Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

It's been a great year for prospective SSD shoppers as prices are finally becoming more practical for system builders and consumers alike. Scrolling through our reviews from last year, most of the higher capacity models were prohibitively expensive for "mainstream" enthusiasts.

The OCZ Vertex 3 240GB was $500 ($2.08/GB) when it arrived last spring, while the Crucial m4 256GB appeared around the same time for $1.95 per gigabyte and Samsung's 830 Series debuted later in the year for around $1.66 per gigabyte.

By mid 2012, SSD prices fell through the floor, costing approximately half as much as last year.

Granted, that's still nowhere near as economical as standard hard drives, so companies have continued to offer affordable solutions in addition to their high-end series to drive sale volumes. Such is the case with OCZ and the Agility 4, a budget-minded counterpart to the Vertex 4 that employs cheaper NAND flash memory.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

In similar fashion we recently saw the arrival of the Crucial v4 series. Compared to the m4 series, the v4 has a different controller and memory, and it's not SATA 6Gb/s-complaint, which significantly reduces its peak read and write performance. So in this particular case, the v4 isn't precisely a neutered version of Crucial's flagship drive.

With both the Agility 4 and Crucial's v4 priced at just under $200 for 256GB models, it seems we have the makings of a value-driven shootout...

OCZ Agility 4 Series

First, let's take a closer look at the Agility 4, as I am sure many of you are familiar with its big brother. Like the Vertex 4, the Agility 4 is available in 64GB, 128GB, 256GB and 512GB capacities.

The performance of the smaller 64GB and 128GB models is slower than the 256GB and 512GB versions. For example, the 64GB model features a read/write throughput of 300/200MB/s, while the 128GB model is much faster at 420/300MB/s.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

Even so, when compared to the 560MB/s read performance of the 128GB, 256GB and 512GB Vertex 4 drives, the Agility 4 series is at least 25% slower on paper because it uses asynchronous memory instead of synchronous. The cheaper unit also has a modified DRAM cache. Instead of two Micron DDR3-800 512MB chips for a DRAM cache capacity of 1GB, the Agility 4 has a pair of smaller Hynix DDR3-1333 256MB cache chips, for a total capacity of 512MB.

Besides those changes, the Agility 4 and Vertex 4 are virtually indistinguishable, featuring the same Indilinx Everest 2 IDX400M00-BC controller on an identical-looking PCB.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

The Agility 4 includes features that are purportedly unique to the Indilinx controller, including latency reduction technology to enhance system responsiveness and enable instant-on boot-ups (OCZ says access times are as low as 0.02ms), and a "Fast Boot" technology that supposedly delivers speedier boot times compared to existing SSDs. Couple that with no data compression limitations as in SandForce drives and you can expect better performance with certain operations involving media files and the like.

There's also the proprietary NDurance 2.0 technology which increases the lifespan of the NAND flash memory by as much as two times, from the 3,000-5,000 PE write cycles currently seen on 20nm NAND drives, back to the 6,000-10,000 range we saw with 30nm NAND.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

Despite NDurance 2.0, OCZ has only given the Agility 4 a MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) rating of two million hours, identical to the Vertex 4. Regardless, the Agility 4 carries a respectable three-year warranty, which is also backed by toll-free tech support and 24-hour Web support on the OCZ forum.

Crucial v4 Series in Detail

Whereas the Agility 4 is a reduced version of the Vertex 4, the v4 is an entirely different animal than Crucial's flagship offering. The v4 series consists of four models in sizes of 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB. The drives are built in the 2.5-inch form-factor and only support the SATA 3Gb/s interface.

With the v4 series being limited to SATA 3Gb/s, read throughput maxes out at just 230MB/s while write performance peaks at 190MB/s for the 256GB model. The 128GB version is slightly slower at 175MB/s, while the 64GB version sustains just 100MB/s and the 32GB model 60MB/s.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

This is the kind of performance that we saw from the Crucial M225 series back in 2009, which has led many to believe that Crucial's parent company Micron Technology is using the v4 series to clear inventory of unused 25nm MLC NAND flash chips.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

Whereas the m4 is powered by the Marvell 88SS9174 controller, the v4 carries a Phison PS310. Phison has been around for a long time and they have shipped a huge volume of controllers, though most have been for USB flash drives and memory cards rather than SSDs.

The v4 uses the same NAND flash memory found in the m4 series, Micron 29F256G08CJAAB 25nm MLC NAND chips. And while this memory can achieve great speeds, it will be handicapped by the 3Gb/s Phison controller.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

However, the point of this new series is affordability, and the Crucial v4 comes with some of the lowest launch prices ever seen for consumer SSDs. The 32GB model sells for just $50, 64GB for $70, 128GB for $100 ($0.78/GB), and 256GB for $190 ($0.74/GB). The drives are backed by a three-year warranty.

How We Test, System Specs

In addition to our featured flash devices, the Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.C 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM hard drive has been included for comparison's sake. Other SSDs tested for comparison feature controllers such as the SandForce SF-2281, JMicron JMF616, Intel PC29AS218A, Marvell 88SS9174, Toshiba TC58NCF618GBT and Samsung S3C29MAX01. Our testing suite consists of four synthetic benchmark programs and our own file copying and load time tests.

As you likely know, while manufacturers claim impressive peak I/O performance out of the box, this performance can diminish over time. Unlike a conventional hard drive, any write operation made to an SSD is a two-step process: a data block must be erased and then written to. Obviously if the drive is new and unused there will be nothing to erase and therefore the first step can be bypassed, but this only happens once unless the drive is trimmed.

Considering this, we'll test how much performance you can expect to lose from each SSD over time. We'll examine all drives in their clean unused state, and then run the HD Tach full benchmark several times to fill the entire drive. This simulates heavy usage and clearly indicates how performance will be affected after normal long-term use.

All drives in this roundup support the Windows 7 TRIM function, which is meant to counteract these negative effects.

Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' Minds

Test System Specs

  • Intel Core i7-2600K (LGA1155)
  • x2 4GB DDR3-1600 G.Skill (CAS 8-8-8-20)
  • Asus P8P67 Deluxe (Intel P67)
  • OCZ ZX Series (1250w)
  • Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.C 1TB (3Gb/s)
  • OCZ Vertex 4 256GB (6Gb/s)
  • OCZ Agility 4 256GB (6Gb/s)
  • OCZ Octane 512GB (6Gb/s)
  • Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB (6Gb/s)
  • Kingston HyperX 240GB (6Gb/s)
  • Kingston SSDNow V+200 240GB (6Gb/s)
  • Kingston SSDNow V+100 256GB
  • Patriot Torqx 2 128GB (3Gb/s)
  • Patriot Pyro 120GB (6Gb/s)
  • Crucial m4 256GB (6Gb/s)
  • Crucial v4 256GB (3Gb/s)
  • Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB (6Gb/s)
  • Samsung 470 Series 256GB (3Gb/s)
  • Intel SSD 320 Series 300GB (3Gb/s)
  • Intel SSD 510 Series 120GB (6Gb/s)
  • Samsung 830 Series 512GB (6Gb/s)
  • Samsung 470 Series 256GB (3Gb/s)
  • Asus GeForce GTX 580 (1536MB)

Software
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 (64-bit)
  • Nvidia Forceware 301.34

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Solid State Drive Showdown: SSD Is On PC Gamers' MindsSteven Walton is a writer at TechSpot. TechSpot is a computer technology publication serving PC enthusiasts, gamers and IT pros since 1998.