One Tough Act to Follow

What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it.

The Anthology took me six months to piece together; I wrote and re-wrote parts of that article more times than I'd care to admit. And today I'm charged with the task of producing its successor. I can't do it.

The article that started all of this was the Intel X25-M review. Intel gave me gold with that drive; the article wrote itself, the X25-M was awesome, everything else in the market was crap.


Intel's X25-M SSDs: The drives that started a revolution

The Anthology all began with a spark: the SSD performance degradation issue. It took a while to put together, but the concept and the article were handed to me on a silver platter: just use an SSD for a while and you’ll spot the issue. I just had to do the testing and writing.


OCZ's Vertex: The first Indilinx drive I reviewed, the drive that gave us hope there might be another.

But today, as I write this, the words just aren't coming to me. The material is all there, but it just seems so mature and at the same time, so clouded and so done. We've found the undiscovered country, we've left no stone unturned, everyone knows how these things work - now SSD reviews join the rest as a bunch of graphs and analysis, hopefully with witty commentary in between.

It's a daunting, no, deflating task to write what I view as the third part in this trilogy of articles. JMicron is all but gone from the market for now, Indilinx came and improved (a lot) and TRIM is nearly upon us. Plus, we all know how trilogies turn out. Here's hoping that this one doesn't have Ewoks in it.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

No we're not going back to the stuttering crap that shipped for months before Intel released their X25-M last year, but we are going back in the way we have to look at SSD performance.

In my X25-M review the focus was on why the mainstream drives at the time stuttered and why the X25-M didn't. Performance degradation over time didn't matter because all of the SSDs on the market were slow out of the box; and as I later showed, the pre-Intel MLC SSDs didn’t perform worse over time, they sucked all of the time.

Samsung and Indilinx emerged with high performance, non-stuttering alternatives, and then we once again had to thin the herd. Simply not stuttering wasn't enough, a good SSD had to maintain a reasonable amount of performance over the life of the drive.

The falling performance was actually a side effect of the way NAND flash works. You write in pages (4KB) but you can only erase in blocks (128 pages or 512KB); thus SSDs don't erase data when you delete it, only when they run out of space to write internally. When that time comes, you run into a nasty situation called the read-modify-write. Here, even to just write 4KB, the controller must read an entire block (512KB), update the single page, and write the entire block back out. Instead of writing 4KB, the controller has to actually write 512KB - a much slower operation.

I simulated this worst case scenario performance by writing to every single page on the SSDs I tested before running any tests. The performance degradation ranged from negligible to significant:

PCMark Vantage HDD Score New "Used"
Corsair P256 (Samsung MLC) 26607 18786
OCZ Vertex Turbo (Indilinx MLC) 26157 25035

 

So that's how I approached today's article. Filling the latest generations of Indilinx, Intel and Samsung drives before testing them. But, my friends, things have changed.

The table below shows the performance of the same drives showcased above, but after running the TRIM instruction (or a close equivalent) against their contents:

PCMark Vantage HDD Score New "Used" After TRIM/Idle GC % of New Perf
Corsair P256 (Samsung MLC) 26607 18786 24317 91%
OCZ Vertex Turbo (Indilinx MLC) 26157 25035 26038 99.5%

 

Oh boy. I need a new way to test.

A Quick Flash Refresher
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  • Abjuk - Wednesday, September 02, 2009 - link

    Agreed CM, my current project at work takes about six minutes to build from scratch and CPU usage never gets above about 35%. The process is totally IO bound.

    It really depends on whether you have several large source files or several hundred small ones.
    Reply
  • Weyzer - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Good article and testing, but why was the Crucial M225 not mentioned at all? It's performance is similar to the vertex drives, I know, but I think it could have been mentioned somewhere, if it is in the good or bad range. Reply
  • jasperjones - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    javascript:link('frmText') $997 @ Newegg omgomgomg

    Needless to say, that price will come down quickly. So more seriously, after reading the article I really feel I understand better what to look for in an SSD. Thanks!
    Reply
  • paesan - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Wow, does NE really think that anyone will buy the Intel drive at that price. OMG!!! Funny thing, it is in stock and it says limit 1 per customer. Lol Reply
  • CList - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Obviously someone is buying them at that price or they'd lower it. The people who can't wait two or three weeks and are willing to be gouged for these drives are the ones that allow NewEgg to give us low margins on other products while not going out of business :D

    Reply
  • ravaneli - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    I just decided to buy one and when I opened newegg i couldn't believe my eyes. I hope that is only because they have a few drives left, and once Intel pumps up some stock in the retailers the prices will go back to Intel's retail.

    Does anyone know what are the production capabilities of Intel's SSD factories? I don't want to wait a whole year until the market saturates.
    Reply
  • LazierSaid - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    This article was so good that Newegg doubled their X25M G2 prices overnight.

    Reply
  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Yep, very impressive advertisement indeed. Reply
  • HVAC - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    I'd rather have ewoks in the sequels than Jar-jar ... Reply
  • Naccah - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Newegg's prices on all the Intel SSDs skyrocketed. The X-25 G2s are $499 now. Is this price a reflection of the high demand or did Intel change the price again? Reply

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