USB translation compares to an off-the-shelf solution. Unfortunately, the dock suffered numerous disconnects during benchmark runs and even when trying to format the 850 EVO. We had to swap in an older 840 EVO 500GB to get our comparative USB results, and we ran that drive through the gauntlet in SATA mode for good measure.
Our first batch of results comes from CrystalDiskMark’s sequential and random I/O tests. We used the QD32 test for random I/O.
As expected, the Portable SSD T1 can’t keep up with the SATA drives. It’s about 100MB/s behind with sequential transfers and much slower with random I/O.
The data suggest those deltas are largely the fault of the USB interface. Note how the 840 EVO’s performance drops appreciably when that drive switches from a SATA to USB connection. The T1 is actually ahead of USB-bound EVO in most of our tests, though it falls behind with random writes.
Our second collection of results was generated with TR RoboBench, a slick utility developed by our in-house coder, Bruno “morphine” Ferreira. RoboBench copies files between the target drive and a wicked-fast RAM disk using Windows’ multi-threaded robocopy command. We used eight threads, the robocopy default, and two sets of files. The media set comprises large videos, MP3s, and RAW images, while the work set is confined to much smaller documents, spreadsheets, and images.
The T1 largely hangs with its USB competition in the read speed tests, but its performance with smaller files isn’t as good as that of the EVO-and-dock combo. As we saw in CrystalDiskMark, the SATA SSDs enjoy comfortable leads.
Before running RoboBench’s write speed tests, we put the target drive in a simulated used state by filling it to capacity and then unleashing 30 minutes of random writes. The drive is then formatted, which invokes the Trim command to clear unused flash pages, before RoboBench does its thing.
The SATA drives maintain their lead, and they utterly dominate the T1 with smaller work files. That said, the Portable SSD isn’t substantially slower when writing larger media files. It’s also way ahead of the USB competition.
The 840 EVO’s RoboBench write speeds are surprisingly sluggish when the drive is connected via USB, likely because our dock isn’t passing the Trim command correctly. Trimcheck doesn’t detect support for the command, and Windows sees the dock as a hard drive even with an SSD sitting in the bay. Those are hardly good signs for the SSD-specific feature.
Our data suggest the Portable SSD T1 executes Trim commands correctly, and trimcheck concurs. The T1 seems to take a little longer to clear flash pages than the 850 EVO, though. The first test after the format runs much slower than subsequent ones, a characteristic the EVO doesn’t share.
Despite being extremely compact and practically weightless, the Portable SSD T1 offers up to a terabyte of speedy, shock-tolerant storage. Performance is as good as we’ve seen from a USB drive—and pretty darned quick compared to SATA gear. Just keep in mind that the USB interface clearly isn’t ideal for heavy random I/O workloads. Good thing external drives typically face sequential transfers.
Now, miniaturization does come at a premium. Samsung prices the Portable SSD T1 at $179.99 for 250GB, $299.99 for 500GB, and $599.99 for 1TB, which is steeper than the going rate for the 850 EVO. The markup on the 500GB and 1TB variants is high enough to cover the cost of a nice external enclosure, and the three-year warranty is shorter than the five-year coverage that comes with the EVO.
DIY alternatives can’t match the portability of the T1’s tiny chassis, though. Trim support isn’t guaranteed, and neither is integrated encryption. There’s definitely something to be said for the pocketable, all-in-one approach.