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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  • Brenderick - Saturday, February 15, 2014 - link

    mSata was what the commenter wanted. Reply
  • MoFoQ - Friday, January 10, 2014 - link

    same hardware?
    The mSATA version has 4 NAND packages.
    The 2.5" version has 8.

    Sure, the number of dies total might be the same.
    It's like comparing two houses of the same square-footage....except one of them is a two-story house and the other, a single-story one.

    With that said, it is an interesting development for mSATA SSDs.
    I can't wait until other manufacturers come to market to help drive the price down.
    Reply
  • emvonline - Friday, January 10, 2014 - link

    16 die packages are possible at all NAND suppliers and it is relatively straight forward to implement. the issue is usually that there is minimal demand for anything requiring it. What percentage of the market is 1TB? I think we are talking less than 3% above 512G for consumers. let me know if I am wrong.

    TLC is great for Samsung product margins. so far it hasn't led to a cost decrease for consumers.

    Samsung's execution is the amazing part. they have good (or great) products in every market at every density. And they have the most aggressive marketing campaign. No one else has been able to achieve this.
    Reply
  • Marrixster - Saturday, January 11, 2014 - link

    Thanks very much indeed for this review. I already have 2 Samsung PM851 512GB (MZMTE512HMHP-00000). And, just prior to reading this review ordered the 1TB model (MZ-MTE1T0BW).
    The price is AUD822.99 (ramcity.com.au), very expensive. However, the convenience of this form factor justifies cost from my point of view.
    Now, it's simply a matter of deciding which lappy it gets installed in.
    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 consumption vs. disk busy times and mb/s.I use my ultrabook only for mails ,sometimes watching 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
  • philipma1957 - Sunday, January 12, 2014 - link

    the new gigabyte brix with the i7 4770r cpu 16th ram and a 1tb mSata would be really nice gear. Reply
  • nogoms - Monday, January 13, 2014 - link

    You start off with the claim that "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."

    This is, however, not actually true. SK Hynix is in a similar position, as they've had their own controllers, NAND, and DRAM since their purchase of LAMD a year and a half ago. Admittedly, they hadn't actually released a completely in-house SSD using a LAMD controller until late last year with the release of the SH 920 series. In fact, the Surface Pro 2 uses an SK Hynix mSATA SSD (with a LAMD controller), as noted in Anand's review and iFixIt's teardown. SK Hynix also doesn't appear to be making the SH920 series available in retail outside of Asia, though Super Talent's Supernova3 series is available in retail in North America (from the likes of SuperBiiz and various third-party sellers on Amazon and Newegg) and appears to be rebranded 2.5" SK Hynix SH920 series drives.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Monday, January 13, 2014 - link

    I did mention SK Hynix and LAMD later in the article:

    "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)"

    The thing is, while Hynix does have a LAMD based SSD, it's the same controller that other's are using. It's possible that Hynix has contributed to the firmware but it's not a fully in-house designed platform (the controller was designed way before the acquisition took place).
    Reply
  • nogoms - Monday, January 13, 2014 - link

    That statement is also false, as SK Hynix's LAMD controller *has* materialized in products, as I pointed out in my previous post--they're available in complete systems like the Surface Pro 2 worldwide as well as standalone at retail (in East Asia). Also, it's disingenuous to say it's not fully in-house when the controller and firmware were designed and written by teams currently in the employ of SK Hynix, and even if one were to accept your contention that such an arrangement is not "fully in-house designed," the opening statement of the article does not all of a sudden become true, as Samsung is still not the only manufacturer with "a fully integrated business model" or "zero reliance on other companies." Reply
  • Hrel - Monday, January 13, 2014 - link

    any idea when we'll be able to get 512GB drives for under $200? Reply

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