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Toshiba's RC100 480 GB SSD reviewed

A DRAM-less drive takes advantage of NVMe HMB

For a long time, the NVMe interface was associated with breakneck speeds and top-dollar drives. But the technology has lost some of its new shiny as it's aged and become available in off-the-shelf controllers from companies like Marvell and Silicon Motion. It's only natural for any technology to go through this kind of maturity, of course. Though the "A" in AHCI may as well stand for "ancient" these days, that standard was itself a revolutionary improvement when it arrived to slap the IDE ecosystem in the face.

As NVMe becomes more quotidian, SSD manufacturers have begun introducing drives equipped with the protocol at lower price points. The days of NVMe-seekers having to shell out $1000 for a data-center-derived Intel 750 Series drive are long gone. Toshiba has proven in the past that it has the chops to make high-performance NVMe products with its excellent OCZ RD400 SSD and its OEM-only XG5 drive. The company's latest client SSD, however, is a completely different beast. Have a squint at the minute RC100.

Don't be fooled by its footprint. This tiny thing is PCIe-powered and NVMe-enabled, but in an adorable M.2 2242 package instead of the 2280 form factor we're more accustomed to. SSDs in M.2 2242 sizes are quite unusual, and the RC100 may be the sole option that takes advantage of the next-gen protocol. The RC100 comes in three flavors, the largest of which found its way into our storage labs recently.

Toshiba RC100
Capacity Max sequential (MB/s) Max random (IOps) Suggested
Read Write Read Write
120 GB 1350 700 80K 95K $59.99
240 GB 1600 1050 130K 110K $79.99
480 GB 1600 1100 150K 110K $154.99

This drive is not about to take the XG5s and 970 EVOs of the world by storm. It has no DRAM cache and can only take advantage of two lanes of PCIe Gen3 bandwidth. There's no doubt that those facts gather clouds over the RC100's performance potential, but theoretically Toshiba is passing the savings from the drive's reduced bill of materials down to us little guys. The goal here is to make the benefits of NVMe more accessible.

The RC100's controller knows a fancy trick that may offset the performance penalty of skipping an onboard cache, too. When the 1.2 revision of the NVMe specification was ratified back in 2014, it included a new feature called the Host Memory Buffer. What's an innocent SSD controller to do if the manufacturer left RAM out of the bill of materials? If only there was a large pool of high-speed memory available somewhere else in the PC, like system RAM.

To put it succinctly, HMB allows an SSD to commandeer a slice of the host's RAM for its own purposes. Once the host yields the requested portion, that memory is reserved for the SSD controller's use until the controller decides to give it back. This black magic requires driver support, and Microsoft added HMB into its NVMe driver with the Fall Creators Update (or version 1709) of Windows 10. HMB support also seems to have been added to the Linux kernel in the 4.14 release.

Underneath the RC100's sticker, there's remarkably little to see. It's a BGA SSD, so its NAND and controller are stacked in a single package. This technique and the lack of DRAM are what afford the drive its small form factor. As usual, Toshiba is loath to share controller details, but is happy to describe the NAND as the company's 64-layer BiCS TLC flash.

The RC100 480GB was launched with a suggested price of $155, which is exactly what Newegg is charging right now. Toshiba's warranty lasts for three years or up to 240 terabytes written. That would be an impressively low price for an NVMe drive but for the fact that NAND flash prices seem to be tanking of late. Fully-fledged value NVMe favorites, like Adata's own SX8200, are readily available for as little as $160 right now. That means the RC100's value cred isn't quite as strong as it was when it launched a little while ago.

Let's get into testing. The RC100 may be short and stubby, but sometimes good things come in small packages.