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Drives On The Block

Can Bargain SSDs Give Windows A Quantum Performance Leap?
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We spend a fair bit of time on this site detailing the various advances in flash and SSD technology and analyzing the impact each of these advances have on performance. Newer drives generally yield faster performance. In the consumer sphere, which I generally believe is in the sub-$500 range for an SSD, Intel’s X25-M G2 drive is widely held to be the king, thanks in large part to its move to a 34 nm fab process, use of the latest firmware enhancements, and the company’s self-proclaimed “secret sauce” in its controller.

Behind the G2 drive, we have a growing horde of consumer SSD options based on multi-level cell (MLC) NAND technology. As you go down the price chain, you’ll find diminishing capacities, memory channels, sustained throughput speeds, cache sizes, and so on. Looking on Newegg, I see an Imation 32GB SATA 3Gb/s SSD for $79.99. An SSD at this price was practically unthinkable two years ago.

However, I wouldn’t recommend a 32GB drive as a boot volume for Windows 7. The Windows folder alone on my Windows 7 Ultimate system registers just shy of 14GB. Office 2010 will want 3GB. You’ve probably got several gigs of your own apps that need to be installed. Keep in mind that you want to leave at least 20% of your SSD free for optimal performance. I really don’t recommend anything less than 64GB for a boot drive these days.

With that in mind, I wanted a low/mid/high arrangement for our SSD test set. At the low-end, I went with Kingston’s SSDNow V-Series. This unit features a JMicron controller, but one that has been updated to allegedly dispense with the stuttering debacle of times past. As I write this, Newegg lists a bare drive in retail packing for $134.99 with a $30 mail-in rebate, bringing the final price down to $104.99. Sequential access reads are specified at 100 MB/s, sequential writes at 80MB/s, and the mean-time between failure (MTBF) is 1,000,000 hours. For a modern SSD, this is pretty much the left edge of the bell curve. What I actually received from Kingston to test was the V-Series SNV125-S2BN/64GB, the exact same drive, but bundled with a USB notebook upgrade enclosure and Acronis True Image software. The kit sells for only $10 more and is totally worth the extra charge if you’re upgrading a portable. Honestly, I dispensed with the enclosure and simply used the Acronis software for cloning the test image across all four drives in this review. Cloning the 40GB image took roughly five minutes.

Next up, I opted for Transcend’s TS60GSSD25D-M at $239. For twice the money, you get the same capacity (the motherboard BIOS reads it as a 64GB drive) but nearly twice the rated specs: up to 210 MB/sec sequential writes, 150 MB/sec sequential reads, and a 1.5-million-hour MTBF.

Of course, I had to use Intel’s latest and greatest, the 160GB G2 (with v1.5 firmware released 11/30/2009), for the high-end drive. Newegg has the single-drive OEM price at $539, which is officially outside of my $500 consumer price cap. However, the 80GB version of the G2 lists for $290. Nevertheless, I wanted the 160GB for its slightly faster numbers: up to 250 MB/sec sequential reads and 100 MB/sec writes. The 80GB variant steps down to a maximum of 70 MB/sec writes. On paper, the G2 performs as though Transcend might be nipping at its heels, so this should be an interesting comparison.

During Christmas, I got into a friendly argument with my younger cousin, who was insistent that he had to buy a Western Digital VelociRaptor after the holidays for his gaming rig. All his friends and research assured him it was the only way to fly for a faster storage subsystem, and at $199, the 300GB model was still within his reach, unlike “those really expensive SSDs.” I’m a long-time Raptor admirer, and WD was generous enough to provide one of its 10,000 RPM, 300GB beauties for this story, despite the ominous match-up. Let’s see if the best of the old world can keep pace with the new.

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