SSDs are fast, but the older SATA interface has been limiting their performance. If you are ready to take your system to the next level, consider these high-end PCIe-based SSDs.
INTEL SSD 750 SERIES
The Intel SSD 750 Series can best be summarized as the consumer version of their enterprise-focused SSD DC P3700 SSD. It was one of the first PCIe-based SSDs to support the wide and fast PCIe 3.0 x4 interface and also the NVMe protocol. NVMe or Non-Volatile Memory Express was developed expressly for PCIe-based SSDs, and supersedes the old AHCI protocol, with the goal to improve storage performance.
The SSD 750 Series is available in two form factors: a standard half-height half-length add-in card and also a 2.5-inch form factor that utilizes the new U.2 connector. A note about U.2 connectors; they are only found on selected motherboards, so you may need an M.2 to U.2 connector if you do opt for the 2.5-inch form factor. The add-in card version features a large and chunky silver heatsink that covers the entire length of the PCB board, whereas the 2.5-inch version looks like a thicker version of any other SATA-based SSD.
Since the Intel SSD 750 Series is based heavily on the SSD DC P3700, it is not surprising to see the same mega 18-channel Intel CH29AE41AB0 controller as its enterprise counterpart. This controller is Intel’s own design and its 18 NAND channels give it a huge advantage over most client-grade SSD controllers, which only have an 8-channel design. However, one feature notably missing is support for hardware encryption.
While the controller is likely to offer better performance, it also suffers from high power consumption. According to figures from Intel, active and idle power draw for the smaller 400GB model can be as high as 12W and 4W respectively, with no support for DevSlp. In comparison, most SSDs with support for DevSlp can have idle power consumption figures as low as 3mW.
The NAND in use in the SSD 750 Series is Micron’s 20nm MLC NAND. The SSD 750 Series is available in 400GB, 800GB and 1.2TB capacities. The reason for these unconventional capacities is because a large amount of NAND is dedicated to over-provisioning.
The drive comes with a half-height installation bracket, a CD containing Intel’s own NVMe driver and also Intel’s SSD Toolbox utility. This utility lets users monitor and check on their drives’ status and also quickly update its firmware when they become available. No cloning utility is provided.
Great all-round performance. Supports the NVMe protocol.
Read performance can be poor. No support for hardware encryption.
KINGSTON HYPERX PREDATOR
Kingston has always been a prominent player in flash storage, but like Intel, has languished somewhat over the past two years. While competitors have since ditched the aging SandForce’s SF-2281 controller, Kingston stuck to SandForce with its HyperX Fury SSD from 2014. Unsurprisingly, it was no longer a competitive offering.
Kingston has since re-doubled their efforts, swiftly switching the HyperX Fury to a more modern Phison controller and turning to Marvell for their flagship HyperX Predator drive.The HyperX Predator is an M.2 drive mounted on a PCIe adapter, and that’s not a bad thing at all. This means users have the flexibility to use the drive in either a PCIe or M.2 slots. Simply remove the securing screw and you can even use the HyperX Predator in notebooks if it has a free M.2 slot.
The Kingston HyperX Predator uses Marvell’s new 88SS9293 controller and supports the PCIe 2.0 x4 interface. Even though the 88SS9293 is Marvell’s first controller to support PCIe 2.0 x4, it is at a disadvantage when compared to drives that support the wider and faster PCIe 3.0 x4 interface. PCIe 3.0 offers about 984MB/s of bandwidth per lane; PCIe 2.0 offers only about half or 500MB/s per lane. Still, with support for four PCIe 2.0 lanes, the HyperX Predator is no slouch. Sequential read and write speeds for the 480GB drive which we have here is claimed to be in the region of 1,400MB/s and 1,000MB/s respectively.
Speed aside, another thing readers should take note is that the HyperX Predator does not support the NVMe protocol and the drive also does not offer hardware encryption.
As for the NAND memory, Kingston has opted to go with Toshiba’s extremely popular A19nm MLC NAND that also sees action in a lot of other SSDs. The Hyper X Predator comes in capacities of 240GB and 480GB.
Finally, the drive comes with a half-height installation bracket and also a CD-key for downloading Acronis True Image, which is a useful cloning tool for those who intend to migrate their data from another drive. Unfortunately, there’s no drive management utility, but updating firmware was a cinch as Kingston provides executable files that makes firmware updates pain-free.
Decent all-round performance. Drive can fit in PCIe or M.2 slots.
No hardware encryption. Only supports PCIe 2.0 x4.
PLEXTOR M6E BLACK EDITION
For the most part, if you have seen one SSD, you have seen them all. However, the Plextor M6e Black Edition manages to pull off the rare trick of being able to look attractive. The entire drive enclosure is black and has an appealing sandblasted finish.
Looking around the drive, we can see that Plextor has outfitted it with LED status indicators, an additional 15-pin external SATA power connector, plus extra pins that can be used to connect to HDD status indicators. You won’t find all these bells and whistles on the other drives.
Plextor has been utilizing Marvell controllers in their drives for some time now and the flagship M6e Black Edition continues in this tradition. Under the proverbial hood is Marvell’s 88SS9183 controller as well as Toshiba’s A19nm MLC NAND. And if you actually peel the heatsink and enclosure off, you will find that the M6e Black Edition is a M.2 drive mounted onto a PCIe adapter - just like the Kingston HyperX. Unfortunately, doing so voids your warranty, so the M6e Black Edition does not have the same flexibility as the Kingston drive.
The disappointing thing about the Plextor M6e Black Edition is that it only supports the PCIe 2.0 x2 interface. This means that its interface only has half the bandwidth of the Kingston HyperX Predator and only a fraction of SSDs that support PCIe 3.0 x4.
Fortunately, the Plextor M6e Black Edition redeems itself in other ways. Plextor is generally regarded by enthusiasts to be one of the more reliable SSDs brands around, and the reason for this is apparent once you learn about their rigorous testing procedures. Pre-production units of Plextor’s SSDs are put through a series of hard testing before they can be approved for retail. This include a 100% burn-in and aging test; a 48-hour long sustained read and write test; 250 times boot cycle test; and a 4000 time idle recovery test. This explains why Plextor drives are generally one of the most reliable around.
On top of that, the Plextor M6e Black Edition also supports a host of Plextor technologies, including PlexTool, PlexTurbo, PlexVault, PlexCompressor, TrueSpeed and TrueProtect. These help improve and maintain drive performance, as well as allow users to easily monitor and upgrade their drive’s firmware.
Attractive drive. Lots of useful bundled utilities
.Only supports PCIe 2.0 x2. Prohibitively expensive.
SAMSUNG SSD 950 PRO
For the past four years, Samsung has made important announcements at its annual SSD Global Summit. In 2015, the highlight was the new SSD 950 Pro, Samsung’s newest flagship and their first consumer PCIe-based SSD.
The Samsung SSD 950 Pro is only available in an M.2 form factor, so it is incredibly small. It also means that users without an appropriate M.2 connector will need to rely on an M.2 to PCIe adapter. It supports the PCIe 3.0 x4 interface, which is something that many Samsung users have demanded because the SATA interface was clearly limiting the performance of past Samsung flagship drives. Thanks to its support for PCIe 3.0 x4, the 512GB version of the SSD 950 Pro has rated sequential read and write speeds of a whopping 2,500MB/s and 1,500MB/s respectively - roughly three to five times quicker than SATA-based SSDs.
To further boost performance, the SSD 950 Pro is also one of the few consumer SSDs available now that supports the new NVMe protocol, like the Intel SSD 750 Series. In a nutshell, NVMe allows for more commands per queue and also more queues, to take advantage of the extremely low latency of flash-based storage.
Elsewhere, the SSD 950 Pro uses Samsung’s own triple-core UBX controller and 32-layer MLC V-NAND. Vertical NAND was specially developed by Samsung to address the shortcomings of current planar NAND. It stacks cells on top of each other so that there’s no need to cramp cells so closely together. Cells that are too closely packed together can cause disruption, data corruption and suffer from poorer endurance.
As a result, the 512GB SSD 950 Pro is guaranteed to be good for up to 400TB of writes, this works out to over 200GB of writes per day - significantly more than its competitors. That said, because of the lack of space on a M.2 stick, the SSD 950 Pro is presently only available in smaller 256GB and 512GB capacities.
The drive is packaged as it without any additional accessories, however, Samsung does provide a utility called Samsung Magician which can be used to monitor and manage the drive. Samsung also provides their own data migration software for users to easily migrate data from one drive to their new Samsung SSD.
Very fast. Good features. Reasonably priced.
Erratic write performance on certain workloads.
(higher is better)
AS SSD is a benchmark that uses non-compressible and completely random data. This benchmark is useful because some controllers, like the once popular but now defunct SandForce SF-2281, compress data first before moving them around. However, with non-compressible and random data, controllers cannot compress the data first, which forces them to deal with data as they are. Therefore, this is a useful benchmark to prevent drivers using controllers like the SF-2281 controller or similar from gaining an upper hand.
(higher is better)
PCMark 8 is the most up-to-date system benchmarking software from benchmarking specialists Futuremark. It was designed for Windows 8 machines and the storage suite test puts drives through a collection of 10 different real life workloads involving applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Word, Excel and even games like Battlefield 3 and World of Warcraft.
SERIESATTO Disk Benchmark
(higher is better)
ATTO is one of the oldest and most commonly used storage benchmarks around, and it is a useful tool to gauge a drive’s adeptness at managing compressible data. It’s also useful for seeing how a drive performs across a variety of different transfer block sizes and queue depths.
UNDERSTANDING THE PCIE INTERFACE
SSDs are very fast and the SATA interface that many consumer SSDs currently use isn’t providing enough bandwidth to fully maximize an SSD’s potential. SATA in its current iteration provides just 6Gbps of bandwidth. After taking encoding inefficiencies into account, you are looking at about 4.8Gbps or 600MB/s, which also explain why most SATA-based SSDs currently top out at around at that speed. Now the PCIe interface offers significantly more bandwidth. The latest version, PCIe 3.0, offers roughly 984MB/s per lane. This in turn means that the fastest PCIe-based SSDs today, which supports PCIe 3.0 x4, enjoy a maximum bandwidth of roughly 4GB/s - that’s six times more than SATA 6Gbps. PCIe 2.0, on the other hand, serves up 500MB/s per lane. As a result, PCIe 2.0 SSDs are usually slower than PCIe 3.0 SSDs.
AND THE BEST HIGH-END PCIE SSD IS
SAMSUNG SSD 950 PRO
For the past two or so years, Samsung has done a stellar job in cementing its position as the world’s foremost purveyor of SSDs. Thanks to its enviable position as one of the few truly integrated SSD manufacturers, Samsung has been able to provide innovative solutions and products like no other SSD manufacturer can.
So unsurprisingly, the SSD 950 Pro is a stellar drive and a worthy winner in this shootout. Though Intel’s SSD 750 Series just about matches it for speed, the SSD 950 Pro is faster overall in our tests. Plus it comes with other useful features such as the easy to use Samsung Magician utility and support for hardware encryption. The icing on the cake, however, has to be its rather sensible asking price of $599, which makes the 512GB SSD 950 Pro an easy drive to recommend to hardcore system builders who want to splurge on the best