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Corsair Force 90GB SSD Single & RAID Review

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AkG

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Note: After this review was published, Corsair clarified their firmware nomenclature with us and accordingly, the F90 seems to ship with the "full speed" firmware. As such, minor changes have been made to the original article to reflect this new information.

Even though the price of solid state storage has drastically fallen in the last year or so, modern SSDs with decent capacities are still completely out of reach for most consumers. But while very few can afford 120GB or more of high performance space, there are other options. 40 and 60GB drives catering to the OS “boot drive” market have been around for a while but some feel the need for a bit more space. It is for this market which Corsair created their new Force 90GB drive. As the name suggests this is a 90GB SandForce based drive which should in theory be a good balance between performance, price and size.

The idea of smaller size drives from companies like Corsair isn’t all that new and the first one we looked at was actually one of the smallest SandForce drives on the market: the 40GB Force. As with the 40GB Force, the 90GB version uses the same NAND as the larger version (in the case of the 40 the same NAND as the Force 60 and in the case of the Force 90 the same NAND as the Force 100/120) but it loses capacity in order to hit a lower price point.

We have seen in the past that Sandforce-based SSDs which don’t carry the full complement of NAND chips on their PCB tend to fall behind their full-spec’d brethren. In addition, some versions of the Force line don't use the custom “full speed” firmware some of its competition does which may lead to some limitations in certain tests if this is indeed the case. Editor's Note: We're told by Corsair that they do indeed use the faster firmware on the F90.

More importantly than any performance considerations, Corsair decided to price this drive around the $190 USD mark even though their own 120GB product currently sits between $210 and $220 depending on where you look. This could have a drastic impact upon the Force 90’s place in the market.

mfg.jpg

 
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AkG

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Specifications

Specifications


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force_90/specs.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force_90/specs2.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
 
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AkG

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A Closer look at the Corsair F90

A Closer look at the Corsair F90


Corsair_Force_90_box_f_sm.jpg

As with all other versions of the Corsair Force line we have looked at (the F120 HERE, and the F100 HERE, F40 HERE), the F90 comes in the same compact grey and white cardboard box. The only easy way to tell any of these boxes apart is by the small label which lists the model contained therein.

While the boxes may be the same, it is still nice to see this drive coming standard with a 2.5” to 3.5” adapter bracket.

Corsair_Force_F90_access_sm.jpg

While the boxes may be the same, it is still nice to see this drive coming standard with a 2.5” to 3.5” adapter bracket but Corsair’s SSDs still do without an instruction pamphlet, case badge and SATA cable.

top_sm.jpg
label_sm.jpg

As for the color scheme used on the drive itself, it too is a dead ringer for previous models. This label, while nice is not overly informative but we can live with that since anyone who has proceeded this far likely knows what they are getting.

Corsair_Force_90_board_sm.jpg
Corsair_Force_90_board2_sm.jpg

As expected the PCB and the layout of the chips is not very different from others we have seen in the past and to be precise is the exact same PCB as found on the F120. The only difference is the type and number of NAND chips installed. On the top side you have five installed with the other three slots empty while the backside has sevenwith one slot empty.

As with the Corsair Force 120, the Force 90 has twelve Intel branded, 29F64G08CAMDB chips. As the model name suggests these are 64Gigabit density chips (8GB) and with twelve of them on the PCB this model is in fact a 96GB drive with 6GB set aside for over-provisioning. To put all of that in perspective, the Force F120 uses sixteen of these chips so this drive is going to be limited at the physical level when compared to that of the 120GB version.

CDI.jpg

When it comes to firmware, Corsair has equipped this drive with version 2.0 which is the latest SandForce firmware and is basically equivalent to 3.4.0 which ships with the Mushkin drives (and any other manufacturrs which use the standard SandForce firmware nomenclature) and is basically the same as 1.2.x for OCZ. Of course, it is also a TRIM enabled firmware and Corsair plans to roll out a new version sometime in the next month or so.

With all that being said, there are two separate sub-divisions of the SandForce firmware making the rounds: a standard version and a “full speed” edition. The “full speed” firmware unlocks additional performance but SSD manufacturers have to pay a premium to use it. Mushkin, OCZ and G.Skill tend to apply this high spec firmware to their flagship products. In the past, Corsair has foregone using the full speed firmware without much of a negative impact upon real world performance but the synthetic tests will show whether or not they continued down this path.
 
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AkG

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A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More

A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More


Corsair_Force_sandforce_logi.jpg

Let’s start with the white elephant in the room and explain why this 90GB drive is in reality a 96GB drive. The Corsair Force 90GB has twelve 8GB NAND chips onboard which gives it a capacity of 96GB, but is seen by the OS as 90GB. Manufacturers use this to help increase IOPS performance and also extend life via wear leveling (as there is 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.

duraclass.jpg


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).

Corsair_Force_Fact5.jpg


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.

Corsair_Force_Fact4.jpg


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.

Corsair_Force_Fact2.jpg


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 Gigabyte GA-890FXA-UD5 motherboard was used, running Windows 7 64bit Ultimate edition (or Vista for boot time test). All drives were tested using AHCI mode using AMD's latest AHCI 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: 1090T @ 3.3 GHZ (turbo core set to 3.8GHZ)
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-890FXA-UD5
Memory: 16GB Mushkin DDR3 1300
Graphics card: Asus 580GTX
Hard Drive: 1x G.Skill Phoneix Pro, 1x Seagate 3TB XT
Power Supply: XFX 850


SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

OCZ Vertex: 1.6
Kingston SSDNow V+ 128GB: AGYA0201
OCZ Vertex 2 100GB: 1.24 (custom “full speed” SandForce 3.4.x firmware)
Corsair Force F120: 2.0 (3.4.0 firmware)
Mushkin Callisto Deluxe 40GB: 340A13F0 (custom full speed 3.4.0 firmware)
Corsair Force F90: 2.0 (3.4.0 firmware)
 
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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.

read.jpg


The difference between any of the various “performance levels” of solid state drives available today is very slim indeed. Nonetheless, the Force 90 is bloody fast at sequential reads and when a second one is added for a 180GB RAID array, the results are simply jaw dropping

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.

write.jpg


Unlike the sequential read speed numbers, the sequential write performance of the Corsair Force 90 is lower than some other drives. As with the read speeds numbers, when you RAID two of these the net results are very good. This is because sequential performance really does play to RAID’s strengths.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / Random Access Time

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.

cdm_r.jpg


cdm_w.jpg


As we saw in the previous tests, Force 90’s reads are pretty darn decent, but the write speeds are a bit on the low side.


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.

vantage.jpg

While the Force 90’s PCMark Vantage numbers are lower than that of the 120GB SandForce drives those numbers are still very, very good. As with Crystal DiskMark, there is slightly lowered performance.
 
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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.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force_90/as_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force_90/as_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

The Corsair Force 90 certainly has MOST of the performance of the 120GB Force drive and will certainly outperform both smaller SandForce drives AND last year’s “best of the best” drives. Impressive results to say the least but in some cases it is still a bit behind some the other SF 1200 drives we have tested.


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.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Force_90/random.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

It really is not surprising to see the slightly increased latency numbers the Corsair Force 90 posts since this is essentially a high end drive with some NAND removed.. Sadly, when you add in another performance hit in the form of software RAID overhead the results are pretty grim…on paper at least. It is important to remember that humans won’t be able to pick up such a miniscule amount of latency in the first place. This is a perfect example of synthetic tests not necessarily being in line with realistic expectations.
 
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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.

IOM.jpg


As you can see the Corsair Force once again produces very good numbers across a broad range of file sizes and que depths; but performance is still slightly lower than the 120GB model.

It is also noteworthy that the RAID results are very impressive but still only about 50% better than what one full speed firmware enabled 120GB SandForce drive can do. We can just imagine what the numbers would be like if this drive had full speed firmware.
 
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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.


atto_w.jpg


atto_r.jpg


At this point there really is not much to be learned by looking at the power curves of the Force 90. The fact of the matter it is a great little drive, just one that has been hobbled to some extent versus some of the competition. Of course, with that being said this drive does offer most of the performance envelope of its bigger brethren, so it succeeds quite well at going after the niche it was designed for.
 
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