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OCZ Synapse 64GB SSD Cache Drive Review

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AkG

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The current storage market is all about contrasts but the OCZ Synapse 64GB cache drive is trying to act as an intermediary. On one hand we have the SSDs which offer nearly unlimited performance but are limited in capacity and come at a steep price that’s usually beyond the means of most consumers. The other end of the spectrum holds the faithful spindle-based hard drives that are inexpensive and can store massive amounts of information but due to technological limitations just can’t provide the same raw speed as a typical SSD.

In order to offer consumers the best of both worlds, some manufacturers have resorted to exotic “hybrid” storage solutions like Seagate’s Momentus XT and OCZ’s RevoDrive Hybrid. The OCZ Synapse 64GB on the other hand takes a slightly different approach since it doesn’t supply the hard drive part of the equation, nor does it rely on a dedicated controller to meld the two dissimilar technologies into one cohesive whole. Rather, it is simply a modified Agility 3 60GB SSD which uses third party software to meld the SSD part of the equation with your existing hard drive to form an entirely new “hybrid” storage device.

Naturally, a software based solution requires a certain amount of processor overhead but this philosophy of using your (hopefully multi core) CPU to do the heavy lifting does its merits. It allows for increased storage flexibility while also keeping the associated costs relatively low. There are some major questions which largely center around the SSD’s capability to cope with degraded states and just how much CPU overhead is actually required but if OCZ has been able to successfully navigate around these pitfalls the new Synapse line of drives may just be the Hybrid drive many consumers have been waiting for.


To help keep things as fair as possible we will be pairing Synapse with the same 1TB hard drive the RevoDrive Hybrid ships with. This will allow us to show how much performance is possible from a truly budget setup and it should allow us to judge the efficiency and effectiveness of this setup compared to a RevoDrive Hybrid.


By simply looking at this drive you wouldn’t know that it is anything other than a typical SSD. With the exception of the sticker, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes the Synapse from an Agility 3. Sadly, even the Synapse’s case is the same and is only partially metal with the top being made from “hard” plastic. We never like seeing plastic on our drives but considering the price point of this device it is still an acceptable – albeit far from optimal – solution.



Even when opened up and we looked inside, there is nothing you could point to and say “this is what separates a Synapse from an Agility 3 ”. As with the OCZ Agility 3, the Synapse relies on a single SandForce SF2281 controller and uses 16 ONFi 1 NAND chips. What makes this drive unique is not the NAND, nor controller but the firmware. In a typical 64GB SF2281 drive your operating system would see 60GB of space with the additional 4GB being set aside for over-provisioning whereas with the 64GB Synapse it is seen as a 30GB drive. Having this much over-provisioning is the very definition of overkill and has been done to help reduce the negative effects associated with running a SF2281 drive in a non-TRIM environment.

It is unfortunate that OCZ did not opt for Toggle Mode NAND or even ONFI 2.x NAND as that too would have helped obfuscate a degraded state better than what ONFi can accomplish. Given the price range this drive occupies and the philosophy behind it – i.e. budget price with enthusiast grade read performance– we understand the reasoning behind this move but like the plastic case, we do not consider this an optimal choice.

It is also noteworthy that the software needed to actually run the Synapse as it is intended isn’t included in the box – nor on the itself drive. Rather than include a CD with potentially outdated version, OCZ simply includes a serial number which is needed to download the special Dataplex software, which is the same that comes with OCZ’s RevoDrive Hybrid.





Essentially, Dataplex runs in the background as Windows starts and other than a small activity console, it doesn't impede in any way upon standard computing tasks. As long as the software is installed and running it requires no user interaction and goes happily about its job without any complex setup requirements.
 
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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
Crucial M4 256GB: 0009
Mushkin Chronos 120GB: 3.3.2
Intel 520: 400i
OCZ RevoDrive Hybrid: 2.15
OCZ Synapse: 2.15
 
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AkG

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OCZ Synapse and CPU Utilization

OCZ Synapse and CPU Utilization


Since the Synapse Hybrid is at heart a software rather than hardware-based Hybrid solution, higher CPU utilization is to be expected but exactly how much is the question.

To obtain an accurate picture of exactly how much CPU horsepower this device truly requires we have configured the Synapse as a secondary “D” data drive and let the system idle with a minimum of processes running. Using Windows' built in Performance Monitor we can see exactly how much processing power is being dedicated to a given storage solution. Lastly, we run Crystal DiskMark while monitoring CPU utilization.

The processor used is a Core i5 2500K which is running at stock speed.




As you can see the OCZ Synapse certainly does use more processing power than your typical SATA drive, but by the same token it is not all that much when compared against most other CPU reliant solutions we have looked at in the past. With an idle in the low 20’s and an average usage rating in the 30s –with a peak only in the 60’s - the Synapse certainly isn'tt going to cause a CPU bottleneck in any modern computer system. It may however cause one in an older system and you will need to make sure that you have a fairly powerful CPU if you want to properly harness this solution. Luckily, even a downright ancient Q6600 will have power to spare and only the truly ancient system like an AMD Athlon x2 3800 or even older Intel socket 478 processors will have an issues with the OCZ Synapse.
 
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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.





These ATTO numbers are very good and need no interpretation: when the Synapse is paired with a mid tier HDD, it can be nearly good as an SSD-only solution. The read performance curve was expected as this does cater to the Synapse’s forte but it is blatantly obvious that writes are also being to some extent cached on the SSD. This is how the RevoDrive Hybrid does things and we are impressed to see it carried over to this less model.
 
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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.





Once again the overall results are pretty good and the read results are downright impressive. While the write performance is not as good as the SSD’s performance by itself – i.e. the maximum theoretical performance potential for this configuration– the Synapse’s numbers are eons better than what the attached hard drive is capable of.


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 the Synapse is a tad slow for a solid state drive, these results are still impressive for such a low priced solution.
 
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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 Crystal Diskmark, the read performance of the Synapse is basically the same as the Agility 3 drive it relies upon and the writes are nearly as good. There is some performance loss due to processing overhead but once again it seems like the HDD is being almost written out of the equation so the SSD can shine in all 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.





Much like we have seen in the rest of the review up to this point, the Synapse is able to impress in this benchmark and the attached hard drive doesn't seem to be holding it back at all.
 
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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.



Thanks to its moderate overhead requirements, the Synapse does do a fairly decent job at our custom IOMeter tests. However, this hybrid solution would be a poor match for anything besides home environments. If you need a high performance storage setup a large SSD or RevoDrive 3 x2 would be a much better fit. With all that being said, these numbers are still better than what you will get with an older Vertex 2 which is pretty respectable since it wasn't all that long ago that we would have considered that to be a leading edge SSD.
 
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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.


While the Synapse is not exactly at the top of the charts by any stretch of the imagination, these results are still impressive. We – and by extension OCZ – have taken what is a rather slow 1TB 2.5” hard drive and by adding a simple inexpensive SSD, have turned it into a high end competitor.


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!



This certainly is a peppy configuration and while the RevoDrive Hybrid and the high performance SSDs in our charts do easily outpace these results, the fact of the matter is the Synapse produces results that are comparable to much higher priced configurations. Not everyone needs bleeding edge performance and the vast majority of consumers likely won't notice much difference between this setup and most lower priced SSDs.
 
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AkG

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Firefox 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.




Thanks to its caching abilities the Synapse shows us some very good results once again. They aren't quite up to the level of higher end single drive solutions but we can't forget that this drive uses a mid tier SSD as its starting point.


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.






When dealing with data which is more random in nature (i.e. both compressible and incompressible data types) the results are very good but once again the SF2281 controller cannot entirely hide the ONFi 1 NAND's limitation. The very fact that this is the bottleneck in our current Synapse configuration truly is impressive. That down right slow hard drive’s performance really is being boosted well beyond what we thought it could be.
 
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AkG

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NON-TRIM Environment Testing

NON-TRIM Environment Testing


To create this test, we first modified our testbed to ensure that it would not pass on the necessary cleaning commands. Meanwhile, to artificially induce a degrade state we ran eight hours of IOMeter set to 100% random, 100% write, 4k chunks of data at a 64 queue depth across the entire drive’s capacity. At the end of this test, the IOMeter file is deleted and the drive was then tested. This will replicate drive performance after extended heavy usage prior to any self maintenance routines kicking in and is indicated by the “Dirty” results below.

In order to allow each drive’s self-maintenance routines to kick in, we then wait 30 minutes (Dirty + 30 results) with the system at idle and rerun the tests.



Real World Results

For a real world application we have opted for our standard Vista load time test.



This device certainly does get hit with a performance penalty after being abused, but with such massive over-provisioning and the hard drive to fall back upon this Hybrid solution does a moderately good job at hiding this fact from you. It seems that the true secret to making any SF2281 based drive – even an ONFi 1 drive – perform adequately in a non-Trim environment is having massive over provisioning and a second drive (even a slow hard drive) to help carry some of the load.

What that means for the OCZ Synapse is simple: unless you absolutely need to write to every block on the NAND and need to do so on a near constant basis it is doubtful that you would notice this setup slowing down in typical real world scenarios.
 
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