As well-informed games.on.net readers, I don’t need to espouse the virtues of Solid State Drives to you. By now you’re all well aware that these little blocks of memory can crank your system’s responsiveness to speeds that make a hyperactive ninja look slothful, faster even than a costly CPU upgrade. Even better, they can slash game load times, ensuring you’re always first to get the gunner’s seat in BF3’s choppers when a new map loads. It’s no wonder SSDs were one of the most exciting new PC technologies of the last few years… until the great SandForce Singularity of 2011.
SandForce is a relative newcomer to the tech world, and in 2009 it decided to focus on designing SSD controllers, the chips inside an SSD that figure out how to read and write to the memory modules. Saying that SandForce did an ok job of making these controllers is akin to saying Usain Bolt is a pretty good jogger; SandForce’s controllers wiped the floor with the competition. By mid-2011 nearly every SSD on the market used SandForce’s chips and, to nobody’s surprise, they all performed very similarly. To this day most SSDs still use a SandForce controller (as seen in the SF-2281 that featured in Tim’s recent review of the SanDisk Extreme), which is why Corsair’s shiny new, SandForce-free Neutron and Neutron GTX drives are worth a closer look.
SandForce’s venerable SF-2281 controller is gone, replaced by a controller manufactured by Link_A_Media (LAMD). Yeah, I’ve never heard of this company either. It turns out that LAMD have been making controllers for almost a decade, but it has mainly focused on the Enterprise market. No, they’re not making hard drives for the United Federation of Planets’ Starships; they’ve been building storage for big business, for use in datacentres and the like. With the release of Corsair’s new SSDs, LAMD is chasing the mainstream market, and I’m guessing they’re pretty good at it. Why else would memory manufacturer Hynix decide to acquire the company back in June? I don’t need to guess any more though, as this week Corsair sent me two of their Neutron drives packing LAMD heat for testing; the mainstream Neutron and its souped-up big brother, the Neutron GTX.
Despite the price differences, both drives use the exact same controller in the form of the LAMD LM87800, and they’re the first SSDs on the market to use it. This is an eight-channel SATA 3 6Gbps controller, a configuration shared by most SSD controllers. Both drives also share the same 256MB cache of Samsung DDR2-800 memory, as well as a total amount of 256GB of memory modules. As expected, not all of this memory is usable, with some set aside for drive wear and garbage collection. Corsair sells both drives as 240GB models, but Windows only reports 223GB of usable space once the format fairies have done their job; Corsair aren’t the only manufacturers guilty of this slight capacity exaggeration. Unlike SandForce’s controllers, the LM87800 doesn’t use sneaky compression techniques to boost performance, so it should perform the same regardless of whether you’re working with .zip or .mkv files. ASIO agents might find the controller’s lack of AES encryption a worry, but those of us who don’t have state secrets to protect have nothing to fear.
Where the two drives differ is in their choice of solid state memory. The mainstream Neutron uses sixteen 16GB modules of Micron synchronous ONFi NAND memory (part number 29F128G08CFAAB), which is the same memory type used in Corsair’s previous Force GT drives. This 25 nanometre memory is rated to handle 3000 program/erase cycles before kicking the silicon bucket, and somebody much smarter than I has calculated that this equals around ten years of average use. The more expensive Neutron GTX uses pricier memory in the form eight 32GB modules of Toshiba toggle-mode MLC NAND (part number TH58TEG8D2HBA8C). Once again this isn’t the first time Corsair has used this memory type, with the same modules featuring in Corsair’s Performance Pro drive, and it has the same 3000 p/e cycles as the Neutron’s Micron memory.
With the cost of flash memory making up the lion’s share of an SSD’s pricing, it’s obvious that both Neutrons will have different prices thanks to their differing memory types. At the time of writing, the average street price for the Neutron 240GB is around $245 ($1.09 per GB), with the Neutron GTX 240GB slightly more expensive at $290 ($1.30 per GB). Let’s take a look at how they perform to see if this price difference is justified.
All testing was conducted on an ASUS Maximus V motherboard, using Intel’s Z77’s SATA 3 controller to spoon feed data to the drives. An Intel Core i5-3470 CPU and 8GB of Kingston HyperX DDR3 1800MHz rounded out the hardware, running Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit edition with Service Pack 1. The OCZ Vertex 4 256GB and ADATA SX900 240GB drives were used for comparative purposes, as both are rated as some of the fastest SSDs currently available.
Our first benchmark was Anvil’s Storage Utilities, rated amongst SSD enthusiasts as one of the best synthetic tests available. Unlike many other SSD benchmarks, it uses data that is hard to compress, which puts the controller’s compression technique through a more realistic workload. The sequential 4MB test is used to indicate performance when handling large files, and both drives performed very well at the read test. The GTX version had a huge 33% performance lead when it came to writing thanks to its toggle memory; while it didn’t take the lead in both tests, overall it was the best performer of the lot when both read and write were taken into account.
The next Anvils test shows 4K performance, which is an indicator of how the drives handle small files, such as those commonly loaded during normal desktop operation. Both Corsair drivers were behind the pack, showing that Corsair has focused on large file performance at the expense of smaller file performance.
Our CrystalDiskMark 4K QD32 is a very similar test, and once again the OCZ Vertex4 took the lead. Surprisingly the plain-Jane Neutron was faster than its more expensive sibling in this test.
We then moved on to PCMark Vantage’s HDD game test, which should indicate SSD performance while loading games. Once again the Neutron took the lead over the GTX, showing the price the GTX has had to pay to achieve such high sequential write performance.
Our final test was the popular AS SSD synthetic benchmark, where we focused on sequential performance. The Neutron GTX nipped at the heels of the OCZ Vertex 4, while the Neutron once again showed significantly slower write performance. Overall performance for both drives is very respectable, with the emphasis on handling larger file sizes, where the GTX is currently the fastest SSD I’ve tested when both reading and writing are taken into account. The biggest surprise is the Neutron’s ability to keep pace with the GTX version in most areas, even surpassing it in some tests.
It’s obvious that the new LAMD controller has the potential to show SandForce a thing or two, and we can expect even better performance as the firmware matures. While the OCZ Vertex 4 offers better value for money at the moment, prices on Corsair’s brand new products will undoubtedly decrease over the next few months. Once prices have stabilised and the drive’s potential has been maximised courtesy of firmware updates, Corsair will have a couple of very potent performers on its hands, and the SandForce stalemate should finally come to an end.
- Blistering sequential performance
- Decent value for money
- Doesn’t use compression to boost performance
- Smaller file performance could be better