Date: February 20, 2013
Author(s): Robert Tanner
It’s the attack of the SandForce clones! Can any heroic atomic-powered SSD come to save us? Does Corsair’s Neutron have what it takes to rescue our PC in distress? Will the hordes of the positively-charged solid-state armies be neutralized in time? Tune in this week (or now) to find out!
It isn’t every day tech writers get surprised, but heads were certainly turned (including mine) when Corsair announced its 4th generation SSDs based upon the controller from some unknown controller company. Yet, apparently this “unknown” company has been producing and selling both disk and flash-based drives in the enterprise market for years, ever since its inception in 2004. The Neutron just happens to be the first consumer-focused SSD to feature a Link_A_Media Devices’ chip housed inside. Reportedly, Corsair has signed an exclusive distribution agreement and will be the only company for the time-being to offer SSDs powered by a LAMD controller.
The launch of the Neutron family utilizing an unheard-of controller was an especially bold move from Corsair, yet it is also welcome to see. Currently, SandForce SSDs are still by far the most prevalent type on the market and there simply are not many publicly-available controller alternatives that exist beyond Marvell and Samsung for performance SSDs. Even Intel has migrated to using SandForce in its main consumer SSDs. Despite this, Corsair has somehow managed to pull the metaphorical rabbit out of a hat, launching not just a completely new choice in SSDs, but a new premium offering that is capable of hanging with the best-performing SSDs currently on the market. This is no small feat.
Corsair’s Neutron SSD family is comprised of the Neutron and Neutron GTX varieties. Both models feature the same LM87800 controller at the core, with the only difference being price and the choice of NAND flash housed inside. In addition to types like MLC and TLC, NAND typically is offered in asynchronous, synchronous, and toggle-based varieties with performance (and cost) increasing as one moves up the chain, with toggle-based NAND currently at the top. The Neutron makes use of Micron’s 25nm synchronous flash, while the GTX goes full bore with Toshiba’s 24nm toggle flash.
|Corsair Neutron GTX Series|
|120 GB||240 GB||480 GB|
|Sequential Read||550 MB/s||555MB/s|
|Sequential Write||330 MB/s||470 MB/s||511 MB/s|
|Maximum Random Reads||80,000 IOPS||85,000 IOPS||90,000 IOPS|
|Maximum Random Writes||90,000 IOPS||85,000 IOPS|
|NAND||24nm Toshiba Toggle NAND|
|Interface||SATA 3.0 6Gbit/s|
|Power Consumption||0.6W Idle / 4.6W Writes|
The model we are testing here is the 240GB Neutron GTX, although it’s worth highlighting that all models of the Neutron family feature a full five-year warranty. Both offer capacities of 120GB and 240GB, although only the GTX family includes a model up to 480GB. In line with recent trends, Corsair’s SSDs feature the thinner 7mm height that has become more popular over the traditional 9mm height for 2.5” form-factor drives. All models ship with a single-piece metal tray adapter for easy mounting in a standard 3.5” drive bay.
Overall specifications look excellent for a high-performance SATA 3.0 solid-state drive, especially with that already mentioned essential five-year warranty. One cautionary note though would be the power numbers. We do not have the equipment to check for power consumption, but the reported 4.6W load number is on the high side. After some checking around, the actual idle power consumption is also on the higher range of the spectrum. That isn’t to say these drives are unusually power-hungry as there certainly are worse offenders out there, but it is worth pointing out that these drives will consume a little more power than a typical laptop hard drive.
At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate and real-world applicable as possible. We list most of the steps and processes involved in setting up and conducting our benchmarking process below, but in the interests of brevity we can’t mention every last detail. If there is any pertinent information that we’ve inadvertently omitted or you have any thoughts, suggestions, or critiques, then please feel free to email us or post directly in our forums. This site exists for readers like you and we value your input.
The table below lists the hardware used in our current storage-testing machine, which remains unchanged throughout all of our testing, with the obvious exception of the storage device. Each drive used for the sake of comparison is also listed here.
|Techgage Solid-State Drive Test System|
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600 – 3.80GHz (Locked) Quad-Core|
|Motherboard||ASUS P8P67 Deluxe|
|Memory||4GB Kingston DDR3-2133|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 5770|
|Storage||Hitachi 7200RPM 2TB Hard Drive|
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB
Crucial m4 256GB
Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB
Kingston SSDNow V300 240GB
OCZ Vector 256GB
OCZ Vertex 4 256GB
|Power Supply||Antec NeoHE 550W|
|Et cetera||Dell 2407WFP (1920×1200)|
Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64-bit
Our Windows 7 Desktop for SSD Testing
When preparing our SSD testbed for benchmarking we follow these guidelines:
Windows 7 Optimizations
For our new Sandy Bridge storage testbed we have migrated to using test images for our drives. All drives are imaged with the cloned test image to ensure all drivers, programs, and settings remain identical for testing purposes. We feel disk cloning software and SSD controller technology has matured to the point where potential issues such as non-aligned sectors are no longer a potential issue.
For testing, we run all tests five times dropping the highest and lowest results, then take the average of the middle three. And who said that college statistics class wouldn’t prove useful? If any anomalous results are seen the test will be run again. Given the complexities of modern computers, and especially today’s operating systems and the software that runs on them, we feel this provides the most accurate results possible.
Finally, we are seeking to constantly improve and expand upon our SSD testing methodology. We are always actively seeking real-world workload scenarios that are bottlenecked by hard drives, so if you have any suggestions whatsoever or there is a program you would like to see included in our SSD content, then please drop by our forums and let us know! We are always looking to expand our SSD benchmarks and provide more useful and real-world results, and not just synthetic numbers.
Futuremark’s PCMark benchmarking suite should need no introduction; it has been a staple of PC benchmarks for the better half of a decade. It includes over 25 individual workloads designed to measure all aspects of system performance and gives individual scores in each test as well as an overall system performance score for easy system comparisons.
PCMark 7 offers a more accurate measure of performance as compared to its predecessor, PCMark Vantage. The storage scoring metrics especially were significantly re-tuned and optimized with SSDs in mind to give a more balanced disk subsystem score.
With PCMark 7, the Neutron GTX performs admirably, turning in an overall score that places it directly between both SandForce drives in our graphs. One thing is clear though, and that is the LAMD controller clearly has the capability to offer a level of performance that puts it in a league with the best SSDs currently on the market.
Originally developed by Intel – and since given to the open-source community – Iometer (pronounced “eyeawmeter”, like thermometer) is one of the best storage-testing applications available, for a couple of reasons. The first, and primary, is that it’s completely customizable, and if you have a specific workload you need to test a drive with, you can easily accomplish it here. Secondly, it bypasses the Windows disk subsystem entirely, meaning it bypasses the OS drivers and writes directly to the storage media. This has important implications, such as it means Windows 7 cannot correctly align Iometer to match the SSD or HDD sector alignment.
We have updated our test suite to the latest stable 1.10 rc1 build of Iometer, which was released in December, 2010. This version makes some changes to be aware of; specifically, it gives the option for three types of data sets used during testing. 2006 and earlier versions used a pseudo-random dataset for testing, while the 1.10 build will default to a “repeating bytes” test pattern. A full random test mode was also added. To avoid giving SandForce drives an unfair advantage (they rely on data compression to achieve their performance), we will stick to the pseudo-random test pattern for all of our testing.
We have configured Iometer for correct 4KB disk alignment using a single 8GB test file from within Windows, meaning they are acting as the host OS drive with no other drives in the system. We run individual random 4KB read and write tests at a queue depth of 3 and again at 32. Then we run the 128KB sequential read & write tests using a queue depth of 1. In addition, all drives are in a dirty state prior to testing – this means results will not be comparable to advertised manufacturer results. Our goal is to measure end-user performance under real-world conditions, and so our testing reflects typical SSD performance after it has been used for some length of time in a system. Each test pattern is run for 5 minutes to achieve an average result.
In addition, we have created three Iometer disk usage scenarios that should roughly approximate database, file server, and workstation usage patterns. These scenarios are run individually for 10 minutes each within an 8GB file on the drive, which is an unusually harsh scenario for any sort of SSD. Drives that are able to offer better sustained performance over time and those that favor certain file size accesses will do well here. All three tests are configured for a queue depth of 32 to show which drives are best capable of dealing with heavy workload scenarios.
“IOPS” is simply the measure of performance relative to a certain disk access size, specifically 4KB or 512 bytes, or any size desired. Typically with SSDs when speaking about IOPS it is referred to on the assumption of 4KB accesses. With this in mind, it is easy to convert between IOPS and MB/s. Iometer provides both types of results to us and for the sake of concise graphs, brevity, and easily understandable results, we have elected to use MB/s for the 4KB and 128KB tests. For reference: IOPS = (MBps Throughput / KB per IO) * 1024 and MBps = (IOPS * KB per IO) / 1024.
I was admittedly eager to see how the LM87800 controller held up in our array of Iometer tests, as Iometer has the distinction of being the best program for highlighting key strengths and weaknesses of any SSD controller. Let’s just say, the Neutron doesn’t disappoint.
In the read tests the Neutron GTX manages to top the chart with sequential reads of approximately 90MB/s over the next best in our graph. It also offers a random 4KB read performance at a QD of 3 that is 37% higher than even the Vector. However, when moving up to a queue depth of 32 it gives up its performance lead, showing that the drive is tuned mostly for lower QD loads typical of consumer desktop use.
When moving to write performance the Neutron places second in sequential writes, although it is edged back to third in the random write portions of the tests. As for the scenario results, it slots in the middle of our graphs with some favoring toward the File Server test.
Overall this is very good performance, and Corsair is clearly onto something here. While it doesn’t deliver a clean sweep in our Iometer testing, the Neutron GTX proves it offers extremely strong performance in sequential reads and writes, and respectable performance in the random portions of our tests. In other words, it doesn’t compromise any single facet of SSD performance in order to deliver at times some of the best results we have seen to date, proving it’s a well-balanced competitor to the best SSDs currently on the market. Not bad at all for a previously unknown SSD controller.
As the name implies, AS SSD is a nifty little program written exclusively for solid-state drives. It can still be run on a mechanical hard drive just for fun, but be warned: what takes a few minutes on an SSD will require the better part of an hour on an HDD! It is freely available for download here.
This handy tool measures sequential reads and writes in addition to the important 4KB random reads and writes, then ranks the results with a final score for quick comparison with other SSDs. In addition to the main test there is a secondary benchmark that simulates the type of data transferred for ISO, Program, and Game files. We selected this program for its precision, ability to generate large file sizes on-the-fly, and because it is written to bypass Windows 7’s automatic caching system.
Second only to Iometer, AS SSD is one of the best tools for distinguishing between multiple SSDs while providing a scoring system for easier comparisons.
As before, the Neutron GTX trades places with the two other top-performing SSDs in both tests, while delivering strong performance in all four aspects of SSD performance: sequential reads & writes, and random reads & writes.
Although they end up having no discernible impact to the end user, it is worth noting that the Neutron is able to match the previously unmatched access latencies of the Vector, which is no small feat. In the copy tests, performance in all three scenarios gives it a solid second-place finish. Finally, in the final scores section, AS SSD awards the Neutron with our third score over 1,000 points. Although it receives a higher score for Reads, it is edged out by a slightly lower score in Writes which keeps the Neutron veritably tied with the Vertex 4. What’s also worth mentioning though is that the LAMD controller is able to offer this level of performance without any sort of data compression involved. This means consumers can expect more consistent high-performance regardless of how compressible the data in use actually is.
HD Tune is still primarily an HDD benchmark, but we include it as an alternative for those consumers that prefer it for one reason or another. The free version does not perform write tests, but otherwise is available for free here.
Similarly, performance under HD Tune is very good with Corsair’s drive, offering the best Maximum and Average read transfer results, and second highest minimum transfer result. That said, results are more mixed with HD Tune’s random transfer tests.
Finally, we reach the first of our real-world tests where there are no unusual testing or scoring algorithms to leave us scratching our heads, just simple tests to see how an SSD changes actual system performance.
For the File Transfer test we took a 4.5GB compressed archive and measured how much time was required to transfer the file to another folder on the same drive. Keep in mind that with a hard disk, this requires the actuator arm to seek back and forth between the source and destination sectors on the disk platter, with the destination sectors often not sequentially aligned. In contrast, any SSD can concurrently perform read and write operations simultaneously on any NAND chip without regard to spatial considerations of bits strewn randomly around a disk platter, which gives them a large advantage here.
In line with the chart-topping sequential results we saw in Iometer, it stands to reason the Neutron is able to deliver the second best transfer time we have seen to date.
Either you’ve heard of FLAC, or it is an integral part of your digital life. But iTunes and Apple devices do not support FLAC files, leaving those with discerning ears forced to use Apple’s Lossless codec. dBpoweramp makes it possible to convert between them utilizing as many threads as are available to the system.
In this test, we take 10 albums amounting to 4GB of FLAC files and convert them to Apple’s lossless format. This creates exactly 3.96GB of new data. This scenario is even more applicable for those users with six or more physical CPU cores available, because as the core count increases, the more the storage system will become the actual bottleneck. Our test rig is limited to only a quad-core processor, but even then we can see clear differences amongst the various contenders.
Corsair’s atomic-named SSD delivers the best result we have seen in dBpoweramp so far, shaving two seconds off the Vector’s already impressive time.
Real-world results are surprisingly hard to come by when testing SSDs. It is extremely easy to showcase just how much faster any SSD on the market is compared to even a modern mechanical disk drive. However, when we try to compare SSD to SSD, differences can amount to just a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, often well inside the margin of error (and human reflexes), making any results obtained meaningless.
We are always eager to hear about any demanding storage workloads our readers may have, but in an effort to get around this problem, we have put together three batch test files that target three levels of intensity.
Firstly we have our light batch file, which we drop into the Windows Startup folder. Windows 7 will execute and load various programs and commands as it boots, making it perhaps the most easily pertinent of our three tests. Almost everyone has an array of programs that starts with their OS, ranging from background applications like anti-virus to programs like a browser or music player.
This batch file will load four websites in Firefox, start Photoshop CS5 and load five 5MB or greater images, and load 15MB of data in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents. Several background utilities will also load; a PDF file and compressed file are opened for viewing, and of course, since nobody likes to work without listening to some music, we have our favorite 56MB FLAC file playing the entire time. Obviously, all of this takes place while Windows 7 itself is still loading. We start timing from the moment the machine is powered on to the moment the last program finishes loading – and it isn’t as long as you might think. (We provide raw cold boot times on the next page for direct comparison).
Our medium batch test is similar although we apply the use of timers to space apart the commands. Instead of booting, time begins from the moment we execute the batch file until the moment all tasks have completed. The medium test also consists of the following:
To keep things simple, the heavy batch test is identical to the medium test in all respects, save for one important addition. Computer users coming from HDDs will be familiar with the slowdown or even molasses-like feeling that occurs from having an anti-virus or anti-malware scan running in the background. SSDs scoff at this sort of thing however, and the typical SSD user wouldn’t think twice about running an anti-virus scan at the same time as playing a fullscreen game since framerates will remain relatively unaffected.
The heavy test will capitalize on this by running an anti-virus scan from Microsoft Security Essentials on a static, unchanging 5.1GB test folder that contains 19,748 files and 2,414 sub-folders copied from the Program Files directory. Also worth noting is that because the medium and heavy batch tests are identical save for the AV scan, results between them are directly comparable.
Light batch results are fairly mixed, but for the medium batch time the Neutron is able to tie its rival competitor. It is only after moving to the demanding heavy batch test that we can see what the difference those high queue depth optimizations make, with the Neutron giving up some ground here. Even so, it is still 20 seconds quicker than the aging m4, with the results pacing the V4. As we saw in Iometer, the LM87800 controller is optimized best with lower queue depth workloads that are typical of any desktop or laptop, and that explains the stark difference between the stellar medium batch times and the demanding heavy batch times.
For the boot test, we perform a cold boot with the stopwatch starting the moment the power button is pressed until the last systray icon has finished loading. A large number of factors can change how fast a computer starts; whether the motherboard uses a BIOS or the newer UEFI; if a RAID controller has to be initialized; to delay timers or other motherboard optimizations. In other words, individual results will vary depending on the system hardware.
Although boot times are bottlenecked by the motherboard at this stage, Corsair’s Neutron shaves off a fraction of a second just so it can take the top spot in our graph.
SSDs deliver some of the most benefits to games. Not only can the game load significantly faster so users can hurry up and wait to get through various advertisement screens, but they also boost level or map load times. For games where player immersion into the new world is important, the difference between 15 and 25 seconds can seem huge when waiting for the next part of the level or world to load.
For our new regimen we chose Portal 2 and Civilization V. Portal 2 is already a very well optimized game, but it’s immersive, so we time how long it takes to load the sp_a2.bts6 custscene. With Civilization V’s recent overhaul to game storage files to help decrease load times, and the new option to disable the intro movie trailer, it becomes possible to time how long it takes to start the game.
Game load times are what we would expect with the atomic SSD, or dare we say, neutral.
LAMD’s LM87800 controller is a very well-rounded chip. It offers balanced random read and writes while delivering some of the best sequential read and write performance we have seen to date. The LAMD controller performs at its best at lower queue depths, which are the kind typically seen on consumer systems. When the queue depth is raised to 32, the LM87800 controller isn’t able to capitalize as well as some other SSDs on the additional parallelism available, but at the current performance level it offers, it would just be icing on the cake.
There simply isn’t any glaring issue or comprise made in the performance of LAMD’s controller. Our only criticism would be the reported power consumption under load. While it isn’t the highest we’ve ever seen for an SSD, it is still higher than we would like. It doesn’t make it a problem for laptop use, but it may shave a few minutes off several hours of battery life.
It is worth reiterating again that the Neutron’s controller does not rely on any sort of compression to achieve its performance. So unlike SandForce drives, performance will be more consistent regardless of the data being worked on. We also observed during our benchmarking that the Neutron employs a very aggressive garbage collection algorithm. As is typical of any SSD, after imaging the drive performance dipped for the first quarter of the drive, but on subsequent runs of HD Tune we observed the performance line rising back to its original 400MB/s level. All good SSDs have their own versions of automatic garbage collection and NAND management software, but the Neutron’s is certainly one of the more aggressively tuned varieties we have seen. Neutron users can expect performance to stay fairly stable over the lifespan of the SSD.
All-in-all, Corsair’s Neutron family has proven itself to be a worthy performance successor to the SandForce platform. Pricing is surprisingly competitive as well, equal to the slower SandForce offerings which makes it significantly cheaper than its Vector competition. Oddly although the Neutron is supposed to slot in under the Neutron GTX, in both cases the GTX is either the same price or even cheaper! As always, prices change constantly, so we advise consumers to double-check – although we honestly wouldn’t complain too much about getting a Neutron GTX for the price of the Neutron!
Corsair has differentiated itself in the SSD market. No longer is it going to compete amongst a litany of similar rebadged SSD clones, but instead, the company decided to rise above the crowd by creating an SSD featuring an unheard-of controller that can offer performance equal to the best SSDs out there. Even better, with Corsair reportedly signing an exclusive deal, it has ensured the Neutron series will be the only SSDs of its type on the market for some time. We have to give Corsair mad props for such a bold move, but it clearly has worked. And in a just-as-gutsy a move, Corsair decided to stand by this new SSD by including a full five-year warranty on all Neutron and Neutron GTX models. With that in mind, and with the surprisingly competitive pricing, we have to give Corsair an Editor’s Choice award for its Neutron GTX. Sometimes being bold can be a good thing.
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB SSD
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