Samsung is in a unique position in the SSD market. It’s the only company in the consumer SSD business with a fully vertically integrated business model and zero reliance on other companies. The controller, NAND, DRAM, firmware and software are all designed and produced by Samsung, whereas other companies only focus on their core strengths and outsource the rest. Even the semiconductor giant Intel has switched to SandForce in their consumer lineup and only their enterprise drives get the complete in-house treatment, which to be honest makes a lot of sense given that enterprise market is the one bringing the fat profits home.

Designing a platform (silicon, firmware & software) is expensive and making the same platform suitable for both consumer and enterprise markets is difficult. A consumer platform needs to be affordable and low power, whereas enterprises appreciate high performance and a rich feature set (remote management, data protection etc). That is a combination that does not mix very well. If the design focus is on the enterprise market, the platform tends to be too pricey and high power to succeed in the client space (like Intel’s DC S3500/S3700 platform), while a consumer focus results in a too limited platform in order to meet the price point. Ideally you would have two separate platforms but that is not very cost efficient.

What makes SandForce and Marvell lucrative partners is the platform they offer but it comes at a cost: you lose the ability to go custom. This is true especially with SandForce because they provide everything from the silicon to the firmware/software stack and the OEM can only configure the firmware to a certain degree, which based on what we've seen is very limited. Marvell's business model, on the other hand, only includes the silicon but the development of the firmware and additional software is up to the OEM. Since the characteristics of an SSD are mostly defined by the firmware, Marvell's offering is very alluring for larger OEMs (like Micron/Crucial and SanDisk) because it saves them the development costs of the silicon and still allows them to design the firmware from a scratch.

The moment when having control of everything from silicon to NAND and firmware production is the most beneficial is when transitioning to new technologies. Every time there's a change in NAND (be that a change in manufacturer or lithography), the firmware has to be tweaked due to differences in program/erase times and possibly page/block sizes as well. In case there's a bigger change (like moving from MLC to TLC or from planar NAND to 3D NAND), the silicon itself may have to updated. Compared to a simple firmware update, a new silicon update is always a much longer process and can take several years if we're talking about a bigger overhaul. Of course, a new silicon always needs an updated firmware too.

When all the development happens under the same roof in a vertically integrated company, things tend to be smoother and quicker. All teams can work seamlessly together and there should not be information barriers (at least in theory). If you have to work with a partner (or even worse, multiple partners), a lot of time will be spent on evaluating what details can be shared and with whom. In the end, the likes of LSI, Intel and Micron for instance are all competitors in one market or another and giving too detailed information may give the opponent an unwanted advantage. There is also the tradeoff angle: when developing a product for multiple partners, it is impossible to build a product that would meet everyone's needs and wants. 

Samsung's SSDs are a great example of how vertical integration can provide a significant advantage. Over a year later, Samsung is still the only OEM with a TLC NAND based SSD. When you hold the ties of silicon and NAND design and production, you can make whatever you can and want. For example in the case of TLC NAND, the limited supply and hence high pricing has pushed other OEMs away from it. In theory, TLC NAND is 33% cheaper to produce than 2-bit-per-cell MLC but due to the way the markets work, the price delta is smaller because MLC is a much higher volume product. If you are in control of the production like Samsung is, all you care about is the production price, which is where TLC NAND wins. Sure, Samsung isn't the only NAND manufacturer but it is the only one with a consumer orientated controller IP (although SK Hynix owns LAMD now but that deal has yet to materialize in a product). While TLC does not require a special controller, the NAND type has to be taken into account while designing the silicon in order to build an efficient SSD (e.g. ECC needs are higher and endurance is significantly lower). 

So why all the talk about Samsung SSD business model and its benefits? Because their latest product is yet another proof of their strengths. Please meet the SSD 840 EVO mSATA.

In the past Samsung's mSATA SSDs have been OEM only. I asked why and Samsung told me the small market for retail mSATA SSDs has kept them from entering the retail market. Unlike smaller OEMs, Samsung isn't interested in covering niche markets. Their advantage lies in scalability, which doesn't suit the niche market. Due to the rise of Ultrabooks, mini-ITX systems and other small form factor computers, Samsung saw that the market for retail mSATA SSDs if finally big enough. However, Samsung didn't want to provide just another alternative -- they wanted to offer a product that gives consumers a reason to upgrade.

Samsung SSD 840 EVO mSATA Specifications
Capacity 120GB 250GB 500GB 1TB
Controller Samsung MEX (3x ARM Cortex R4 cores @400MHz)
NAND 19nm Samsung TLC
DRAM Cache 256MB 512MB 512MB 1GB
Sequential Read 540MB/s 540MB/s 540MB/s 540MB/s
Sequential Write 410MB/s 520MB/s 520MB/s 520MB/s
4KB Random Read 98K IOPS 98K IOPS 98K IOPS 98K IOPS
4KB Random Write 35K IOPS 66K IOPS 90K IOPS 90K IOPS
Warranty Three years

Hardware and specification wise the EVO mSATA is a match with the 2.5" EVO, which shouldn't surprise anyone since we're dealing with identical hardware. All features including RAPID, TurboWrite and hardware encryption (TCG Opal 2.0 & eDrive) are supported. I won't go into detail about any of these since we've covered them in the past but be sure to check the links for a refresh.

The uniqueness of the EVO mSATA is its capacity. Like its 2.5" sibling, the EVO mSATA is offered in capacities of up to 1TB. Most Ultrabooks and similar systems still ship with only 128GB of internal storage, leaving a good market for bigger aftermarket drives. 

To date we've only seen a couple of 480GB mSATA SSDs (Mushkin Atlas and Crucial M500), while most models have been limited to 256GB. The limiting factor has been the physical dimensions of mSATA, which only allow up to four NAND packages. Given that the highest density NAND available to OEMs is currently 64Gb (8GB) per die and up to eight of those dies can be packed into a single package, the maximum capacity with four packages comes in at 256GB (4x8x8GB). Micron is supposed to start shipping their 128Gbit NAND (the one used in the M500) to OEMs during the next few months, which will double the capacity to 512GB, though still only half of what the EVO mSATA offers.

Like the 2.5" EVO, the EVO mSATA uses Samsung's own 19nm 128Gb TLC (3-bit-per-cell) die. We've gone in-depth with TLC a handful of times already and we have also shown that its endurance is fine for consumer usage, so I am not going to touch those points here. However, there is something particular in the EVO mSATA and its NAND that allows a capacity of 1TB in mSATA form factor. Hop on to the next page to find out.

NewEgg Price Comparison (1/6/2014)
  120/128GB 240/256GB 480/500GB 1TB
Samsung SSD 840 EVO mSATA $150 $260 $490 $860
Samsung SSD 840 EVO $101 $180 $325 $599
Mushkin Atlas $109 $195 $468 -
Crucial M500 $113 $176 $320 -
Plextor M5M $112 $200 - -
Intel SSD 525 $146 $290 - -
ADATA XPG SX300 $110 $200 - -

The EVO mSATA will be available this month and exact launch schedule depends on the region. There will only be a bare drive version -- no notebook and desktop update kits like the 2.5" EVO offers.

I wasn't able to find the EVO mSATA on sale anywhere yet, hence the prices in the table are the MSRPs provided by Samsung. For the record, the MSRPs for EVO mSATA are only $10 higher than 2.5" EVO's, so I fully expect the prices to end up being close to what the 2.5" EVO currently retails for. 

Test System

 

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 4 x 8GB (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

Thanks to G.Skill for the RipjawsX 32GB DDR3 DRAM kit

The NAND: Going Vertical, Not 3D (Yet)
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  • ahar - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    Can we also have one for the article? ;)
    "...so the number's you're seeing here..."
    Reply
  • Unit Igor - Saturday, January 11, 2014 - link

    Tell me Kristian please would EVO 120GB msata have any advantage over EVO 250gb msata in longer battery life when you compare power consuptipon vs. disk busy times and mb/s.I use my ultrabook only for mails ,somtimes wathing movies and surfing.I dont need more then 120GB SSD but i am willing to buy 250Gb if it would give me more battery life.What i wanted to see in your benchmark is MobileMark 2012 because msata is for laptops and that is where battery life play big role Reply
  • guidryp - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    "endurance is fine for consumer usage"

    Thanks for your opinion, but I'll stick with MLC.

    Do you also think Multi-TB HDDs are fine for consumer use? Since HDDs went over 1TB, they have been failing/wearing out for me regularly. I am sure you can find some theoretical numbers that say these are "fine for consumer usage" as well.

    There is a big trend to bigger sizes but lower reliability. That trend can get stuffed.

    Samsungs advantage of Being the only TLC player strikes me as a reason to avoid Samsung, so I can avoid TLC and decreasing endurance that goes with it.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    That's just your experience, it's not a proof that over 1TB hard drives are less reliable. We can't go out and start claiming that they are less reliable unless we have some concrete proof of that (failures on our end, statistics etc).

    The same applies for TLC. All we have is the P/E cycle number and frankly it gives us a pretty good estimation of the drive's lifespan and those numbers suggest that the endurance of TLC is completely fine for consumer usage. Or do you think our calculations are incorrect?
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    And add to that that the P/E cycles are usually conservatively estimated by manufacturers. The SSD-burn-tests at XS sometimes exceed the ratings significantly. Reply
  • guidryp - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    I think if you examine any aggregate source of reviews like Newegg you will see a significant drop in drive satisfaction do to early failures, since drives went over 1TB. So it isn't just some personal fluke that half of my >1TB drives have failed worn out, so far.

    I am really sick of this trend of declining reliability being sold as good enough. If TLC is "good enough" I will take MLC with 3X "good enough" unless the we are talking about 1/3 the price for TLC.

    Weren't the Samsung 840s failing in days for Anand last year?

    Unlike reviewers, I use my products until they fail, so reliability matters a LOT, and is something that is going in the wrong direction IMO.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    Reliability is not the same as endurance. TLC has lower endurance, that's a fact, but it's not less reliable. Endurance is something you can predict (in the end all electronics have a finite lifespan) but reliability you cannot since there's a lot else than just NAND that can fail. I would claim that today's SSDs are much more reliable than the SSDs we had two years ago -- there haven't been any widespread issues with current drives (compared to e.g. early SandForce drives).

    Yes, we had a total of three 840 and 840 Pros that failed but that was on pre-production firmware. The retail units shipped with a fixed firmware.

    This isn't a new trend. Historically we can go back all the way to 1920s when light bulb companies started rigging their products so the lifespan would be shorter, which would in turn increase sales. Is it fair? Of course not. Do all companies do it? Yes.

    I do see your point but I think you're exaggerating. Even TLC SSDs will easily outlive the computer as a whole since the system will become obsolete in in a matter of years anyway if it's not updated.
    Reply
  • gandergray - Saturday, January 25, 2014 - link

    For information concerning hard drive failure rates that is more objective, please see the following article: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/175089-who-make... . Reply
  • althaz - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    TLC is NOT a trade off in reliability, but a tradeoff in longevity.

    Longevity is measured in write-cycles and with heavy consumer loads TLC drives will still last for many years.
    Reply
  • bsd228 - Thursday, January 09, 2014 - link

    Other than the fact that they both store data, SSDs and HDDs have nothing in common, so it's silly to presume a problem that isn't really what you think it is in the first place. HDDs got dirt cheap as we cross the TB threshold and with it went diligent QA. You want 2TB for $80, you're going to get a higher defect rate. And going to 4 or 5 platters just increases the failure points, but the razor thin margins are the culprit here.

    In contrast, a bigger SSD just means either more chips, or higher density ones. But 16 chips is nothing new, and since there are no mechanical parts, nothing to worry about. Aside from OCZ, the SSD track record for reliability has been pretty solid, and Samsung (and Intel) far better than that. If you want to stick to 256G in your laptop out of a silly fear of TLC, you're just hurting yourself. The Anand guys have already shown how overstated the wear issue has become.
    Reply

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