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OCZ's Vector 180 solid-state drive reviewed

Barefoot goes bigger

Stop me if you've heard this one before. An SSD maker walks into a fab and orders a round of NAND built on the latest process. The chips are swapped into an existing drive based on a familiar controller, the firmware is tweaked as necessary, and the model number is incremented by an arbitrary margin. With a fresh sticker affixed, a new solid-state drive is born.

Lousy punchline, I know. But the joke is on me, because I have to figure out how to write about OCZ's new Vector 180 without putting you all to sleep.

This is OCZ we're talking about, so maybe that task won't be too difficult. The company's SSDs went through quite a rough patch a few years ago, in part due to their early adoption of SandForce controller technology that was still rough around the edges. OCZ has been rehabilitating its reputation ever since, and it seems to be on the right track since being acquired by Toshiba in late 2013.

So the Vector 180 isn't just another Barefoot-based SSD with upgraded NAND. It's the latest chapter in an increasingly convincing comeback story. And it's no joke.

OCZ's new hotness replaces the high-end Vector 150 SSD introduced in 2013. It uses the same proprietary Barefoot 3 M00 controller, but it's based on a newer, "A19" revision of Toshiba's 19-nm MLC NAND. This is the third OCZ SSD to adopt A19 flash. The budget-oriented ARC 100 and AMD-branded Radeon R7 SSDs use the same NAND—and similar Barefoot 3 controller technology.

In some respects, very little has changed in the SSD arena since 2013. Serial ATA is still the predominant interface, and eight-channel controllers remain the norm. The Barefoot 3 M00 fits right in despite its age.

Higher-capacity SSDs have become more common over the past couple years, and the Vector 180 is OCZ's first to reach toward terabyte territory. The drive is available in capacities up to 960GB, while the rest of OCZ's consumer-grade SSDs top out in the 480-512GB range. Here are the performance specs for each capacity:

Capacity Die config Max sequential (MB/s) Max 4KB random (IOps) Sustained 4KB
write IOps
Price $/GB
Read Write Read Write
120GB 16 x 8GB 550 450 85k 90k 12k $89.99 $0.75
240GB 32 x 8GB 550 530 95k 90k 20k $149.99 $0.62
480GB 64 x 8GB 550 530 100k 95k 23k $274.99 $0.57
960GB 64 x 16GB 550 530 100k 95k 20k $499.99 $0.52

If those speed ratings look familiar, that's because the Vector 150 has the exact same specs. Upgrading the NAND doesn't appear to impart any performance benefits, likely because the 6Gbps SATA interface is the primary bottleneck. We've heard numerous SSD makers lament the limitations of Serial ATA, and we can't wait for the PCIe revolution to begin.

As expected, the 120GB variant is the runt of the litter. Eight-channel controllers typically require at least 32 flash dies to achieve peak performance, and at 8GB per die, the 120GB drive simply doesn't have enough NAND. The 240GB and 480GB versions also use 8GB dies, while the 960GB taps larger 16GB ones. Interestingly, the top capacity has a lower sustained write speed rating than the 480GB, despite the fact that both employ 64-die arrays.

Like other Barefoot-based SSDs, the Vector 180 can encrypt bits in hardware using a 256-bit AES algorithm. However, it lacks support for the associated IEEE and TCG Opal standards—and, by extension, for Microsoft's eDrive spec. Plenty of other SSDs support those standards, including drives that cost a lot less than the Vector.

In a new twist, OCZ has added a measure of power-loss protection dubbed Power Failure Management Plus, or PFM+. If the Vector detects "power anomalies," it uses onboard capacitors to fuel "system-critical routines" before shutting down automatically. As far as I can tell, those routines are largely limited to saving a copy of the mapping table to the flash. This information is normally housed in the drive's volatile DRAM cache, making it especially sensitive to power loss. The Vector also takes periodic snapshots of its mapping table during normal operation.

Although PFM+ is a nice perk, it's not as robust as the power-loss protection common on server-grade SSDs. The scheme only protects "at-rest" data that's already written to the flash—it doesn't preserve "in-flight" data that has yet to be committed to the NAND.

The Vector 180 is rated to withstand 50GB of writes per day for the length of its five-year warranty. That's more than enough endurance for most workloads, and it probably under-sells the drive's true write tolerance. As we've seen in our ongoing SSD Endurance Experiment, SSDs can survive far more writes than their official specifications claim.

Unlike typical SSD warranties, the Vector's Shield Plus coverage is bolstered by an advanced replacement policy. If the drive fails, OCZ will ship a replacement along with a pre-paid shipping label for the faulty unit. There's no need to dig up the original receipt, either. Only the drive's serial number is required to initiate a return.

Watch our discussion of the Vector 180 on the TR Podcast

Obviously, it's better to avoid failures in the first place. The problematic SSDs of OCZ's past still cast a dark shadow, but the company's recent products have fared much better. According to internal data OCZ shared with us last summer, the return rates for Barefoot-based drives with Toshiba flash are under 0.1%.

That figure seems a little too good to be true, but the anecdotal evidence suggests failure rates have plummeted since the bad old days. The Amazon and Newegg user reviews for OCZ's latest SSDs are largely positive, with loads of glowing praise and relatively few complaints. Most of the negative reviews apply to the Vertex 450, which was released before Toshiba bought OCZ, and to the 480GB versions of the ARC 100 and Radeon R7. Customers seem pretty happy with the rest of the lineup, including the Vector 150, the Vertex 460 and 460A, and the other ARC 100 and Radeon R7 capacities.

User reviews are far from gospel, but they're the best gauge we have for assessing real-world reliability. All the data we've seen indicates that OCZ's newer SSDs are a lot more reliable than their predecessors.

Speaking of data, let's move on to our performance results...