The Plextor M3

Plextor sent us a 256GB model of their M3 series. Below is a table containing the specifications of their M3 line.

Plextor M3 Specifications
Model PX-64M3 PX-128M3 PX-256M3 PX-512M3
Raw NAND Capacity 64GiB 128GiB 256GiB 512GiB
Formatted Capacity 59.6GiB 119.2GiB 238.5GiB 476.9GiB
Number of NAND Packages 8 8 8 8
Number of die per Package 1 2 4 8
Sequential Read 520MB/s 510MB/s 510MB/s 525MB/s
Sequential Write 175MB/s 210MB/s 360MB/s 445MB/s
4K Random Read 55K IOPS 70K IOPS 70K IOPS 56K IOPS
4K Random Write 40K IOPS 50K IOPS 65K IOPS 30K IOPS
Cache (DDR3) 128MB 256MB 512MB 512MB

The Plextor M3 is available in all the standard capacities. In the light of the performance specifications, the M3 looks very promising. It beats its closest match, the Crucial m4, in all aspects. It's very competitive even with SandForce based SSDs and especially the stated random read figures are great.

NewEgg Price Comparison (4/2/2012)
  64GB 128GB 256GB 512GB
Plextor M3 $110 $180 $340 $660
Crucial m4 $88 $155 $315 $630
Intel 520 Series $110 $180 $345 $800
Samsung 830 Series $105 $185 $300 $780
OCZ Vertex 3 $90 $178 $340 $770

Price wise the M3 is not the cheapest SSD, especially in the smaller capacities. There is about $10-15 premium in the 64GB and 128GB models but 256GB and 512GB models are more competitively priced. Crucial's m4, however, comes in as a cheaper option than the M3 at every capacity so that will be a key matchup where Plextor has to win on performance or come down in pricing.

The external design of Plextor M3 is very solid. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Samsung 830 with its brushed metal finish. Only the Plextor logo has been printed on the front—The model and other important information are printed on a sticker on the back of the drive. The drive package includes a 3.5" bracket, quick installation guide, and a software CD, which includes a clone&backup utility along with performance analyzer. Plextor is giving the M3 a top notch 5-year warranty as well.

Each of the main components (controller, NAND devices, and DRAM) have their own little thermal pad. Since the chassis is also made out of metal, heat dissipation should not be a problem. 

Inside we find Marvell’s 88SS9174-BLD2 controller (or just 9174). This is the same controller that's in Crucial's m4, but the firmware is custom developed by Plextor. It’s actually a bit surprising, yet very refreshing, to see a Marvell based SSD for a change. Everyone seems to have a SandForce solution these days. We have seen that Marvell can be competitive; you just need to take the time to customize the firmware to get good performance. The stock SandForce firmware is fast enough, so it's obvious that many companies choose to go with the easiest option.

Flip the PCB and we find eight Toshiba 24nm 2-bit-per-cell MLC NAND devices. That’s coupled with two 256MB DDR-1333 chips from Nanya, giving a total of 512MB of DDR3 cache. 

Toshiba uses a Toggle-Mode interface and the current iteration (2.0) of Toggle-Mode NAND is good for up to 400MT/s per interface. Rating speed by transfers is a bit annoying as it doesn't tell us the actual bandwidth—for that we need the width of the channel and transfers per second. The channel in this case is 8 bits wide, so that works out to be 3.2Gbps per interface, or 400MB/s. With eight NAND packages, the maximum throughput works out to be 3200MB/s, over four times more than what SATA 6Gb/s can provide. Of course, reading from NAND and dumping the data into a register is one thing; it's another matter to actually transfer the data to a host controller over the interface.

We want to provide a quick word about firmware updates before we go into benchmarks. The drive came with FW 1.01, which was the latest at that time. Plextor has recently released FW 1.02 which is supposed to fix some issues but all our tests have been done using FW 1.01. Plextor is not claiming increased performance in the release notes of the update. The actual process of updating the firmware is very simple. Download a small ISO (~3MB) from Plextor's site, burn that to a CD or USB stick and boot from that. Press Enter and it automatically flashes the drive. I even had all my other drives plugged in and there was no problem. 

The Test

CPU

Intel Core i5-2500K running at 3.3GHz (Turbo and EIST enabled)

Motherboard

AsRock Z68 Pro3

Chipset

Intel Z68

Chipset Drivers

Intel 9.1.1.1015 + Intel RST 10.2

Memory G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-1600 2 x 4GB (9-9-9-24)
Video Card XFX AMD Radeon HD 6850 XXX
(800MHz core clock; 4.2GHz GDDR5 effective)
Video Drivers AMD Catalyst 10.1
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1080
OS Windows 7 x64

Our regular readers may notice that my testbed is not exactly the same as Anand's. Anand's setup is based on Intel's motherboard with H67 chipset, whereas mine is an ASRock board based on Intel's Z68 chipset. The important bit here is that both feature native SATA 6Gb/s support and both setups use the same drivers. Other features and components don't really have an effect on SSD testing. For example the average CPU usage during write speed tests is less than 5%.

Introduction Random and Sequential Read/Write Speed
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  • Kristian Vättö - Sunday, April 08, 2012 - link

    Then the thanks should go to the man himself, aka Anand :-) Reply
  • wvh - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    We're not criticising him, just teaching him the smell of old farts. Reply
  • tnicks - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Yep. I remember getting one of the first 2x burners back in the day from Plextor for ~$450 dollars. I still have nightmares of buffer underrun errors turning my $10/ea dollar blank cds into coasters. Reply
  • The0ne - Thursday, April 12, 2012 - link

    Yep. Their products back then were high quality but came at a cost. To give an example, I tested and qualify Plextor CD/DVD drives for use in our system entirely despite the cost. That's how good and reliable they were.

    I am, however, shocked that the review started off about not knowing about the company though. Plextor has been around for ages with good products, although their presence has been little here in the US. I imagine most that don't know about the company would be young in age, very young.
    Reply
  • Impulses - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Will you guys be keeping this drive in a production system to see how it does long term? Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    I'm using it as a boot drive in my main system at the moment. So far so good. Reply
  • ac2 - Friday, April 06, 2012 - link

    Kristian, you say correctly say "64GB and 128GB capacities are often the most popular capacities right now"

    And yet AT continues to persist with reviews of 200GB and up drives in almost all instances... It may be what the manufacturers are sending you but we expect better...
    Reply
  • iwod - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    I thought there is a New Marvell controller coming out soon? Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Marvell announced the 88SS9187 a couple of weeks ago but it will take a while before manufacturers release SSD based on it. Reply
  • bji - Thursday, April 05, 2012 - link

    Marvell is right across the street from me. Well, across the highway anyway. When I ride my bike to work I go through their campus.

    A year or two ago I was thinking how exciting the SSD controller concept was; I thought that there must be lots of neat algorithmic tricks that can be played to hide the performance issues with block-erase flash memory and it sounded like a very intruiging problem to work on.

    Too bad I didn't realize that Marvell would be working on SSD controllers (although I suspected they might). I should have popped across the highway and seen if I could get a job ... although, being a software developer with little experience in embedded controllers, it's unlikely they would have been interested.
    Reply

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