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Corsair Force F100 100GB SSD Review

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AkG

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With the SSD market expanding at what seems to be a breakneck speed, companies have been faced with a limited number of options when it comes to choosing controllers for their latest and greatest. Up until recently Intel, Indilinx, JMicron and to a slightly lesser extent Samsung have been the de-facto choices for the vast majority of consumer SSDs but that looks to be changing. Sandforce has now burst onto the scene with their SF-1500 enterprise-class and SF-1200 mass market controllers which are now being used in a number of upcoming SSDs.

Corsair has decided to use the new SF-1200 controller within their new Force series of enthusiast-grade solid state drives and it is the 100GB version we will be looking at in this review. Priced at around $410 USD (Canadian pricing is still very much up in the air), this drive should be able to compete with the best the competition has to offer at this point.

Naturally, choosing to go with a relatively new controller has its risks and there is already some controversy surrounding Sandforce’s products. There have been reports that for all intents and purposes, the SF-1500 and SF-1200 are identical but the SF-1500 comes equipped with enterprise-class features like a higher MTBF rating, the ability to run high performance SLC NAND and higher small file random write speed. However, early versions of Sandforce’s firmware allowed the lower-end controller to nearly equal the small file performance of its bigger brother. Most retail drives sporting the SF-1200 on the other hand (OCZ’s Agility 2 and an upcoming product from G.Skill) will come with a firmware that caps performance so it doesn’t approach that of the SF-1500. This situation has been further confused by the fact that OCZ has an agreement with Sandforce whereby their upcoming Vertex 2 will have access to the higher speeds while using the SF-1200 controller. Confused yet?

Corsair has looked at the controller / firmware situation, deemed it unacceptable and will thus be shipping their Force series drives with the “unlocked” pre-release firmware. Not only could this make the Force series direct competitors with the more expensive Vertex 2 but it will probably make these drives extremely hot commodities. But, how does this new controller really stack up? We intend to find out.



 
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AkG

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Specifications

Specifications


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/specs.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
 
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AkG

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories



The Corsair Force ships in a small compact grey and white cardboard box. In fact, it is the exact same box which our Corsair Nova sample came in which should work towards reducing costs a bit. Therefore, as with the Nova, the front of the shipping box has a fairly generic looking Corsair branded SSD on it.

As mentioned in the Nova review, the back of the box has a short marketing blurb in six different languages but lacks any specifications, performance results or any real details whatsoever. We still dislike seeing this as one can easily confuse a Force with a Nova and end up buying the wrong drive if you are not careful.


Opening the box up we can see that Corsair has in keeping with the frugality of the exterior shipping container and opted for a plastic, form fitting clamshell container for internal protection. This is the exact same clamshell which accompanies the Nova line. While not nearly as good as the foam book-like boxes which accompany some other premier drives, the clamshell protection scheme is more than good enough for this kind of kit.



In a perfect world, our Force would have come with the exact same 2.5 to 3.5 adapter which accompanied our Nova drive. Sadly this is not a perfect world, and it appears ours shipped without it even though the packaging and Corsair’s website says one should be included. Basically, all retail drives will have this adapter but some review units were shipped without them.
 
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First Impressions

First Impressions



Continuing the trend of frugally recycling as much as they could across all their new lines, Corsair has opted for a monotone dark grey colour for both the cover and the case of the F100. Unfortunately, because of this it is hard to tell the Nova apart from the Force line by just looking at them and you literally need to take the time to read the model number off the lone label. On the positive side, the aggressive single colour scheme Corsair has gone with does make it look impressive even when it is just sitting on your work bench.


If there was one issue we had with the Nova it was the fact that it only came with one label and the same holds true for the Force line. As we explained in the Corsair Nova review, the only reason we are not fond lovers of single label setups is because it makes including all the pertinent data quite difficult. There really is only so much real-estate available on a single sticker and some things had to be dropped to make room for the model and size information.

Unfortunately, the label is lacking one crucial peace of information: maximum rated power draw. The Corsair website states that this drive is rated for a maximum of 2 watts power draw off the 5v line (0.4 of an amp).


Even just by looking at the end of this drive you can tell that the cases the Nova and Force reside in are the same. The reason we are so sure of this is simple: this drive does not use jumper pins for firmware flashing yet the cutout for them is there. There is literally no good reason for this cutout to exist, except for the fact that one line (the Reactor series) needs jumper pins for its firmware update and thus ALL three (or more) lines get it. This is certainly taking frugality to extremes but it doesn’t phase us at all considering the exterior design of SSDs shouldn’t be of much concern. However, with the exception of the missing power information and missing 2.5 to 3.5 adapter we really don’t have any issues with the lengths Corsair has gone to help cut costs without cutting important “corners”.
 
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AkG

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Under the Hood

Under the Hood


Cache Gone MIA?

As you will see in the following pictures, there is one thing that is missing from the innards of Corsair’s Force series: a dedicated cache chip. Believe it or not, the SF-1200 controller does not use a cache buffer like most other modern generation solid state drives do. Rather these Sandforce-based drives rely on the extremely powerful controller and various compression algorithms to keep up with the demands placed upon them. In some ways, this is a return the original way SSD’s did things, as a ram chip or cache chip was really only added to help alleviate the dreaded “stutter” issue of early products. It has always been our firm belief that larger cache buffers equate less powerful controllers. However, is the opposite true? Can a controller be so powerful that the manufacturer can remove the cache buffer for its LBA page mapping tables? As we said, if this is true we are looking at a real game changer and may be looking at the first drive of the NEXT generation of SSDs.

The reason SandForce (and by extension Corsair) are so sure their controller does not need a cache buffer can be best summed up in one term: “DuraWrite”. This is a proprietary technology which allows the SandForce controller to do a lot less writing than most other contemporary drives. We will get into what DuraWrite is and why it is the secret to the success or failure of the entire SandForce lineup later in this review but for now, you can consider it the keystone to the entire SandForce controller.

On to the dissection….


As expected the PCB and the layout of the chips inside of the F100 is not very different from others we have seen in the past. There is one exception to this though: the lack of a dedicated cache buffer RAM chip which we talked about above.

All in all, you get: 16 flash chips (8 per side laid out in a C configuration) and one centrally located SandForce controller chip. It is interesting to note that just like other consumer solid state drives we have looked at, the Force does not have an on board supercapacitor to ensure all data is written to the NAND in case of power loss (there is a spot on the PCB for one). This is par for the course as only true enterprise class drives (both hard disk or solid state based) get on board supercapacitors.


At the heart of this SSD is the SandForce SATA2, 3GB/s controller which supports native command queuing (NCQ), TRIM support and S.M.A.R.T (albeit to a lesser degree than a hard drive as SMART was designed with HDDs in mind).

Much like Intel licensed the central core of their controller chip from a third party so to did SandForce. The heart of the SF-1200 is a licensed Tensilica Diamond Core 570T CPU which is a 32bit RISC processor. However, the SF-1200 is more than just a 570T as this is just the building block upon which the 1200 is built and is only one small part of what makes this controller what it is.

It is unfortunate that SandForce is not very open about the specifications of their controller as it is unclear how much on board cache it has. By keeping the cache on the chip it allows the controller to be much more efficient as it wastes less cycles waiting for data from an external chip.


The Force F100 uses sixteen, Micron MT29F64G08CFABA-WB NAND chips. While Micron is not exactly as free with some of their specifications as other manufacturers (their standard NAND parts numbering guide would incorrectly decodes this to SLC NAND), what we do know is these MLC NAND Flash chips are 34NM 64gigaBIT (8GB) units which run at 3.3 volts and are rated for 0°C to 70°C. What is also known is that some Corsair Force F100 drives come with the exact same NAND onboard as found on the mid-tier Nova line. This to use means SandForce thinks their controller can get away with more value orientated NAND and still be faster then the competition.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at Firmware, TRIM and More

A Closer Look at Firmware, TRIM and More




Let’s start with the white elephant in the room and explain why this 100GB drive is in reality a 128GB drive. The Force F100 has sixteen 8GB NAND chips onboard which gives it a capacity of 128GB, but is seen by the OS as 100GB. This is called “over-provisioning” and happens when a manufacturer has their drive consistently under report its size. 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. Having the Force give up 28GB of its capacity to this “buffer” is extreme to say the least when you compare it to the OCZ Vertex 120GB with its more typical 6.28% (8GB) set aside.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/duraclass.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

As we said, over-provisioning is usually for wear levelling and ITGC as it gives the controller extra cells to work with for not only keeping all the cells at about the same level of wear. However, 28GB 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. We will explain what those two technologies are but for the time being, let’s just say that while it there be “empty” space to some extent, it’s not really going to be 28GB of empty unused cells. Rather, this space is going to be used for other primary purposes.

Unlike other solid state drives which do not compress the data that is written to them, the SandForce controller does do 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 it 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 because the simple fact of the matter is with any mass produced item there are going to be bad cells and 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 and then mark the cell as defective. 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. This would explain on how it can not only assure data integrity but also why they have set aside so much of the storage capacity for these features.

SandForce is so sure of their controller abilities that they state that 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 a Corsair Force as it is on any modern MLC drive.


As for TRIM, the Force series supports it right out of the box. Honestly though, at this point in time, worrying about TRIM or ITGC is almost nonsensical as darn near all modern controllers implement TRIM and some form of ITGC; be it a very mild Idle Time Garbage Collection like Intel does, to more aggressive ITGC like JMicron does on the 612/618 controllers.

The only other potential issue we have with the firmware of this drive is the fact that it ships with the "Release candidate" 3.0.1 firmware (what Corsair calls 0.2) and not the latest firmware 3.0.5 (which we assume would be 0.3). Corsair is still internally testing the latest "mass production" firmware SandForce gave them and has not released it yet to the general public. This on the surface sounds like a bad thing as 3.0.1 usually has a power bug which can kill the drive in some rare scenarios (think of early Intel firmware combined with early Indilinx firmware). This however is not the case with the Force F100. Corsair removed the bug and is continuing to use 3.01. as 3.0.5 has been intentionally crippled for all but OCZ’s Vertex 2 series as we mentioned in the introduction. To us Corsair's bug fixed 3.0.1 firmware may indeed be the best available out there to all but OCZ's drives and it is a good thing that they are NOT releasing the crippled firmware that SandForce is trying to pass off on to everyone.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a hard 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 to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for SSDs 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 XP 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 WD 320 single platter drive.

For these tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HDTune, Cystal Disk Benchmark, h2benchw, SIS Sandra Removable Storage benchmark, and IOMeter for synthetic benchmarks.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long XP startup took, Adobe CS3 (w/ enormous amounts of custom brushes installed) took, how long a single 4GB rar file took to copy to and then from the hard drives, then copy to itself. We also used 1gb of small files (from 1kb to 20MB) with a total 2108 files in 49 subfolders.

For the temperature testing, readings are taken directly from the hottest part of the drive case using a Digital Infrared Thermometer. The infrared thermometer used has a 9 to 1 ratio, meaning that at 9cm it takes it reading from a 1 square cm. To obtain the numbers used in this review the thermometer was held approximately 3cm away from the heatsink and only the hottest number obtained was used.


Please note to reduce variables the same XP OS image was used for all the hard drives.

For all testing a Gigabyte PA35-DS4 motherboard was used. The ICH9 controller on said motherboard was used.

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

Processor: Q6600 @ 2.4 GHZ
Motherboard: Gigabyte p35 DS4
Memory: 4GB G.Skill PC2-6400
Graphics card: Asus 8800GT TOP
Hard Drive: 1x WD 320
Power Supply: Seasonic S12 600W

SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):
G. Skill Titan: 0955
G.Skill Falcon: 1571 (AKA FW 1.3)
OCZ Apex: 955
OCZ Vertex: 1.3 (AKA FW 1571)
Patriot Torqx: 1571 (AKA FW 1.3)
Corsair P64: 18C1Q
OCZ Summit: 1801Q
A-Data S592: 1279 (AKA PRE 1.1 FW)
OCZ Agility EX 60GB: 1.3 (AKA 1.4 for MLC Indilinx Drives)
Kingston SSDNow V 40GB: 02G9
G.Skill Falcon 2: 1881 (AKA 1.4)
Kingston SSDNow V+ 128GB: AGYA0201
Corsair Nova: 1.0 (AKA 1916/1.5 for most other MLC Indilinx Drives)
Corsair Force F100: 0.2 (AKA bug fixed / modified 3.0.1)
 
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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 this goes double for SSD based drives. The main reason we include it is to show what under perfect conditions a given drive is capable of; but the more 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.


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/read.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

Man this drive is fast, or at the very least it LOVES HDTach’s way of testing. In either case, its average read speed is simply best in class.


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.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/write.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

This is the very first SINGLE drive we have ever seen with an average write speed above 200MB/s. Heck, this drive doesn’t just beat the 200MB barrier it blows it away with an average of over 206MB/s. You really cant get much better than that from a SATA 2 controller based drive…..without going to a RAID array setup.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / Random Access

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. When all 5 tests for a given section were run Crystal DiskMark then averages out all 5 numbers to give a result for that section.

Read




The read speed of the Force is decent but a tad less then we had hoped for, based on the HDTach numbers. On the positive side, this is a recently released controller and thus there is still plenty of room for firmware tweaking. We remember how much added performance Indilinx was able to wring from their Barefoot as the months went by and we have a sneaking suspicion that the same will hold for the SandForce controller.


Write




It is obvious that the controller has been tweaked to accentuate small file performance at the expense of large file performance. This is a totally acceptable trade off as the 4k write performance of this drive is impressive and small file performance is more important then sequential performance. It literally is better at the all important small file writes then the mighty Intel X25 and that has always been the X25’s main claim to fame. Add in the fact that its moderate and sequential write speed is still decent (and much better then Intel’s) and you end up with one potent combination.


Random Access Time


To obtain the absolute, most accurate Random access time, h2benchw was used for this benchmark. This benchmark tests how quickly different areas of the drive’s memory can be accessed. A low number means that the drive space can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive. To run this program, one must use a DOS prompt and tell it what sections of the test to run. While one could use “h2benchw 1 -english -s -tt "harddisk test" -w test” for example and just run the seek tests, we took the more complete approach and ran the full gamout of tests and then extracted the necessary information from the text file. This is the command line argument we used “h2benchw 1 -a -! -tt "harddisk drivetest" -w drivetest”. This tells the program to write all results in english, save them in drivetest txt file, do write and read tests and do it all on drive 1 (or the second drive found, with 0 being the OS drive).



The random access of this drive is simply awe-inspiring and is quiet literally 50% better than a Intel X25-M SSD. That right there is an impressive feat to say the least.
 
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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.

Read


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/atto_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />​

To be blunt, there is no getting around the fact that this drive’s read curve is mediocre at best. Even worse still is the fact that the low end of the drive’s power curve is nowhere near flagship levels. SandForce can claim that their controller can handle all the overhead and still offer great performance but as with most things in life: they have to back up their claims with performance. The cost of using all those cycles on compression (or in this case decompression) seems to lower read performance when compared to the more typical way of doing things.


Write


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/atto_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" />​

While the read curve was merely good, this drive’s write curve is bloody marvellous! It may start out in the middle of the pack, but once the file size hits a mere 4k it shifts into overdrive and simply blows the doors off the competition. We really do have to wonder if our ICH 9 controller or the SATA 2 bus width are the limiting factors to the performance as numbers are in the nosebleed section with nothing that really can even come close.
 
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