It's a depressing time to be covering the consumer SSD market. Although performance is higher than it has ever been, we're still seeing far too many compatibility and reliability issues from all of the major players. Intel used to be our safe haven, but even the extra reliable Intel SSD 320 is plagued by a firmware bug that may crop up unexpectedly, limiting your drive's capacity to only 8MB. Then there are the infamous BSOD issues that affect SandForce SF-2281 drives like the OCZ Vertex 3 or the Corsair Force 3. Despite OCZ and SandForce believing they were on to the root cause of the problem several weeks ago, there are still reports of issues. I've even been able to duplicate the issue internally.

It's been three years since the introduction of the X25-M and SSD reliability is still an issue, but why?

For the consumer market it ultimately boils down to margins. If you're a regular SSD maker then you don't make the NAND and you don't make the controller.

A 120GB SF-2281 SSD uses 128GB of 25nm MLC NAND. The NAND market is volatile but a 64Gb 25nm NAND die will set you back somewhere from $10 - $20. If we assume the best case scenario that's $160 for the NAND alone. Add another $25 for the controller and you're up to $185 without the cost of the other components, the PCB, the chassis, packaging and vendor overhead. Let's figure another 15% for everything else needed for the drive bringing us up to $222. You can buy a 120GB SF-2281 drive in e-tail for $250, putting the gross profit on a single SF-2281 drive at $28 or 11%.

Even if we assume I'm off in my calculations and the profit margin is 20%, that's still not a lot to work with.

Things aren't that much easier for the bigger companies either. Intel has the luxury of (sometimes) making both the controller and the NAND. But the amount of NAND you need for a single 120GB drive is huge. Let's do the math.

8GB IMFT 25nm MLC NAND die - 167mm2

The largest 25nm MLC NAND die you can get is an 8GB capacity. A single 8GB 25nm IMFT die measure 167mm2. That's bigger than a dual-core Sandy Bridge die and 77% the size of a quad-core SNB. And that's just for 8GB.

A 120GB drive needs sixteen of these die for a total area of 2672mm2. Now we're at over 12 times the wafer area of a single quad-core Sandy Bridge CPU. And that's just for a single 120GB drive.

This 25nm NAND is built on 300mm wafers just like modern microprocessors giving us 70685mm2 of area per wafer. Assuming you can use every single square mm of the wafer (which you can't) that works out to be 26 120GB SSDs per 300mm wafer. Wafer costs are somewhere in four digit range - let's assume $3000. That's $115 worth of NAND for a drive that will sell for $230, and we're not including controller costs, the other components on the PCB, the PCB itself, the drive enclosure, shipping and profit margins. Intel, as an example, likes to maintain gross margins north of 60%. For its consumer SSD business to not be a drain on the bottom line, sacrifices have to be made. While Intel's SSD validation is believed to be the best in the industry, it's likely not as good as it could be as a result of pure economics. So mistakes are made and bugs slip through.

I hate to say it but it's just not that attractive to be in the consumer SSD business. When these drives were selling for $600+ things were different, but it's not too surprising to see that we're still having issues today. What makes it even worse is that these issues are usually caught by end users. Intel's microprocessor division would never stand for the sort of track record its consumer SSD group has delivered in terms of show stopping bugs in the field, and Intel has one of the best track records in the industry!

It's not all about money though. Experience plays a role here as well. If you look at the performance leaders in the SSD space, none of them had any prior experience in the HDD market. Three years ago I would've predicted that Intel, Seagate and Western Digital would be duking it out for control of the SSD market. That obviously didn't happen and as a result you have a lot of players that are still fairly new to this game. It wasn't too long ago that we were hearing about premature HDD failures due to firmware problems, I suspect it'll be a few more years before the current players get to where they need to be. Samsung may be one to watch here going forward as it has done very well in the OEM space. Apple had no issues adopting Samsung controllers, while it won't go anywhere near Marvell or SandForce at this point.

The SF-2281 BSOD Bug
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  • DarkKnight_Y2K - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    "Bottom line, it seems like sandforce-driven ssds have the biggest number of issues, yet you still recommend them."

    Did you read the last sentence of Anand's review?

    "The safest route without sacrificing significant performance continues to be Intel's SSD 510."
  • Socratic - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Yeah I don't know what planet you have been living on, but in MULTIPLE articles Anand has basically ended with the phase, The only logical choice is Intel.

    How is that being a sandforce fanboy??

    You need to keep YOUR bias in line and re-read the article and past articles!!
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Given the continued issues with SF drives I'm quickly looking at other alternatives. Toshiba and Crucial have never been top end performers, which is why I've focused most of my recommendations on the Intel SSD 510. The biggest advantage SandForce continues to have is in better performance over the long run thanks to its live dedupe/compression. I've been working on a way to quantify that for a while unfortunately I don't have a good test I'm happy with...yet.

    Going forward I believe Samsung may be a bigger player. Take note of the recently announced PM830, expect full coverage of that drive upon its arrival.

    Take care,
  • melgross - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Well, dedup itself is subject to a lot of controversy. It isn't necessarally a good thing.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    I'd argue for most mainstream uses it's a very good thing for long term performance. If the SF-2281 had Intel's track record it'd be the best option in my mind.

    Take care,
  • name99 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Hi Anand,

    Rather than beating up on you for not stressing reliability more in the past, I'm going to ask, AGAIN, that you take power more seriously.

    My experience has been

    - replaced the hard drive in my 2nd gen MacBook Air with a RunCore IV. The thing would crash about once a week, as far as I could tell NOT from logic errors but because its power draw during a long train of writes spiked higher than the interface was specced for. If this coincided with a high power draw elsewhere in the system --- fan, CPU etc, game over

    - an OCZ enyo USB3 drive which work just fine as a READ drive --- and is once again somewhat flaky if too many back-to-back writes occur

    - a Kingston SSDNow V which I have as the boot/VM drive for my iMac running off USB. My original plan for this was to have it running off FW800 (which is in theory 7W of power), but I got the same thing as the two previous drives --- crashes with too many back to back writes. It's now running successfully because I stuck it in a Kingwin USB<->SATA bridge that is for 3.5" drives, and thus has a separate power supply and the ability to provide a lot of juice.

    All this basically mirrors (along a different dimension) what you have said: these drives are ABSOLUTE CRAP for the naive consumer. You buy them, things seem great, and then randomly and with no obvious pattern to the naive user, your system hangs.

    You seem to be trying really hard to have the manufacturers get their act together; my point is to remind you that an IMPORTANT part of getting their act together is that these things are ALWAYS within spec with respect to power. Right now, we seem to have a lot (at least three different brands, in three different market segments) of drives that are simply not within spec --- they can run on the power that the system is specced to deliver for most command sequences, but there are always those few command sequences that over-draw power. Heck, at the very least, it is the responsibly of the drive to recognize this
    situation and throttle themselves, just like any modern x86 CPU.
  • Coup27 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link


    I have been feeling similar sentiments lately as well.

    I have posted in the forums on what happened to the 470 review but no official comment from anybody. Considering all of the reliability issues flying about, you woud think that if the 470 was a reliable as word suggests, it would have had a featured review.

    Some guy actually bought an Agility 3 based off the AT review and forum list of recommended drives and neither mentioned the BSOD. When he got it the BSOD, he went into the forums and kicked off. Rightly so.

    Unfortunately issues drag on for sometimes months before AT even update their article to make people aware that the product they might be buying could be seriously flawed.

    No other website offers the depth of detail which AT does and for that the editors are applauded, but unfortunately the playing field does not seem level.
  • Lord 666 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Before this article, previous reviews of Vertex problems did not address the issues. This hits it head on.
  • jo-82 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    The Kingston HyperX cleary stands out with a consistent high performance. Why no words on that? Clearly the drive to buy. And Kingston has imho a much higher reputation on circuitry reliance and better QA in general then the rest of the pack, except Intel.
  • Roland00Address - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    And I ain't sure you can apply the logic of Kingston being rocking when Kingston purposefully makes their SSD line confusing using similar names with completely different controllers

    Kingston E series, Intel X25-E controller
    Kingston M series, Intel X25-M G2 controller
    SSDNow V 100, JMicron JMF618 controller
    SSDNow V+, Samsung S3C29RBB01 controller
    SSDNow V+ 100, Toshiba T6UG1XBG controller
    SSDNow V+ 180, Toshiba T6UG1XBG controller
    SSDNow V Series, Toshiba TC58NCF602GAT controller, which is based off the stuttering JMicron JMF602
    30GB SSDNow V Series Boot Drive, Toshiba T6UG1XBG controller

    I may be forgetting to list a couple models, but as I pointed above, Kingston has used 2 different controllers from Intel, 1 from Samsung, and 2 different from Toshiba (and all these controllers have similar names), not counting their most recent drive that is a Sandforce controller.

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