There is no denying that 2011 was a year dominated by SandForce at nearly all levels. Companies like OCZ Technology and Corsair produced a number of drives that spanned a vast range of price points. Drive capacity and performance were used to fill in price gaps leaving little room for Marvell based products to compete. In 2011 more companies adapted Marvell controllers to run in SSDs, a large leap from 2010 when only Micron / Crucial implemented Marvell's first generation SATA III controller.
The Marvell based drives from 2011 were very good products, they just had a very big umbrella over their head. Pricing always plays a large role in the retail purchasing decision, especially in a slow moving economy. The Marvell controlled products are at a disadvantage when it comes to price out of the gate. The architecture calls for a DRAM cache buffer, an added expense, when compared to the SandForce design that runs an internal buffer in the controller. When you add the additional cost with the lower performance compared to many of the SF-2281 controlled drives, there just wasn't enough incentive for consumers to come home with a solid state drive using a Marvell controller.
The 2012 SSD season is now in full swing and unlike last year, SandForce doesn't have a new controller ready to follow their successes of the last two years. Furthermore, the Team SandForce partners are tip toeing into 2012, we've yet to see an established Team SandForce member show a drive with the latest generation flash coming from Samsung and Toshiba. SandForce is leaving a door open and in this competitive market others are rushing to get their foot in the door.
Last month we explored the Samsung 830 Series SSD, the first on the market to use Samsung's new 20nm Toggle Mode flash. Samsung isn't the only kid on the block with a new toy in early 2012. Toshiba is now churning out 24nm Toggle Mode flash as well, a significant size reduction to the 32nm Toggle Mode flash we saw on several drives from last year. The new 24nm flash will eventually help drive SSD costs down in the retail channel. For Plextor that means the new M3 Series SSD can now compete in price with established SandForce products on the market.
The Plextor M3 is a generational upgrade from the M2 Series we previously reviewed last year. The drive uses new 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode flash and while Plextor was waiting for Toshiba to deliver lower cost NAND, Plextor worked to optimize both their firmware and other key hardware areas.
Today we're looking at the all new Plextor M3, the first retail SSD to deliver 24nm flash, meets current SandForce price points and offers SandForce levels of performance. There is a new one for you, let's take a deeper look and see if the new Plextor M3 Series can dethrone our current all around best price / performance leaders.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
At CES 2012 Plextor announced a new PX-M3 Pro model with up to 540MB/s read and up to 450MB/s write speeds. The drive we are looking at today isn't the Pro model, but the PX-M3, sometimes called the S model for "Standard". The 256GB M3 has a read speed of 510MB/s and a write speed of 360MB/s. Performance varies based on the capacity size as you can see in the chart above, but we feel the 256GB model gives a good representation of the product line.
A few weeks ago we tested the Corsair Performance Pro 256GB and 128GB, both are based heavily off of the Plextor M3 Series, but do not use the cutting-edge 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode flash. Plextor's M3 Series is the first consumer SSD we've seen with this new flash and as you can imagine, we are very excited to see how well it performs.
At the time of writing, Newegg had all four capacity sizes of the M3 Series in stock. The 64GB sells for 99.99, 128GB for 149.99 (after a MIR), 256GB that we are looking at today for 289.99 (after a MIR) and the large capacity 512GB for 649.99. The Pro model versions of these drives are not listed on Newegg or on Google's Product Search at this time.
Plextor included a premium accessory package with their M3 Series SSDs. You get a desktop adapter bracket, screws for mounting the 2.5" form factor drive in a 3.5" bay, software disk with a disk cloning and backup utility. Also included is a premium five year warranty which matches just a few other SSD manufactures warranties for the top warranty length offered.
Plextor put together an attractive package for the M3 Series. On the front we get quite a bit of information. The capacity of the drive is shown as is a mention of the included desktop adapter bracket and the software package.
On the back we get even more information including performance data. Plextor has one of the most informative product packages around so if you are shopping in a retail environment you will know what you are buying beforehand.
The inner packaging is well thought out with the drive kept separate from the accessory bits. A folder style sleeve keeps your documentation and software disk secure as well.
The accessory package matches the best we've seen to date other than the exclusion of SATA power and data cables.
Plextor M3 Series 256GB SSD
Here we get our first look at the Plextor M3 Series 256GB SSD. There isn't much going on with the top side other than the silk screened Plextor logo.
On the back we found the serial, model and product number. The four mounting points are also where they should be.
This is a 2.5" form factor drive with a 9mm height. The side mounting points are where they should be as well.
The SATA power and data connectors are offset to the side of the drive so you won't have any issued installing this drive in your notebook. The included desktop adapter bracket offsets the drive so even when used in a 3.5" bay the SATA power and data connectors line up with your standard 3.5" form factor drives.
We've seen this PCB design before on the Corsair Performance Pro. On one side we found the Marvell 88SS9174-BKK2 flash processor unit. This is an ARM based controller that can be programmed via firmware to emphasize performance in key areas differently. The BKK2 is a very robust controller that is being used in several SSDs at this time.
The 256GB capacity size PX-M3S uses 512MB of DDR3 DRAM for cache and to hold page location data. Here we also see the 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode flash which is unique to the Plextor M3 Series at this time.
The M3 also uses thermal transfer pads to aid in keeping the internal components cool. These also help with shock, acting as buffer pads if a drive is dropped.
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.
In order to fully utilize SATA III you need a system with native SATA III support. P67, Z68 and X79 systems are preferred, but AMD has made advances in their newer SATA III systems as well. Older X58 systems with Marvell based SATA III do not deliver the same high levels of performance, so we recommend newer systems when available.
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 our first test in ATTO we established a baseline performance of nearly 540MB/s read and just over 370MB/s write speeds.
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.
We're doing the charts a little different today. Since the Corsair Performance Pro uses the same controller and from what we can tell a similar firmware, we've included it in our charts. This allows us to take a deeper look at the new 24nm flash found on the Plextor M3. The main competition for the Plextor M3 is still the OCZ Vertex 3 240GB since it still holds the price, performance and availability crown.
In the sequential read test the Plextor M3 256GB delivers around 388MB/s on average while reading across the drive. This is in line with the Vertex 3 240GB. I'm predicting a good battle between these two drives today!
The M3 has an average write speed of 319MB/s. The new PRO model should do better in this test; hopefully we can see it when released in a couple of weeks. Still, the standard M3 is very fast when writing data sequentially to the drive, but a little slower than the Vertex 3 240GB. This data is compressible; we'll look at the incompressible results in a few pages.
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.
Access time is the one area most users feel a difference when moving from a mechanical drive to a solid state drive. SSDs are so fast their access times are measured in microseconds rather than milliseconds like spinners. The Plextor M3 holds a solid line around .07ms, which is even lower than the Vertex 3's .15ms.
Write access time is a little less important than read access time, but you don't want your drive responding to requests slowly here either. The Plextor M3 is a solid performer with a .04ms average. This is quite a bit faster than the Vertex 3 240GB.
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 look at 4K and NCQ performance. This is also an area where the new Plextor M3 256GB starts to stand out from the pack of well designed SSDs. Looking at the Plextor drive compared to the Vertex 3 240GB, both read a single command 4K chunk at around 35MB/s. When you stack four commands the Plextor doubles the Vertex 3's speed. The gap closes up a bit at 32 commands, but the Plextor still has a 70MB/s lead.
When it comes to writing 4K data once again with a single command both the M3 and Vertex 3 are very close. The Vertex 3 takes the 4 command test, but the Plextor is back on top by 35MB/s at 32 commands.
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
Plextor markets the PCMark Vantage test heavily in their promo material and with a solid performance lead on the competition, they should. Here we see what an 85,000 Mark run looks like in the individual graph. The performance with the drive empty is very good, but none of us run our computers with the boot drives empty.
PCMark Vantage - Drives with Data Testing
For a complete breakdown on the Drives with Data Testing please read this article. You will be able to perform this test at home with the files provided in the article - full instructions are included.
- Brief Methodology
SSDs perform differently when used for a period of time and when data is already present on the drive. The purpose of the Drives with Data testing is to show how a drive performs in these 'dirty' states. SSDs also need time to recover, either with TRIM or onboard garbage collection methods.
Drives with Data Testing - 25%, 50%, 75% Full States and Dirty / Empty Test
Files needed for 60 (64GB), 120 (128GB), 240 (256GB)
60GB Fill - 15GB, 30GB, 45GB
120GB Fill - 30GB, 60GB, 90GB
240GB Fill - 60GB, 120GB, 160GB
Empty but Dirty - a test run just after the fill tests and shows if a drive needs time to recover or if performance is instantly restored.
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
SSDs slow down when data is added to the drives. Mechanical drives do the same thing, but for a different reason. We developed this test to get an accurate performance indication with data on the drives. Both the Plextor M3 and Corsair Performance 3 deliver around 85K Marks when the drives are clean and without data, but as you can see here, both drives drop well below the performance of the SandForce SF-2281 / synchronous flash Vertex 3 in all of our tests when data is present on the drive.
We try to use the 50% Data on Disk mark to measure performance (the blue gray middle line on the graph). With 50% of the drives capacity used the M3 256GB is slower than the Vertex 3 by over 7 thousand Marks.
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.
- Copy Benchmark
The Plextor M3 256GB drive regains its composure and does really good in the data transfer test. The Marvell BKK2 controller has always done very well when copying data and the M3 is a good example of how well this controller performs this task.
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 Plextor M3 isn't marketed as an enterprise SSD, but this is one of just a few drives that run with the SandForce drives. Here we see the Plextor M3 really doing a number on the competition in the Web Server test. This is the fastest we've recorded on a single 2.5" form factor drive.
This isn't the first time our Data on Disk Testing has crushed the dreams of a new SSD trying to dethrone the SandForce SF-2281 / synchronous flash combination in real-world tests. We're seeing several companies produce SSDs with Marvell controllers, but it's going to take something really special to make tame the drive when data is present.
All is not lost for the Plextor M3 256GB drive, though. Above we see the individual results from the 50% fill rate test. The slowest metric is 137MB/s and that was recorded in the Windows Media Player test. I don't think anyone would be unhappy with this level of performance, it's just not the best there is on the market today. The Plextor M3 has other benefits that make it a better all around performer. The data transfer test for example shows the M3 outperforming the Vertex 3 240GB. When running a larger capacity drive you'll transfer more data to and from your computer or at least to your solid state drive.
While writing this review two things happened at Newegg. The first is the OCZ Vertex 3 240GB, our baseline SSD for 2012 increased in price to $349.99. The second thing that happened is Plextor released a mail in rebate at Newegg that drops the price of the 256GB model down to $289.99. Even without the MIR the Plextor M3 comes in at just $309.99, which is a very good price on its own.
The Plextor M3 ships with a very good five year warranty. This is only matched in the SSD world by OWC and Intel's five year warranties. Plextor also ships their M3 with a very good accessory package, one of the best on the market. The drive is very fast as we determined today. It's not the absolute fastest in the daily real-world tests, but its fast enough to keep up with the high-end SandForce drives. The file transfer test was won by the Plextor M3 though and when everything is added together the Plextor M3 is one of the best all around drives you can buy today. We really like the price, too!
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