OCZ Vector Solid State Drive Review

OCZ Technology have finally finished their own groundbreaking hardware platform for solid state drives – Indilinx Barefoot 3. And they have every intention to reshape the market by launching their first SSD series based on it called OCZ Vector. Will they succeed?

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
11/27/2012 | 09:00 AM

OCZ Technology has been making news recently. Unfortunately, the main topic of most recent company reports were not some breathtaking innovations or business successes. On the contrary, OCZ has been dealing with some financial issues that prevented it from reporting to the stockholders in time over the last few months. Of course, that could impact the company's reputation, especially since OCZ management had to make certain statements which made many end-users feel uneasy. We’ve learned, for example, that OCZ used to be too generous to consumers, pricing their products too low, whereas the product range was too large and included too many models with low profit rate. This business strategy has helped OCZ quickly become the No.1 supplier of solid state drives among companies that do not produce flash memory. However, the same strategy has driven the company into a difficult financial situation, which the new management is trying to fix.

 

One way or another, if OCZ wants to survive, it has to resort to some unpopular measures that will hardly please the end-users. The company has already been cutting down its SSD product range, increasing the pricing of the remaining products to financially justifiable level. These changes are accompanied by massive staff cuts in every department. In other words, they do everything they can to save the company and also keep what OCZ has accumulated over the years: loyal customers, experienced engineers, intellectual property.

It means OCZ has to keep on working even better than before. The company needs a hit product that would prove its viability as a business. Fortunately, OCZ had prudently invested into developing its own SSD platform, buying out a number of firms with appropriate technologies: Indilinx, PLX Technology, SANRAD Inc. And now it’s just the right time to present the very best the company's engineers have managed to achieve. The new hope is called OCZ Vector and you may have already heard about this highly promising product over the past few months. Today, the Vector is announced officially and goes on sale.

OCZ can’t afford losing now. The Vector series is meant to uphold the company's reputation, make it profitable and make its investors believe that OCZ is worth every penny they have invested so far, and even more. That’s what makes the new product so exciting, too. And since the manufacturer is interested in as broad of a coverage as possible, we’ve got our sample of OCZ Vector a few days before the official release and have already prepared this independent review.

Indilinx Barefoot 3 Controller and OCZ Vector Series

OCZ has been trying to be different from other SSD makers with its products. It is just easier to sell innovations, especially when such innovations have impressive specs. That’s why in March 2011 OCZ bought up Indilinx, the Korean developer of SSD controllers. And in early 2012 a new period in OCZ’s SSD history began as the company abandoned all third-party controllers in favor of its proprietary developments.

OCZ’s early Indilinx-based SSDs were marketed as Octane and Vertex 4 and featured Everest and Everest 2 controllers. The latter turned out to be not completely original, though. They were based on Marvell’s controllers while Indilinx only wrote new firmware for them. That was just a temporary solution, however. While the Octane and Vertex 4 were successfully selling, people from Indilinx were busy polishing off their very own Barefoot 3 controller which had no third-party roots. It was developed on the basis of the original Indilinx Barefoot which had been quite popular in its time, particularly in OCZ's Vertex drives of the year 2009.

Thus, the new OCZ Vector is based on the Barefoot 3 controller and depends on the latter’s highs and lows. Let’s take a closer look at the chip.

Like most other modern SSD controllers, the Indilinx Barefoot 3 features a dual-core design. One core is a standard ARM Cortex but the other, called OCZ Aragon, is a specialized 400 MHz 32-bit RISC processor designed specifically for SSDs so it can execute most SSD-specific instructions in just a single clock cycle. It is this component that is expected to ensure high performance of the Barefoot 3. Today’s SSD controllers usually have two ARM cores, but Indilinx engineers prefer a specialized solution adapted for specific applications.

The Barefoot 3 is similar to other controllers otherwise. It supports SATA 6 Gbit/s and uses eight-channel connection to flash memory via ONFI or Toggle Mode interface. One to four NAND devices can work on each controller channel using interleaving. DDR2 or DDR3 cache with a capacity up to 1 GB is employed to speed up reading and writing and support garbage collection.

Considering the controller’s capabilities, OCZ might have stuffed it with the best components available such as high-performance 19 nm Toggle NAND flash and large-capacity cache in order to get a chance of producing the world’s fastest SSD with SATA3 interface. However, this scenario doesn’t work for OCZ right now. The company needs an SSD that is as profitable as possible. In other words, the new SSD must have a competitive price and a low manufacturing cost, which excludes Toggle Mode flash and other luxuries.

So, the resulting Vector features good old MLC flash memory with ONFI interface manufactured on 25 nm tech process at IMFT facilities. This is an already old type of flash memory as Intel itself has been transitioning to 20 nm flash in its SSDs. On the other hand, this memory helps lower the manufacturing cost. Moreover, trying to cut the cost even further, OCZ buys flash memory as uncut semiconductor wafers and cuts and packages it at its own facilities now.

The outcome of these cost-cutting measures will show up in OCZ’s financial reports rather than in the Vector’s price tag, though. The new series is priced at $1.1 for a gigabyte of storage, which is average compared to other SSDs. However the special hardware of the Barefoot 3 controller endows the Vector with high specs comparable to the best of competing SSDs equipped with more expensive high-speed flash memory.

The next table compares the speed specs of prominent 240/256 GB SSDs available now:

As you can see, the Vector claims to be the fastest SSD, at least theoretically. Interestingly, the OCZ products are the only ones in the table to use 25 nm flash with ONFI interface whereas the others are equipped with Toggle Mode NAND flash. Despite that, OCZ confidently touts its new SSD as the leading solution available today.

Like the Vertex 4 series, the Vector is shipped with a 5-year warranty and OCZ emphasizes that reliability was a priority during the development stage. The Vector series underwent long testing across a large network of beta testers to guarantee absence of critical errors in the controller and firmware. As we learned, this time the company utilized a completely new approach to pre-launch product testing. According to OCZ Technology, the Vector hardware design was ready a few months ago. However, they decided not to rush the product launch and perform some additional testing in order to guarantee maximum quality of the launching product. A few thousand engineering samples were sent out to beta testers and industry experts, who continuously “tortured” the drives in various configurations, on various platforms (AMD and Intel), and in different operating systems. During the intensive testing period they didn’t uncover any critical errors, so today OCZ claim they are absolutely certain that the users also won’t have any issues with the new drive. They assured us that they would continue to run the same thorough testing for all upcoming Vector firmware versions, which should make OCZ Vector not only a very fast, but also a very reliable and stable product.

Here we have to add that the internal Barefoot 3 algorithms also contribute to the long life span of the flash-memory. It features low write amplification and effective flash memory management. All of this helps OCZ guarantee that, for example, the 256 GB Vector can last through the writing of up to 36 terabytes of data. In other words, 20 gigabytes daily throughout the entire 5-year warranty period. The new level of quality assurance is also indicated by the fact that each sample of the new SSD undergoes presale testing in a thermal chamber.

At the time of its announcement the Vector series includes three models with capacities of 128, 256 and 512 gigabytes. The Barefoot 3 controller doesn’t seem to support asymmetric flash memory configurations, so we don’t expect any models with in-between capacities. The available ones cover most users’ needs, though. As for a 64 GB model, it is theoretically possible but can hardly come out considering OCZ’s intention to have products with maximum profit rate. The specifications of the Vector series models are listed in the table.

The Vector series shows a typical performance/capacity correlation. The junior model with a capacity of 128 gigabytes is somewhat slower than its higher-capacity cousins, which is true for every other modern SSD series. It is due to the difference in the number of NAND devices on each controller channel.

Our sample of the Vector drive is the most popular capacity of 256 gigabytes. We’ll talk about it in the next section.

Closer Look at OCZ Vector 256 GB SSD

We’ve received our OCZ Vector 256 GB in its retail packaging, so let's have a look at it first.

 

It is quite typical of OCZ but the Vector series is distinguished with cobalt blue. The packaging is strewn with promo slogans. The only really useful information is the storage capacity and part number of the SSD.

The box contains everything necessary and even more. Besides the SSD, there is an adapter with screws to install the 2.5-inch drive into a 3.5-inch bay, a frivolous sticker “I ♥ my SSD”, and a license for the backup utility Acronis True Image HD which can help you move all data from your old HDD to the new SSD. The Vector is the first SSD from OCZ to be shipped together with that software but top SSD makers have long been providing such software tools with their products, so there’s nothing unusual about that.

The most unusual thing is the SSD itself. The Vector is completely different from previous OCZ products. It has a steel case with a height of 7 millimeters, differing dramatically from OCZ’s earlier SSDs with flimsy plastic housings. The solid metal feels reliable and it is quite a pleasure to hold a Vector in your hand. The downside of steel is its mass, so the SSD weighs 115 grams or about twice as much as competing products with aluminum cases. You should take this into account if you need an SSD for your ultrabook. Although its form-factor (7 mm high) is compatible with slim notebooks, the Vector will make them considerably heavier.

 

The top panel is covered with a sticker that tells you the series name. The back sticker is more informative: part number, serial number and model name.

The 256 GB Vector contains a PCB that looks conventional in size and design but carries three types of unusual chips.

 

First of all, it is the Indilinx Barefoot 3 controller which is marked as IDX500M00-BC. Manufactured on 65nm technology, it has a peak heat dissipation of 2 watts. That's why it has contact with the case via a thick thermal pad.

Second, we can see 256 MB DDR3-1600 chips from Micron here. Our 256 GB Vector contains two such chips, one on each side of the PCB, so the total size of the SDRAM buffer is 512 MB. The PCB has one more place for such chip, which could be populated in the 512 GB version.

Third, there are a lot of flash memory chips: 16 in total, each with a capacity of 16 gigabytes. Marked with the OCZ logo, the chips are actually conventional MLC flash memory from Micron or Intel. Each has two 64-gigabit semiconductor dies.

The current firmware for the Barefoot 3 controller is version 1.02. Hopefully, unlike with the Vertex 4, the new SSD won’t be getting too many firmware updates in the near future. The press materials from OCZ promise that every firmware version will have passed through a long validation process, so we can hope that updates will all be appropriate and not too frequent.

The manufacturer suggests that you use the OCZ Toolbox utility to manage your SSD. Besides updating firmware, it lets you perform a Secure Erase and view SMART attributes. The latter feature isn't quite useful with the Vector because the number of accessible attributes is limited. Moreover, some key parameters like Host Writes or Total NAND Programming Count may change spontaneously. Hopefully, this problem will be solved with firmware updates.

Testbed Configuration

For our today’s SSD test session we put together a system on an Intel H67 based mainboard. This chipset provides support for two SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, which we use to connect the tested SSDs.

Taking into account that OCZ Vector is shooting for the very top of the SSD hierarchy, we decided to compare this promising newcomer with the fastest SSDs we currently have on hand. As a result, the new OCZ Vector will be competing against products based on SandForce controller (Intel SSD 520 and Corsair Force GS), new Corsair SSDs on LAMD LM87800 controller (Neutron GTX and Neutron), our irreplaceable OCZ Vertex 4 on Indilinx Everest 2 controller, very impressive proprietary Samsung SSD 830, and Plextor SSDs on Marvell 9174 controller (M5S) and Marvell 9187 controller (M5 Pro). All above mentioned drives used synchronous flash memory.  In particular, Corsair Neutron, Intel SSD 520, OCZ Vertex 4 and Plextor M5S use 25 nm IMFT memory with ONFI-interface. And Corsair Force GS, Corsair Neutron GTX, Plextor M5 Pro and Samsung 830 use Toggle Mode MLC NAND manufactured using 2x nm or 19 nm technology.

Overall our testbed was configured as follows:

Performance

Random and Sequential Read/Write

We use CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1 benchmark to test the random- and sequential read and write speed. This benchmark is convenient to work with as it can measure the speed of an SSD with both incompressible random and fully compressible recurring data. This feature is important for testing SSDs based on SF-2281/2282 controller, which tries to compress the data before writing it into the flash-memory. So, there are two numbers in the diagrams below that reflect the maximum and minimum SSD speed. The real-life performance of an SSD is going to be in-between those two numbers depending on how effective the controller data compression is.

Note that the performance tests in this section refer to SSDs in their “Fresh Out-of-Box” state (FOB). No degradation could have taken place yet.

It’s getting harder and harder to develop high-speed SSDs that would stand out among the competition. Moreover, modern SSDs have got so fast that they already feel constrained by today's SATA 6 Gbit/s platforms. It is the SATA bandwidth rather than their design that seems to limit the performance of modern SSDs at sequential operations. That's why SSD controller developers have shifted their focus to improving performance at random-address operations but there's another limiting factor here. The platform’s CPU may just be not fast enough to generate disk requests at the same rate as the SSD can execute them.

That said, OCZ has indeed come up with a highly promising solution. Compared to the other modern products, the Vector features a high speed of sequential writing and also offers good performance with a long queue of random-address requests. These are the parameters in which today's SSDs can hope to be different from their competitors. Therefore, the Vector’s results in the synthetic benchmark CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1 suggest that we’re dealing with a truly impressive SATA3 product.

There is only one nuance that you should know about. OCZ Vertex 4 drives were found to slow down when writing data continuously. When more than half their capacity gets filled with data, their performance drops dramatically. Fortunately, this is just a temporary problem which disappears in a few minutes. It is a just a side effect of the technology employed in OCZ drives to improve write speed in real-life applications.

This technology is employed in the Vector series, too. That’s why the graph of sequential write speed is the same as with the Vertex 4 if we use the whole capacity of the SSD:

So we see the Vector slow down after half its capacity if filled by continuous writing. The situation is rather unrealistic, though. Moreover, the speed returns to normal after a brief pause for the SSD to do some housekeeping. Any performance hits of this kind cannot be observed with the Vector in real-life applications.

This can be easily confirmed by a simple test with AS SSD version 1.6.4237.30508. Here is the speed of a clean 256 GB Vector:

After 128 GB of data is written to it (about 54% of the full capacity) in a single continuous session, we see the expected performance hit:

However, after a few minutes’ pause, the Vector is as fast as new.

 

Degradation and Steady-State Performance

Unfortunately, SSDs are not always as fast as in their “fresh” state. In most cases their performance goes down after some time and in real life we deal with completely different write speeds than what we see on the diagrams in the previous chapter of our review. The reason for this phenomenon is the following: as the SSD runs out of free pages in the flash memory, its controller has to clear memory page blocks before saving data into them, which causes substantial delays. Although, modern SSD controllers can alleviate the performance drop by erasing unused flash memory pages ahead of time, when idle. They use two techniques for that: idle-time garbage collection and TRIM.

Of course, users are more interested in the consistent performance of their SSDs over a long period of time rather than the peak speed they are going to see only during the initial short-term usage period, while the drive is still “fresh”. The SSD makers, however, declare the speed characteristics of “fresh” SSDs for marketing reasons. That’s why we decided to test the performance hit that occurs when a “fresh” SSD becomes a “steady” one.

To get a complete picture of SSD performance degradation we ran special tests based on the SNIA SSSI TWG PTS (Solid State Storage Performance Test Specification) methodology. The main idea of this approach is to measure write speed consecutively in four different cases. First we measure the “fresh” SSD speed. Then we measure the speed after the SSD has been fully filled with data twice. The third test occurs after a 30-minute break during which the controller can partially restore performance by running the idle-time garbage collection. And finally, we measure the speed after issuing a TRIM command.

We ran the tests in synthetic IOMeter 1.1.0 RC1 benchmark, where we measured random write speed when working with 4 KB data blocks aligned to flash memory pages at 32 requests queue depth. The test data were pseudo-random. The following diagram shows the history of the relative speed changes, where 100% refers to the SSD performance in “fresh-out-of-box” state.

The performance degradation problem is sinking into the past along with SandForce controllers. If the OS supports the TRIM command (which works normally in all modern versions of Windows and Linux), the performance of modern SSDs doesn’t deteriorate below the out-of-box level. The same goes for the OCZ Vector: it supports TRIM without any problems.

If the OS doesn’t have TRIM (e.g. Windows XP and, in some cases, Mac OS X), the writing performance unavoidably worsens, making garbage collection algorithms important. Such algorithms are implemented best in SSDs with Marvell and LAMD controllers whereas the Vector with its new Indilinx Barefoot 3 controller can only get back 40% of its original write speed.

Since the characteristics of most SSDs do change once they transition from fresh out-of-the-box state into steady state, we measure their performance once again using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1 benchmark. The diagrams below show the obtained results. We use random data writing and measure only performance during writes, because read speed remains constant.

Considering that we carry out our tests in Windows 7, which supports TRIM, we can see substantial changes in the speed of SandForce-based SSDs only. And we can again marvel at the brilliant performance of the new OCZ Vector which takes one of the top places in each of the three diagrams.

Futuremark PCMark 7

The popular PCMark 7 contains an individual disk subsystem benchmark. It is not a synthetic test, but is based on real-life applications. This benchmark reproduces typical disk usage scenarios and measures how fast they are completed in popular applications. Moreover, the disk access commands are not executed as a steady uninterrupted flow, but in a more realistic manner – with certain pauses caused by the need to process the data. The benchmark generates an overall disk subsystem performance rating as well as speed readings in MB/s in individual usage scenarios. Note that the absolute speed in these scenarios is not too high because of the above mentioned pauses between individual input/output operations. In other words, PCMark 7 shows you the speed of the disk subsystem from the application’s point of view. Numbers like that show us not only the pure performance of an SSD, but mostly how big of a performance gain a certain SSD can guarantee in real life.

We ran PCMark 7 on “steady” SSDs, which is what they are going to be in actual computer systems most of the time. Their performance in this case is affected not only by their controller or flash memory speed but also by the efficiency of their internal algorithms that fight performance degradation.

All modern high-speed SSDs are close to each other in Futuremark PCMark 7, which means that it’s going to be hard to feel any difference between flagship products from different brands in real-life usage scenarios. We can note that the OCZ Vector, although among the leaders, is inferior to the SandForce-based SSDs as well as to the Plextor M5 Pro which has been considered the fastest consumer-class SSD up till now. On the other hand, the Vector is faster than OCZ's previous solution Vertex 4 and makes a worthy addition to the company’s product line-up.

Now let’s check out the individual tests to get a more detailed picture of what our SSDs are capable of under various types of operational load:

The diagrams show that the OCZ Vector is a very fast SSD but can be slower than the Plextor flagship in certain situations. As for the SandForce-based SSDs, PCMark favors them by using compressible files. That’s why the high results of the Intel SSD 520 and Corsair Force GS should be regarded with some skepticism.

Intel NAS Performance Toolkit

Intel NASPT is another disk sub-system test that uses real-life usage scenarios. Like PCMark 7, Intel NASPT reproduces predefined disk activity traces and measures how fast they are executed. However, the default traces are designed for network attached storage devices rather than for SSDs. Therefore during our test session we replace them with the specially developed SSD Benchmarking Suite which offers more relevant usage scenarios such as compressing and decompressing files, compiling large projects, copying files and folders, loading 3D game levels, installing software, batch-processing photos, searching a digital library for data, mass-launching applications, and transcoding video.

Like PCMark 7, this benchmark gives us a true-to-life illustration of disk subsystem performance. Here the SSDs are again tested in their “steady” state.

Intel NASPT offers a more adequate picture of real-life SSD performance, in our opinion, and it thinks that the OCZ Vector is even faster than the Plextor M5 Pro. Now we can be absolutely sure that OCZ has come up with one of the world’s fastest consumer-class SSD. Many remarkable products now look just mediocre compared to the OCZ Vector and the Plextor M5 Pro.

Besides the average benchmark score, we would also like to offer you the results of individual usage scenarios, which will show where OCZ Vector can really shine. Note that the data-transfer rate is higher than the SATA III interface bandwidth in some subtests. That’s because INASPT is a high-level test that uses standard Windows functions to access the disk subsystem. As a result, the OS caching mechanisms also affect the results.

It is all thanks to the technology for improving write performance which was first employed in the Vertex 4. Now, using the higher computing power of the new controller, it delivers even more impressive results with the Vector. The latter is one of the best SSDs in every scenario that requires high writing performance and also confidently good elsewhere. All in all, the Vector is suitable for any usage scenario.

File Copying

We use AS SSD version 1.6.4237.30508 test to benchmark the speed of copying files within a single partition the size of the whole SSD. The SSDs are tested in their steady state.

It is no wonder that the OCZ Vector is superior to its competitors in file copy tests. Its good read speed and excellent write speed, combined with the high computing power of the Barefoot 3 controller, help the new SSD leave its opponents far behind.

Conclusion

OCZ Technology is currently in a pretty challenging financial situation. However, luckily, everything they have been going through lately didn’t affect the productivity of the company engineers. OCZ Technology’s RND team managed to design a promising product, which has a very good shot at leadership in the consumer SSD market. The new Vector offers unprecedented performance and competes successfully against the best contemporary SSDs, especially in those usage scenarios that require writing large amounts of data.

I have to say that Vector’s performance looks particularly impressive considering that it is built with popular synchronous flash-memory manufactured using 25 nm process. It means that Vector owes its high speed exclusively to the Barefoot 3 controller, which allows manufacturing not only very fast, but also relatively inexpensive solid state drives. This is exactly why this new product can potentially improve OCZ’s current situation. Vector’s production cost is low, but the manufacturer has every reason to position it as a high-end product. Especially, since attractive performance is not the only feature of an expensive product: Vector comes with 5-year warranty and is bundled with very interesting accessories including Acronis True Image HD utility.

In other words, the consumer qualities of the new OCZ Vector put it on the same level as Plextor M5 Pro and Samsung 840 Pro (though we haven’t yet reviewed this drive on our site). However, the price of the new OCZ product is considerably more appealing, which may become a determinative factor in Vector’s favor. In this case it is crucial to ensure that there won’t be any critical errors or endless firmware updates that could potentially ruin the awesome impression from this product. Time will show what happens, but this time the probability of any potential problems seems to be really low. OCZ performed extensive pre-sale testing of the new Vector drives and promised to take good care of their users and fans and not to subject them to any shockers.

Summing up all the results of our today’s test session we are proud to award the new OCZ Technology Vector drive with our Editor’s Choice title. OCZ Vector is one of the fastest SSDs with SATA 6 Gbps interface with unprecedented market potential.

Some time ago we started to fill in a summary table with test results of various SSDs. It contains basic hardware information about the tested SSDs and allows to quickly determine the general position of a particular model among its competitors in terms of relative performance: