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Corsair Performance Pro 256GB SSD Review

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AkG

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In a relatively short period of time Corsair has developed quite the demanding presence and sterling reputation in certain SSD circles. With a varied line up and a wide array of NAND and controllers to differentiate their various models from those of the competition, they seem to have what it takes to pull potential consumers in. However, every once in awhile Corsair releases a drive seemingly from nowhere that changes the status quo. One such drive was the Performance 3 256GB drive which showed many enthusiasts that an SSD didn’t need to have “SandForce” in the same sentence as “performance” and that the new Marvell controller was a force to be reckoned with. Today we will be putting the Performance 3’s successor –the Performance PRO- under the microscope to see if it can meet our already high expectations. With an online asking price of about $400 – or $20 more than what a Crucial M4 256GB goes for - this is certainly a tall but certainly not impossible order to fulfill.


On the surface, the new Performance Pro 256GB seems to be nothing more than a firmware revised version of the original Performance 3 model. Both drives have very similar all silver metal chassis, use the same controller and even sport similar labels. It is not until you crack open the case and peak inside that you see what differentiates one from another: the PCB and built in memory.


The original Performance 3 256GB used a 1.8” form factor PCB and only had room for 8 NAND Integrated Circuit slots, the Marvell controller and a single ram chip. The new version uses a more standard 2.5” form factor and while it still only has eight of those very potent Toshiba branded, 32GB Toggle Mode NAND modules to work with, it has not one but two ram chips.

To be specific, instead of a single 128MB cache chip seen in the Performance 3 – or a single 256MB chip seen in the Crucial M4 - the Performance Pro has two Nanya branded DDR3-1333, 256MB chips for a total of 512MB of cache. This is two to four times the amount of room for the controller to work with, which should – in theory and assuming it can take full advantage of it – allow its non-trim performance to be much improved as well as offering less noticeable performance impact from the garbage collection routines. This last bit is very important as the original version had very noticeable and very aggressive idle time garbage collection which took away from overall performance even when in a TRIM environment. Naturally, another advantage of this particular SSD is that it should retain its performance over time even when not used in conjunction with TRIM.


While it is unfortunate that Corsair didn’t also upgrade the number of 34nm Toggle Mode NAND chips – and populate both sides of this larger PCB – these improvements are very reassuring to see. Hopefully they can translate into a noticeable difference when going from one generation to another.
 
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AkG

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The TRIM Conundrum & Marvell's Answer

The TRIM Conundrum & Marvell's Answer


To get the absolute best long term performance out of a Solid State Drive your system has to be able to pass on the TRIM command. This is because most modern SSD controller designs are built and designed upon the assumption that the a system will be able to provide TRIM commands to the drive’s controller.



For the ATA TRIM command to occur there are many different components which need to work hand in hand for the TRIM command to be sent and received by the SSD controller. The primary lynchpin here is the operating system. If you are running an older OS (pre Windows 7) the operating system itself will not know how to send the TRIM command. In addition, the motherboard’s storage controller itself must be able to process the TRIM command. AMD motherboards which predate the 800-series chipsets and Intel products using a pre-ICH9R setup simply don’t support TRIM regardless of the OS being run. Further complicating things is the prerequisite that the onboard controller be working in AHCI mode as IDE isn’t supported nor can the SSD be part of RAID array. With the exception of some exotic, factory RAID’ed Solid State drives (such as the Revo 3) RAID + SSD means no trim support.

The last crucial link is the drivers which also need to support TRIM and currently Microsoft AHCI, Intel RST or AMD’s latest versions all work well. The easiest way to relate to all of these requirements is to think of each one as a link in a chain: if any one is broken your solid state drive will not receive TRIM commands and could degrade very quickly.



The introduction of TRIM really did have an impact upon the perceived longevity of SSDs but there are still many consumers who don’t posses systems capable of passing on the command. Unfortunately, most SSD controller manufacturers design their chips based on the assumption that TRIM will always be a possibility. This means in order to get the best possible long term performance out of a modern SSD, you’ll need a TRIM-supporting system which could mean a costly upgrade to go along with that brand new SSD.

So what about all those consumers who don’t have TRIM capabilities? Before TRIM was implemented, controller designers created routines to minimize and alleviate performance degradation. These self-maintenance routines go by many names but are usually called “Idle Time” or “Background” Garbage collection.



This “old school” solution is of course the somewhat perfect answer for non-TRIM environments. Sadly, not all algorithms and routines are created equal and efficiency varies greatly from one controller maker to another. Since SandForce expects people to have TRIM capable systems, their self maintenance routines are very mild a best and thus very slow. So slow in fact that without TRIM, even the mighty SF2281 based drives can see their performance degraded very quickly. In extreme cases pauses and stuttering can even occur.



While SandForce and others went the route of assuming their customers had TRIM, Marvell did not. In fact, Marvell seems to have actively focused upon and have designed their controller for consumers who want a large performance boost but don’t want to upgrade their entire system to get it. This is why Marvell controllers – especially this second gen “9174” - have more aggressive self-maintenance routines which start working sooner and faster than their competitors. The high performance, high efficiency self-maintenance routines within the Performance 3 really are the secret weapon in its arsenal but as we will see later in this review, they can act as a double edged sword as well.
 
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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 this hybrid setup certain tests 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 MI 240GB: 2.1.5
Corsair Force 3 GT 120GB: 1.3.3
Patriot Pyro 120GB: 3.3.2
Kingston HyperX 240GB: 3.3.2
Crucial M4 256GB: 0009
Mushkin Chronos 120GB: 3.3.2
Corsair Performance 3 256GB: 1.1
Corsair Performance 256GB: 1.0
 
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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.



With a read speed just a shade over 500MB/s this drive is certainly fast but more importantly, these results are much better than the previous Performance 3 256GB model. The difference between the Performance Pro and the Crucial M4 256GB is simply too close to call, but considering the M4 256GB is a great example of what the Marvell controller can do, seeing a drive beat it – even by a minor amount – is noteworthy.


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 average sequential write performance is very good – and much improved over any Marvell drive we have tested to date – SandForce drives are still faster. However, the minimum performance posted by the Pro was downright impressive and secured the top position in this chart. Considering this drive can do all this with only half the number of flash modules of what some of the other 240/256GB drives require, the results are all the more impressive.
 
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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 goes without saying that these power curves are much better than the previous model but there is also a certain amount of duality to them. On the one hand we have a drive that is much more powerful at writes than an M4 256GB, but it can't reach the M4's read numbers.
 
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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.





ATTO and sequential performance is all well and fine, but for the real nitty-gritty it is hard to beat Crystal DiskMark. As you can see in the charts above, this drive is simply the fastest Marvell based SSD we have tested to date.


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.



Once again we are seeing huge performance increases over the previous generation but in this case, any forward movement should be considered noteworthy. These results are not only better than what the previous Corsair model can do but even the firmware 0009 equipped Crucial M4 can't keep up with the Pro. Now that is what we call performance.
 
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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.





These numbers are just as impressive as the Crystal DiskMark results and while it is not an across the board domination compared to the Crucial M4, the Performance Pro is markedly faster in most tests.

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.




For a Marvell based drive these are downright great numbers. When AS-SSD, Crystal DiskMark and Anvil Pro all agree that a drive is fast you can pretty much take it to the bank and put confidence in its performance.
 
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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 the difference between the Pro and its predecessor aren't that great, these results are noticeably better than any Marvell second generation drive we've tested. Even the Crucial M4 0009 wielding 256GB drive is slower. The Performance Pro’s massive ram really does help keep it when humming along with nary a hiccup, even when others start to falter. With that being said, the SandForce drives are still in a different league and provide much higher levels of performance. Luckily, the Performance Pro is not marketed towards the server environment and we doubt many home users will hit queue depths anywhere close to 128.
 
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AkG

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Windows 7 Start Up / 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.



These are some down right impressively fast results, and while the Performance Pro is not able to beat a Vertex 3 MaxIOPS, it can for all intents and purposes tie for second place with a Kingston HyperX 240GB. To put that in perspective, an average time of 150 seconds is a full fifteen seconds faster than what a Crucial M4.


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!


A one second improvement over the Crucial M4 256GB may not seem like a lot, but the difference is large enough for this drive to land firmly in second place and actually give the Vertex 3 240GB MaxIOPS edition a run for its money.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Portable Offline Performance / 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.




For a test as insanely difficult as this one is, a solid third place finish is very impressive. That extra large cache capacity really does afford this Marvell itteration much better results when the queue depths get deep.


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.






It seems that - with maybe one or two exceptions - no matter what we throw at it, the Corsair Performance Pro 256GB simply exceeds our expectations. It goes without saying that this drive really is the most responsive solid state drives we have ever used regardless of the controller inside.
 
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