SSD Supertest – December 2012 (Part 5) : Samsung 840 250GB, Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

12/18/2012 3:27:59 PM

Vital statistics

·         Price: $256

·         Manufacturer: Samsung

·         Web: www.samsung.com

·         Capacity: 250GB

·         Memory type: TLC toggle

·         Controller: Samsung MDX

·         Interface: SATA 6Gbps

·         Peak performance: 540MB/sread, 250MB/s write

·         Max IOPS: 96k

Samsung 840 250GB

Finally, the SSD industry is getting a little TLC. A painfully obvious pun, perhaps, but the arrival of triple-level cell flash memory in a mainstream SSD is such a big deal, we're willing to take the flack.

That Samsung is the one to deliver it, however, is not a huge surprise. The Korean giant is currently cranking out world-beating kit in several segments, from smartphones to ARM chips and HDTVs.

That includes pushing the boundaries of SSD tech. Samsung is pretty much alone these days in being able to bring together the key ingredients inside a solid-state drive. No other company does its own flash memory, controller chipset and even DRAM. It's the complete Samsung package.

Of course, that in-house edge means Samsung can give itself first dibs with key developments. No doubt its new TLC memory will appear fairly soon in a wide range of SSDs from several brands. But here and now, it's unique to the new Samsung 840.

The big win with TLC memory is, obviously, data density. The ability to store three bits per cell means an increase of 50 per cent over conventional MLC flash in terms of data density, and in turn promises a drop in SSD prices at a given capacity.

The pricing part of the package hasn't happened immediately. But we doubt it will be long before the influence of TLC flash can be seen throughout the industry in the form of lower prices. Hurrah.

However, there's more to TLC than mere capacity, and it's not all good. In very simple terms, TLC memory is both slower and less robust. It can’t cope with as many write-and- erase cycles as MLC memory. That's probably why Samsung is reluctant to quote exactly how many of those cycles its new TLC chips can swallow.

Poor endurance

But really roughly, you're looking at around one third the longevity per cell of equivalent MLC memory. We also know that this new TLC memory has greater read and write latencies than MLC flash. Suddenly then, TLC doesn't sound like such a great idea after all.

Samsung 840 250GB

Samsung 840 250GB

Sure enough, if you scan the spec sheet you’ll find the new 840 is actually slower than the old 830 in some areas. Most notably sequential write performance, which drops from 400MB/s to just 250MB/s. Yikes.

But the 840 is also faster in other areas, including peak IOPS which are slightly up for reads and almost doubled for writes. The poorer endurance rating probably isn’t the disaster it first seems, either. Even a pessimistic calculation of longevity involving daily usage would put the likely lifespan at well over five years. Samsung provides a warranty for three years.

As our benchmark results show, the 840’s performance is pretty decent where it counts. It's competitive in our application tests and ponies up 4k random reads and writes that would have looked world-beating only a few months ago.

That doesn't make the new 840 a must-buy proposition immediately. For that we'll have to wait for the price advantages of TLC memory to fully kick in. But this SSD is only going to get more tasty as the price tumbles.

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

Vital statistics

·         Price: $334.4

·         Manufacturer: Samsung

·         Web: www.sam5ung.co.uk

·         Capacity: 256GB

·         Memory type: TLC toggle

·         Controller: Samsung MDX

·         Interface: SATA 6Gbps

·         Peak performance: 540MB/s read, 450MB/s write

·         Max IOPS: 100k

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

Yes, we know what you're thinking. Well over $320 for a 256GB SSD? Aren't SSD prices supposed to be going down, not up? Generally speaking, the answer would be a clear affirmative. But there’s always space for something a little special at the top of the price lists.

The question Samsung's asking, therefore, is just how much are you willing to pay for the ultimate in SSD oomph. Perhaps the toughest comparison for the 840 Pro is Samsung's own 830, which can be had in equal 256GB capacity for about $96 less. The new drive is going to need some pretty nifty moves to justify that price differential.

Technologically speaking, there's a triple whammy of critical enablers that might just make that possible: new flash memory, new firmware and a new controller chipset. The new memory is Samsung 21nm Toggle NAND complete with a 400Mbps interface.

Meanwhile, the controller is Samsung's fourth-generation effort, known as MDX. The chip's spec include three ARM Cortex R4 cores running at around 300MHzand the same controller you'll find in the much cheaper 840 non-pro.

For context, the old 830 series drive had a triple-core controller based on ARM cores and running at 220MHz and Toggle 1.0 NAND rated at 133Mbps.Sothe big difference in terms of performance you can likely trace to the flash memory in each drive.

As for the firmware, we don’t have any new data to divulge. But we can confirm that the foreground garbage collection feature from the 830's MCX controller remains, which bodes well for long-term reliability. On a related note, the 840 Pro comes with a standard five-year warranty, while the plain 840 makes do with three-year cover.

Rounding out the hardware is 512MB of 1,066MHz DDR2 DRAM cache memory. By default, spare memory area is set to around seven percent of capacity, though that's adjustable using Samsung SSD Magician tool.

Losing the magic

If that's the 840 Pro on paper, what's it like driving data round your desktop? Pretty darn good, on the whole. There is a proviso attached to this drive though, and not of its own making. Our test sample had been round the block once before and Samsung didn't make its SSD Magician software tool available to help us do a factory reset.

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB

That explains why a few of the performance numbers are a tad disappointing. We know, for instance, that it will do over 70MB/sin the ASSSD4K random write test in box-fresh condition. The 59MB/s that it achieves in our benchmarks is still good but it's just not as spectacular as it might have been. Of course, box freshness is not a terribly realistic state.

To reflect that, we also gave each drive an endurance test. For quite a few drives, the result was a pretty significant performance drop off. For the 840 Pro, what damage there was had already been done.

The only slight snag was that OCZ's Vertex 4 also ran the endurance test and managed to maintain its over 70MB/s speed. In objective terms, then, the new 840 Pro isn't quite the quickest drive you can buy.

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