Why cheap SSDs just aren't worth the cash

28 Jun 2010
SSDvsHDD
SSDvsHDD

SSDs are the future. That’s what we’ve been told, anyway, by the companies who make them, the journalists who churn out breath-taking benchmark results, and enthusiasts who swap anecdotal stories of boot times being cut in half by the mere presence of Flash-based memory.

That’s all well and good if you’ve shelled out hundreds on the latest high-end model, but my recent tests have suggested that cheaper solid-state disks aren’t worth the PCB they’re printed on.

I’ve not long finished the 6-core PC Labs test for the upcoming issue and, with a strict £666 exc VAT budget imposed, I was surprised to see one system turn up with an SSD in tow. Granted, it wasn’t the flashiest drive – a 32GB Integral drive that retails for around £70 exc VAT – but it still promised improved boot times and a generally snappier operating system.

Our benchmark results, though, told a different story. When we ran our suite of application tests with the SSD-equipped system, it scored 1.98; similarly-equipped systems in the test scored from 2.16 to 2.24. This piqued my interest, so I cloned the SSD onto a mechanical hard disk – in this case one of three Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 discs that we use in our test rigs – and re-ran the benchmarks. The resulting score of 2.14 suggests that the SSD is hindering, rather than helping, this particular PC.

A lot of buzzwords surround the technical side of SSDs, but a quick investigation revealed that the MLC chips used by Integral or the lack of TRIM support weren’t to blame. In fact, the sluggish performance can be attributed to one of the only parts in the drive that isn’t manufactured by Integral at all – the controller.

SSD

The JMF602 is made by Jmicron, a Taiwanese chip manufacturer, and has been used by Transcend, PNY and OCZ, although the latter has now switched to a more reliable controller. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Jmicron controller is still used in budget SSDs like the Super Talent MasterDrive, which was one of the worst-performing products in our recent SSD Labs test.

It’s cheap but, thanks to a host of problems, hardly cheerful. The major issue is a lack of cache: the JMF602’s 16KB pales in comparison to the 256KB used in Intel’s PC29AS21A controller. It’s during intense activity – such as our benchmarks – that this cache quickly fills up, creating a bottleneck that prevents other files being accessed.

It’s tempting to buy a budget SSD for an instant, affordable performance boost, but our tests have shown that drives like the £70 exc VAT Integral are a false economy. That cash, spent more wisely, could buy you an Intel X-25V, which was the second-fastest SSD in our Labs, or a mechanical hard disk. It’s clear that not all SSDs are equal – and that it’s important to do your research before investing.

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