OCZ Vertex SSD Review

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We’ve been hearing about solid state drives, or SSDs, as the next big thing in personal computing for a few years now.  Until recently, however, SSDs have been plagued by issues preventing widespread adoption such as extremely high costs, reduced storage capacities, performance and stuttering issues as well as limited availability.  OCZ is looking to change that with a new line of SSDs that tries to balance the trifecta of size, performance and price.  Can the Vertex be the tipping point solid state disks need?  Read on for our full review. 

Specifications

  • Capacity: 30GB
  • Cache: 64MB
  • Host interface: SATA (3Gbps)
  • Acoustics: 0dB
  • Power consumption: 2 watts when being utilized, 0.5 watts in standby mode
  • Size: 3.93in x 2.74in x 0.366in
  • Warranty: Two year limited warranty

At the time of this writing, the OCZ Vertex 30 (30GB version) carries a suggested retail price of $149.99, with several retailers offering street prices of around $129.99.

Build and Design
The most noticeable difference between these Vertex SSDs and traditional hard drives is how dense they feel.  Compared to the normal 3.5-inch hard drives found in desktops, they definitely feel lighter, though when compared to the 2.5-inch drives found in notebooks, they feel a little heavier.  The entire drive is encased in smooth sections of metal.  While OCZ made the drives look sleek and stylish, this is largely unimportant since once installed, few people are ever going to look at them.

Without getting too in depth into the workings of the drives, solid state drives work in a manner completely different from traditional hard drives.  Instead of storing bits of data in tiny magnetic stripes, SSDs have many different cells which can store either one or two bits of data.  If it can store one bit of data, it’s known as a single level cell, or SLC.  If it can store two bits of data, it’s called a multi level cell, or MLC.  Since more data can be stored per cell, MLC drives can be significantly cheaper than their SLC brethren.  While that sounds good, it comes at a cost.  SLC drives, with fewer levels to check, offer users greater speeds, clocking in with around twice as fast random reads and three to four times as fast writes.  They’re also expected to last significantly longer.

Like hard drives, solid state drives have finite lifetimes.  It’s easier to calculate how long solid state drives might last, however, since they have a few weaknesses regular hard drives don’t.  Reading data off of one of these drives can be done without causing any particular wear and tear but writing to the drive can cause physical strain.  As a result, SSDs have a limited number of write cycles, and this is where the differences between MLC flash and SLC flash can come into play.  SLC drives offer consumers the ability to write to every cell on the drive roughly 100,000 times.  MLC drives offer up around 10,000 writes per cell before the cells fail. 

Manufacturers understand this, however, and have undertaken several measures to prolong the usable life of their solid state drives.  Wear-leveling algorithms work to distribute your data all over the drive (unlike with regular hard drives, it doesn’t really matter where your data is stored on the drive with respect to access times) so that certain memory cells don’t get repeatedly hit and burn out.  Additionally, OCZ ships the Vertex drives with extra storage capacity inaccessible by users: these extra cells are used by the drive to further extend the life of the drive before the cost of too much writing starts to rear its ugly head.

In designing the Vertex series of drives, OCZ listened to the huge number of complaints manufacturers were getting with regards to flash drive performance.  Up until recently, there were three main controllers used in flash drives: Intel’s, which are used in Intel’s own SSD efforts, Samsung’s, used in their own drives and others as well as the infamous Jmicron chip.  The Jmicron controller has been used in a large number of the consumer SSDs sold recently, and suffers from a few fatal flaws that lead to stuttering and performance issues.  Fortunately, OCZ went in a new direction with the Vertex drives and used the Barefoot controller from the Korean upstart Indilinx.

Performance
We installed the OCZ Vertex 30 into both our test bed desktop system as well as a Lenovo T400 notebook.  Our desktop system was built around an AMD Phenom II 940 and 4GB of Kingston DDR2 RAM at 1066MHz.

The drive is fast.  Very fast.  It’s faster than any traditional rotating magnetic hard drive.  The OCZ Vertex 30 delivered peak read speeds of near or over 200MB/s in several tests, with write speeds offering between 100 and 150MB/s depending on the benchmark and application.  Here’s the thing, though.  None of that matters.  None of it.  Yes, it can read and write files very fast.  That’s useful, too, when conducting an activity that requires lots of disk thrashing, like writing swap files to scratch space, moving large amounts of data around, or writing huge database files.  It also helps when loading large and intricate game levels.

HDTune results:


OCZ Vertex 30 in desktop use

OCZ Vertex 30 in laptop use


Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green drive


Western Digital 300GB Velociraptor


Intel X25-M SSD


Solidata X-2 256GB SSD

Atto benchmark results:


OCZ Vertex 30 in desktop use

OCZ Vertex 30 in notebook use


Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green drive


Western Digital 300GB Velociraptor

CrystalDiskMark results:


OCZ Vertex 30


Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green drive

Constant file transfers aren’t what the vast majority of users do, however, whether on their notebook or desktop.  No, consumers load iTunes, browse the web, watch video, type a paper and occasionally play a few games.  This is where the Vertex, and SSDs in general, really shine.  Applications load almost instantaneously.  No more sitting and waiting for your computer to boot up.  No more clicking on iTunes and going to get a glass of water.  No need to let Microsoft Office preload its applications into RAM on startup so that Word can actually launch in a reasonable amount of time.  Instead, thanks to the extremely low latencies offered by the Vertex, users can start up whatever applications they need without worrying about the time it takes to start them up.

Application Time to load (in seconds)
64-bit iTunes 1.5
64-bit Photoshop CS4 2
Microsoft Office Word 2007 0.7
iTunes, Photoshop, Word, Internet Explorer,
Firefox, and Excel all at once
4
Time to load Windows desktop from
cold start (notebook)
36
Time to fully power down (notebook) 7
Time to load Windows desktop from
cold start (desktop)
34 (only 15 seconds
from splash screen)
Time to fully power down (desktop) 7

Stuttering has also been a problem that’s plagued some of OCZ’s drives, particularly the relatively inexpensive Core series of drives.  Happily, the Vertex series, with its new Barefoot controller from Indilinx, seems to be free of all of these issues.  The latency of the drive is right up there with the best of the competition.  There did arise one moment in the week of using this drive during which Windows hung oddly frozen for a couple of seconds when accessing the drive.  It only happened once, so the drive can’t necessarily be blamed as the cause of the issue.  I’ll take a close look at the drive in the coming weeks to see if it’s going to have any issues, but for now I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.

Power, Heat and Noise
Since solid state drives have no moving parts, they offer significant power savings over traditional hard drives.  Whereas the Western Digital Caviar Green drive we recently reviewed used an average of 7 watts when reading or writing to the disk and one watt when idling, the OCZ Vertex uses only 2 watts when actively reading or writing and half a watt when not being used.  Similarly, with no moving parts, the drive itself is utterly silent. 
Heat has been an issue with some hard drives, with the recent Solidata SSD reviewed by our notebook team driving temperatures well over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.  In a desktop setting, this isn’t much of an issue.  In a notebook, however, this is a serious problem, since heat is a big issue already; adding in a giant 130 degree block certainly isn’t going to help matters.  We didn’t get exact numbers for the Vertex, but after several minutes of use, the drive is barely warm to the touch.  It doesn’t look like heat is going to be an issue.

Conclusion
The biggest, and to be fair, only, problem I have with the Vertex drive is how OCZ handles firmware updates.  It’s really great to see a manufacturer listening to feedback from consumers on how a product is working out, instead of just releasing the device and leaving users out in the cold to deal with issues on their own.  When updating the firmware on the OCZ Vertex drives, a user must first put the drive into factory mode by going in while the drive is powered down and putting a jumper over two pins to the right of the SATA data port.  A jumper is just a small piece of plastic and metal that signals a specific flag to a disk drive.

That sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately, OCZ doesn’t bother to include a jumper in the box. Some consumers, particularly enthusiasts, probably have a stack of hard drives, replete with jumpers, lying in a closet somewhere.  Someone newer to computers, however, or isn’t too tech savvy but read about how great SSDs are, will probably find themselves in a quandary, wondering how they’re going to proceed.  It would be less of an issue if firmware updates weren’t too necessary, but many drives are shipping with firmware revision 1199, which suffers from bugs that could lead to data loss or corruption.   Since updating the drive’s firmware completely erases any data on the drive, it’s important to make firmware upgrades quick, easy and the first thing a user does; otherwise consumers won’t bother with the hassle. 

Aside from the glaring issue of updating the firmware, the OCZ Vertex 30 drive is one of the best purchases a user can make to increase how fast their computer feels.  At first use, it didn’t feel that much faster, but after using the regular hard drive again, it feels like I’m using the computer in a giant vat of molasses.  It’s true that at 30GB, the drive doesn’t leave much room for non-system files like movies or music, but that’s an easily resolved issue.  In a desktop, it’s not much of a problem to add in a second hard drive for bulk media storage.  In notebooks, USB thumb drives are getting bigger and bigger with each passing moment.

In the end, adding an SSD can dramatically increase your computer’s speed and even your own productivity.  The OCZ Vertex drives do offer big numbers and high transfer speeds, but more importantly they offer latencies like 0.3ms.  At only $130, the Vertex 30 represents a fantastic value and can breathe new life into a user’s computer.

Pros

  • High transfer speeds
  • New Indilinx Barefoot controller prevents jams caused by JMicron hardware
  • Inexpensive compared to many SSDs

Cons

  • Only 30GB of storage space
  • Firmware updates a pain, require drive wipes
  • Requires OS tweaks to get the best from your drive


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