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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  • bernardl - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    I am pretty surprised by the little mention of the OWC SSD in your introduction and conclusion. It seems to belong to the top 3 perforers in every single of your tests and their product have proven extremely reliable and durable over the years.

    I am using 3 of their SSDs (Mac pro boot, mac mini boot and external storage for music server) and have experienced zero issue and stable/fast performance.

  • arntc - Friday, August 12, 2011 - link

    I'm not sure if I read correctly between the lines; one should stick to the previous generation of consumer SSD's if your on the prowl for a systemdisk in a notebook?

    If the 3-dimensional comparison of Price/Performance/Reliability is charted, which SSD would currently come out on top (subjective comments allowed)?
  • 86waterpumper - Friday, August 12, 2011 - link

    I just bought the 120mb version of the mercury extreme 6g for my sandy bridge build a few weeks ago. I sure wish I had known they were coming out with faster drives :( Oh well so far no bsod issues, and I
    hope I don't see one!
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, August 12, 2011 - link

    My understanding is that NAND is measured in bits because the controllers see the data as bits, not bytes, leveling across available (addressable) dies. Yes?
  • vashtyphoon - Friday, August 12, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the article, very informative, but it made me cringe.

    I just placed an order for a PC build based off of the SandyBridge guide, with the OCZ Vertex 2, but I changed the motherboard to a ASUS P8Z68-V LE, same base model as the setup that caused the BSODs with a vertex 3 on page 2.... Is this going to really miss me up or do the Vertex 2s have a better track record?

    Any thoughts?
  • brakhage - Friday, August 12, 2011 - link

    I just got 3 OCZ drives, 2 vertex3 60's, and a Solid3 120. I quickly encountered the BSOD/freeze issue on the 2 60s (OS drives). After extensive research and thread-chasing, it seems like OCZ has a solid solution, though it's not simple.

    Basically, you update RST and INF drivers (and throw in a BIOS update if possible), then flash the firmware (2.11), clear cmos and fire it up. I've been BSOD-free ever since... EXCEPT when I use the Solid3, which I got a few days later, and haven't flashed yet. (I'm using it for additional programs, so when I play a game that's on the Solid3, I freeze up. Maybe. It may be an overclocking issue there, I haven't had time to figure it out. I just got that Solid 3 a couple days ago - the same day I OC'd the new machine.)

    Full details on this fix can be found on the OCZ forums; once in a terse post, once in a more verbose one.

    So: the firmware flash is a bit of a problem. The tool they provide didn't detect my drives, and it isn't recommended to flash a drive from the OS stored on that drive. I installed windows 7 on a second (spinner) hdd, and tried the tool; it still didn't work. (Maybe because they're in RAID 0?) So I put Ubuntu on the spinner and flashed them through that with no problem.

    (The HDD has since been disconnected, and I haven't gotten around to hooking it up again to flash the solid3, but I'll try to do that this weekend - hopefully that will fix this one too.)

    All this said, the above posters are absolutely right - this should never have happened. However, I'm WAAYYY too impatient to wait for Sandforce to solve the problem, and that impatience extends to waiting for programs to load or for the system to boot. SSDs are like Linux - freaking awesome, but, yes, they aren't the plug-n-play, fire-up-and-forget, McDonalds-style components we've come to expect when running big name OS's. Frustrating, yes, but totally worth it.
  • KPOM - Saturday, August 13, 2011 - link

    Given the ongoing reliability issues with the Sandforce drives, perhaps Apple is justified in using "slower" Toshiba and Samsung SSDs. I've had SSDs since my 2008 Rev B MacBook Air and haven't had a problem with them (the 2008 had a Samsung, my 2010 a Toshiba, and my 2011 a Samsung).
  • Ao1 - Saturday, August 13, 2011 - link

    Lal can you please provide some statistics to back up your claim that the 8MB bug is a plague? How many occurrences of the bug have been reported and how many 310 have been sold?

    Can you als please confirm why you suspect that Intel have cut corners resulting deficiencies in quality control procedures? Perhaps half of the validation team were made redundant; or is that statement just an outrageous speculation?
  • mikeyd55 - Saturday, August 13, 2011 - link

    In 2011, for a consumer to even have to be concerned about technology issues like this, is very disconcerting and bad for everyone. Don’t release a product when it’s not stable and/or hasn’t been thoroughly tested – even if it has to cost more as a result. It’s cheaper in the end for all! It reminds me of my experiences with cell / smart phones that are continuously released to consumers despite their software / hardware/ firmware not being ready for prime time. Regarding my recent (June ‘11) SSD build: OCZ Vertex 3 MAX IOPS 120 GB (updated to firmware 2.06), no hard drive, Intel DZ68DB mb (updated to second BIOS revision), and Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit; I’ve been fortunate, so far at least, to not have experienced any BSOD’s, although under this cloud of uncertainty, I’m especially leery of updating mb BIOS, firmware or any drivers until Sandforce gets a true handle on this problem.
  • 86waterpumper - Saturday, August 13, 2011 - link

    Well I have had two bsods so far just this weekend :( System is a 2500k non- overclocked running in the normal temperature ranges. First bsod happened during a windows update so I chalked it up to that, but the 2nd one happend awhile ago with the system just sitting there idle. Looks like the owc drives for sure are affected too. Now my question is, how do I prove it is the hard drive causing the bsod lol. Also is there any newer firmware than 3.19 out yet to install or what is the fix?

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