Before I even dive into this article, I want to thank those that bent over backwards and sideways to help put it to together. You guys and women know who you are, we appreciate the extra effort and all of your support over the years.
For the last six months or so we've heard bits and pieces about this new great piece of technology called NGFF. Behind the scenes, we call Next Generation Form Factor NGFF for short, but over the coming months the marketing term will pop up more often. At that point, the suits will turn NGFF to m.2, not to be confused with AMD's socket AM2.
The first time we started playing with PCIe based storage was with a Dell Mini 9 sent to us by MyDigitalDiscount. Although physically similar, the card in the Mini 9 looked and physically fit modern day mSATA products. mSATA was the primer for thumb stick sized SSD storage.
mSATA was popular with OEMs for SSD integration, either for primary storage or in caching solutions. GIGABYTE gave the technology a big push on desktops with two generations supporting the standard. As stated, mSATA was just the primer though.
Now we have NGFF, but that doesn't mean we're ready for computing nirvana yet. Before we get there, the controller makers need to provide a bridge between PCI Express and NAND flash. It's easy enough in theory, but the flash of today isn't the same as flash of tomorrow. Controller makers need to make products that don't just work with 2Xnm flash, but much deeper into the roadmap, even beyond 1Ynm, the generation on the horizon.
To bridge the gap between SATA and PCIe NGFF, we're first going to see the NGFF socket used with SATA devices. One of the products we're previewing today uses the LSI SF-2281 controller, the same we've raved on about for over two years. The NGFF socket is electrically compatible with both SATA and PCIe.
On the SATA side, not much has changed other than the shape and a few features that reduce power consumption. Not to downplay and amazing advances in power consumption that we'll look at in detail once I get back to the US office, but the storage system is still the slowest in a modern PC. We want the performance!
Even once we get true native PCIe SSDs for NGFF sockets, performance isn't just going to shoot to the moon. The first NGFF sockets are electrically PCIe 2.0 x1-lane. Today we're using the new ASUS Maximum Extreme VI, possibly the best motherboard I've used since the ABIT BE6 II with an Intel i440BX chipset. At the time of writing, ASUS is the only desktop motherboard manufacturer to include a NGFF socket on a desktop board. ASUS has a few products, mostly higher-end, with NGFF. These products are electrically compatible with SATA and PCIe 2.0 x1-lane. A single lane provides 5GT/s or roughly 500MB/s of throughput.
Intel first shipped PCIe 2.0 in October of 2007, on the X38 chipset. Even though 500MB/s is technically slower than SATA III's 560 MB/s -ish (real-world, post overhead), the latency is lower. The marketing folks are going to have a difficult time pushing PCIe SSDs in the coming months due to this issue, 500MB/s is slower than 560 MB/s, but now you need to pay attention to this latency number because it's what really matters. We've talked about latency for at least the last two years and tried to pound the importance of latency in because it's what makes day to day activities feel faster on your PC.
Taking NGFF one-step further, the standard will scale over time. The starting line is x1 lane and that will quickly leap to x2 lanes, just not on desktop motherboards, not at first. Each PCIe lane is comprised of four wires or traces. Two traces to transmit and two to receive the bi-directional signals. Running traces can be expensive and let's face it, Intel hasn't tried to significantly increase the number of PCIe lanes over the last few generations.
At Computex, we saw NGFF products with SATA III, PCIe 2.0 x2 and even a PCIe 2.0 x4 lane drive. The latter is what I would consider the Holy Grail for performance in 2014, up to 1,800 MB/s sequential read / write (can't wait to get my hands it).
As mentioned, only one motherboard manufacturer has NGFF on a desktop board, ASUS. That doesn't mean notebooks will follow the same suit. In pre-Computex meetings and casual conversation though we learned that most of the notebook makers aren't ready to jump onboard the NGFF nirvana train either. In my limited knowledge, at the time of writing, ASUS was the only manufacturer offering NGFF in a notebook / ultrabook at Computex 2013. Admittedly, I didn't go around with a Phillips head and take every product apart at the show so others could and most likely are out there. GIGABYTE and Acer are NGFF no-shows though. This will change closer to 4Q when holiday notebooks start to ship, but we still haven't confirmed why other than it has something to do with Intel. We were told on two occasions to talk to Intel and the story is being held onto pretty tight because this is the kind of information I fly 24 hours across the world to get.
NGFF in SATA III Form
With all of that said, we still managed to get our hands on two early NGFF samples. Both are electrically SATA III and worked well in the ASUS Z87 Maximus Extreme VI motherboard.
You have to excuse the images. The Taipei office isn't setup for on-the-spot testing like our US offices. We'll have proper reviews soon.
Both drives are from ADATA. The first (top) is based on the LSI SandForce architecture and uses a SF-2281 controller paired with 128GB of flash. The second (bottom) drive uses a Jmicron JMF-667 controller paired with a NANYA DRAM buffer and 32GB of NAND flash.
The order number on the LSI based model is AXNS360E-128GM-B.
There are four NAND flash chips, two on each side.
The LSI SandForce SF-2281 controller is a familiar sight, but this is the new B02 stepping with DEVSLP. We're not able to test DEVSLP in Taipei, but the first thing slated for testing when I get to my office is a proper test.
The ADATA order number for the smaller NGFF drive is AXN34N-32GB-B. This model uses a Jmicron JMF-667 controller with just two NAND flash chips.
You'll notice this drive is smaller than the first, just 40mm compared to the 60mm drive using the SandForce controller. The NGFF spec at last count had more than a few variations, but eventually the number will come down.
The ASUS Z87 Maximus Extreme VI motherboard ships with a daughter board that houses the NGFF slot and a populated Wi-Fi adapter that uses the new ac variant. The Wi-Fi slot is on the other side of the daughter board. We removed a cosmetic cover to get a better look at the NGFF slot.
The NGFF SSD just slides into the slot without a retention mechanism.
The daughter board then secures to the motherboard. The ASUS board is electrically compatible with both SATA and PCIe NGFF SSDs. The PCIe 2.0 lane count is only x1, though. Higher lane count drives should work with the board just fine, but operate at reduced speeds.
ADATA AXNS360E-128GM-B 128GB Quick Test
The following results are not comparable to any other benchmarks on TweakTown. A different processor, motherboard, RAM and GPU were used. We did have a Corsair AX1200i PSU, the same we use in our US office.
ADATA AXN34N-32GB-B Quick Test
The ADATA AXN34N-32GB-B is a cache module for designed to sit in front of a HDD. NGFF caching will play a large role in the notebook / ultrabook market.
I'm sure many are heartbroken with the news, I'm one of them. That doesn't mean NGFF is a failure or will never live up to our expectations.
On the contrary, bringing DEVSLP to ultrabooks and notebooks is a big step in increasing battery life. New cache modules also reduce wear of mechanical hard drives. At the same time, this is a stepping-stone used to move storage in a new, exciting direction.
One step at a time, all the way to 1,800 MB/s and beyond. Following NGFF PCIe is another new technology called SATA Express. If I were to guess, SATA Express is the reason why NGFF will ramp up slowly. We all have x4 lane PCIe on our motherboards and we look at those slots and wonder how to populate them.
I don't think we will need to wait for 2014 to make use of the extra four lanes, but as of Computex 2013 we are not there yet. Flash Memory Summit 2013 should be exciting and by CES 2014 the next push will come getting us closer to where we all want to be.
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