Just weeks ago we published a review of the SuperSSpeed Gold Hyper SLC 120GB SSD, a consumer drive that uses Intel 25nm SLC flash. Other than a few enterprise SSDs and a very small number of thumb drives, SLC all but disappeared in the types of products we review. Things are starting to change though and SLC is making a comeback.
SLC flash has several advantages over MLC and even TLC flash. SLC or Single Level Cell can endure more write cycles, offers more bandwidth and less latency when compared to lesser flash technologies. The down side is SLC costs more than MLC, between 2x and 5x as much to be more specific according on one of our sources.
In our meeting with Zalman at Computex, Cameron and I received Zalman U3M16 thumb drives with the Zalman press kit on them. Receiving flash drives with press kits is nothing new, most companies do it, but getting the latest and greatest product from a company for the press deck is a bit of a stretch. We're not complaining, though.
The M3U16 is Zalman's latest thumb drive and their most advanced to date. Zalman has two versions of this drive, M3U16 and M3U32. The drivers differ by capacity and bandwidth. Today were looking at the 16GB model that is capable of reading and writing at 100MB/s. The U3M32 32GB doubles the capacity size and increases read performance to roughly 160MB/s read and 140MB/s write speeds. Obviously, both models require USB 3.0 ports to achieve anything more than 35MB/s (USB 2.0). They are backwards compatible though with USB 2.0.
At the time of writing, we weren't able to find either model for sale anywhere in the world, but we're pretty sure that will change soon.
When it comes to the physical construction, the M3U16 uses a metal case with a plastic cap and plastic hoop on the other end for your lanyard. In use, the hoop end lights up with a green glow from a green LED built inside the unit.
Just using SLC flash isn't a guarantee of great performance. A year ago we tested the Sharkoon Flexi-Drive Extreme Duo 16GB, another SLC thumb drive and while it performed well, it was far from the fastest thumb drive we looked at that year. When it comes to performance, there are two prevailing methods. The first is SLC with one or two flash ICs. The other method is using a quad channel controller with four flash ICs.
Using ATTO we can see the Zalman U3M16 achieving its peak 100MB/s read and write performance. This is very good for sequential reads and writes, but the 4K and 8K writes are below 30MB/s while the 4K read is just a hair over 35MB/s.
The real-world performance was almost identical to the Sharkoon Flexi-Drive Extreme Duo 16GB. The Extreme Duo and the U3M16 perform well, but a few of the quad channel MLC thumb drives are faster. They are also quite a bit larger in size physically than the Zalman U3M16.
With performance so close to the Sharkoon SLC drive we tested before I wanted to dive in and see what latency was like with the Zalman U3M16. At one time we tried running Ceedo, a desktop emulation app, off of the Sharkoon unit and the experience wasn't very pleasurable when we started multitasking because of the latency. In the graph above we see the latency when writing to the drive and the performance was less than ideal for use with desktop emulation apps that run from flash drives. This is something I feel is important to test because the initial gut feeling would be that SLC flash drives would be better for this type of software. That isn't always the case.
The Zalman U3M16 SLC flash drive has a lot going for it if all of the cards line up for you. In the article, we mentioned that faster flash drives are on the market, but the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Most of the quad channel flash drives we've tested were quite large, not exactly something you look for in a flash drive. Also, some of those drives block the USB port next to the one you are using, effectively taking up two USB 3.0 ports if you are not careful when plugging them in.
With that said, if you need a small, thin yet high-speed flash drive and don't require the fastest on the market, then the Zalman U3M16 is a good option and one you should consider.