ADATA Falcon and Swordfish NVMe SSD Review: Pushing the Price/Performance Boundary

In recent years, ADATA has gained recognition as one of the global leaders of DRAM memory and Flash application products. They recently launched two redesigned PCI-Express x4 3.0 NVMe 1.3 drives, the Falcon and Swordfish, that push the price/performance boundary. New drivers come in at just 13 cents and 12 cents per gigabyte, respectively. Despite the remarkably low price, performance is still quite good. They even managed to include a stylish heatsink to help with thermal throttling and add a little bling to your build.

Specifications and Features

ADATA launched the feature-rich Falcon and Swordfish drives with aggressive pricing targeted at budget-conscious builders. Both drives are running the PCIe 3.0 x4 interface, the M.2 form factor, and they feature AES 256-bit encryption with LDPC code decoding. While they are different, each drive is equipped with a Realtek controller and high-capacity 3D TLC NAND flash memory. For capacities up to 1 TB, the NAND memory is all located on the top side and there is nothing except a label on the underside.

For some buyers, it’s simply a matter of cost. If that’s the main factor in choosing a drive, then the 1 TB $114.99 Swordfish is a nice option. With performance ratings up to 1800 / 1200 MB/s (R/W), it is more than 3 times faster than a typical SATA3 SSD for about the same cost. The Swordfish product line has a total of four different capacities ranging from 256 GB up to 2 TB.

When it comes to speed, the Falcon boasts up to 3100 / 1500 MB/s and is priced at a reasonable $129.99. The sequential read and write performance is quite impressive for a drive at this price point. Similarly, the Falcon product line has a total of four different capacities ranging from 250 GB up to 2 TB. For the full product stack of each drive, see the table below:

Ordering Information
ADATA Part Number Model Capacity Description
AFALCON-256G-C FALCON 256 GB FLCON 256 GB COLOR BOX
AFALCON-512G-C FALCON 512 GB FLCON 512 GB COLOR BOX
AFALCON-1T-C FALCON 1 TB FLCON 1 TB COLOR BOX
AFALCON-2T-C FALCON 2 TB FLCON 2 TB COLOR BOX
ASWORDFISH-250G-C SWORDFISH 250 GB SWORDFISH 250 GB COLOR BOX
ASWORDFISH-500G-C SWORDFISH 500 GB SWORDFISH 500 GB COLOR BOX
ASWORDFISH-1T-C SWORDFISH 1 TB SWORDFISH 1 TB COLOR BOX
ASWORDFISH-2T-C SWORDFISH 2 TB SWORDFISH 2 TB COLOR BOX

Full specifications are in the table below:

Specifications
Model Falcon Swordfish
Capacity 256 GB / 500 GB / 1 TB / 2 TB 256 GB / 500 GB / 1 TB / 2 TB
Color  Gold Gray
Form Factor M.2 2280 M.2 2280
Weight 9 g 10.5 g
Interface PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 PCIe Gen 3.0 x4
Flash 3D NAND 3D NAND
Controller Realtek RTS5762DL Realtek RTS5763DL
Dimensions 80 x 22 x 2.9 mm 80 x 22 x 3.85 mm
Security AES 256-Bit Encryption AES 256-Bit Encryption
Sequential Read / Write (Max*) Up to 3100 / 1500 MB/s Up to 1800 / 1200 MB/s
4KB Random IOPS Read / Write (Max*) Up to 180 / 180 K Up to 180 / 180 K
Operating Temperature 0°C – 70°C 0°C – 70°C
Storage Temperature -40°C – 85°C -40°C – 85°C
Shock Resistance 1500G/0.5ms 1500G/0.5ms
MTBF 1,800,000 hours 1,800,000 hours
Warranty Limited 5-year Limited 5-year
Pricing $129.99 $114.99
Cost per Gigabyte (1 TB) 13 cents 12 cents
Product Download Page Falcon Downloads Swordfish Downloads

Packaging/Product Tour

Given that ADATA is pushing the limits of price/performance, we didn’t expect much in terms of packaging. However, we were presently surprised that the Falcon and Swordfish actually arrived in a full-color box. On that front, we have a high-quality image of the drive and the product branding info. On the backside, we are bombarded with drive details in multiple languages. Although the printing is very tiny and difficult to read, all of the core information you need is available.

Inside the box, the drive is safely tucked away inside a plastic insert. This appears to be a sturdy and effective way to package the drives. We’ve seen ostensibly high-end NVMe drives packaged in a basic blister pack with no other protection, so ADATA scores points for providing excellent budget-conscious packaging. There are no product manuals or other accessories inside the box.

 

The Falcon

It’s exceedingly rare for drives of this price point to come equipped with a heatsink. Modern NVMe drives tend to overheat and throttle performance if they are being used for heavy disk workloads. To combat these issues, the Falcon is equipped with a simple, aluminum heatsink. It’s composed of brushed aluminum with an embossed brand and a clever etching which gives it a unique style.  The coloring is light-gold, similar in tone to the copper fingers on the edge of DDR4 memory modules or graphics cards.

The controller is a Realtek RTS5762DL, a simplified version of their flagship controller. Both controllers were designed with high-end SSDs in mind. In the 1 TB model, as tested, there is nothing on the underside except for a label showing the product details.

The Swordfish

Similar to its big brother, the Swordfish drive also comes equipped with an aluminum heatsink. The overall color is light gray, which might help it blend into system components and other motherboard elements. The heatsink makes excellent contact with the controller and NAND memory ICs, so in theory, it should provide some additional cooling support.

Under the hood, we find the Realtek RTS5763DL. This is an entry-level NVMe controller but it still offers great performance and the PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 interface. The underside of the drive is devoid of any ICs or surface mount components.

 

We respect a good heatsink because temperature throttling kills drive performance. Keeping the drive running cool will also help the longevity of the associated components. However, the heatsinks which ADATA implements here are only about 1/64″ thick and likely won’t be adequate to stop throttling under all circumstances.

For users who will use the drive as-is, the cooling solution is a bit weak for huge workloads. On the other hand, those who wish to use this drive with an integrated motherboard M.2 cooler will have difficulties. The drive cannot be used with an integrated motherboard heatsink unless you remove the stock cooler and thus potentially damage it or void the warranty. For this reason, the heatsink is actually a disadvantage, and is one reason why we see high-end drives launched with no cooling solution at all.

Looking at budget motherboards–even in the X570 or Z490 chipsets–we find that many models don’t come with integrated cooling solutions for M.2 slots. Given that the Swordfish and Falcon are budget-oriented drives, we feel they are appropriately equipped.

Software

Every Swordfish or Falcon purchase qualifies for free downloads of ADATA SSD Toolbox and Migration Utility. SSD Toolbox allows users to monitor and manage the drive status, wear level, and lifespan information. The Migration Utility is especially helpful for users making the move from HDD to SSD, as it’s designed for simple and quick backup and migration of the contents of entire drives, including the operating system.

We found the software quite easy to use and surprisingly feature-rich compared to competitors. There is an option to upgrade the drive firmware, direct from the internet, right within the software. We can’t think of a better piece of companion software to be bundled with the drive.

SSD ToolBox Download Link

Testing Method and Test System

We know what some of the drive’s performance specs are on paper, but how does it actually perform in real-world tests? To answer that, we’re going to put both drives through the gamut of benchmark programs to evaluate the relative performance. In between each major benchmark phase, the drive will be sanitized from the motherboard bios and formatted to NTFS with default settings under Windows 10.

With a naked drive and no cooling at all, there was no thermal throttling observed, even running the benchmarks back-to-back to simulate a worst-case scenario. All benchmark results and stress testing was done in an open-air test bench without fans or direct airflow.

Below are the tests we run with a brief description.

  • Crystal Disk Mark v 7.0.0 x64 – Run at Default Settings (5 Passes)
  • AS SSD v 2.0.7316 – Run at Default Settings
  • ATTO v 3.05 – Run at Default Settings except for the QD Set to 10
  • Thermal Testing – 5 passes back-to-back of Crystal Disk Mark.
  • DiskBench v2.7.0.1 – Use predefined 120 GB transfer file
  • Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Benchmark – Run at Default Settings
  • Anvil Storage Utility Benchmark v 1.1.0 – Default Settings
Test System Components
Motherboard ASRock X570 Taichi
CPU AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
CPU Cooler Corsair H115i RGB PRO XT
Memory T-Force XTREEM ARGB 16 GB (2 x 8 GB) 3600 CL14-15-15
SSD Samsung 970 EVO Plus SSD 1 TB (OS)
Power Supply Seasonic Prime SSR-1200PD 1200 W
Video Card EVGA RTX 2080 Ti Kingpin Edition

 

Benchmark Results

CrystalDiskMark

Crystal Disk Mark Read
CrystalDiskMark Write

In terms of read and write performance, the Falcon has a rated speed of 3100 / 1500 MB/s, and the Swordfish has a rated speed of of 1800/ 1200 MB/s. We are happy to report that the real-world test results show that our drive easily matched and surpassed the manufacturer’s rated speed in all cases.

The read performance always surpasses the write performance as we expected. However, the Swordfish drive proved to be evenly balanced between read and write performance. We found the Falcon’s write performance to be lacking. The drive heavily favors read performance, which results in imbalance.

AS SSD

AS SSD Read
AS SSD Write

When it came down to AS SSD, the Falcon’s sequential read results were on par with the very best Gen 3.0 x4 drives on the market. It’s certainly a top performer in that category; however, the budget nature of the drive is represented in the write results.

While the Swordfish did not reach the high heights of the Falcon drive, it did prove itself to be a very consistent drive. In at least two instances, the Swordfish drive actually surpassed the Falcon drive.

ATTO

ATTO Write

Although we’ve already covered it in the CDM results, our ATTO results display it best. The Falcon drive produces excellent read results, but it is clearly lacking when it comes down to write performance.

Thermal Testing

The ADATA SSD Toolbox provides real-time temperature sensing of the NVMe drives. However, in an effort to be as thorough as possible we will use a K-Type thermal probe and a Fluke F51-II digital thermometer for temperature readings. The thermal probe has been taped to the actual drive with Kapton tape, and we tried to center the probe as close to the controller as possible.

The Falcon drive was the warmest while idling and also one of the hottest under load we tested. At the end of 5 passes of CrystalDiskMark, the Falcon drive was 73.7 °C and climbing slowly. While it didn’t actually overheat and throttle, we think it’s a real possibility that this drive could throttle under the right circumstances.

The Swordfish drive stayed remarkably cool and never came close to the throttling limit. Once again this drive proved to be consistent and reliable.

DiskBench

Synthetic performance benchmarks are useful, but they don’t give us much of an insight into daily usage. DiskBench allows us to specify a file, and it will transfer from one directory to another while keeping a record of speed and time.

We used a 120 GB file composed of random data and specified that it be moved from drive to drive.

Up until this point, we’ve seen the Swordfish outperform the higher-spec Falcon drive; however, we didn’t expect it to win here. This proved to be a valuable test because synthetic benchmarks only show us a part of the picture. Here we can see how the drives perform when it comes to normal daily tasks.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Game Load Test

Square Enix added scene-loading metrics to the Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers benchmark. The program renders simulated 3D game scenes and evaluates the overall system performance. One of the features of the benchmark is that it records the time it takes to load each scene. If the game is launched from the SSD drive in question, then it gives us an indication of how game performance can be affected by hard drive speed.

Looking at the total loading time, we see a similar trend develop which mirrors the DiskBench results. When it comes to real-world tasks, the lower-spec Swordfish drive simply outperforms the higher-priced Falcon drive.

Anvil Storage Utility

Anvil’s storage utility can monitor and test read and write speeds on hard drives, and it also produces an output performance score for comparison. Beyond performance benchmarks, it also provides further information such as partition and volume information.

Anvil’s Storage Utility

The total score attained by Anvil’s utility is a good measure of the total drive performance. It takes into account all of the aforementioned benchmarks and attempts to collate the results into one quantifiable result.  When all factors are taken into consideration, it turns out that the Falcon and Swordfish drives are actually a little more evenly matched than we had anticipated.

Conclusion

ADATA set out to deliver rock-solid performance and reliability at budget prices. With the Swordfish and Falcon drives, they’ve struck a balance between performance and rock-bottom pricing. The Swordfish drive, in particular, is one of the most affordable 1 TB NVMe drives on the market currently, and it packs a punch in the performance department too. ADATA was able to cut costs and maintain respectable performance by implementing the Realtek RTS57xx series controllers. Furthermore, they shaved the cost by opting to not include a DRAM cache IC. Both of the drives suffer in terms of IOPS performance, though, because there is no DRAM chip to handle communication.

When it came down to performance, we had high expectations for the Falcon drive. Our results showed blistering fast read speeds over 3400 MB/s, which is well above the rated speed. However, looking at the big picture, the Falcon’s write performance is not proportional to its read performance. In both of our real-world test examples, the Falcon didn’t live up to its expectations for a drive that boasts such high read numbers. Primarily due to the write performance, we rank the Falcon somewhere between a midrange and high-end drive.

Where the Swordfish is concerned, it’s easy to dismiss it as a low-tier NVMe drive due to its CrystalDiskBench performance of  1800 / 1200 MB/s. While it did not produce results up there with the top Gen 3 drives, it did surprise us with how stable and balanced the performance was. In the real-world tests, the Swordfish beat the Falcon in both test cases.

We’ve seen faster drives out there for synthetic benchmarks and real-world tasks, but where these drives really shine is the price/performance ratio. Coming in at $129.99 for the 1 TB version, the Falcon is one of the only drives on the market to offer over 3000 MB/s read performance at that price point. The 1 TB Swordfish drive is priced at $114.99, which is basically as good as it gets in the current climate. With prices and performance like we have seen here today, there’s just no reason to buy SATA drives for raw storage anymore if you have an available M.2 slot.  Do yourself a favor and get your hands on one of these drives for your next budget computer build.

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