Today's review is going to have so many talking points in it that we might as well call it an editorial. By the time I finish writing it my Monster Energy Irish Cream will have worn off and I will have caffeine withdraw.
Let's start out with the positive news that will change the way you shop for SSDs. Around two months ago SandForce released code to manufactures that gave them the option to change the overprovisioning of the drives. If you recall, the very first SandForce based drives to hit the market reserved 28% of the flash capacity for background activities (128GB of flash, 100GB available). That was later reduced to 7% on consumer drives (128GB of flash, 120GB available). Now, SandForce has released a new 0 provision that doesn't reserve any flash for background work. This may sound like a bad thing, but it's actually not.
To tell the truth it really doesn't matter at all. The reason why is because if you are not using the space, the SandForce architecture is going to use it anyway for background tasks. So, unless you have your SSD filled to the limit, your 0-provision SSD is going to perform pretty much the same as a 7% drive. If you do happen to fill the drive up then you can expect your drive to slow down. As we've shown in every SSD review going back to April 1st 2011, your SSD is going to slow when you add data to it anyhow.
What is going to change is the way you shop for an SSD. Previously, if you were shopping for a 256GB / 240GB class SSD you knew that every drive listed at Newegg as a 240GB model was based on SandForce and just about every drive with 256GB was Marvell, Samsung, Toshiba or Jmicron controlled. Most of you took my advice and bought a 240GB model and have been all smiles since.
Those of you who were not all smiles, even with a 120GB, 240GB or 480GB drive have pointed their finger at SandForce (maybe pointed at the sky, but directed at SandForce) for firmware issues. Let me first say that not all of the issues that are placed on the back of SandForce are actually SandForce issues. SandForce makes a product, gives manufactures the programming and firmware and from time to time the manufactures create some issues of their own.
When it comes to all of the SandForce drives on the market today the firmware issues that were widely reported have been resolved with firmware 3.2. SandForce also has firmware 3.3.2 and 3.3.4 that we've seen on some of the newer drives. We've not run into an issue with 3.2 up to 3.3.4, they are very good releases, problem free, very fast and as satisfying as a cold beer after working in the yard all day.
Over the last few weeks we've seen new SSDs hit the market based on the SandForce SF-2281/2 controller, the first being the SanDisk Extreme SSD. The SanDisk Extreme SSD is the fastest 240GB SSD on the market today right out of the box. I've spent the last two months examining this drive, testing, confirming and testing some more. The SanDisk Extreme SSD in its current form has an issue with TRIM, though. The drive will NOT regain performance when data is deleted like it should.
At first I assumed the issue had to do with the SanDisk 24nm Toggle Mode Flash, this is the first drive to pair 24nm Toggle Mode with a SandForce controller. I also associated the amazing performance to the flash. I was wrong in both cases. The TRIM issue and the leading performance are due to a new firmware, version 5 we believe. SandForce went from 3.3.4, at least publicly to version 5. Several manufactures report their firmware version differently for whatever reason they see fit. Because of this drawling these lines has taken all of two months to figure out! The SanDisk firmware is reported at R112. Big help there - thanks! The coffee is now wearing off, or I'm just getting angry about the two months I've spent tracking this down.
The next drive to hit our lab that indicated an issue with TRIM was the Biwin Elite Series S836. This is another SandForce SF-2281 drive, this time a 120GB model. This drive reports firmware 502ABBF0. This started us down the version 5 path so we started asking questions about just what the hell was going on with the new drives. No one has come out and stated that the "new" crop of SandForce SSDs use a version 5 firmware, but we believe that is exactly what is going on. The SanDisk Extreme 120GB and 240GB drives achieve a PC Mark Vantage HDD score of around 85K Marks. The Biwin is the same, but the Biwin is using 25nm synchronous flash and not 24nm Toshiba/SanDisk Toggle Model flash.
Today we are looking at the ADATA SP900, another drive with TRIM issues and another drive with IMFT 25nm flash. The SP900 also achieves a Vantage score in the 85K range when fresh. At least the first half of this paragraph is good, right? Let's move onto the next page and tackle some other issues that are making our heads spin.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
ADATA recently released three new 2.5" form factor drives and a new mSATA model. Two of the three 2.5" drives are SATA 6Gbps, both with SandForce controllers and new 0 provision programming. The first is the new SX900 with synchronous flash, the new flagship for ADATA. The second in this SATA 6Gbps group is the SP900 that we are looking at today.
ADATA currently lists three capacity sizes for the SP900; those are 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. It is going to take me awhile to get used to typing that for sure as 60, 120 and 240 has been programmed in my subconscious for a long time now. Per the specifications sheet, the SP900 uses asynchronous flash. ADATA also does a very good job of listing AS SSD incompressible data performance on the specs sheet. The question is though, why does our drive have Intel 25nm synchronous flash on it? Let's cover some of the other details and work our way back to the flash question in a couple of pages.
Newegg lists the new SP900 already, but only the 64GB and 256GB (that we are looking at today) are in stock. The pricing breakdown is as follows, 64GB ($84.99), 128GB ($134.99 but out of stock) and finally 256GB (309.99). For comparison, the flagship SX900 with advertised synchronous flash is listed at 64GB ($109.99), 128GB ($169.99), 256GB ($329.99) and this series also gets a massive 512GB size ($699.99).
When it comes to accessories ADATA backs their SP900 with a three year warranty and includes a desktop adapter bracket, data migration software and mounting screws for the hardware. You also receive a paper quick start guide.
ADATA changed their package design since the S511 and S510 series of SandForce SF-2281 drives hit the market. You can now see the drive itself through the box via the window on the front. On the front side of the package we get some of the details like the desktop adapter bracket inclusion, SandForce Driven text, but not the logo, which is sure to confuse somewhat educated brick and mortar shoppers.
More information is given on the back of the package. The one area that stood out for me was the Max Performance ratings. It shows the typical 550MB/s read and 530MB/s write speeds for documents and the Multimedia Data read of 220MB/s with a 255MB/s write speed. ADATA is clearly showing that this is asynchronous flash performance.
Inside the package we found the drive in a secure compartment away from the desktop adapter bracket so neither will get scratched. A printed quick start guide is included to walk you through the installation and a document that shows how to download Acronis True Image.
ADATA Premier Pro SP900 256GB SSD
Here we get our first look at the new ADATA Premier Pro SP900 256GB drive. On the front we see the capacity size and the model name.
On the back is where you will find the model number, ASP900S3-256GM, the warranty code and SKU. Your Acronis True Image key is also listed on the back of the drive, a feature we like since you will be able to find the code easily when you need it.
All of the mounting points are located where they should be on both the bottom and side of the drive. This will make it easy to install the SP900 in your notebook or desktop with the included adapter bracket.
The included adapter bracket offsets the drive to the side so the offset SATA data and power connectors will line up with your existing drives and backplane if you have one.
We are finally to the flash, the area that has kept me up for the last couple of days. There are sixteen chips, eight on each side. They are labeled as 29F16B08CCME3. We've seen this flash before on several SSDs like the Vertex 4 and other known synchronous flash drives.
The last number at the end of the string indicates the generation. 1 was used on synchronous flash. Drives like the ADATA S511 used Intel flash that ended in 1. 2 is the second generation and it was found on several asynchronous flash drives like the ADATA S510. Now we have the third generation and from what we've gathered it is "bironous". We just made that word up, but it looks like it can be installed as either synchronous or asynchronous.
Looking at the PCB, both the ADATA SX900 (advertised at synchronous) and the SP900 (advertised as asynchronous) use the same PCB. There is one surface mount component change on this side of the drive and that is in position R70 or resistor 70. The SP900 256GB that we are looking at today does not have a resister in the R70 position, but the SX900 256GB has a surface mount resister in that position.
There is not going to be a pencil mod trick to turn your SP900 into a SX900 though. On this side I counted at least eight changes to the surface mount components. Also note that I didn't measure the values of the surface mount components. All of the surface mount component changes are at the top, middle of the PCB, just to the right of the upper most flash. The SP900 has a resister at R135, a piece not found on the SX900, but nothing at C23, C24, C22, R25, R25 and R28. Two other components are missing at L5 and U5.
That still leaves the flash issue. If third generation IMFT flash can run as either synch or async, why would anyone choose to make a drive in an async configuration? This is an area we'll have to research in the coming weeks.
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, Z77 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 ports 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 ATTO the SP900 delivers an amazing performance achieving a maximum read speed of nearly 560MB/s. The write speed was equally as impressive, just over 532MB/s.
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 ADATA SP900 starts out strong in our sequential read test across the drive. The new firmware allows the drive to outperform even the Intel 520 in this test.
The new firmware is also very fast when writing sequential data to the drive. HD Tune uses compressible data so these numbers will shrink when working with media files but documents and other uncompressed files.
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 cache fills. This usually happens only with controllers manufactured by JMicron and Toshiba.
High sequential numbers make for good marketing but most users notices the extremely fast actions after moving to SSDs. The feeling of fast most noticed comes from the low access times which are what we measure on this page.
The SandForce based drives like SP900 are a little behind those using Marvell controllers, but at these speeds, a few microseconds isn't going to matter much. At the bottom of the chart we see a 600GB VelociRaptor, one of the fastest mechanical drives ever produced for the consumer market. The numbers pretty much speak for themselves - SSDs have a massive advantage over spinners.
The SP900 produces write access time benchmarks in line with other SandForce based 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 Crystal Disk Mark we start to see the SP900's asynchronous configuration come into play. This test uses incompressible data (data that is already compressed). For many users the single command 4K read speed that is in line with several other leading SSDs on the market will do just fine. Users who work with media files will want to steer clear of the SP900 because the flash handicaps the performance of these file types.
I was surprised to see the SP900 performing so well in the CDM write test. We've seen several of the asynchronous flash equipped SF drives do poorly here, but that wasn't the case with the SP900. The TRIM issue is starting to come into play at this point as well. The high queue depth numbers are around 15MB/s slower than what we recorded with the Patriot Pyro SE 240GB at this point in our testing cycle.
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
After a secure erase cycle, then a Vantage run the ADATA SP900 scores between 85K and 86K in Vantage and is in line with the SanDisk Extreme SSD 240GB drives that we have in house. Both of these models have issues with TRIM so the numbers from our strict testing procedures don't show the very high numbers that would be possible with a 100% healthy drive.
By the time we perform our first PCMark Vantage test our SSDs have already wrote 2.19TB to the host. SandForce controllers don't write everything to the flash and we don't have an accurate way to determining how much data has actually been written to the flash with our SandForce samples. Let's look at our custom version of this test.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage - Drives with Data Testing
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
Before we get into the 50% fill state examination let's take a close look at the SP900 numbers as a group. We've already stated the out of box results, just over 85K. The first Vantage test is placed right in the middle of our test cycle. At that point we recorded a result of 68,899 Marks. We then run a number of other tests, the full AS SSD Suite, Crystal Disk Mark 1000MB, four Passmark tests, three Anvil Storage Utilities tests and so on. After those tests are completed we go back and fill the SSD with data until it is roughly 25% full, then run Vantage again. After that test the drive is filled to 50%, Vantage is run and then again at 75%. After the 75% test all of the data is deleted from the drive and cleared from the Recycle Bin. At that point we run Vantage again to get the TRIM test results.
Looking down the chart we see that in nearly every case the TRIM test results in a benchmark score that is close to the first Vantage run. The TRIM is working properly and in many case the TRIMed drive is faster than the first run. With the SanDisk Extreme SSD and ADATA SP900 that is not the case. These drives do regain performance, a majority of that is because the flash isn't holding data (the remaining 25% not used in the fill test is somewhat clean and being used as well), but the 75% we did use and just freed from data is still dirty. The end result leaves us with a much slower drive than what we started with. Over time the performance is only going to get worse until the drive just feels like an "old dirty" SSD all of the time.
Getting on track with this section, let's look at the performance with all of the drives half full. Asynchronous drives with SandForce controllers take a big hit here and the hit is enough for us to not recommend them if the price is close to the synchronous flash version. At this time the SX900 with sync flash costs only $20 more than the SP900 we are looking at today, both models at the 256GB capacity size.
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
AS SSD uses incompressible data and that is why the performance in these file copy tests appears so low. If you purchase a drive with asynchronous flash this is what you can expect. The TRIM issue also reduces performance here as well. The SanDisk Extreme SSD took a big hit when tested in a dirty state.
Benchmarks - Anvil Storage Utilities
Anvil Storage Utilities
Version and / or Patch Used: BETA 11
So what is Anvil Storage Utilities? First of all, it's a storage benchmark for SSDs and HDDs where you can check and monitor your performance. The Standard Storage Benchmark performs a series of tests, you can run a full test or just the read or the write test or you can run a single test, i.e. 4K DQ16.
Anvil Storage Utilities is not officially available yet but we've been playing with the beta for several months now. The author, Anvil on several international forums has been updating the software steadily and is adding new features every couple of months.
The software can be used several different ways and to show different aspects for each drive. We've chosen to use this software to show the performance of a drive with two different data sets. The first is with compressible data and the second data set is incompressible data. Several users have requested this data in our SSD reviews.
Fill Compressible Data
We've received several requests for the Anvil numbers. Instead of showing just one set we've decided to provide two and give the test a little more meaning. In the first screenshot we see the test with 0-fill (compressible data). In the second test we see the incompressible data test. This allows you to see the performance roll off when working with these file types.
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.
ADATA isn't listing the SP900 as an enterprise drive, but we've heard from several of our readers about using consumer SSDs in their light use servers.
Let's get this TRIM issue out of the way first. I've sent SandForce my findings and hopefully the next firmware from them will correct any issue they are able to verify. ADATA has always been very good about updating their SSD products downloads pages with new firmware as it rolls out. The image above shows the ADATA S511 download page and all of the listings. For now let's just chalk this one up to another SSD firmware issue that made it to retail. Even Intel, whom is widely regarded as having the least amount of these issues has a few red marks on their track record. Also, not every company can have a Chris Ramseyer running around in the lab to find these issues. I suggest companies figure out a cloning machine and then we can talk licensing fees. :)
Looking at the firmware download page for the ADATA S511 does bring up another issue. As an owner of a few S511s, why aren't ADATA and the other Team SandForce companies giving us the new firmware that increases performance (and breaks TRIM at this time)? The ADATA S511 uses synchronous flash from IMFT just like the new SX900. The SX900 and SP900 use the new third generation flash, but I doubt that has much of an effect on the performance since most performance comes from programming and firmware. The S510 (async) and S511 (sync) have been on the market for quite a while so I can see why the marketing departments want new model numbers to help generate a buzz about ADATA products. But the fact remains that these older drives are damn near identical to the new models... minus the new, higher speed firmware. Owners of these older models might end up a little ticked off about losing out on the latest and greatest firmware and I wouldn't blame them at all. The company that releases a fixed version 5 firmware for an older model will gain my respect very quickly and also gain my endorsement of their products. Till then, this SandForce re-launch with a faster firmware is only going to burn existing owners of these products.
The SP900 that we are looking at today has the new 0 provision programming which is pretty cool on paper, but in real-life use it has little meaning. You can fill your SSD with more data, but no one wants to do that because the drive slows down too much. The async models are going to take a bigger performance hit so the SP900 gets a double whammy when full. Just because you have it doesn't mean you need to use it.
The issues for the SP900 don't stop there though. As this article turns into a total hit piece I'm reminded that ADATA was once a very good SSD manufacture that competed heavily in the low cost price game. That is no longer the case. At the time of writing the SP900 256GB sells for $309.99 at Newegg. To ADATA's credit this is a new product and Newegg artificially inflates new product prices, but that still isn't an excuse for the SP900 256GB async flash drive to cost a full $109 more than the Corsair Force Series 3 240GB ($199.99 after a $30 mail-in-rebate). The Muskin Chronos Deluxe with very good 34nm Toshiba Toggle Mode flash, AKA the really, really good stuff sells for just $249.99 at Newegg and at 50% full (of data on the drive) delivers nearly twice the performance of the SP900.
Somewhere along the path ADATA has lost their way. Two years ago this drive wouldn't have hit the market at this price or in this condition. We can't pin all of the issues on ADATA, but we certainly can't say they aren't without fault either. Hopefully someone over there is able to get it together and give us back the quality of products that earned ADATA several awards for their SSDs in the past.
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