Under The Hood: Solid State Shake-Up…Intel 520 vs Patriot Pyro SE vs OCZ Octane

Under The Hood: Solid State Shake-Up…Intel 520 vs Patriot Pyro SE vs OCZ Octane
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Let’s play a little game. We have three solid state drives — one each from Patriot, OCZ and Intel. Two of them are powered by the ubiquitous SandForce SF-2281 controller, and the other marks the consumer debut of a new 6Gb/s SATA controller. Guess which drive has the new controller?

If you guessed the Intel drive, time for a spit-take. It’s the OCZ drive that’s got the new controller, and the Intel drive which is SandForce-powered. What in the name of the MLC gods is going on?

Patriot Pyro SE 240GB

Can the Pyro SE’s speeds match its fiery nomenclature?

Back in October 2011, we reviewed the 120GB Patriot Wildfire, the company’s first SF-2281-based SSD. With 32nm Toshiba asynchronous NAND, the Wildfire was a solid, if unremarkable, drive-awesome compared to nearly every other drive, but not quite up to the standard set by Corsair’s Force GT, OCZ’s Vertex 3, or OWC’s Mercury Extreme Pro. With the Pyro SE, Patriot hopes to change that.

The Force GT, Vertex 3, and Mercury Extreme Pro have one thing in common that the Wildfire lacked: 25nm synchronous NAND. Now a Patriot drive has the same stuff. The 240GB Patriot Pyro SE uses 16 128Gb modules of Micron 25nm synchronous NAND. Can the smaller process and synchronous NAND help the Pyro SE keep pace with the best SF-2281 SSDs on the market?

Yes. The better NAND pushes the Pyro SE past its stablemate and into the rarified air at the top of the SandForce-powered heap. With sequential read and write speeds at 482MB/s and 300MB/s, respectively, as measure by CrystalDiskMark, the Pyro SE is about as fast as the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro, and its 4KB random write speed, at over 91,000 IOPS, is the fastest we’ve ever seen from a 6Gb/s SATA drive. The synchronous NAND makes the most impact on sequential write speeds, offering a 40–50MB/s boost over the asynchronous NAND in the Wildfire.

As with all top-tier SandForce SF-2281-powered drives, the Pyro SE is optimised for small random write cycles; in sequential tests, Samsung’s 830 Series SSD holds the crown.

The Pyro SE is priced competitively with other drives that use the same NAND and controller, like the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro, and it performs competitively, too. If you’re looking for a top-tier SSD with a SandForce controller and speedy 25nm synchronous NAND, the sparkly grey Pyro SE is just as good as the sparkly blue OWC drive. So get whichever one matches your rig better.

Patriot Pyro SE 240GB
Price: $US450
Meet the Pyro: Performance identical to top-tier SandForce drives.
Meet the Meat: Sequential speeds can’t match Samsung 830.
Verdict: 9

Intel 520 Series 240GB

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

For every season, there is a spin. Intel’s first consumer SSDs, the X-25M series, didn’t have the fastest performance, but they gained a reputation for reliability. We had high hopes for Intel’s 320 Series SSDs, which turned out to be really great 3Gb/s SATA drives, at a time when everyone else was shipping 6Gb/s drives. When Intel did ship a 6Gb/s SATA drive, the 510 Series, it used a Marvell controller, not an Intel one. Well, Intel’s finally released its second 6Gb/s consumer SSD series, and it’s powered by… SandForce?

Yep. The 520 Series may ship in Intel’s familiar 7mm aluminium chassis with a 2mm black spacer, but inside it’s running the same SandForce SF-2281 as everyone else. It does use 25nm Intel synchronous NAND and Intel-validated firmware, which Intel says make it better, faster, and more reliable than plain-Jane SF-2281-based drives.

We’ll have to wait and see if the reliability claim is accurate, but the “better and faster” is, well, kinda true. The 520 Series is certainly faster than SF-2281 drives that use asynchronous NAND. Compared to other drives with 25nm synchronous NAND, like Patriot’s Pyro SE above, the differences are smaller. The 520’s CrystalDiskMark sustained read speed of 470MB/s, for example, is 12MB/s slower than the Pyro SE, and in Iometer the 520 gets 4000 fewer IOPS on our random write test. Real-world scores in PCMark 7 and Premiere Pro are virtually identical to the Pyro SE, while the Intel drive lags behind in PCMark Vantage, an older test.

Intel reassures us it hasn’t given up on its own controllers, and Intel’s upcoming 20nm IFMT tech should offer big improvements in NAND density and performance in the second half of the year. So we have that to look forward to.

The 520 series may not be very special, but at least it’s up to current-gen standards, and it replaces the kinda crappy Marvell-powered 510 series. On the other hand, $US510 for a 240GB drive is a lot, considering the Patriot Pyro SE is $US50 cheaper and just as good. Intel’s betting its reputation for reliability still means something to SSD buyers. We think it does, but does it mean they’ll pony up an extra 50 bucks?

Intel 520 Series 240GB
Price: $US510
Five Gold Rings Fast SF-2281 controller and 25nm NAND; Intel reliability
Four Colly Birds $US50 more expensive than near-identical drives from Patriot
Verdict: 9

OCZ Octane

The first fruits of OCZ’s acquisition of Indilinx

Remember Indilinx? The company’s Barefoot SSD controller was the first really good solid-state controller. It was one of the first controllers to offer TRIM support, as well as sustained read and write speeds near 200MB/s, and it ruled the roost until SandForce’s SF-1200 controller leapt ahead of Barefoot’s capabilities. The company’s next-gen controller was delayed, and in March 2011 OCZ bought the company. It’s been nearly a year, but OCZ finally has a consumer drive with the new Indilinx Everest controller. Was it worth the wait?

The 512GB Octane drive OCZ sent us contains 16 256Gb 25nm Intel synchronous NAND modules, two 2Gb Micron DDR3 SDRAM cache modules (512MB total), and of course the Indilinx Everest controller, all in standard 2.5-inch SSD form factor. In CrystalDiskMark, it averaged 445MB/s sustained reads (35–40MB/s slower than the SandForce drives we’ve tested) and 315MB/s sustained writes (15MB/s faster). Its single-queue-depth 4KB random writes were competitive at around 5600 IOPS, but at QD32, it only put out 22,000 IOPS-Samsung’s 830 Series does 35,000 and the Patriot Pyro SE does over 90,000. The Octane’s maximum response time in Iometer, at 429ms, is a bit worrying, too-its competitors have max response times of around 40ms. The Octane’s video encoding performance was within seconds of the other drives, and its PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7 scores, though lower than the rest, weren’t too shabby.

We’re not 100 per cent sure OCZ knows what “infused” means.

So where does that put the Octane among today’s 6Gb/s SATA SSDs? It’s better than drives with the Marvell 9174 controller, like Plextor’s M2 and Crucial’s M4, and even some SandForce-powered SSDs with cheaper asynchronous NAND. But aside from a slight write-speed advantage, the OCZ Octane falls behind SandForce drives with synchronous NAND in most benchmarks, and its random write speeds at depth are much, much lower.

The biggest problem with the OCZ Octane is Samsung’s 830 Series, which is available in the same capacities (aside from the Octane’s unmatched 1TB model), is faster in every single benchmark, and is cheaper than the Octane — by $US100, at the 512GB capacity. The Octane has more-than-reasonable performance and we like the fact that it has the new Indilinx controller, but given its price and the existence of cheaper, better alternatives, it’s not the best bang for your buck.

OCZ Octane
Price: $US510
Octorok: New controller, plenty of cache; decent speeds; strong writes
Octomom: Low random IOPS; not the best value
Verdict: 9

Check out benchmarks for these drives here:

Asterisk (*) denotes highest score. Our current test bed is a 3.1GHz Core i3-2100 processor on an Asus P8 P67 Pro (B3 chipset) running Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. All tests used onboard 6Gb/s SATA ports with latest Intel drivers.

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