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Samsung's Portable SSD X5 reviewed


Thunderous portable performance

We may have published a review of an external SSD just a few short days ago, but when it rains, it pour-tables. Today, Samsung is unveiling a brand-new external SSD. Feast your eyes on the pinnacle of lightning-fast compact storage: the Samsung Portable SSD X5.

There are no existing Samsung X drives, so why is a completely new product called the X5? Simply to bring the numbering in line with Samsung's existing "T" line of portable SSDs, the latest of which earned our hearty endorsement when we reviewed it last year. The T5 already matched the performance of mainstream internal SATA drives, so the next summit for Samsung to crest was to build an external drive that rivaled internal PCIe storage. Of course, such a feat would be impossible under the 10-Gbps constraint imposed by USB 3.1 Gen 2, so Samsung has upped the ante by outfitting the X5 with a Thunderbolt 3 interface.

We couldn't pass up testing the Portable SSD X5 1 TB ahead of its launch, but it presented a bit of an awkward situation. My test motherboard has more M.2 slots, SATA ports, and USB 3.1 Gen 2 capabilities than you can shake a stick at, but there's not a single TB3 controller to be found on it. With little time to spare before the X5's announcement, we had Samsung send the drive directly to boss man Jeff. With his inexhaustible supply of hardware, he was able to patch together a test setup identical to mine with the single substitution of a TB3-equipped motherboard. Once I'd sent him my test scripts and he'd put on his storage hat, he was easily able to benchmark the drive and relay the results to me.

At 4.7" x 2.5" x 0.8" and 5.3 ounces, there's more meat to the X5 than the other portables we've reviewed. Some of the heft can be attributed to the drive's magnesium body. Samsung claims the X5 can withstand drops of up to two meters. Samsung also says the drive's design is "inspired by a supercar," and that might not all be hyperbole. Jeff reports that the drive's sparkly gray finish and metal-clad exterior has an almost automotive-paint feel to it, reinforcing a perception of stiffness and durability.


Image: Samsung

We didn't break this drive apart, but nonetheless we know exactly what's inside. The NAND is Samsung's 64-layer TLC V-NAND. The SSD controller is Samsung's Phoenix. The X5, then, is simply a 970 EVO hiding in a metal shell. This is the first external drive we've reviewed with an NVMe-over-PCIe stick inside. But then again, it would make no sense to pair a lesser drive with Thunderbolt 3.

Speaking of which, the TB3 controller in the X5 is Intel's Alpine Ridge DSL6340. Crucially, that means that this TB3 drive is only a TB3 drive. If Samsung had coughed up for Intel's newer Titan Ridge family of Thunderbolt controllers, the drive could have been made to work in USB 3.1 fallback modes, but older controllers don't have that capability enabled for sink devices. Samsung also cautions that Thunderbolt 2-equipped devices won't work with this baby, either.

We repeat: don't be fooled by the drive's USB Type-C connector. If you don't have bona fide Thunderbolt 3 ports to work with, the X5 becomes an expensive paperweight. Jeff (madman that he is) forged ahead and plugged it into a non-TB3 Type-C port just to see what happens, and the answer is a whole lotta nothing. The drive's LED emits nary a flicker of acknowledgement.

A heatsink that spans the entire length of the drive undoubtedly contributes a lot to the drive's weight. Hopefully it allows the drive to operate at full-bore for longer before Samsung's Dynamic Thermal Guard (read: throttling) kicks in. Regardless of DTG, Jeff says the X5 emits substantial heat in operation—enough that he was careful not the leave anything atop the drive.

Fancy paint and Alpine Ridge don't come cheap. Samsung set the X5 1 TB's launch price at a whopping $700. That's about two-and-a-half times the current street prices for top-tier drives like the T5 and SanDisk's Extreme Portable. A 2-TB version will be available for $1400, and a 500-GB version will be available for $400. Unfortunately, the warranty doesn't scale with the asking price. The X5 is backed by the same three-year warranty that Samsung extends to the T5. Samsung's Portable SSD Software is also along for the ride, giving access to the X5's AES 256-bit hardware encryption. It looks to be unchanged since we played with it for the T5.

Now let's examine the fruits of Jeff's quest to become a storage reviewer.