Like any technology geek real world performance of a component is the most important aspect for me when I’m looking to purchase new hardware. Everyone knows manufacturer’s can’t be trusted with ratings, especially when they come up with their own systems that provide big numbers that mean absolutely nothing, so I primarily base my purchasing decisions based on aggregating reviews from various sources around the Internet in order to get a clear picture of which brand/revision I should get. After that point I usually go for the best performance per dollar as whilst it’s always nice to have the best components the price differential is usually not worth the leap, mostly because you won’t notice the incremental increase. There are of course notable exceptions to this hard and fast rule and realistically my decision in the end wasn’t driven by rational thought so much as it was pure geeky lust after the highest theoretical performance.
Solid State Drives present quite an interesting value proposition for us consumers. They are leaps and bounds faster than their magnetic predecessors thanks to their ability to access data instantaneously and their extremely high throughput rates. Indeed with the hard drive being the bottleneck of performance for nearly every computer in the world the most effective upgrade you can get is that of a SSD. Of course nothing can beat magnetic hard drives for their cost, durability and capacity so it’s very unlikely that we’ll be seeing the end of them anytime soon. Still the enormous gap that separates SSDs from any other storage medium brings about some interesting issues of its own: benchmarks, especially synthetic ones, are almost meaningless for end users.
I’ll admit I was struck by geek lust when I saw the performance specs for the OCZ Vertex 3, they were just simply amazing. Indeed the drive has matched up to my sky high expectations with me being able to boot, login and open up all my applications in the time it took my previous PC just to get to the login screen. Since then I’ve been recommending the Vertex 3 to anyone who was looking to get a new drive but just recently OCZ announced their new budget line of SSDs, the Agility 3. Being almost $100 cheaper and sporting very similar performance specs to that of the Vertex it’s a hard thing to argue against especially when you consider just how fast these SSDs are in the first place.
Looking at the raw figures it would seem like the Agility series are around 10% slower than their Vertex counterparts on average, which isn’t bad for a budget line. However when you consider that the 10% performance gap is the difference between your windows loading in 6.3 seconds rather than 7 and your applications launching in 0.9 seconds instead of 1 then the gap doesn’t seem all that big. Indeed I’d challenge anyone to be able to spot the differences between two identical systems configured with different SSDs as these kinds of performance differences will only matter to benchmarkers and people building high traffic systems.
Indeed one of my mates had been running a SSD for well over a year and a half before I got mine and from what he tells me the performance of units back then was enough for him to not notice any slow down after not formatting for that entire time. Likely then if you’re considering getting a SSD but are turned off by the high price of current models you’ll be quite happy with the previous generation as the perceived performance will be identical. Although with the Agility 3 120GB version going for a mere $250 the price difference between generations isn’t really that much anymore.
Realistically SSDs are just the most prominent example of why synthetic benchmarks aren’t a good indicator of real world performance. There’s almost always an option that will provide similar performance for a drastically reduced price and for the end user the difference will likely be unnoticeable. SSDs are just so far away from their predecessors that the differentials between the low and high end are usually not worth mentioning, especially if you’re upgrading from good old spinning rust. Of course there will always be geeks like me whose lust will overcome their sensibility and reach for the ultimate in performance, which is why those high end products still exist today.
My main PC at home is starting to get a little long in the tooth, having been ordered back in the middle of 2008 and only receiving upgrades of a graphics card and a hard drive since then. Like all PCs I’ve had it suffered a myriad of problems that I just usually put up with until I stumbled across a work around, but I think the vast majority of them can be traced to a faulty motherboard (Can’t put more than 4GB of RAM in it or it won’t post) and a batch of faulty hard drives (that would randomly park the heads causing it to freeze). At the time I had the wonderful idea of buying the absolute latest so I could upgrade cheaply for the next few years, but thanks to the consolization of games I found that wasn’t really necessary.
To be honest it’s not even really necessary now either, with all the latest games still running at full resolution and most at high settings to boot. I am starting to lag on the technology front however with my graphics card not supporting DirectX 11 and everything but the RAM being 2 generations behind (yes, I have a Core 2 Duo). So I took it upon myself to build a rig that combined the best performance available of the day rather than trying to focus on future compatibility. Luckily for me it looks like those two are coinciding.
Just because like any good geek I love talking shop when it comes to building new PCs here are the specs of the potential beast in making:
The first couple choices I made for this rig were easy. Hands down the best performance out there is with the new Sandy Bridge i7 chips with the 2600K being the top of the lot thanks to its unlocked multiplier and hyperthreading, which chips below the 2600 lack. The choice of graphics cards was a little harder as whilst the Radeon comes out leagues ahead on a price to performance ratio the NVIDIA cards still had a slight performance lead overall, but hardly enough to justify the price. Knowing that I wanted to take advantage of the new SATA 6Gbps range of drives that were coming out my motherboard choice was almost made for me as the Asrock P67 seems to be one of the few that has more than 4 of the ports available (it has 6, in fact).
The choice of SSD however, whilst extremely easy at the time, became more complicated recently.
You see back in the initial pre-production review round the OCZ Vertex 3 came out shooting, blasting away all the competition in a seemingly unfair comparison to its predecessors. I was instantly sold especially considering the price was looking to be quite reasonable, around the $300 mark for a 120GB drive. Sure I could opt for the bigger drive and dump my most frequently played games on it but in reality a RAID10 array of SATA 6Gbps drives should be close enough without having to overspend on the SSD. Like any pre-production reviews I made sure to keep my ear to the ground just in case something changed once they started churning them out.
Of course, something did.
The first production review that grabbed my attention was from AnandTech, renowned for their deep understanding of SSDs and producing honest and accurate reviews. The results for my drive size of choice, the 120GB, were decidedly mixed on a few levels with it falling down in several places where the 240GB version didn’t suffer any such problems. Another review confirmed the figures were in the right ballpark although unfortunately lacking a comparison to the 240GB version. The reasons behind the performance discrepancies are simple, whilst functionally the same drives the differences come from the number of NAND chips used to create the drive. The 240GB version has double the amount of the 120GB version which allows for higher throughput and additionally grants the drive a larger scratch space that it can use to optimize its performance¹.
So of course I started to rethink my position. The main reason for getting a real SSD over something like the PCIe bound RevoDrive was that I could use it down the line as a jumbo flash drive if I wanted to and I wouldn’t have to sacrifice one of my PCIe lanes to use it. The obvious competitor to the OCZ Vertex 3 would be something like the Intel 510 SSD but the reviews haven’t been very kind to this device, putting it barely in competition with previous generation devices.
After considering all my options I think I’ll still end up going with the OCZ Vertex 3 at the 120GB size. Whilst it might not be the kind of performance in every category it does provide tremendous value when compared to a lot of other SSDs and it will be in another league when compared to my current spinning rust hard drive. Once I get around to putting this new rig together you can rest assured I’ll put the whole thing through its paces, if at the very least to see how the OCZ Vertex 3 stacks up against the numbers that have already been presented.
¹Ever wondered why some SSDs are odd sizes? They are in fact good old fashioned binary sizes (128GB and 256GB respectively) however the drive reserves a portion of that (8GB and 16GB) to use as scratch space to write and optimize data before committing it. Some drives also use it as a buffer for when flash cells become unwritable (flash cells don’t usually die, you just can’t write to them anymore) so that the drive’s capacity doesn’t degrade.