Oh how time flies when you are having fun. It was my intention to write up the latest installment of The State of Solid State as soon as I returned from CES. That didn't happen because of Battlefield 3, it was DICE's fault and because of DICE I'm going to have to let the cat out of the bag early. 2012 is not going to be an exciting year for performance SSDs. The focus for 2012 is value and market share for manufactures. It is time for the big price squeeze that inevitably will push some companies out of the market entirely and prop others to superstar status.
You may remember this chart of the SF-2200 Series Client Launch article from about a year. Listed on the far left is the SF-1222, the reigning champion of SATA II, first released in 2010. Just to the right is the challenger, SF-2141. The new SandForce controller is essentially a four channel 2281 with a 64GB capacity limit. On paper the 1222 and 2141 have nearly identical performance other than the IOPS. The newer 2141 doubles sustained read 4K IOPS (from 30K to 60K) and has a 6x increase in burst write 4K IOPS. The new 2141 does still have that 4 channel limit and we'll explore what that means today while testing the new ADATA S396 30GB SSD.
The new ADATA S396 30GB SSD will cost around $60 when it reaches e-tail shelves sometime in the next two weeks. If you do not already have an SSD, the ADATA S396 is built for you. Personally I think if you don't have an SSD now then the issue is not something a new product release can fix. You either have a defect, don't value your time or you have no idea what the hell an SSD is. Then again what do I know about actually buying an SSD with real money.
Still, the idea of low cost, low capacity SSDs has been around for quite a while. The problem has always been low cost and low capacity size means low performance. To make matters worse most of these low cost products shipped with bottom of the barrel controllers and that ruined the user experience all together. Most people who purchased drives in that category ended up switching back to their low cost, low performance platter drive that offered 500GB of capacity.
Today we're going to see if the new ADATA S396 with the all new SandForce SF-2141 controller is able to redefine the extreme value SSD market and deliver a good user experience.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
If you frequent TweakTown enough then you know I'm not a big fan of low cost, low capacity SSDs. My personal name for them is low value SSDs and for good reason. SSDs perform best when able to read and write to the flash in parallel. When you start removing the number of physical flash chips you reduce the number of parallel channels and performance is reduced. Often times these products are able to show good peak performance in synthetic tests, but falter in real-world use. It's like you are only getting half of the SSD experience. Would you jump with only half a parachute?
The other half of the SSD experience comes from access times. This is what users feel when working with their computer. An old computer can feel fast with an SSD. My trusty Lenovo T61p only supports SATA 1.5 and is at least four years old, but feels faster than most new computers being sold today thanks to the solid state drive inside of it.
The ADATA S396 is only being released in a 30GB capacity size at this time. The SandForce SF-2141 controller can scale up to 64GB so at a later time we may see a larger version, but for now this is a one capacity product number. The drive itself is a standard 2.5" form factor, so you won't have an issue installing the drive in your notebook or desktop with the included desktop adapter bracket.
The claimed speed is 280MB/s read and 250MB/s write. ADATA doesn't list IOPS performance. Unlike the other second generation SandForce controllers we've looked at, the 2141 controller is limited to SATA II. That doesn't mean you can't use it on a SATA III port, the port will drop down to SATA II specifications and speeds.
The S396 30GB SSD should be priced at around $60 here in the US. At the time of writing Newegg didn't have the drive listed and Google Shopping came up empty as well. When it comes to value added accessories ADATA spared no expense, their low cost offering ships with the same accessories as their flagship SSD. Included is a three year warranty, desktop adapter bracket and a screw package for installing your drive. Actonis Drive Cloning software is also included with the drive via a digital download. The key is included on the label of the drive itself.
The ADATA S396 is part of the new 300 Series of products. One reason we are optimistic about a larger model coming in the future is how ADATA shows the drives capacity size. The window on the front shows the capacity size printed on the drive itself.
The back of the package lists some general information about the new 300 Series in different languages.
The inner packaging keeps the desktop adapter bracket behind the plastic base package that holds the drive.
The ADATA S396 30GB SSD
Here we get our first look at the ADATA S396 30GB SSD. This is a new case design for ADATA, but it still uses an aluminum chassis. On the front ADATA shows the capacity size and model number.
On the back ADATA lists the model number, AS396S-30GM and the warranty code. At the bottom right side ADATA also includes the Acronis software key for easily cloning the data from your existing drive.
On the side we found the standard mounting points so you won't have an issue installing the drive in your notebook.
The SATA power and data ports are where they should be and the included desktop adapter bracket offsets the drive to the side so the ports line up with your 3.5" drives.
Now for the good stuff, this is the new SandForce SF-2141 controller that uses four channels. On this drive the NAND flash is on the other side of the PCB.
The ADATA website says that the S396 uses 25nm flash, but it doesn't give any information as to who manufactures the flash. The drive doesn't tell us much either. A couple of Google searches didn't turn up any information on 60073173 flash.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup and ATTO Baseline Performance
You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test products in this article.
The days are quickly counting down for this test system as I'm finished validating the new X79 rig. We're not finding a lot of differences between P67, Z68 and X79 when it comes to SATA III products, but the X79 sure does look good. In your own system the only way to get the full performance of SATA III is to use one of these systems with native SATA III onboard.
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.
In ATTO we see solid SATA II performance of 283MB/s read and close to 260MB/s write speeds. The 4K performance is right around 191MB/s write and 160MB/s read speeds. To me the biggest competitor to this new series of products is the older SandForce SF-1200 drives, but their 4K performance was right around 173MB/s write and 130MB/s read (numbers taken from the Corsair Force 40GB) so the new drives have a big performance lead in that area.
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
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.
The first thing you might notice is our new 30GB to 64GB charts that are used in today's review of the ADATA S396 30GB SSD. I don't have a large collection of these smaller drives so the charts are going to start off slim.
Before we get started let's take a closer look at the drives in the charts. At the bottom is the Corsair Force (SandForce SF-1200, 40GB, around $80), then the Crucial m4 (Marvell BKK2, 64GB, around $85). ADATA is represented by two drives in the charts, the first is the S511 (SandForce SF-2281, synchronous flash, 60GB, around $108). Then we have our review product, the ADATA S396 (SandForce SF-2141, 30GB, around $60).
Our review drive is the lowest priced from the group and the newest to hit the market. While reading data from across the drive the S396 put together a tight group with an average read speed of nearly 240MB/s.
Writing data at high speeds is more difficult for smaller drives and drives without background garbage collection have an even harder time (SandForce based drives). The S396 put up an impressive 227MB/s write speed, but in just the second test is showing signs of fatigue dropping down to just 140MB/s at its slowest point.
Benchmarks - AIDA64 Random Access Time
AIDA64 Random Access Time
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.60
Developer Homepage: http://www.aida64.com
Product Homepage: http://www.aida64.com
AIDA64 offers 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 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 and Toshiba.
No matter your (or my) personal feelings about smaller SSDs, there is no denying they excel in the most prevalent part of the user experience, access times. It is the access times that make SSDs feel fast when bouncing around in your OS. Since most of the time users are surfing the web, checking email and doing light work on their computer the smaller SSDs offer excellent value when you just want everything to go fast.
The write access times are also much lower than spinners and this is felt while installing programs and writing data to the drives.
Benchmarks - CrystalDiskMark
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 that allows us to benchmark 4K and 4K queue depths with accuracy.
* Sequential reads/writes
* Random 4KB/512KB reads/writes
* Text copy
* Change dialog design
* internationalization (i18n)
Note: Crystal Disk Mark 3.0 Technical Preview was used for these tests since it offers the ability to measure native command queuing at 4 and 32.
In CDM we see the 4K and native command queuing performance of these lower cost, lower capacity drives. This is where we start to see some of the traits that will help us understand what is going on in the real-world tests. The first thing that really sticks out is between the Corsair Force (SF-1200) and the ADATA S396 (SF-2141). The older Force has better NCQ performance while reading data and the S396 seems to hit a wall around 33MB/s at 4K when using incompressible data.
When writing 4K incompressible data the S396 closes the gap on the older Force, but there is still a large speed different.
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/
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
Even with the NCQ differences between the older SandForce SATA II and the newer SATA II S396, the newer drive is much faster in real-world performance. In a couple of the tests the S396 gets really close to the performance of the Crucial m4 64GB drive.
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
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.
The smaller drives take a big hit in performance when copying data to and from the drive. This goes back to the whole parallel reads and writes thing, but when you are only starting out with 30 or 64GB, there isn't a lot of room left for passing movies and music around.
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.
These smaller drives aren't going to make it into any servers unless you looking for a cheap way to serve up web pages.
Being a performance guy with the best in the world at my finger tips it's sometimes difficult to grasp the lower end of the market. Solid state drives deliver a different kind of performance that can't be achieved by upgrading your processor, video card or system memory. To put it bluntly, when it comes to overall performance and the user experience, there is nothing else on the market that can make your computer better than a solid state drive. This even holds true for older computers, if you have a SATA port then your computer will feel better than new simply by plugging in a SSD.
Solid state drive manufactures are aware of this too and are trying to make SSDs more accessible because they are truly the best bang for your buck upgrade. Obviously dropping in a $200 SSD is going to make your computer feel great, but in 2012 nearly the same user experience will be available for $60 and over time the cost will go down even more.
Still, there are some tradeoffs with the smaller drives, but you aren't going to notice them when coming from a platter drive. The difference between the 30GB and 60GB drives compared to the 120GB and 240GB models is still quite significant when measuring some of the performance metrics, but then again the price difference is also significant.
If you've been on the fence about purchasing a solid state drive it's time to hop off and get with the program. The ADATA S396 30GB drive has an MSRP of just $60 and will be a very good entry-level product for anyone on a tight budget. This drive delivers all the read and write access times that make SSDs great and gives you just enough capacity to install your OS, Office Suite and a few programs. For most users that is all you need. To top it off ADATA is giving you an excellent accessory package that you normally don't see with value drives.
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