We all have external hard drives and over the years learned that USB 2.0 never lived up to the needs of mass storage. The transfer rates for USB 2.0 were just too slow to comfortably move large files in a timely manner. How many times can a person live through moving 40GB of data and it takes half of the day? A few months ago the successor to USB 2.0 made an appearance on retail motherboards and USB 3.0 has now trickled down to entry level boards.
USB 3.0 is capable of transferring data faster than the SATA II interface, so for the most part we expect to see performance that is on par with SSDs running similar controllers. So far we have not had luck with this assumption, but NEC has a new driver for their USB 3.0 controller and I am told it fixes the SSD shuddering issue with USB 3.0; we shall find out today.
Previous experience aside, today's article is all about the new N002 128GB USB 3.0 Portable SSD from A-DATA. A-DATA has been on a roll with their solid state products; just recently we reviewed their first SandForce controlled SSD, only the second we had come across with the new SF-1200 controller. The A-DATA N002 at first glance appears to be a standard SATA II Indilinx Barefoot based solid state drive. Once you get a glimpse of the side, though, you see the USB 3.0 power and data port and that is when things start to get interesting.
Over the last year we saw many Indilinx based drives ship with USB 2.0 ports and for a short time we thought this would become standard. At the time SSDs were much more expensive than what anyone would even consider spending on an external product, but the capability was there and you could use a standard SSD with a USB 2.0 connector as a very small external drive. One would still have to try to live with the 30 - 35MB/s data transfer rates from USB 2.0, but the drive would be small.
Pairing USB 3.0 with an Indilinx Barefoot in a mostly standard 2.5" form factor drive that can be either ran off of SATA II or USB 3.0 is kind of like the holy grail of portable storage at this point. Let's take a look and see if the hype matches the reality.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
A-DATA plans to offer three N002 products that are divided by capacity and of course cost. At this time the MSRP for the 64GB model is 288.85, the 128GB model is 580 and the 256GB model is a staggering 1175 USD. For comparison, the A-DATA S599 SF-1200 100GB drive, one of the fastest on the market has an MSRP of 380 USD. That is a 200 Dollar difference between the 128GB N002. Now that your bubble has been burst, let's get into the details. It is no secret that flash prices have been on the rise for several months and once you add in the cost of new technology like USB 3.0 things start to look a little disproportionate.
Still, A-DATA has a 2.5 inch form factor solid state drive that can use USB 3.0 OR SATA II and it is available next week with capacities up to 256GB. On the big deal scale this is a very important launch, but the price is going to keep many people away. Many people stay away from Ferraris too, but it doesn't take long for other makers to come up with something that costs less. However, in the case of technology A-DATA doesn't just make premium products and we may see an updated Nobility in time with a lower cost.
Let's let the cost slide for now and move on to the packaging and finally get to what makes this product memorable. The performance!
A-DATA used the same package design that we saw with the S599 and we really appreciate how revealing it is. On the front we have capacity and performance information for both USB 3.0 and SATA II.
The back of the package has some specific information about the Nobility N002, some general features and more performance information.
The inner packaging keeps the drive from moving around in the package. A USB 3.0 cable is included and placed under the drive, but separated by the plastic carton.
The A-DATA Nobility N002 128GB USB 3.0
Here we get our second look at the front of the A-DATA Nobility N002. On the surface it looks like any other 2.5 inch form factor solid state drive.
On the bottom of the drive we see that things start to change a little. There is a cover over the SATA II power and data connectors and four rubber feet cover the bottom holes that are normally used for mounting. All of the rubber pieces can be removed and the N002 used as a standard SATA II drive.
Here we see the standard data and power SATA connectors are where they should be for normal operation in regular SATA.
This is where things get interesting; on the side we found a USB 3.0 miniport.
Our undercover investigation found that A-DATA is already using the latest variant of the Indilinx Barefoot called ECO.
The additional hardware to enable USB 3.0 also adds to the cost and here we see it in the upper right hand corner.
On the back we see the rest of the Intel flash. There are sixteen chips total, eight on each side.
Here we get a closer look at the USB 3.0 hardware and it is not from NEC. It looks like we have a new player in the USB 3.0 game.
The A-DATA Nobility N002 comes with a USB 3.0 cable that is around 2 feet long. Here we see the cable next to the drive.
Test System Setup and ATTO Baseline Performance
We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: Intel, GIGABYTE, Leadtek and Corsair, LSI and Noctua.
You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test products in this article.
Today we will be testing the A-DATA Nobility in both USB 3.0 and SATA II configurations. We are using the new Intel RST 9.6 driver for the SATA test, but have not been able to retest all of the drives shown on the list with the new driver. The A-DATA S599 SandForce SF-1200 drive was tested with the new RST 9.6 driver.
ATTO Baseline Performance
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.34
ATTO is used by many disk manufacturers to determine the read and write speeds that will be presented to customers.
USB 3.0 hasn't matured yet and the NEC bridge chip is far from offering the claimed 10x USB 2.0 performance. This is an issue we ranted about not too long ago in a review of a PCIe adapter card that uses the same NEC bridge chip that is found on the GIGABYTE X58A-UD7. GIGABYTE's USB implementation is the fastest we have seen so far, so that is what we will use for testing today.
Here we see that USB 3.0 is slower than SATA, but it is a heck of a lot faster than the 35MB/s ceiling found with USB 2.0.
Benchmarks - HD Tune Pro
HD Tune Pro
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.00
Developer Homepage: http://www.efdsoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.hdtune.com
HD Tune is a Hard Disk utility which has the following functions:
- Benchmark: measures the performance
- Info: shows detailed information
- Health: checks the health status by using SMART
- Error Scan: scans the surface for errors
- Temperature display
HD Tune Pro gives us accurate read, write and access time results and for the last couple of years has been gaining popularity amongst reviewers. It is now considered a must have application for storage device testing.
It looks like the inclusion of USB 3.0 to the N002 didn't slow down the SATA II performance. In the charts you can watch the performance against the Corsair Nova, another Barefoot ECO controlled drive that uses the same flash.
Looking at the USB 3.0 read speed, the X58A-UD7 does have a speed limit, but it is much faster than USB 2.0.
On the SATA II connection we had a bit of a dip, but it was only briefly. The average write speeds for both SATA and USB 3.0 were nearly identical.
Benchmarks - Everest Random Access Time
Everest Random Access Time
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.60
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Everest Ultimate and Corporate Edition offer several different benchmarks for testing and optimizing your system or network. The Random Access test is one of very few if not only that will measure hard drives random access times in hundredths of milliseconds as oppose to tens of milliseconds.
Drives with only one or two tests displayed in write the write test mean that they have failed the test and their Maximum and possibly their Average Scores were very high after the cached fills. This usually happens only with controllers manufactured by JMicron.
In data read access we found that the USB 3.0 interface injects a small amount of additional latency, but nothing that is noticeable in real world use.
The write latency is nearly identical for both USB 3.0 and SATA II.
Benchmarks - Crystal Disk Mark
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0 Technical Preview
Developer Homepage: http://crystalmark.info
Product Homepage: http://crystalmark.info/software/CrystalDiskMark/index-e.html
Download here: http://crystaldew.info/category/software/crystaldiskmark
CrystalDiskMark is a disk benchmark software.
* Sequential reads/writes
* Random 4KB/512KB reads/writes
* Text copy
* Change dialog design
* internationalization (i18n)
Note: Crystal Disk Mark 3.0 is not available to the public yet, but the Technical Preview does allow us to test 4K performance at queue depths of 4 and 32 in addition to 1. The current release Crystal Disk Mark only shows us QD 1.
The largest difference between SATA II and USB 3.0 is found in the queue depth. Here we see that USB 3.0 does not handle NCQ like SATA does. This shows up noticeably in the 4K QD tests.
The Indilinx Barefoot controller has never shown strong performance when writing at queue depths and it would appear that NCQ has no effect on performance, so the performance is nearly identical between USB 3.0 and SATA II.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage Hard Disk Tests
PCMark Vantage - Hard Disk Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage/
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
FutureMark has developed a good set of hard disk tests for their PCMark Vantage Suite. Windows users can count on Vantage to show them how a drive will perform in normal day to day usage scenarios. For most users these are the tests that matter since many of the old hat ways to measure performance have become ineffective to measure true Windows performance.
HDD1 - Windows Defender
HDD2 - Gaming
HDD3 - Windows Photo Gallery
HDD4 - Vista Startup
HDD5 - Windows Movie Maker
HDD6 - Windows Media Center
HDD7 - Windows Media Player
HDD8 - Application Loading
Not many people are going to run a USB 3.0 external drive for their operating system, but it is always fun to see how these tests run on external drives. The high cost would deter most people from running the A-DATA N002 as a SATA boot drive and it would perform very well as such.
Benchmarks - AS SSD
AS SSD Benchmark
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2.3577.40358
Developer Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Product Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Download here: http://www.alex-is.de/PHP/fusion/downloads.php?cat_id=4&download_id=9
AS determines the performance of Solid State Drives (SSD). The tool contains four synthetic as well as three practice tests. The synthetic tests are to determine the sequential and random read and write performance of the SSD. These tests are carried out without the use of the operating system caches.
In all synthetic tests the test file size is 1GB. AS can also determine the access time of the SSD, the access of which the drive is determined to read through the entire capacity of the SSD (Full Stroke). The write access test is only to be met with a 1 GB big test file. At the end of the tests three values for the read and write as well as the overall performance will be issued. In addition to the calculated values which are shown in MB/s, they are also represented in IO per seconds (IOPS).
Note: AS SSD is a great benchmark for many tests, but since Crystal Disk Mark covers a broader range of 4K tests and HD Tune Pro covering sequential speeds, we will only use the Copy Benchmark from AS SSD.
- Copy Benchmark
These tests show the most common uses scenarios for external storage, transferring data to and from an external drive. Here we see that USB 3.0 is still slower than SATA II, at least with the current crop of bridge chips that are on the market. Over time this should change. We will talk about this more in the conclusion. The A-DATA N002 Nobility is very fast at moving data around and much faster than anything USB 2.0 could ever dream of.
Benchmarks - Passmark
Passmark Advanced Multi-User Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 6.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Test Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Many users complain that I/O Meter is too complicated of a benchmark to replicate results so my quest to find an alternative was started. Passmark has added several multi-user tests that measure a hard drives ability to operate in a multi-user environment.
The tests use different settings to mimic basic multi-user operations as they would play out on your server. Variances is read / write percentage as well as random / sequential reads are common in certain applications, Web Servers read nearly 100% of the time while Database Servers write a small amount of data.
The Workstation test is the only single user environment and will be similar to how you use your system at home.
The advanced disk tests in Passmark show how the lack of NCQ can affect a drives performance when reading and writing very small files. Here we see that even though the needed bandwidth is lower than the maximum USB 3.0 and SATA II can move data, the small files take longer to move over USB 3.0.
A few other companies have announced solid state drives with a USB 3.0 interface, but we have yet to see them made available. We know that distributers will be receiving their first shipment of A-DATA N002 products any time now. That means that by the time you read this major etailers should have the products listed, but I think the cost will keep them from selling, unlike the A-DATA S599 SandForce controlled drive that comes in at 380 USD for the 100GB capacity.
When it comes to performance, we have yet to see USB 3.0 live up to expectations or even the claims of 10x performance. Right now we are seeing around 5 to 6x the speed of USB 2.0, but I have a feeling things will change once Intel hits the market later this year with their USB 3.0 chip and next year when Intel has a USB 3.0 solution built into the south bridge. NCQ in USB 3.0 will take a while longer and I am surprised that the USB-IF consortium didn't address this issue from the start.
Either way it goes, USB 3.0 is faster than USB 2.0 by a significant margin and we all have been counting the days for USB 3.0 products to hit the market since transferring anything of significant size over USB 2.0 takes so damn long. The A-DATA N002 makes great progress to the kinds of products we all want to see at the high end and as such we really can't complain about the cost. This is a premium product and one that shows great engineering, determination and innovation from A-DATA.
Other companies with much larger marketing budgets have been showing off USB 3.0 SSDs, but the reality is that only A-DATA has gotten them out into reviewers hands and has confirmed shipping products to distributers at this time. This coupled with A-DATA's successful launch of a SandForce SF-1200 before all but one other manufacturer means that A-DATA is starting to become a larger player in the SSD market.
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