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OCZ Vector 256GB SSD Review

Date: January 14, 2013
Author(s): Robert Tanner

Vector is OCZ’s first SSD release since the ushering in of a new CEO and fresh perspective on its direction. It’s also the first SSD to come equipped with both in-house firmware and controller. In effect, OCZ has built its Vector SSD from the ground up with its rich internal resources – has it paid off?



Introduction

It was nearing the end of 2008; Intel had just released its widely-successful X25-M SSDs into the market. At the time, these SSD delivered the best performance, the best reliability, and the best sustained performance without any of the prominent shortcomings of the JMicron controller-based SSDs that followed rapidly on its heels. Even six months later, no drives were anything close to competitive with the X25-M. That is, until the OCZ Vertex came along.

The Vertex was the first competitive consumer SSD to compete on similar performance at a lower price point, and inside was the controller from a relatively unknown South Korean startup called Indilinx. Initially, performance still left something to be desired, but after months of firmware updates the resulting Barefoot controller was not only stable, but saw significant performance increases in random IOPS. That made it a real competitor to the then-$595 80GB Intel SSD.

OCZ Vector SSD

That’s the story behind the Barefoot 3 controller and its name. The Barefoot 2 only saw limited use in the OCZ Vertex Plus SSD, as by that point in time another relatively unknown startup called SandForce blew into the scene and upended the SSD market in a big way. While many enthusiasts assumed Indilinx was down and out, unable to contend with the rapidly scaling performance of each successive generation of major SSD controller launches, OCZ Technology (at the time, primarily a memory DRAM company) knew otherwise and made the bold decision to outright buy the company.

The Barefoot 3 is the first true culmination of that buyout, as while OCZ drives like the Octane and Vertex 4 both used Indilinx firmware, they still utilized Marvell silicon for the controller. As the break from the Vertex name hints, the Vector is the first top-to-bottom Indilinx SSD since the original Vertex.

OCZ Vector SSD

The Vector makes a clean break in more ways than with just the name. The drive itself is only 7mm tall, as opposed to the typical 9mm of other SSDs. Past OCZ drives sometimes featured badly-fitted molded plastic lids, but the Vector surprisingly, even refreshingly uses a heavy all-aluminum housing that exudes durability. There’s a MacBook Pro analogy in there somewhere. Also, instead of the basic disk transfer tool, the Vector comes bundled with a key to activate Acronis True Image for disk-cloning use.

OCZ Vector SSD

OCZ Vector SSD

Beyond the Barefoot 3 itself, the drive utilizes 25nm MLC NAND from IMFT in the typical 8-channel arrangement, with the 256GB model packing a pair of 256MB low-power DDR3 chips for cache. Also something newly-introduced with the Vector is defined warranty expectations. The Vector comes with a 5-year warranty or a guarantee of 36.5TB of disk writes – whichever comes first. Some SandForce drives in particular from OCZ would begin to throttle disk write speed in order to preserve the NAND lifespan in the event of extremely abusive wear, but this time OCZ is letting consumers use the Vector however they wish. The company simply states that the drive is guaranteed for 36.5TB and anything beyond this point will annul the warranty.

36.5TB works out to be 20GB worth of writes per day, every day, for five years. Except for fringe cases, enterprise use, or simple abuse, 20GB of writes per day is considerably more than what a heavy computer enthusiast would use on average over any given week. We have to give OCZ some kudos here for being upfront with these details and applaud them for doing so.

 OCZ Vector Solid-State Drive
 128 GB256 GB512 GB
Sequential Read550 MB/s
Sequential Write400 MB/s530 MB/s
4K Random Read (QD32)90,000 IOPS100,000 IOPS
4K Random Write (QD32)95,000 IOPS
NAND25nm Intel MLC Flash
InterfaceSATA 3.0 6Gbit/s
Power ConsumptionIdle: 0.9W Active: 2.25W
Warranty5 Years or 36.5 TB
Package ContentsSingle-piece metal 3.5” tray adapter
Acronis True Image Cloning software key
I <3 my SSD sticker
Mounting screws
Warranty & Acronis documentation

We won’t rehash the performance specs given in the table, but suffice to say, on paper these are some of the highest IOPS ratings we have seen yet for any SSD. Even so, OCZ has made a point to emphasize that it didn’t just strive for performance with the Vector, but set out to deliver good sustained performance. All SSDs will lose their factory-new performance as they are used; this is normal. On modern SSDs this performance drop is not tangible and it will reach a point of equilibrium once it the NAND reaches saturation (meaning all the NAND was written to at least once, not that the SSD itself is full).

On the next page, you can review our testing methodologies along with our test system. Immediately after, we’ll get started with our performance results.

Test System & Methodology

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
ProcessorIntel Core i7-2600 – 3.80GHz (Locked) Quad-Core
MotherboardASUS P8P67 Deluxe
Memory4GB Kingston DDR3-2133
GraphicsAMD Radeon HD 5770
StorageHitachi 7200RPM 2TB Hard Drive
Crucial m4 256GB
Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB
OCZ Vector 256GB
OCZ Vertex 4 256GB
Power SupplyAntec NeoHE 550W
CoolingNoctua DH-14
Et ceteraDell 2407WFP (1920×1200)
Lite-on DVD-RW
Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64-bit

Our Windows 7 Desktop for SSD Testing

When preparing our SSD testbed for benchmarking we follow these guidelines:

General 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.

Synthetic: PCMark 7

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.

PCMark 7 Professional

Overall, the Vector is victorious in these benchmarks, edging out the overall system score as well as taking the top spot in the storage subsystem score. The Vector took top spot in every individual test, save the video editing and game loading systems, which tend to favor SandForce-based drives.

Synthetic: Iometer

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.

The Vector does extremely well in both read and write sequential tests. Although it’s edged out in the 4KB read test at a lower queue depth, once we increase the queue depth to 32 it lives up to its eye-popping 100,000 IOPS claim by delivering the best random read 4KB performance, almost at a level equaling the sequential performance of its Vertex 4 predecessor. That… is no small feat. Write speeds range from a small improvement to a nice boost in sequential writes over the V4. Overall, we would rate the Vector as a clear successor to the similar Vertex 4.

The Vector takes a close second in the Database scenario to its sibling, but holds the top spot in both the File Server and Workstation categories, with good read and write performance in all three tests. The Vector may be a consumer SSD, but this sort of test shows that it is clearly capable of handling a wide-range of disk operations including intensive enterprise and hosting applications.

Synthetic: AS SSD

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.

4K-Thrd is similar to the 4K test but spawns multiple requests; basically this tests how good the SSD is at handling multiple file actions at once, aka queue depth. Queue depth wasn’t an issue with HDDs as they were generally too slow to handle more than a few simultaneous IOPS at a time (as illustrated in our Iometer results), but with SSDs it is important to have a good controller with a high queue depth capability for the best, most consistent performance.

Once again we can see the Vertex 4 is slightly faster at a lower queue depth with 4KB Writes , but once the controller is given additional simultaneous IO (a higher queue depth) it is able to extract better parallelism and resumes the lead in both 4K-Thrd tests. Read performance is particularly strong for the Vector, although it also manages to leave a wide gap between itself and the V4 in the sequential write test.

The Vector gives itself a comfortable lead in the three transfer scenarios as well and is about tied for write latency to the V4, but offers the lowest read access latency we have seen yet. With such a strong performance in almost every category it should be no surprise that the Vector receives the highest AS SSD score we’ve yet seen, 1145, giving it a respectable lead over the only other SSD that’s broken the 1,000 point mark.

Synthetic: HD Tune Pro 5.0

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.

The Vector doesn’t show the highest burst performance in the disk level test, but does deliver the best average performance and more importantly delivers the highest minimum performance out of all the listed drives. It also doesn’t have trouble cleaning up in the various read file size operations, either.

Interesting to note is that since updating HD Tune to version 5, access times on the 4KB read test are identical to the AS SSD 4KB read results – at least for the SSDs. This fairly definitively confirms the very low access times we saw previously and shows OCZ has taken the time to optimize not just the firmware, but the Barefoot 3 controller design itself. Remember that the V4 shares the same firmware, so the only difference is that it uses Marvell IP for the hardware, yet the Vector is capable of improving read latencies across the board.

Real-World: File Transfers, dBpoweramp R14

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.

The Vector delivered the best sequential write performance in Iometer, and we can clearly see those results backed up by the substantially lower transfer time of the compressed file. The Vector was able to complete the file copy in almost half the time of the next quickest drive.

dBpoweramp R14

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.

As was quickly becoming no surprise, the OCZ Vector delivers the best performance here. But even more interestingly, dBpoweramp was useful in another fashion. Out of all the drives tested, the Vector delivered identical results of 69 seconds for four out of the five runs, meaning it offered the most consistent performance as well.

Real-World: Batch Tests

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.

First, just to showcase the power of an SSD to the uninitiated, it is worth pointing out that even the most demanding heavy batch test can complete in significantly less time than it takes our reasonably recent model mechanical hard drive just to boot the computer and finish the light batch test. SSDs are just that much faster.

The Vector does well, once again delivering the lowest times to competition for our medium and heavy tests. It’s also worth noting that in addition to the best time, the anti-virus scan across 19,748 various program files only added an additional 11 seconds to the medium batch time as opposed to 15-35 seconds for the other SSDs. That would be the Vector’s optimizations for high queue depth showing itself yet again.

For those curious but not wanting to do the math, the sole HDD in our graph managed a bit over seven and a half minutes for what the Vector could do in less than 90 seconds. And this is for a desktop hard drive – notebook and laptop users would see an even larger benefit from the transition to any SSD.

Real-World: Boot Times, Game Level Loading

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.

OCZ’s Vector manages to edge out this test by a fraction of a second, although all SSDs are fairly even here and all of them will boot the computer in a third of the time of the HDD.

Game Level Loading

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.

OCZ’s Vector does very well here, although we won’t quibble over fractions of a second. Again, any SSD is going to deliver a substantial boost to game, map, or level load performance when compared to a mechanical disk drive. Between modern SSDs, the differences will be indistinguishable.

Final Thoughts

OCZ Technology is a company that has continued to make a name for itself even after transitioning from a primarily DRAM manufacturer to an SSD manufacturer. The rapid release cycle of new SSD models and lingering impressions from the SandForce era (which admittedly affected every SandForce SSD maker out there) didn’t do any favors to OCZ’s reputation, but things appear to be changing.

OCZ abruptly shook things up with a new CEO near the end of last year, and since then has issued several announcements to make the point that the company is making changes to how things were done. Instead of focusing on quantity to win the SSD market, OCZ is switching to a focus on quality, meaning the company will no longer continue its rapid release of new SSD families. In statements given at the end of 2012, OCZ indicated it would also be cleaning house to cull the extremely diverse range of OCZ-branded SSD families it currently offers. That OCZ could easily have released the Vector and branded it as a “Vertex 5”, yet didn’t, already shows that the company has adopted a new approach. But, there is plenty of evidence showing the Vector is the start of this clean break.

OCZ Vector SSD

The best example by far is simply letting the Vector speak for itself. Its performance isn’t just exemplary, it is the best we’ve seen to date in many of our benchmarks. But more importantly, the consistency of the performance was also significantly better. We test all SSDs in a thoroughly “dirtied” state, yet the Vector repeatedly delivered the same results across multiple runs in many applications. Minimum disk performance was also significantly better than its predecessor, which is important to note given how similar the two drives are on paper.

The all-aluminum housing of the Vector is the starkest example of differences compared to past OCZ SSDs. The Vector not only has heft but exudes the feel of a quality, durable product. We suspect somebody at OCZ must’ve recently walked across the street to visit Apple HQ. OCZ has even upgraded the usual included disk cloning & restore software into a registered copy of Acronis True Image (software we highly recommend).

Overall, the Vector is the best SSD we have seen yet. It has strong performance all-around without compromising any single type of performance to do so, and performance consistency was noticeably better than the other SSDs. In particular, sequential read and write performance as well as 4K Random performance at higher queue depths are the strongest points of this drive. As more points in the Vector’s favor, it doesn’t rely on the use of compressible data nor does it require the same over-provisioning requirements as SandForce drives to achieve its results (eg: 256GB instead of 240GB, before formatting).

That just leaves us with the issue of price. Launch MSRP for the 256GB Vector was a remarkably high $270, but we are significantly relieved to note that as of the time of this writing, it can be had for $240 from several major retailers. That still gives it a modest ~$30-40 price premium over drives like the m4 or most SandForce-based SSDs, but in exchange one can expect to get higher sustained, consistent performance and a longer 5-year warranty.

Clearly, the Vector is not a mid-range SSD, but slots in as a premium model offering for consumers desiring the best performance without compromise. It ticks all the right boxes and delivers on all four major aspects of SSD performance while still delivering the lowest latency and most consistency between benchmark runs. And it offers a 5-year warranty, just as any SSD of this pedigree should have. If you are looking for the best SSD currently on the market and are willing to pay a slight premium to get it, then the OCZ Vector is unmistakably at the top of that list.

OCZ Vector SSD
OCZ Vector SSD

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