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Best SSDs For The Money: February 2014

Best SSDs For The Money: February 2014

This month, we take an abbreviated look at Mushkin's Ventura Ultra USB 3.0 Flash Drive, part of a new wave of USB-based SSDs. The Ventura pairs USB-attached SCSI and a SandForce controller in the hope of achieving SATA 6Gb/s-class performance externally.

Detailed solid-state drive specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. However, at the end of the day, what an enthusiast needs is the best SSD within a certain budget.

So, if you don’t have the time to read the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right drive, then fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best SSD offered for the money.

But before we dive into this month's recommendations, we want to take a quick look at one product we've been benchmarking in the lab...

February Updates: A Quick Look At Mushkin's Ventura Ultra USB 3.0 Flash Drive

Today's SSDs are righteous. A small amount of money can buy the kind of storage performance that was pretty much unheard of a few years ago. The underlying flash memory common to SSDs is a relatively recent invention that sought to overcome certain limitations of solid-state storage. Chief among them was the fact that EPROMs had to be completely erased (very slowly) before new information could be written to them.

Once USB became ubiquitous, pairing flash and the Universal Serial Bus because quite the sensation. And it made sense. Optical and magnetic media were too bulky, so an alternative that was both compact and rugged appealed to everyone. Whatever its limitations, flash enjoys the benefit of manufacturing economics, so price per gigabyte drops over time as capacity rises.

Now, it's fair to say that most flash-based USB storage devices aren't very fast. But we've slowly seen that change over the past year or two. Enter Mushkin's completely bonkers Ventura Ultra USB 3 SSD. The Ventura Ultra leans on a technology that we first previewed in Faster USB 3.0 Performance: Examining UASP And Turbo Mode: USB Attached SCSI Protocol. 

UASP allows USB storage devices to employ a common SCSI command set for storage operations, yielding a substantial boost over bulk-only transfers. Not only does this allow USB 3.0-based storage devices to get closer to the interface's theoretical 5 Gb/s ceiling, but asynchronous I/O can be used to stack commands.

How fast is the UASP-enabled Ventura? Peak sequential throughput maxes out over 400 MB/s. But that's not even the most interesting part. Most USB-based storage devices are tuned for sequential numbers. Random accesses aren't deemed as important, and with good reason. Take a camera's memory card, for example. Photos are big files, so the faster they can be written, the quicker you can shoot again. Rarely do you find yourself needing to write a bunch of small files, which is good because mainstream controllers can't handle those loads well. Mushkin skirts the issue by using SandForce silicon in its USB 3.0-attached SSD.

The PCB fits together neatly in the machined aluminium exterior. It's quite fancy-looking, though the angular ridges probably help dissipate heat. Either way, the Ventura looks like a futuristic pocket knife. SandForce's SF-2281 B02 controller is mated to NAND that's not easily identifiable (which makes sense, since Mushkin's parent company, Avant, cuts down Toshiba wafers and packages the dies).

We decided to test the Ventura Ultra using aspects of our SSD benchmark suite. Naturally, as a SandForce 2281-based SSD, performance is better with easily compressible data. But the B02-stepping controller is more power-efficient, which is nice from a USB device.

There are some especially pernicious problems with testing USB-based storage, not the least of which is wide performance variance from various controllers. With that said, here are a few results:

Four-kilobyte random performance is hampered by overhead associated with USB 3.0. I've seen these numbers vary wildly by platform, but this should be what you'd see in Windows 8.1 on a Z87-based motherboards. Reads, both with compressible and incompressible data, start at 5000 IOPS. Performance improves as queue depths increases, peaking above 30,000 IOPS. Writes are similar, but start at 10,000 IOPS and scale to the almost-30,000 IOPS range (with compressible data). Incompressible payloads follow the same trajectory, but stop just over 20,000 IOPS.

Sequential transfers are big too, with reads hitting close to 400 MB/s. It'd be hard to do much better than that with a 5 Gb/s interface, minus overhead. Writing incompressible data makes it to 154 MB/s, which is faster than most other USB-based solutions. But with low-entropy data, we measure over 400 MB/s. It's a strong showing to be sure, even if we don't match what we've come to expect from SATA 6Gb/s-based drives.

Toms's Storage Bench
Avg. Data Rate (MB/s)
Mean Read Service Time
Mean Write Service Time
Average Drive Performance
210.59 MB/s
479 us
2522 us
Mushkin Ventura Ultra USB 3.0
73.24 MB/s
908 us
3662 us

Compared to the SATA-based SSDs we've tested recently, the Ventura fares well enough. Service times are where we see the biggest impact from communicating over USB 3.0. Average Data Rate is simply the time the drive is busy doing something divided by the total data transferred; that's not a particularly useful stat on its own. Combine it with the other two metrics (mean read and mean write service times), though, and the performance picture becomes clearer. Yes, the Ventura is bested by most modern SATA 6Gb/s-based drives, but it's not a bloodbath. Just the fact that we're seriously comparing USB 3.0 and SATA is big enough news on its own.

Of course, we only have the 240 GB version. We know that the 120 and 60 GB versions won't be as proficient. Then again, those lower capacities aren't available yet, while the 240 GB drive isn't available in the UK (those in the U.S. can get it on Amazon for less than a dollar a GB).

Storage Reviews For The Month:

SanDisk X210 256 And 512 GB: Enthusiast Speed; OEM Reliability

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:

  • If you don't need to copy gigabytes of data quickly or load games in the blink of an eye, then there's nothing wrong with sticking with a mechanical hard drive. This list is intended for people who want the performance/responsiveness that SSDs offer, and operate on a specific budget. Now that most of Intel's chipsets have caching baked in, the idea of SSD-based caching could come into play for more entry-level enthusiasts, too.
  • There are several criteria we use to rank SSDs. We try to evenly weigh performance and capacity at each price point and recommend what we believe to the best drive based on our own experiences, along with information garnered from other sites. Some people may only be concerned with performance, but that ignores the ever-present capacity issue that mobile users face ever-presently. Even on the desktop, other variables have to be considered.
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. Our picks will be valid the month of publication, but we can't extend our choices very far beyond that time frame. SSD pricing is especially competitive, and a £10 difference can be the reason why one SSD makes the list, while another does not. As you shop, use our list as a guide, but always double-check for yourself.
  • The list is based on some of the best U.S./UK prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary.
  • These are new SSD prices. No used or open-box offers are in the list; they might represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
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    hari1987 , 16 February 2014 04:05
    was thinking of buying and one came across this article, very helpful thanks Tom's hardware.