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Corsair Neutron 240GB & Neutron GTX 240GB SSDs Review

AkG

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Currently, the SSD market has stagnated with every manufacturer trying to beat the competition on price rather than focus upon innovation to differentiate their products. Corsair’s new Neutron and Neutron GTX series dare to do things differently by incorporating a new controller architecture from Link A Media Devices alongside the same aggressive pricing stance that has defined this generation of SSDs.

With a few notable exceptions, the majority of current mass market SSDs are powered by LSI’s SandForce SF2281 controller. This simply due to the SF2281’s combination of excellent performance and stable firmware has shown to be a safe choice for manufactures. Unfortunately, this makes for a rather homogenized industry with most companies’ drives looking very similar those introduced by their competitors. Usually when a new high performance drive is released the only way it can possibly distinguish itself is by the NAND it uses. However, there is only so much a company can do to keep its products from being ‘Just Another SandForce Drive’ (or JASFD as this phenomenon is more commonly referred to as) and even new NAND has a way of finding itself into competitor’s products pretty quickly.

At this point in the game, SandForce based drives are simply too common to be noteworthy. If a company wants to truly push the envelope they have to look for greener pastures elsewhere or risk fading into the background. Luckily, new non-SandForce controllers are starting to trickle on to the marketplace and while opting for one is a bit more risky, the potential rewards are significant. Thankfully, Corsair is not one to shy away from taking a risk and is pushing the envelope here which is precisely why the $210 Neutron 240GB and $240 Neutron GTX 240GB are real stand-outs.



From the outside, the 7mm form factor does make these two drives slightly thinner than their Force or Performance series counterparts, the aesthetics may be a miss for anyone that wants something eye-catching in their case. Compared to the red clad Force GS, the gray color scheme does seem rather drab and more inline with what we have come to expect from Corsair’s value orientated drives rather than their high performance models.


(Neutron GTX on left, Neutron on right)

Fortunately, there is no possible way of mistaking these drives for JASFDs once their internals are revealed. Unlike the Force series which relies upon the SF2281 controller, or the Performance series which uses the aging Marvell’s second generation architecture, the all new Neutron series houses the Link A Media Devices (LAMD) 'Amber' LM87800 chip. Even though ‘LAMD’ are not all that well known in the consumer marketplace, neither was Indilinx when they released their Barefoot controller and Link A Media has already earned some serious street cred in other storage-related areas.

From an architectural standpoint, the Neutron series shares more in common with Corsair’s Performance and Performance 3 drives as the PCB is much smaller than most and requires off controller caching solutions. To be precise, along with 8 to 16 NAND ICs and the LM87800 controller – covered with a heatpad in both models - there is also a pair of 128MB DDR2 RAM chips. This gives each drive a total of 256MB external cache which should provide smooth and stable performance across a wide range of scenarios.


(Neutron GTX on left, Standard Neutron on right)

There aren’t all that many internal hardware differences between Corsair’s standard Neutron 240GB and the higher performance Neutron GTX 240GB but the NAND type and number of ICs used in each design varies. Corsair has opted for 16 modules of high performance Micron 3k ONFi 2 NAND for the Neutron, but only 8 Toshiba branded ultra high performance Toggle Mode NAND ICs for the GTX. It is curious as to why Corsair opted for 24nm Toshiba NAND and not the same 24nm SanDisk branded Toggle Mode NAND found inside the Corsair Force GS. Never the less these chips are extremely well regarded in enthusiast circles.

Unfortunately, there are only 8 instead of all 16 of the IC slots filled within the GTX we do wonder what performance impact this will have. SandForce controllers typically do better when more of their channels are populated but the LM87800 controller may behave differently so this review could certainly be interesting.
 
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AkG

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Introducing the LAMD Amber controller

Introducing the Link A Media Amber controller



While details about Link-A premier controller are sparse, the LM87800 ‘Amber’ is a Dual ARM, SATA 6Gb/s enabled chip that is part of the FlashLink 2 SSD platform. Being a dual core architecture gives the Amber controller much more flexibility and adaptability over older single core designs. One core can be designated for handling host I/O requests while the second core can simultaneously be utilized for low level tasks such as emergency block erasure, garbage collection tasks or even mapping LBAs to Flash blocks.

Like most modern designs, the LM878000 uses an eight channel layout which can handle up to 4 chip enables per channel for a maximum of 32 NAND layers. This coupled with its support for both ONFi and Toggle mode NAND specifications as well as SLC, MLC, eMLC NAND types gives manufactures a lot of leeway in designing a drive around the Amber controller. It is unclear on whether or not TLC or Tri-Level Cell NAND is supported but in all likelihood if it is not this can be added via firmware updates if the need arises.


Further helping to give manufactures more customization options, LAMD have opted to allow for variable over-provisioning. In the case of the Neutron series, Corsair has opted for about 13% or the same as what most SF2281 drives come equipped with. Much like SandForce, this spare area can be used for everything from bad block replacement to garbage collection. It also allows for more consistent long term performance as the controller will always have access to free blocks to use for wear leveling.

Also like SandForce’s SF2281 controller, the LM87800 makes use of auto-encryption with AES 128/256 support, but it is up to the individual client on whether or not to enable this enterprise-centric feature. Corsair has opted to leave the AES encryption routines off as they are not required for the average home user or enthusiast and would have incurred a certain amount of performance loss from the increased overhead.


Link A’s LM87800 uses advanced techniques called EBoost Technology to significantly enhance NAND Flash endurance. Although Link A Media are stingy on the specifics of how Eboost goes about accomplishing its tasks, it seems to use proprietary signal processing algorithms to increase NAND lifespan while decreasing wear and tear on the NAND cells.

While Eboost and some other features bear a striking resemblance to those included in SandForce controllers, the Amber isn’t a copycat controller. It does some very basic things in radically different ways. The biggest difference is the fact that this controller doesn’t do any compression on the data before writing to the NAND. While Link A states emphatically that their new controller has low write amplification, they don’t explain exactly what the write amplification is beyond being ‘low’. In all likelihood it is higher than SandForce’s .6x, but Corsair is so sure of this controller’s abilities that - unlike the Force GS three year warranty- both the Neutron and Neutron GTX will come with a five year standard warranty.

By not first compressing the data, Link A’s Amber boasts equally good performance for both compressible and incompressible data types. This is significant to consumers used to SandForce drives which have a rather large performance penalty when dealing with already compressed data such as MP3s or video.

When taken as a whole the Amber LM87800 seems to be a capable high performance controller that’s more adaptable than its competitors.
 
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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 test-bed 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 Windows 7 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 Kingston HyperX 240GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD, Anvil Storage Utilities and PCMark 7.

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. 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.

Please note:
Due to the unique nature of the hybrid setup certain tests results have been omitted as they require an unformatted drive to test or gave erroneous results.

Processor: Core i5 2500
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Corsair Vengeance LP “blue”
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: Kingston HyperX 240GB, OCZ 480GB RevoDrive3 x2
Power Supply: XFX 850

SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

OCZ Vertex 2 100GB
: 1.33
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB: 2.2
Crucial M4 256GB: 000F
Intel 520: 400i
OCZ Vertex 4 512GB: 1.5
Corsair Force GS 240GB: 5.0.2
SanDisk Extrene 240GB: R201
Crucial V4 256GB: S5FAMM22
OCZ Agility 4 256GB: 1.5
Corsair Neutron 240GB: 206
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 206
 
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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.



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.


While the Neutron GTX "only" uses 8 NAND ICs it is still very capable in the sequential read and write department. Unfortunately, the same isn't precisely true of the standard Neutron 240GB model. The read performance of the standard model is very good, but even though it comes equipped with 16 Micron ONFi 2 NAND ICs its average write performance is significantly lower than both the GTX model and other manufactures mainstream offerings. While this is noteworthy it is not overly worrisome. Sequential file performance is a terrible way to choose an OS drive.
 
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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 unfortunate that these charts are filled with SandForce controller based drives as ATTO test patterns play to that controller’s strengths. Its real-time compression gives the SF2281 a noticeable boost in performance compared to other controllers

However, SF2281 drives are not the only controller in these charts and both the standard and GTX version of the Neutron exhibit rather disappointing small file performance curves. The do however start posting some impressive numbers when larger files are used. We have a sneaking suspicion that this is the direct result of slightly immature firmware rather than a controller shortcoming . With time this issue will most likely be rectified as LAMD’s engineers learn how to wring more performance from their newly designed controller.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark 7

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.






For such a new controller with first-run firmware the results these two drives post are very, very good. It seems that most of the SF2281’s advantage exists only inside a narrow band and once the controllers start dealing with compressed data Link A's Amber is able to pull ahead and outperform drives of comparable size – regardless of controller used.

Only the ultra expensive OCZ Vertex 4 512GB is able to compete and even then the Neutron GTX’s numbers are still phenomenal. Of course, the standard Neutron drive is no slouch either, but it does not showcase this new LAMD controller to the best of its abilities.


PCMark 7


While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark 7, only one is pertinent: the HDD Suite. The HDD Suite consists of numerous 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 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.


While not the absolute best numbers we have seen a new controller post, the Neutron GTX’s results are downright excellent. We are bit disappointed by the standard Neutron’s final score, but this has more to do with the absolute glut of high performance drives in the mainstream marketplace rather than the standard Neutron drive being a poor competitor.
 
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AkG

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AS-SSD / Anvil Storage Utilities Pro

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.



As with the Crystal DiskMark, this new Amber controller continues to impress. The small file performance this new controller with new firmware offers really is astounding. However, there is an interesting trend starting to develop. It seems that even though the Neutron GTX only has 8 NAND ICs and the standard model has 16 NAND ICs the type of NAND really does make a huge difference. This new Amber controller obviously prefers the performance profile of Toggle Mode NAND and most likely was designed with it in mind rather than ONFi 2 NAND. Of course, synthetic testing only tells – at best – half the story and this difference may not manifest itself in the real world. It is however something we will be playing close attention to.


Anvil Storage Utilities Pro


Much like AS-SSD, Anvil Pro was created to quickly and easily – yet accurately – test your drives. While it is still in the Beta stages it is a versatile and powerful little program. Currently it can test numerous read / write scenarios but two in particular stand out for us: 4K queue depth of 4 and 4K queue depth of 16. A queue depth of four along with 4K sectors can be equated to what most users will experience in an OS scenario while 16 depth will be encountered only by power users and the like. We have also included the 4k queue depth 1 results to help put these two other numbers in their proper perspective. All settings were left in their default states and the test size was set to 1GB.



Once again the Neutron GTX posts some great numbers for an enthusiast grade drive. The standard Neutron’s results are also very good – for a mainstream offering- but they are no better than any SF2281 drive on the market. This is a shame as it does cost more than most SandForce SF2281 drives. When compared to the SanDisk Extreme it is actually very expensive yet doesn’t really justify its increased price in synthetic benchmarks.
 
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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 queue 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,3xk,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 queue depth that is heavily weighted for single user environments.



While both the GTX and standard model post some very reasonable low queue depth performance, once the queue depths get deep the controller is unable to keep up with the competition. It also seems that the Amber controller is much less constrained when it has access to Toggle Mode NAND rather than ONFi 2 NAND ICs.
 
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AkG

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Windows 7 Startup / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance


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. Where Windows 7 has become nearly ubiquitous for solid state drive enthusiasts we have chosen Windows 7 64bit Ultimate as our Operating System. In previous load time tests we would use the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line; this however is no longer the case. We have not only added in a secondary Anti-Virus to load on startup, but also an anti-malware program. We have set Super Anti-Spyware to initiate a quick scan on Windows start-up and the completion of the quick scan will be our new finish line.


Since our test does not end until the virus scan is complete, the great read performance of the standard Neutron drive is able to help keep its showing more respectable than it otherwise would be. To be fair, this chart is full of enthusiast grade high performance drives and for a slightly more mainstream offering it is very good. The GTX on the other hand offers some sunning numbers.


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!


These results are good and once again show how powerful the Neutron GTX really is. It easily powers ahead of most of the competition and only the down right expensive Vertex 4 512GB is able to match it. That really is impressive performance.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Portable Offline / Real World Data Transfers

Firefox Portable Offline Performance


Firefox is notorious for being slow on loading tabs in offline mode once the number of pages to be opened grows larger than a dozen or so. We can think of fewer worse case scenarios than having 100 tabs set to reload in offline mode upon Firefox startup, but this is exactly what we have done here.

By having 100 pages open in Firefox portable, setting Firefox to reload the last session upon next session start and then setting it to offline mode, we are able to easily recreate a worse case scenario. Since we are using Firefox portable all files are easily positioned in one location, making it simple to repeat the test as necessary. In order to ensure repetition, before touching the Firefox portable files, we have backed them up into a .rar file and only extracted a copy of it to the test device.



Both these drives post some very, very good numbers but the GTX is once again slightly better. However, the difference is not as large as the other tests would lead you to believe. It seems when the NAND's write performance abilities are mainly removed from the equation Corsair's standard Neutron is able to compete against any and all comers.


Real World Data Transfers


No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it can not really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy (set to 1 file depth) and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.




With its strong small and large file performance the Neutron GTX’s performance stands in stark contrast with the standard Neutron’s results. While the standard drive’s results are decent enough for a mainstream model, they are not groundbreaking in the least.
 
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