HP EX920 SSD Review: Affordable And Fast Mainstream NVMe

For months, we've talked about how the consumer SSD market is becoming more diverse. New flash and improved commodity controllers are fueling high-speed products from companies that aren't known for producing great SSDs. Now that resources are available, we will see a handful of great products released every month. The HP EX920 is one of the early models that fit into this category.

Capacities Rated

We first spotted the HP EX920 at CES last January during a preview of upcoming products. The original drive sported an aluminum heatsink, but HP later determined the dual-core controller didn't need the additional cooling. The latest controller from Silicon Motion, Inc (SMI) hides under the HP logo. The new controller comes paired with Micron 64-layer flash in a combination of hardware that is similar to Intel's 760p, which is one of the best value SSDs on the market.

Today's SSDs are all about value. High performance is cheap thanks to evolved 3-bit per cell (TLC) flash. The HP drives were expensive the last time we tested them, but we were still living with a NAND shortage that brought a plague of planar TLC flash that suffered from low performance and endurance. In the meantime, flash producers spent a few billion dollars on new technology and manufacturing, and now we're on the cusp of an oversupply.

Everyone likes variety–it's the spice of life. We like it because it spawns high-performance SSDs at low costs. Let's see what that means for us in the second quarter of 2018.

We've got two new NVMe SSDs from HP in our lab. Today we're looking at the top tier EX920 armed with the SMI SM2262 controller and a fat dual-DRAM cache system that increases burst performance. The other new model is cheaper but relies on a small portion of your system's memory (RAM) to cache the flash translation layer map, so it lacks onboard DRAM.

The EX920 is the upper tier model with onboard DRAM and up to 1TB of flash. The HP EX920 comes to market in 256, 512, and 1TB capacities with a maximum sequential read speed of 3,200 MB/s. The sequential write performance scales with capacity and spans from 1,200 MB/s up to 1,800 MB/s for the 1TB model, as outlined in the table above. The flagship 1TB delivers up to 350,000/250,000 random read/write IOPS, but random performance also scales with capacity. 

Features

All HP SSDs pass through an extensive validation process to ensure they are compatible with the appropriate HP systems. For instance, NVMe SSDs will not work in systems using older BIOS code that isn't compatible with the protocol. We expect the SSDs to work in newer HP systems that support NVMe, but you're not limited to HP systems. We ran the EX920 in a DIY desktop and Lenovo notebook without any issues.

The Intel 760p arrived before our SM2262 reference design sample, so we didn't we didn't write a preview article for the controller. This is the successor to the SM2260 controller that's widely used in entry-level NVMe products like the Intel 600p. The controller, along with the new 64-layer flash, fixes many of the issues we found with the SM2260 products, like abnormally high latency. So far, we've found that products armed with the new SM2262 controller have similar, or cheaper, prices than products using the older controller and 32-layer flash.

The new SM2262 SSDs straddle the line between entry-level and mainstream with pricing firmly in the former and performance clearly in the latter. Not all SM2262-controlled SSDs are the same, though. The companies still have to build firmware to manage the flash, and we will see several different flash management strategies as these products come to market. 

Pricing, Warranty, & Endurance

HP made up some ground on its mainstream NVMe competitors with a new low price point. Intel hasn't shipped the 760p in 1TB yet, but CDW lists it for $438.99. HP's 1TB retails for $369.99 and is available worldwide. The 512GB EX920 sells for $175.99, which undercuts the 512GB Intel by nearly $24. The 256GB EX920 is the absolute bargain of the bunch at $109.99.

HP ships this series with a disappointing three-year warranty. The short warranty allows the company to keep the prices down, but there has been an influx of SSDs over the last few months with five-year warranties. The endurance rating is even more disappointing. The 256GB model only carries a 100TBW (terabytes written) rating. For comparison, the Intel 760p carries a 72TBW rating for every 128GB of flash, or 144TBW for the 256GB drive (along with a five-year warranty). The 1TB EX920 has a very weak 300 TBW rating that is one of the lowest in the industry.                  

Packaging

This is the third HP SSD we've tested, and they all use the same black box with an image of the product on the front. We found a small list of specifications on the back, but no performance numbers. The disclaimer takes more room than the specifications.

A Closer Look

The drive is a bit more exciting. The SM2262 features a thin copper heatsink coated with a material to prevent oxidation. HP branded the controller, so it doesn't carry the typical SMI logo we usually see on these parts. Two DRAM packages, one on each side, cache the flash translation layer and user data for speedy access. The 1TB drive uses the D5 double-sided specification, but that shouldn't be an issue for most users.

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