We’re back today with OCZ‘s latest and greatest SSD, the Vertex 4. Things have changed quite a bit since its release in April, with extensive firmware upgrades accounting for significant performance gains. Let’s see how things stack up – both against the competition and against the older firmware.
The specifications definitely look good, more so for the larger capacity drives. While the lower capacity drives are definitely no slouches, the 256GB and 512GB drives are extremely strong. The reason for this is that the larger drives have more flash chips available to move the data in parallel, hence the strong high queue depth performance of these drives.
The Vertex 4 has 2Xnm Synchronous MLC NAND flash accompanied by an Indilinx Everest 2 controller. This is the second Indilinx controller since OCZ acquired Indilinx back in March of 2011 (their Octane drive had the first). This is very notable, as Vertex drives used to be a Sandforce playground. Now that OCZ has its own controller arm, they’re free to innovate on their own in the top end of the performance SSD market.
I really enjoy Anand Lal Shimpi’s SSD reviews and I think he put it better than I could hope to: “Make no mistake, while Octane was a shot across SandForce’s bow, Vertex 4 means war.” That’s not to say the Vertex 3 is going anywhere just yet; they seem to still be produced and sold, but the Vertex 4 is here and its shot is making a loud boom.
All of that said, what’s really interesting about this is that the Indilinx controller is actually using Marvell hardware, with custom Indilinx firmware and increased clockspeed. This seems to have been a necessity post-acquisition to get multiple Indilinx controllers to market quickly. They are working on their own silicon for the future though.
With specs and features like these, things are definitely looking good for this drive.
The Vertex 4 256G SSD
The Vertex 4 retains the same packaging as its predecessors, just with different labeling. Of import to this line is the “Indilinx Infused” label.
Pulling the drive out, you can see it’s safely encased in foam and the 3.5″ adapter bracket is nestled on top of it to offer protection.
Accessories for an SSD are generally slim, you get the aforementioned adapter, screws, an installation guide and a sticker.
The drive itself is as understated as its Sandforce-based older brothers, with the Indilinx label added prominently in the lower right. I really like the Matte black look with shiny highlights. It’s classic and sophisticated, as computer components go.
Now let’s void that warranty and see what lies on the inside.
Pulling the cover off, the first thing you’ll notice is a thermal pad. Yes, the Indilinx controller runs a bit warmer than the Sandforce controllers that came before it. The thermal pad allows it to use the SSD’s casing as a heatsink. I’ve felt it and it doesn’t seem to get warm really, so it’s definitely not a hot controller; but it does run warm enough to make OCZ want to give the heat an avenue to escape.
Right in the middle you can see the Indilinx Everest 2 controller. It is surrounded by eight, 25nm, 16GB Intel MLC NAND flash chips and a Mircon DDR3-1333 chip for cache. The other side has identical NAND and additional DDR3 cache.
Here is a closeup of the cache chips and the controller. These chips are 256MB each, for 512MB of total cache on the drive.
Now that you’ve seen the drive inside out, let’s hook it up and see what it’s made of.
The test setup has changed a little bit from the previous drives to this one. Prior drives were tested on P67 and Z68 based boards. The Vertex 4, due to our test bed update, has been tested on a Z77 board. While the differences should be extremely small, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know it. Thus, the full test bed for this review is as follows:
|CPU||Intel i7 3770K|
|RAM||G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-2133|
|MB||ASUS Maximus V GENE|
|SSD||OCZ Vertex 4 256GB, Firmware 1.4 & 1.5|
|OS||Microsoft Window 7 Professional x64|
OCZ Toolbox Software
Conveniently for a drive with such strong firmware updates, OCZ has the OCZ Toolbox software to help with updating your drive’s firmware when they release new versions. Additionally, in the Security tab, you can secure erase your drive, which allows you to do that with a few simple mouse clicks. That feature alone is a life saver, especially compared to the old method of having to boot to a linux live CD.
Take note some firmware updates are destructive, meaning they’ll erase all of your data. It’s good to make a backup before flashing anyway of course, just make sure you pay attention when flashing firmware.
Now, before we get into performance numbers, first…
A Note About Performance vs. Standard Modes
As of Firmware 1.4, OCZ introduced two modes to this drive. Before the drive is 50% full, it operates in performance mode, where you can expect to see numbers in our testing below. Once it reaches that 50% mark, the drive will switch to standard mode, which will be similar to its pre-1.4 firmware performance (see the original Anandtech review from April).
There have been complaints at OCZ forums about a severe drop in performance, but thankfully that is a relatively quick transition while the drive re-organizes all of the pages after hitting the 50% mark. This should only take a few minutes, but while it does that, there may be a noticeable impact on performance.
I emailed OCZ to verify the accuracy of these statements (they’re accurate) and they shared their thought process on the different modes, which seems reasonable.
Prior to the development of firmware 1.4 OCZ has been gathering usage data patterns for quite some time and between selected test case customers and internal SSD usage there are several trends that have repeatedly surfaced that we wanted to address directly with this latest update. One of these is that SSDs, more often than not, have large percentages of unused space. Examples include users leveraging SSDs as boot drives, for their hot data or simply for their more performance oriented applications. In the 1.4 firmware release OCZ leveraged these findings and optimized our garbage collection to provide a significant performance boost to users that fall into this category. Effectively what this means is that drives that are less than half full will enjoy further optimized performance and after crossing more than half full the garbage collection algorithm will re-optimize the drive for maximum efficiency based on a larger data footprint. During this transition there may be a small latency hit, but this is a onetime event, and overall performance quickly improves as the drive is now optimized for the larger amount of storage. OCZ feels that this firmware optimization further enhances the overall SSD experience for our customer base.
We try to test a broad spectrum of potential data loads, with both compressible (i.e. ATTO) and in-compressible (i.e. AS SSD) data, so you can judge how the drive will perform in varied situations. These are all performed on an empty, formatted drive, which is secure-erased before all benchmarks.
Let’s start off with some CrystalDiskMark, which throws a gigabyte of random data at the drive.
Superb performance from the Vertex 4, especially with writes, which simply eclipse the competition (as do small file reads). The one negative is sequential reads, where the firmware upgrade actually took a hit on performance, dropping from over 500MB/s to around 440MB/s.
The interesting part is that the drive DOES get over 500MB/s in CrystalDiskMark, but it’s not consistent. The number above was obtained by running CDM five times and averaging the result on OCZ’s request. While nothing else really changed between runs, the sequential write speed did vary, by a lot. In three of the five runs, sequential read speed was ~411MB/s. In two of them, sequential read speed was over 500MB/s.
I have no idea why it performs the way it does in this benchmark, but that’s what you can expect. In other tests performance remained consistent all the time and did not vary run-to-run.
AS SSD is tough on a drive, with completely incomprehensible data. There are three basic data points to the test – speeds, access times and, finally, the AS SSD score. Speeds are up first.
When reading and writing small files, especially at high thread count, the Vertex 4 is unparallelled. Even single threaded it bests all of the competition. When writing sequentially, again, it decimates every other drive we’ve tested. The only place where the Vertex 4 lags is with sequential reads, which fall behind the other drives.
What’s intriguing about the Vertex 4 is how close the speeds are when reading and writing. All other drives (which are Sandforce based) have a large disparity between high read speeds and lower write speeds. Not so with the Vertex 4, so you can enjoy consistent performance when reading and writing.
Access times are predictable based on data transfer rates above – with read access times not quite as good as the competition and write access times coming in at merely a fraction of other drives.
Thanks to small file performance and drastically lower write access times, the Vertex 4 shatters the competition’s scores in AS SSD.
ATTO Disk Benchmark
ATTO is generally how drives are rated for transfer speeds. It gives an accounting from 1KB all the way up to 8MB. First up: Write speeds.
As we’ve seen before, the Vertex 4 is extremely strong with small file writes. Once it hits 16K and up though, it’s pretty much on par with the competition that came before. One good thing to note is the improvement between firmware. A simple firmware upgrade leads to dozens of MB worth of file transfer speed increases. Kudos to the firmware team at OCZ!
Read speeds are where this drive has suffered and it continues to do so. What’s surprising here is the small file reads are actually lower than the competition, which is the opposite of the data above. Once it hits its stride with larger files, reads are right up there with the rest of the pack.
IOMeter is older but still one of the strongest tests you can run on a drive.
Write speeds show their strength here in both 2MB (after the firmware update) and 4KB. 2MB Read speeds took a small hit with the firmware update, but are still at the top of the heap.
2MB IOPS are as we’d expect, with strong write IOPS and not-as-strong read IOPS.
4KB shows the same story we’ve seen throughout – the Vertex 4 simply excels when writing files, and is among the top drives when reading them.
Since the original Sandforce drives have been out, boot time hasn’t changed a ton, especially relative to data transfer rates and IOPS. However, there are still gains to be had. Our competition will be a Sandforce-based Corsair F160 drive.
Not bad at all; the Corsair drive boots in only 15.7 seconds. Can the Vertex 4 reduce that even more?
Why, yes, it can. It shaved 1.778 seconds off, to be precise. While it doesn’t look like a huge drop, that’s actually an 11% drop in boot time, merely by copying the same Windows installation to a new drive.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
The Vertex 4 is a market leader, at least in Performance mode. Writes are simply off the charts, blowing away the competition, especially with in-compressible data. Just look back up at the AS SSD results and be amazed again.
There are drawbacks; the biggest of which is the switch to Standard Mode. Truthfully, after the initial lull while the drive re-organizes itself, you’ll never notice a difference in daily use.
Regardless, OCZ has taken a bold step, moving away from the Sandforce-saturated market and jumping head first into making its own controllers after purchasing Indilinx. You have to admire their gumption. After a couple years of Sandforce domination, we’re seeing them start to shake off the chains of third-party controller agreements and come into their own with Indilinx controllers.
Overall there is nothing to dislike about this drive. What makes it even more likable is the price. For a mere $209.99 with free shipping, you can have this 256GB drive. That’s an amazing $0.82/GB. We all knew SSDs would come down in price, but it’s amazing how far they’ve come. It’s also $90 less than the 240GB Vertex 3 Max IOPS, which this drive mostly out-performs.
The Vertex 4 will treat anyone well. OCZ’s firmware dedication is icing on the cake. Since April, we’ve seen aggressive firmware updating to help turn a good drive into a great one. From the firmware improvements to the aggressive pricing, this is one SSD worth putting in your system.