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SanDisk Ultra Plus 256GB SSD Review

AkG

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Please note that we are experiencing some technical difficulties which will cause image errors in some reviews. Hardware Canucks is actively working to solve the issues and the images should display correctly soon.

SanDisk’s SSDs are rapidly gaining momentum after initially being one of the first to offer solid state storage directly to consumers. Since those early days they have consistently delivered drives known for their performance and value like the excellent SanDisk Extreme 240GB which turned out to be one impressive storage solution. On the other hand, the new Ultra Plus series has the same aims as its Extreme sibling but targets a slightly lower price point.

The $210 Ultra Plus 256GB is SanDisk’s big entry into a market which is currently filled with affordable alternatives which do a great job of combining price and raw power. For example, OCZ’s Agility 4, Kingston’s SSDNow V300 and the Neutron series from Corsair all play in the same ballpark as the Ultra Plus and have been on the market for significantly longer. So how is SanDisk planning on competing against industry heavyweights? By sure-footed innovation and a unique blend of components.


When putting specifications on the table, there really isn't much to distinguish the new Ultra Plus series from SanDisk's higher end Extreme SSDs. The main differentiating factors are write speed and the Ultra Plus' availability in lower capacity formats. It really makes us wonder how SanDisk is planning to market these two very similar drives.


With its value orientated approach, the semi-plastic and metal chassis comes shouldn’t come as a great surprise. It does however come in a slimming 7mm form factor and includes a plastic topper plate which converts the drive into a standard 9.5mm high form factor. This customizable approach makes the Ultra Plus perfect for a wide array of systems including some in which typical 9.5mm SSDs simply won’t fit.


By gently removing the plastic top half we can instantly understand how SanDisk were able to offer a large capacity SSD at such a reasonable price. It’s all about miniaturization. This is one of only a handful of drives which utilize such a small internal PCB, but unlike the Corsair Accelerator 30GB there are quite a few differentiating factors which allow this design to stand out.

Much like the Accelerator 30GB there are only four large capacity NAND ICs on this amazingly small PCB. However instead of ONFi 1 NAND, SanDisk has opted for four of their own new high performance 19nm eX2 ABL MLC NAND ICs.


eX2 ABL MLC NAND provides a unique twist on a typical MLC design since a portion of the NAND can act in pseudo 1bit SLC mode. The amount of space used in 1bit mode can be dynamically adjusted but in this instance it has been set very low. The only area which will run in pseudo SLC mode on the Ultra Plus is just the normal over-provisioning all NAND ICs come with at the chip level. This area is usually just used for bad block replacement – and ensures all chips meet minimum size specifications - but in this case it pulls double duty as a type of quasi cache storage, or what SanDisk calls called nCache.

nCache is a technique SanDisk has created to help improve overall write performance and boost sustained performance of their drives. It does this by taking a piece of the NAND, setting it to run in pseudo SLC mode and allowing the controller use this area much like a RAM IC.

Basically, the nCache area will act as a buffer for small file writes, garbage collection and the like. The controller can quite literally push small, time sensitive writes to the nCache, flush its RAM buffer and move on to other I/O requests without bogging down the system. Then the controller can periodically – during low I/O periods – consolidate these small writes to the MLC portion of the NAND. This also has the added benefit of increasing the lifespan of the NAND as fewer blocks will need to be used for the small files and thus fewer will need to be cleaned and consolidated.


The other noticeable difference here is the controller. Unlike the Sandisk Extreme which relies upon a SF2281, or the Corsair Neutron use of Link A Media Devices’ 'Amber' LM87800, the Ultra Plus makes use of the Marvell "Van Gogh Lite" 88SS9175-BJM2 controller.

The 9175 is a four channel design and has been optimized for lower power usage, making this drive an excellent fit for the notebook market. It also is much less expensive than the more powerful 9174 and this coupled with the low number of 19nm MLC NAND explains how SanDisk was able to keep the cost of the Ultra Plus low. Just like any Marvell controller there is also a single RAM IC, which in this instance is a Samsung 128MB DDR2-800 DRAM chip.
 
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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 an Intel DC S3700 800GB 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: Intel DC S3700 800GB, 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
SanDisk Extrene 240GB: R211
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: M206
OCZ Vector 256GB: 1.03
Intel DC S3700 800GB: 5DV10211
Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB: 505
SanDisk UltraPlus 256GB: 365A13F0

SandForce SF1200 Drives:
OCZ Vertex 2 - ONFi 2 NAND

SandForce SF2281 Drives:
Intel 520 - custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND
SanDisk Extreme - stock firmware w/ 24nm Toggle Mode NAND
SSDNow V300 - custom firmware w/ 19nm Toggle Mode NAND

LAMD:
Corsair Neutron GTX - Toggle Mode NAND

Marvell:
Crucial M4 - Custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND
SanDisk UltraPlus - Custom firmware w/ eX2 ABL NAND
Barefoot 3 controller:
OCZ Vector - ONFi 2 NAND

Intel X25-M Gen 3 controller:
Intel DC S3700 - 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.


Considering the Ultra Plus only has access to four NAND ICs and is using a ‘lite’ controller, these numbers are very impressive. It even manages to edge out the slightly more expensive Sandisk Extreme.
 
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AkG

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5,274
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.



Once again the Ultra Plus provides some impressive numbers, though it isn't quite able to repeat its feats from previous tests.
 
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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.



On the one hand these numbers are once again downright amazing for a drive using a cut down controller design and only four NAND ICs. However, the Ultra Plus does suffer a bit in certain categories, trading blows with its sibling in several instances.

It does appear that eX2 ABL NAND can indeed boost performance and SanDisk may just be onto something with their nCache technology.


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 this result is very respectable, but is a touch lower than we would want to see in a new 256GB SSD. In all likelihood the only reason this drive can perform as good as it does is because of the eX2 ABL NAND as its controller is not exactly known as a ‘power house’.
 
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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.



The Ultra Plus seems to flip-flop quite a bit since it tends to excel in read performance but takes a minor step backwards in write bandwidth.


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.



The 4K write performance of this drive is its weakest link. The nCache technology housed within the eX2 ABL NAND can only do so much to mitigate the fact that this is a lower performance drive which has been somewhat handicapped by a slower controller. This is unfortunate as these numbers really do hint at great things for eX2 ABL NAND.
 
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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.


Using any drive which uses a kneecapped controller architecture for IOMeter tasks is asking for trouble and that translates perfectly here.
 
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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.


While it certainly does lag behind most of the other drives in our charts, the Ultra Plus 256GB easily outperforms a Crucial M4. Obviously this new NAND does have a lot of potential, just potential that will never be fully realized until it is paired with a high performance controller.


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!


While synthetic numbers tell a part of each drive's story, they can't accurately predict real-world performance. Despite struggling in certain areas, the Ultra Plus is able to put down some respectable application load time results and proves to be an excellent competitor.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Portable 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.




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 and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.




The flip-flopping does continue here but not to a worrying extent. The Sandisk Ultra Plus 256GB is still able to post some excellent numbers.
 
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AkG

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Partial and Full Drive Performance

Partial and Full Drive Performance


While it is important to know how a drive will perform under optimal conditions, more realistic scenarios are just as important. Knowing if a solid state drive will behave differently when partially or even nearly full than when it is empty is very important information to know. To quickly and accurately show this crucial information we have first filled the drive to 50% capacity and re-tested using both synthetic and real world tests. After the completion of this we then re-test at 75% and 90% of full capacity.

Synthetic Test Results

For our synthetic testing we have opted for our standard PCMark 7 test.





Real World Results

For a real world application we have opted for our standard Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance test.





New high performance NAND or not, these results are not exactly what we would like to see from a new mainstream drive. The Ultra Plus can maintain its performance quite well, similarly priced drives like Kingston's V300 remain more consistent.
 
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