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Corsair Force 3 120GB SSD Review

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AkG

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On May 16th, Corsair turned the enthusiast SSD market on its ear by announcing their new Force 3 series of drives. In and of itself, the Force 3 introduction wasn’t groundbreaking but at the time its price left every other high end SSD in the dust even though its performance (at least on paper) was on par with some of the fastest drives around. Partially because of this drive the competition had to lower their prices to more reasonable levels and we now have SATA 3 SSDs that are well within most people’s budgets.

To be fair, with the advent of SandForce’s second generation controller, the entire SSD market has seen a lot of turmoil lately due to its rapidly expanding stable of products. The mid-tier ranges are becoming increasingly cluttered while the goal posts in the enthusiast bracket keep getting moved further afield. So what was yesterday’s cutting edge drive is today’s budget class.


These new realities are certainly a boon for consumers since high performance drives will now fit into the budget of a wider audience. However, consumer confusion on exactly what signifies a “bargain” has been significantly increased. For example, for about $190 dollars you can obtain an OCZ Vertex 2 120GB SSD or for about $215 you can purchase the venerable Crucial C300 128GB. In the middle of this price range lays Corsair’s Force 3 120GB which can be found for about $200 online. Further aiding in consumer confusion, is the fact that for only a touch more you can purchase an OCZ Vertex 3 120GB at $229.


The interior architecture of the Force 3 is what allows it to hit the mid-tier market without sacrificing too much performance. Popping open the case reveals a layout that looks similar to that of the Force GT 120GB. All 16 IC spots are populated with 8GB (64 gigabit), single bank NAND modules while there is also an SF2281 controller chip nestled in its own space.


As with the GT, Micron NAND has been used but in this case Corsair went with 25nm 29F64G08CBAAA ONFi 1.0 chips rather than the higher performance and more costly ONFi 2.0 ICs used on their flagship drive. This difference in NAND selection is what sets the Force 3 and the Force GT apart from one another.


As with many other SSDs, Corsair has included a drive bay converted so the Force 3 can be easily installed into any PC enclosure.
 
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AkG

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Introducing the SandForce SF2000 Family

Introducing the SandForce SF2000 Family




As you are probably well aware by now, there are actually many different models which make up the next generation of SandForce controllers. Much like Intel’s socket 1155 i3/i5/i7 series of processors, all these different SandForce numbers represent slightly different tweaks and features, but all are basically built upon the same SF2000 foundation.

In grand total there are eight SF2000 iterations, but for the most part we won't see most of them in the retail channel. Take for example the SF2141; this is a cut down 4 channel, 24bit RS ECC, SATA 3GB/s controller which probably wont see much fan fare outside of truly budget SSDs. The easiest way to think about this one is to consider it the low end of SF2000 drives. Stepping up a level to 8 channels (and 55bit BCH ECC) but still SATA 3GB/s only is the SF2181 which you can consider the mid range of this generation. This one will probably be featured in more mid-tier next generation SSDs as it has better error correction abilities, yet cannot directly compete with the true stars of the SF200 consumer line: the SF 2281.

The only difference between the two “real” consumer grade SF2000 SATA 6G controllers most likely to be seen (the SF2281 and SF2282) is the one -the 2282- is only for extra large 512GB and higher drives (though the SF2281 can handle 512GB of NAND) and is a larger chip. These are the two flagship products as such have received all the features and all the tweaks which are going to become synonymous with the SF2000 consumer class controllers.

The other four controllers are for enterprise environments and boast features such as eMLC compatibility, Military Erase, SAS and super capacitor capabilities.


Features




The SF2000 controller series is built upon the same architecture as the original SF1000 series. You get DuraWrite, RAISE and all the other features but these have all undergone enhancements and tweaking.



The original SF1000 series had ECC of 24bits per 512byte sector of ECC; whereas the new controller has 55bits. The type of ECC has changed as well. The original used the more simplistic Reed-Solomon (aka “RS”) ECC code which is probably best known from its use in CDs.



Compare and contrast this with the fact that the new controller uses Bose-Chaudhuri-Hocquenghem (aka “BCH”) for its ECC code; which is a more elegant version that targets individual errors. It is also faster and easier for the controller to correct these errors making for a lowered performance impact. AES encryption has also doubled from 128 to 256


The most important of these new features for consumers is of course the new SATA 6Gb/s capabilities. This larger bus instantly translates into much higher sequential performance. The second generation of flagship SandForce controllers has also received a boost on the small file performance end of things thanks in no small part to a 20% increase in IOPS. The first generation SF1200 was rated for up to 50,000 IOPS whereas the new controller family has a rating of 60,000 IOPS.

The other interesting feature which all but the most basic of the SF2000 models boast is SLC NAND abilities. In the past, a manufacturer had to step up the enterprise SF1500 to get SLC compatibility but now they don't have to. Add in lowered power consumption and you can see that while the SF2000 series builds upon the same basic foundation as the previous generation, they are not all that similar when you take a closer look.
 
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AkG

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A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More

A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More



Let’s start with the white elephant in the room and explain why this 120GB drive is in reality a 120GB drive. The Force 3 has sixteen 8GB NAND chips onboard which gives it a capacity of 128GB, but is seen by the OS as 120GB. Manufacturers use this to help increase IOPS performance and also extend life via wear leveling (as there are always free cells even when the drive is reported as “full”) and even durability since the drive has cells in reserve it can reassign sectors to as the “older” cells die. While 8GB worth of cells set aside for a SandForce drive is not that much compared to some previous models, this is still a lot of space.



As we said, over-provisioning is usually for wear leveling and ITGC as it gives the controller extra cells to work with for keeping all the cells at about the same level of wear. However, this is actually not the main reason SandForce sets aside so much. Wear leveling is at best a secondary reason or even just a “bonus” as this over-provisioning is mainly for the Durawrite and RAISE technology.

Unlike other solid state drives which do not compress the data that is written to them, the SandForce controller does real time loss-less compression. The upside to this is not only smaller lookup tables (and thus no need for off chip cache) but also means less writes will occur to the cells. Lowering how much data is written means that less cells have to be used to perform a given task and this should also result in longer life and even fewer controller cycles being taken up with internal house cleaning (via TRIM or ITGC).



Longevity may be a nice side effect but the real purpose of this compression is so the controller has to use fewer cells to store a given amount of data and thus has to read from fewer cells than any other drive out there (SandForce claims only .5x is written on average). The benefit to this is even at the NAND level storage itself is the bottleneck for any controller and no matter how fast the NAND is, the controller is faster. Cycles are wasted in waiting for data retrieval and if you can reduce the number of cycles wasted, the faster an SSD will be.

Compressing data and thus hopefully getting a nice little speed boost is all well and fine but as anyone who has ever lost data to corruption in a compressed file knows, reliability is much more important. Compressing data means that any potential loss to a bad or dying cell (or cells) will be magnified on these drives so SandForce needed to ensure that the data was kept as secure as possible. While all drives use ECC, to further ensure data protection SandForce implemented another layer of security.



Data protection is where RAISE (Redundant Array of Independent Silicon Elements) comes into the equation. All modern SSDs use various error correction concepts such as ECC. This is because as with any mass produced item there are going to be bad cells while even good cells are going to die off as time goes by. Yet data cannot be lost or the end user’s experience will go from positive to negative. SandForce likes to compare RAISE to that of RAID 5, but unlike RAID 5 which uses a parity stripe, RAISE does not. SandForce does not explicitly say how it does what it does, but what they do say is on top of ECC, redundant data is striped across the array. However, since it is NOT parity data there is no added overheard incurred by calculating the parity stripe.



According to SandForce’s documentation, not only individual bits or even pages of data can be recovered but entire BLOCKS of data can be as well. So if a cell dies or passes on bad data, the controller can compensate, pass on GOOD data, mark the cell as defective and if necessary swap out the entire block for a spare from the over-provisioning area. As we said, SandForce does not get into the nitty-gritty details of how DuraWrite or RAISE works, but the fact that it CAN do all this means that it most likely is writing a hash table along with the data.

SandForce is so sure of their controller abilities that they state the chances of data corruption are not only lower than that of other manufactures’ drives, but actually approaches ZERO chance of data corruption. This is a very bold statement, but only time will tell if their estimates are correct. In the mean time, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt and say that at the very least data corruption is as unlikely with one of these products as it is on any modern MLC drive.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a drive is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto folder on the drive in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account. There is also the SATA controller on your motherboard and how well it works with SSDs & HDDs to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for drives to shine. Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, inclination or monetary funds to do this. For this reason our testbed will be a more standard motherboard with no mods or high end gear added to it. This is to help replicate what you the end user’s experience will be like.

Even when the hardware issues are taken care of the software itself will have a negative or positive impact on the results. As with the hardware end of things, to obtain the absolute best results you do need to tweak your OS setup; however, just like with the hardware solution most people are not going to do this. For this reason our standard OS setup is used. However, except for the Vista load test times we have done our best to eliminate this issue by having the drive tested as a secondary drive. With the main drive being a Phoneix Pro 120GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD and PCMark Vanatage.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long a single 10GB rar file took to copy to and then from the devices. We also used 10gb of small files (from 100kb to 200MB) with a total 12,000 files in 400 subfolders.


For all testing a Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard was used, running Windows 7 64bit Ultimate edition (or Vista for boot time test). All drives were tested using AHCI mode using Intel RST 10 drivers.

All tests were run 4 times and average results are represented.

In between each test suite runs (with the exception being IOMeter which was done after every run) the drives are cleaned with either HDDerase, SaniErase or OCZ SSDToolbox and then quick formatted to make sure that they were in optimum condition for the next test suite.


Processor: Core i5 2400
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Mushkin DDR3 1300
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: 1x Seagate 3TB XT, OCZ 120GB RevoDrive
Power Supply: XFX 850


SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

OCZ Vertex: 1.6
OCZ Vertex 2 100GB: 1.33
Mushkin Callisto Deluxe 40GB: 3.4.0
Corsair Force F90: 2.0
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB: 1.11
Crucial C300 128GB: 006
Corsair Force 3 GT 120GB: 1.2
Corsair Force 3 120GB: 1.2
 
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AkG

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Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. The long test was run to give a slightly more accurate picture. We don’t put much stock in Burst speed readings and thus we no longer included it. The most important number is the Average Speed number. This number will tell you what to expect from a given drive in normal, day to day operations. The higher the average the faster your entire system will seem.


Under optimum conditions (ie the data being read is easily compressible and thus easily uncompressed as well) the Corsair Force Series 3 120GB posts some very respectable numbers. With that, being said while over 474MB/s is very good, it is low for what we know this SF2281 controller can do.


Write Performance


For this benchmark HD Tune Pro was used. To run the write benchmark on a drive, you must first remove all partitions from that drive and then and only then will it allow you to run this test. Unlike some other benchmarking utilities the HD Tune Pro writes across the full area of the drive, thus it easily shows any weakness a drive may have.



With an average sequential write speed of over 353MB/s the Corsair Force 120GB is certainly no slouch. Of course, this is because the controller can combine all eight channels of NAND to create one fast device. It also doesn’t hurt in the least that the data being written is easily compressible so any NAND limitation is effectively masked by the powerhouse SF2281.
 
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AkG

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ATTO Disk Benchmark

ATTO Disk Benchmark


The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.




It is no wonder that Corsair – much like others using SandForce controllers – recommend ATTO as one of the official benchmarks for the Force 3. The way ATTO works (i.e. the data patterns it use) plays directly to the SandForce controller’s strengths. This means the performance curve seen above should be considered a best case scenario.

With a moderate loss on the low end and negligible difference on the high – under optimum conditions only – this drive can compete neck and neck with the best of the best.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark Vantage

Crystal DiskMark



Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your hard drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force3_120/cdm_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force3_120/cdm_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" />


This is a perfect example of how variable the performance of this drive can be. Crystal DislMark in its default setting uses “random” data patterns; patterns which are highly incompressible by nature which means the controller can not boost the performance of the NAND by any significant amount. With all other things being equal, the difference in NAND is what will ultimately cause the greatest impact on performance. As you can see, this drive’s performance crashed faster than a lead balloon once the controller could not help “hide” the NAND’s deficiencies.

Luckily, in real world scenario’s the chances of a typical consumer routinely encountering 100% incompressible data are very slim..


PCMark Vantage


While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark Vantage, only one is pertinent: the HDD Suite. The HDD Suite consists of 8 tests that try and replicate real world drive usage. Everything from how long a simulated virus scan takes to complete, to MS Vista start up time to game load time is tested in these 8 core tests; however we do not consider this anything other than just another suite of synthetic tests. For this reason, while each test is scored individually we have opted to include only the overall score.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force3_120/vantage.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

While we are seeing an approximate 7,000 point hit compared to the Vertex 3, this difference is not as great as Crystal DiskMark would lead one to believe. By the same token, the numbers are lower than what you would expect if you were to only look at ATTO numbers. Much like the real world, PCMark Vantage scores are not entirely black and white in nature.
 
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AkG

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AS-SSD / Access Time

AS-SSD


AS-SSD is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and small 4K read/write speeds as well as 4K file speed at a queue depth of 6. While its primary goal is to accurately test Solid State Drives, it does equally well on all storage mediums it just takes longer to run each test as each test reads or writes 1GB of data.





A 205/140 sequential speed is more than enough for most scenarios and a 18 / 78 4K r/w posting is more than good enough for a first time user. All in all, for its price the Force 3 is looking quite good.


Access Time


To obtain an accurate reading on the read and write latency of a given drive, AS-SSD was used for this benchmark. A low number means that the drive’ data can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive.



While this device does use slightly outdated ONFi 1.0 NAND, the difference in access time is not all that severe. While the Force Series 3 is slower to react than other modern Solid State Drives and these numbers are nowhere near as good as the (also asynchronous NAND based) Toggle Mode 1.0 wielding Vertex 3 Max IOPS; they are still very decent.
 
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AkG

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IOMETER

IOMETER


IOMeter is heavily weighted towards the server end of things, and since we here at HWC are more End User centric we will be setting and judging the results of IOMeter a little bit differently than most. To test each drive we ran 5 test runs per HDD (1,4,16,64,128 que depth) each test having 8 parts, each part lasting 10 min w/ an additional 20 second ramp up. The 8 subparts were set to run 100% random, 80% read 20% write; testing 512b, 1k, 2k,4k,8k,16k,32k,64k size chunks of data. When each test is finished IOMeter spits out a report, in that reports each of the 8 subtests are given a score in I/Os per second. We then take these 8 numbers add them together and divide by 8. This gives us an average score for that particular que depth that is heavily weighted for single user environments.



As expected the IOMeter performance of this drive does suffer from the choice of lower performing NAND. At low que depths it basically ties an older 120GB Vertex 2 and but pulls ahead as que depths go from more likely (1 and 4) to less (16) and less (64 & 128) likely depths.
 
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AkG

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Vista Start Up / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Vista Start Up


When it comes to hard drive performance there is one area that even the most oblivious user notices: how long it takes to load the Operating System. While all the other tests were run with a Windows 7 operating system, this particular test uses another older test bed's “day to day” OS (copied over to our new testbed) which has accumulated a lot of crud over the months from installs and removals. We chose the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line as it is the last program to be loaded on start up.



While the Force 3’s speeds are not exactly in the same league as the mighty Vertex 3 240GB Max IOPS, or even the Vertex 3 240GB drives, the are quite decent and actually pretty close to what a 120GB Force 3 GT can accomplish.


Adobe CS5 Load Time


Photoshop is a notoriously slow loading program under the best of circumstances, and while the latest version is actually pretty decent, when you add in a bunch of extra brushes and the such you get a really great torture test which can bring even the best of the best to their knees. Let’s see how our review unit faired in the Adobe crucible!


With a one second lead over the Vertex 2 the Corsair Force 3 is not exactly over brimming with power. The ONFi 1.0 NAND is directly responsible for this lowered on-paper performance but performance is still well ahead of what hard drives can achieve.
 
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