Zalman N Series SandForce 128GB Solid State Drive

Zalman jumps on the SSD bandwagon and partners with SandForce for their highest performing offering.

Manufacturer: Zalman
12 minutes & 1 second read time


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It is no secret that solid state drives are very profitable and every company is looking to take a slice of the green pie. The latest addition to the growing number of companies offering SSDs is Zalman. Zalman, a company best known for their high performance CPU heat sink coolers and high quality PC cases, might seem to be late for the party, but their entry comes at a time when the winners have been established and little chance of faultier was possible.

Zalman's highest performing SSD, the N Series, is controlled by a SandForce SF-1200 controller, the highest performance SATA 3G controller on the market and our pick for any SSD with less than 256GB capacity. The SF-1200 is a beast of a controller and it is aging very gracefully. New firmware from SandForce and their partners has given the highest rated even better performance; something we will look at today since the new N Series uses the latest firmware offering.

There are several companies offering SandForce consumer drives and with competition comes very low prices or extravagant accessory packages. Zalman has chosen to compete with the low cost offerings on the market and eliminated the accessory package. Today we will look at the performance of the new Zalman N Series SandForce controlled SSD and see how it compares in performance and price to the competition.

Specifications, Pricing and Availability

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We've all seen most of the specs before. The 280MB/s read and 270MB/s write speeds are pretty much the standard for SandForce SF-1200 controllers. The SF-1200 is limited by the SATA 3G interface it is tied to. When it comes to model numbers and capacity, Zalman is starting out with the 64 and 128GB sizes, but plans to releases a 40 and 256GB model soon. All four models will use MLC flash memory and for the most part all share the same specifications.

The one area that Zalman choose to focus on in their product specifications is the power usage. These are numbers we haven't seen highlighted before. Since no one else is publishing these numbers we don't have anything to compare them to other than traditional platter drives. Zalman's N Series SSD uses significantly less power than any other 2.5" 9mm height platter drives we've tested.

When it really comes down to it, most users care most about pricing and availability. The Zalman N Series is available at Newegg, so they have the availability part covered nicely. The next hurdle is pricing. The 64GB model is listed at Newegg for 129.99 at this time and the 128GB drive we are testing today is 239.99 USD. The prices are very reasonable for the performance offered by the N Series, but it's far from the lowest priced SandForce SF-1200 drive in this capacity range. That title currently goes to the OCZ Agility 2.

The next issue that Zalman has to go up against is the accessory package. Zalman didn't include any accessories with the N Series. For the last eight months many companies have included a desktop 2.5" to 3.5" adapter bracket. If the Zalman N Series had a lower cost than the Agility 2 it wouldn't be much of an issue, but with the Agility 2 costing less and including the adapter bracket, things aren't looking so shiny.

Zalman does offer a three year warranty, but this is now considered middle of the road since other manufacturers have also raised their warranty period to three years.

The Packaging

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Zalman put together an attractive package for their new N Series SSD and the front even lists some of the selling points. Here we clearly see the warranty length, performance claims and SandForce mentioned.

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The back of the package gives us a general statement about SSDs in several languages.

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The accessory package is pretty much nonexistent, but Zalman did include a quick install guide.

The Zalman N Series 128GB SSD

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The N Series uses a black brushed aluminum case. The top label shows the capacity size and the series.

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The back of the drive doesn't have a label, but it does have the standard mounting locations.

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The side of the drive also has the standard mounting points, so you will be able to mount this drive in everything that accepts a 2.5" form factory drive.

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The standard SATA and power ports are where they should be.

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On the inside we found the standard SF-1200 setup with the controller in the middle of sixteen Intel flash chips.

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On the back of the PCB are the other eight flash modules.

Test System Setup and ATTO Baseline Performance

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We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: AVADirect, GIGABYTE, Cooler Master, LSI, Corsair. and Noctua.

You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test productsin this article.

Even though we are winding down 2010 we plan to use our awesome 2010 test system well into 2011. Look for a few updates in the coming weeks.

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.

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Zalman didn't mention in their spec sheet if their new N Series uses High IOPS programming or if the drive uses the standard configuration. We get to answer that for them in this test. The 4K test result was nearly 180MB/s, the magic number for High IOPS, or as they say on TV, It's in there. The standard programming drives are limited to around 130MB/s write speed at the 4K block size.

Our tests also show that Zalman is holding their claimed read and write speeds down a little. Here we see that we were able to achieve better results than what Zalman claims. The read test delivered just over 285MB/s and the write test delivered over 275MB/s.

Benchmarks - HD Tune Pro

HD Tune Pro

Version and / or Patch Used:4.00
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:

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.

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Our testing started off with a quick run in HD Tune Pro. In the Read test we saw typical SandForce SF-1200 performance with the average read speed coming in at just over 222MB/s. The only drives that are able to perform faster on the chart are the Crucial RealSSD C300's, but they have an advantage since they get to use SATA 6G.

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The Write test across the drive gave us a 207MB/s average speed result with a maximum speed of just over 226MB/s. These results are in line with other SandForce drives we've tested and are a little faster than the RealSSD C300 256GB and quite a bit faster than the 128GB C300.

Benchmarks - Everest Random Access Time

Everest Random Access Time

Version and / or Patch Used:4.60
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:

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.

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The new firmware found on the Zalman N Series didn't increase the read access times. Here we see the read access time holding steady with the OCZ Vertex 2, another SandForce SF-1200 based drive. Access times are what make SSDs 'feel' so fast and the Zalman N Series delivers a solid, solid state experience.

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The write access times were back to where they were when we tested the OCZ Vertex 2. Since then SandForce and their partners have released firmware that has increased the access times by a small margin, but it looks like those have dropped back down to the levels we saw at the launch of the SF-1200 products.

Benchmarks - Crystal Disk Mark


Version and / or Patch Used:3.0 Technical Preview
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
Download here:

CrystalDiskMark is a disk benchmark software.

Key Features:-

* 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.

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In CDM we look at 4K and 4K with queue depth performance. The 4K read performance is solid and right where we expect it to be, but the QD:4 and QD:32 are a little lower than the Vertex 2 120GB drive we tested. This is most likely due to the latest firmware found on the Zalman. Later in this review we will see if this level of performance hampers the real world tests.

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The 4K and 4K at depth write performance was nearly exactly that of the Vertex 2. The Zalman N Series 128GB drive is able to write data very quickly at this block size.

Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage Hard Disk Tests

PCMark Vantage - Hard Disk Tests

Version and / or Patch Used:1.0.0
Developer Homepage:
Product Homepage:
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.

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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

The most important test for most users is the real world Windows tests. Here we see the Zalman performing very well across all of the test patterns. These tests also show visibly just how much faster SSDs are compared to traditional platter drives. At the bottom of the chart I've included the Western Digital 600GB VelociRaptor, the fastest consumer platter drive available today.

The Zalman N Series blows all platter drives out of the water in real world tests thanks to its very low access time and ability to transfer high volumes of data quickly.

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:

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

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It's gratifying to know that SandForce and their partners listen to reviewers and look to improve their products based in part to what we write about. Copying data, especially compressed data, has been the low point for SandForce controllers. Here we see this issue was addressed with the new firmware and the Zalman N Series proves that the SF-1200 can now tackle these tasks at a much higher rate than drives loaded with older firmware.

What has us surprised is that the Zalman N Series 128GB drive is now on even terms with the Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB drive in these tests and even manages to perform better than the 128GB C300 in two of the tests. Until today I didn't think this would be possible, but the numbers don't lie, the performance is now there.

Benchmarks - Passmark

Passmark Advanced Multi-User Tests

Version and / or Patch Used:6.1
Developer Homepage:
Test Homepage:

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.

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SandForce fancies itself as an enterprise controller manufacturer and with results like these in our server tests we see the enterprise spirit even in the consumer SandForce SSDs. The latest firmware found in the Zalman N Series hasn't changed the server level performance and the Zalman is one heck of a performer at these tasks.

Final Thoughts

We've looked at what seemed to be an endless number of SandForce SF-1200 controlled drives over the past year or so and been given an inside look at how the firmware and programming has progressed. The firmware revision seems to be the best to date delivering exceptional synthetic and real world performance. Of course, we really only care about the real world performance since very few of us go around benchmarking their SSDs all of the time. The real world results are also what SandForce has focused on and they are really kicking butt in this area.

With so many SF-1200 based drives on the market, making a purchasing decision includes a lot more than just a performance rating. Over the last year we've seen drive manufacturers focus on price, accessory extras and performance. The Zalman N Series holds its own when it comes to performance and even though I hate to do so, we now have to take performance out of the equation since the N Series matches the speeds of a large number of other SandForce SF-1200 based drives.

That leaves pricing and accessories included with the package. When it comes to pricing Zalman has a very good price at Newegg for the 128GB drive we looked at today, but it is far from the lowest priced SF-1200 drive on the market. At the time of writing our Zalman N Series 128GB drive had a cost of 239.99 USD at Newegg. The price is respectable, but as I stated it is not the lowest available. Zalman has a long history of producing great products that stand the test of time, but that leads us to the accessory package.

When we talk about accessories we tend to clump more than just physical gadgets under the accessory banner. Zalman is still new to the SSD game, so we can't comment on how quickly they update firmware revisions on their website, but going in their favor is the fact that the N Series is shipping with the latest offering available. Hopefully Zalman is able to stay on top of firmware revisions as they become available. Warranty terms also come into play when we talk about accessories and Zalman has chosen to go with a three year term. This is obviously much better than a one year warranty, but three years tends to be the average these days for solid state drives. The highest to date has been a five year warranty and Zalman falls short of that market.

When it comes to physical accessories like a 2.5" to 3.5" desktop adapter and an exhaustive manual, Zalman falls short of what is now considered the standard. Zalman doesn't include a desktop adapter bracket at all, something that comes in very handy when a user wants to install a Zalman N Series SSD in their desktop computer that was never designed to accept a 2.5" drive. Notebook users could really care less about a bracket since nearly all notebooks use the 2.5" form factor standard.

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