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OCZ Vector 256GB SSD Review

AkG

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The past few months have been quite trying for OCZ. Everything from missed financial targets to rumors of layoffs and class action suits have filled the internet with “news” of their impending doom. Nonetheless, OCZ has still been trucking along and the development of new products has been progressing at a brisk pace. This brings us to the subject of today’s review: the all new Vector SSD series.

Based upon a brand new, cutting edge, extremely powerful and entirely in-house developed Barefoot 3 controller, the Vector is supposed to take over the flagship banner from OCZ’s venerable Vertex 4. Considering the Vertex 4 is one of the few drives that have remained atop our charts throughout most of 2012, the Vector could very well usher in a new age for SSD performance.


While the Vertex 4 has made a good accounting of itself over the long term, several competitors have released drives that have surpassed its benchmark numbers. This has left OCZ looking somewhat flat-footed since they didn’t have a quick response waiting in the wings. However, the Vector is supposed to be the much-awaited broadside that can sink all comers.


The Vertex 4 will stick around for the time being, offering an excellent mid-market drive that offers tons of performance without a staggering price. One the other hand, the Vector and the Barefoot 3 controller at its heart represent a new direction for OCZ’s Indilinx design team. Instead of focusing solely on sheer performance as the Vertex 4 did, this new controller has been designed with a high factor of reliability, enhanced endurance and sustained throughput as its core philosophies. As such, by using the Barefoot 3 as a starting point, OCZ can create several other drive families for the workstation and enterprise markets should they choose.

The reasonable - if slightly high - MSRP of $269.99 for the 256GB models reflects this prosumer/workstation orientation. Though with prices starting as low as 149.99 for the 128GB model the new Vector series certainly won't price itself entirely out of the market. However, the $550 512GB model is still priced above people's budgets.


Even from the outside OCZ's Vector 256GB SSD doesn’t look like your typical OCZ drive. In the past, OCZ had become synonymous with semi-plastic clad drives. Even their flagship Vertex 4 line of drives came in a plastic topped case. As part of OCZ’s renewed vigor the plastic case is gone and in its place is an all metal 7mm 2.5” form factor case which is extremely durable and weighs more than other drives in this segment. Its exterior also boasts a great looking matte finish.


Opening the case up and looking inside we can see that the internal architecture shares more in common with the Vertex 4 (Everest 2) than with Vertex 3 (SF2281) models which came before it. In total there are 16 ONFi 2 NAND ICs populating all 16 slots on the full size PCB. There is also one Barefoot 3 controller and a pair of 256MB Micron RAM ICs. Interestingly enough there is actually room on the PCB for an additional RAM chip and we assume the 512GB will receive three RAM chips for its external cache buffer compared to the two chips of the 256GB model.


The two RAM ICs are Micron MT41K256M8DA-125:M 256MB units which are rated to run at DDR3-1600 ram, giving the Barefoot 3 controller access to a total of 512MB of external ram cache. This is very similar to the amount of cache the Everest 2 controller required and comes as no surprise.

OCZ’s list included of accessories is actually quite impressive. We usually don’t dawdle over the accessories an SSD comes with since typically there are none. This is actually another way in which the Vector is different from previous OCZ drives. You not only get a metal 2.5” to 3.5” adapter plate and case sticker, but there’s also a serial number for Acronis True Image HD. This may not make the Vector unique, but its inclusion in the standard version alongside a 5 year warranty certainly speaks volumes to OCZ's renewed commitment to customer service.
 
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AkG

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Introducing the Barefoot 3 Controller

Introducing the Barefoot 3 Controller



Much like the Vector drive it is used in, the all new Barefoot 3 represents the culmination of over 10 years of engineering experience from OCZ and Indilinx. While there will invariably be a certain amount of comparison drawn between the Everest 2 controller and this new Barefoot 3, both controllers use entirely different designs. The Barefoot 3 represents a departure from previous philosophies. This is why the Vector is considered its own product line rather than being yet another Vertex, or as Alex Mei of OCZ stated “the solution was so differentiated that it warranted a new line positioned above our Vertex Series.”

Unlike previous controllers, the Barefoot 3 takes an entirely different approach to several key concepts. The largest of the changes is the actual design of the controller’s internal architecture. Instead of being one controller the Barefoot 3 is in fact two discrete designs combined on to one piece of silicon. This multi-core, multi-processor approach gives it a lot more overall power, flexibility and spare clock cycles than previous designs. This is also the main reason the Vector is able to boast such high sustained IO potential.


Most successful controller designs use multi-core ARM layouts that have proven to be both adaptable and relatively efficient. Using a multi-core design is nothing new as it allows for much better sustained performance with each core being able to be simultaneously handle different tasks. However, while the Barefoot 3 uses a multi-core Cortex ARM controller as its basis, it also contains a secondary OCZ Aragon unit as well.

When pressed for details regarding this combination, Daryl Lang and Alex Mei were willing to state that the “the purpose of the Aragon is to efficiently manage the interface to the flash devices”. In other words, unlike other controllers which simply dedicate one of the two processor cores to low level tasks, OCZ dedicates an entire 400mhz controller to it. This frees up the primary ARM controller for more time sensitive tasks.

Most controllers don’t have enough processor cycles to go around and designs usually conduct a delicate balancing act between garbage collection, other low level tasks and real time I/O requests. This is a big portion of what firmware refinement boils down to: modifying the amount of cycles the controller dedicates towards specific tasks. Compare and contrast the standard approach with OCZ new Barefoot 3: Rather than splitting cycles between various tasks, OCZ simply added in a second processing unit and added more cycles to spread out the load.

Like many modern designs, the Barefoot 3 uses an eight channel layout. However, unlike most which are 4CE designs, the Barefoot 3 can handle a whopping 8 chip enables per channel for a maximum of 64 NAND layers or twice what’s usually seen in competing solutions.

Interestingly enough, when pressed for types of NAND support OCZ stated there were “No current plans” for e-MLC / HET or TLC (Tri-Level Cell) NAND support stating “(the Barefoot 3) is targeted at the high end enthusiast market for client applications”, neither of which would be a good match for such clientele. This does narrow the types of NAND OCZ or other manufactures can use but both typical MLC NAND types - ONFi and Toggle Mode NAND- are supported. In all likelihood either e-MLC or TLC can be added via firmware updates if the need arises.


Much like the Everest 2 controller before it, the Barefoot 3 controller makes use of NDurance technology. In its most basic form, NDurance is an advanced NAND flash management suite designed to radically extend the life of the NAND cells and your data. NDurance first made an appearance in the Everest 1 controller, but since then it has had its abilities upgraded and further refined.

This life extension takes the form of various different techniques, the first of which is advanced multi-level, BCH Error Correction Code. In the Barefoot 3’s case, BCH has been set to 28bits worth of ECC per 1 Kilobyte of data. The controller’s progressive error correction capabilities are not fixed and can be adapted to the specific error characteristics of different NAND used in different runs, batches and even types. The end result is that the chances of your data being corrupted on any Barefoot 3 controller based drive –regardless of NAND type used - are greatly reduced as the ECC routines will be finely tuned to maximize data retention abilities of the NAND it is paired with.


The Barefoot 3 controller also has built in auto-encryption with 256-bit AES support. However much like the Vertex 4 and Agility 4 lineups, OCZ’s Vector doesn’t have this feature enabled by default. Auto encryption is not required for the average home user or enthusiast and it would have incurred a certain amount of performance loss due to the increased processing overhead. According to OCZ “This is something that we do turn on for enterprise specific drives. Vector does not have this turned on currently as this is not something that we felt really pertained to the targeted applications of this product, but we are continuing to evaluate enabling this functionality.”

The similarities in feature sets continue as the Barefoot 3 controller doesn’t do any data compression before writing to the NAND. By not first compressing the data, the Barefoot 3 boasts equally good performance for both compressible and incompressible data types. This is a major boon to consumers used to SandForce drives which incur a rather large performance penalty when dealing with already compressed data such as MP3 files or video.


Since data compression isn’t necessary the Vector series doesn’t require over provisioning in order to retain its performance over time so capacity will always be maximized. Of course, with zero over-provisioning, if enough NAND blocks get corrupted, your drive will be in serious trouble as there won’t be any “free” blocks to seamlessly take their place. OCZ emphatically state this controller has a low write amplification and the chances of enough NAND dying before the warranty expires is very low.

OCZ is so sure of this controller’s abilities they they’ve equipped the Vector with a comprehensive five year limited warranty. In a very interesting twist, OCZ also claim their drive is capable of 20GB of writes per day over the warranty’s lifespan. On first blush this may seem low for some environments but it is the same specification Intel uses for their SF2281 based 520 SSDs.

When taken as a whole the Barefoot 3 seems to be a capable high performance controller that’s more adaptable than any of its direct or indirect Indilinx predecessors. It certainly should make a great addition to OCZ’s current stable of high performance drives.
 
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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
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: 206
OCZ Vector 256GB: 102

SandForce SF1200 Drives:
OCZ Vertex 2 - ONFi 2 NAND

SandForce SF2281 Drives:
Intel 510 - custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND
Corsair GS - stock firmware w/ Toggle Mode NAND
SanDisk Extreme - stock firmware w/ Toggle Mode NAND

LAMD:
Corsair Neutron GTX - Toggle Mode NAND

Marvell:
Crucial M4 - Custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND

Everest 2 controller:
OCZ Vertex 4 - ONFi 2 NAND

Barefoot 3 controller:
OCZ Vector - ONFi 2 NAND
 
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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.


Much like the Everest 2 based designs before it, this new “Indilinx Infused” Barefoot 3 based drive certainly delivers excellent sequential file performance.
 
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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 power curves are exactly what you want to see in a new, cutting edge controller. Unlike the impressive LAMD unit we looked at, the Vector’s Barefoot 3 small file performance curves are excellent. OCZ’s beta testing and years of experience are obviously paying off as this is the Vector’s preliminary firmware and is should only get better as time goes by and additional revisions are released.
 
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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.




It seams that unlike SandForce – but much like the Everest 2 before it – this new Barefoot 3 controller delivers excellent small file performance. While the single queue depth read performance is a touch lackluster the Vector does make up for it with excellent single queue depth write performance.


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.


A score of 5534 is indeed impressive and just underscores how good this new Barefoot 3 controller is. By the same token, this result is lower than what the Corsair Force GS 240GB is capable of. OCZ’s reluctance to use Toggle Mode NAND is once again a potential point of performance loss that could have easily been avoided via the use of reasonably priced 24nm SanDisk or Toshiba Toggle Mode NAND.
 
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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.



For a new drive with rather fresh firmware these results are very good. We only wish OCZ had learned the importance of firmware QA and testing before now. Late or not, these results are great to see from a new controller.


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.



As expected, the Vector's write performance is better than the read, but both still remain in the upper echelons of the market. Based on Crystal Diskmark, AS-SSD and now Anvil it is blatantly obvious that this controller has been designed with the workstation environment in mind rather than the home consumer. The deeper queue depth read and write performance is extremely high, whereas the lower queue depth performance is a touch more subdued. Hopefully with some minor tweaking to the firmware the low queue depth performance can be improved.
 
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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 not unexpected, the IOMeter results just emphasize exactly how good a controller this new Barefoot 3 really is. At its core, IOMeter is an excellent way to judge long term performance as it is not a short ‘burst’ style test like most other synthetics. Because of its long term sustained performance the Vector is able to pull ahead of the competition and post numbers never before seen in the ‘prosumer’ marketplace.
 
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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.


Although the Vector 256GB doesn't post the absolute fastest load times we have seen from a 240-256GB solid state drive, it is extremely fast. In this size category only the Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB is faster. Of course, the Vertex 4 512GB still remains untouched as the absolute fastest consumer SATA drive we have tested to date. With such a minor difference between these two drives future firmware refinement will be critical to deciding which of these two drives is ‘faster’ for the home user environment.


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 drive is once again towards the top of the charts and only a Neutron GTX 240GB or Vertex 4 512GB can really match this level of 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.



Thanks to its great deep queue depth numbers and long term sustained performance, the Vector 256GB’s Barefoot 3 controller has no problem powering through even the most difficult tasks.


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.




Based on the synthetic sequential file performance results, the real world results should come as no surprise. This drive is very fast and quite capable when it comes to large file handling. Sadly, its slightly reduced small file performance does somewhat hinder certain areas though we doubt most consumers would tell the difference between any of the top contenders in these charts.
 
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