SandForce's situation has shaken up the SSD industry quite a bit. The constant delays of SF3700 and acquisitions have kept everyone on their toes because many OEMs have relied solely on SandForce for their controllers. If you go back two years or so, nearly every OEM without their own controller technology was using SandForce's controllers. But in the last six months or so, we have seen a shift away from SandForce. Sure, many are still using SandForce and will continue to do so, but quite a few OEMs that used to be SandForce-only have started to include other controllers in their portfolio as well. This is logical. Relying on a single supplier poses a huge risk because if something happens to that company, your whole SSD business is in trouble.

With the SF-2000 series the situation was totally different because the controller was on time for SATA 6Gbps and SandForce was a privately owned company; now the situation has changed. The SF3700 has been pushed back several times and the latest word is a Q4'14 release. In addition, SandForce has been acquired three times in the last three years: first in late 2011 by LSI, then Avago acquired LSI in Q4'13, and a few weeks ago Seagate announced that they will be acquiring LSI's Flash Components Division, a.k.a. the old SandForce. The first two acquisitions didn't have any major impact on SandForce (other than maybe added SF3700 delays), but the Seagate acquisition presents a substantial risk to SSD OEMs. Seagate has its own SSD business, so what if they decide to stop licensing the SandForce platform and keep the technology for their own exclusive use -- or at least delay the release to other companies?

That is a risk that may come to pass, and from what I have heard we will hear something significant in the coming months. But a risk always has two sides: a negative and a positive one. Shifting away from SandForce opens the market for new suppliers, which adds new opportunities for the SSD OEMs. Moreover, new suppliers always means more competition, which is ultimately beneficial for the end users. We have already seen JMicron's plans and they are aggressively going after SandForce's current and ex-customers, but there is another company that has been laying low and is now looking to make a comeback.

That company is Silicon Motion, or SMI as they are often called within the industry. Silicon Motion has been in the SSD industry for years but this is the first time an SSD with one of their controllers has found its way into our test lab. Silicon Motion's controllers have had more presence in the industrial SSD market, which would explain why we haven't seen its controllers before. With the SM2246EN, Silicon Motion is entering the consumer market and they already have a handful of partners. ADATA's Premier SP610, which we are reviewing today, is one of them, but Corsair's Force LX and PNY's Optima also use the same controller (although PNY is playing dirty and using SandForce controllers in the Optima as well).

The SM2246EN is a 4-channel design and features a single-core 32-bit ARC (Argonaut RISC Core) CPU. The benefit of ARC is that it is configurable and the client can design the CPU to fit the task, for example by adding extra instructions and registers. Generally the result is a more efficient design because the CPU has been designed specifically for the task at hand instead of being an all around solution like the most ARM cores are. In the end, the CPU will only be processing a limited set of tasks set by the firmware, so a specialized CPU can work well.

Each channel can talk to up to eight dies at the same time. Silicon Motion does not list any maximum capacity for the controller but with Micron's 128Gbit 20nm MLC NAND ADATA has been able to achieve a one terabyte capacity. That is in fact sixteen NAND dies per channel but the magic lies in the fact that the controller can talk to more than eight dies per channel, just not at the same time. Each NAND package has a certain amount of Chip Enablers, or CEs, that defines the number of dies that can be accessed simultaneously, but the number of CEs is usually lower than the number of dies, especially when dealing with packages with more than four dies.

Encryption support, including TCG Opal, is present at the hardware level. DevSleep is also supported, although ADATA told me that neither encryption nor DevSleep is supported in the SP610 at the moment. Encryption support (AES-256 and TCG Opal 2.0) is coming through a firmware update in Q3'14, though. IEEE-1667 won't be supported so Microsoft's eDrive is out of the question, unfrotunately, but TCG Opal 2.0 alone is sufficient if you use a third party software for encryption (e.g. Wave).

ADATA Premier SP610 Specifications
Capacity 128GB 256GB 512GB 1TB
Controller Silicon Motion SM2246EM
NAND Micron 128Gbit 20nm MLC
DRAM 128MB 256MB 512MB 1GB
Sequential Read 560MB/s 560MB/s 560MB/s 560MB/s
Sequential Write 150MB/s 290MB/s 450MB/s 450MB/s
4KB Random Read 66K IOPS 75K IOPS 73K IOPS 73K IOPS
4KB Random Write 35K IOPS 67K IOPS 72K IOPS 72K IOPS
Encryption AES-256 & TCG Opal 2.0 in Q3'14
Warranty Three years

ADATA has always been gracious with the bundled software and peripherals. The retail package of the SP610 includes a 3.5" desktop adapter as well as a 9.5mm spacer for laptops that use 9.5mm hard drives. For cloning the existing drive ADATA includes Acronis True Image HD, which in my experience is one of the most convenient tools for OS cloning.

Photography by Juha Kokkonen

The SP610 comes in a variety of capacities ranging from 128GB to up to 1TB (1024GB but marketed as 1TB). Like many SSD OEMs, ADATA buys NAND in wafers and does the binning and packaging on their own. I always thought the reason behind this was lower cost but ADATA told me that the cost is actually about the same as buying pre-packaged NAND straight from Micron. However, by doing the packaging ADATA can utilize special packages that go into some industrial and embedded solutions, which are not offered by Micron or other NAND manufacturers. There are four NAND packages on each side of the PCB, which means that we are dealing with dual-die packages at 256GB and quad-die packages at 512GB.

ADATA does not provide any certain endurance rating for the SP610 but since we are dealing with MLC NAND, there should be no concerns regarding the durability of the drive.

The PCB is about half the size of a normal PCB in a 2.5" SSD. This is not the first time we've seen a smaller PCB as several OEMs have used it as a method to cut costs. I doubt the cost savings are big but any and all savings are welcome given the tight competition in the market. It would be interesting to see the 1TB offering as well, to see if the internal layout has been modified at all.

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 Palit GeForce GTX 770 JetStream 2GB GDDR5 (1150MHz core clock; 3505MHz GDDR5 effective)
Video Drivers NVIDIA GeForce 332.21 WHQL
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1080
OS Windows 7 x64

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

Performance Consistency & TRIM Validation
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  • mapesdhs - Friday, June 27, 2014 - link


    I'd say go with the EVO; Samsung drives have excellent long term consistency, at
    least that's what I've found from the range of models I've obtained.

    Looking at the initial spec summary, the SP610 just seems like a slower MX100,
    which puts it below the EVO or any other drive in that class, so unless it's priced
    like the MX100 I wouldn't bother with it.

    Kristian, may I ask, why are there so many models missing from the tables? eg.
    Vector/150, Neutron GTX, M500, V300, Force Series 3, M550, M5Pro Extreme,
    etc. I'm glad the Extreme II is there though, that's quite a good model atm.

    Would be interesting to include a few older ones too, ie. to see how performance
    has moved on from the likes of the Vertex3/4 and others from bygone days. I still
    bag Vertex4s and original Vectors if I can as they hold up very well to current models,
    though this week I snapped up four 128GB Extreme IIs (45 UKP each) as their IOPS
    rating for a 128GB seems ideal for tasks like a big Windows paging drive in a system
    with 64GB RAM.

    Ian.

    PS. Obvious point btw, perhaps ADATA can improve the consistency issue with a fw update?
    Reply
  • stickmansam - Friday, June 27, 2014 - link

    The SP610 is actually about the same as the EVO and MX100 it seems based on overall results

    The firmware and controller actually seem pretty competitive

    I do agree that more drives should be compared if possible. Even the Bench tool seems to be missing drives that were in reviews in the past.
    Reply
  • dj_aris - Friday, June 27, 2014 - link

    Why are we still testing sata 3 drives anyway? Reply
  • mapesdhs - Friday, June 27, 2014 - link

    Because the vast majority of people still want to know how they perform. Remember
    there will be many with older SSDs who are perhaps considering an upgrade by now,
    from the likes of the venerable Crucial M4/V4, Vertex2/3, older Intels, Samsung 830, etc.
    For newer reviews, it's less the sequential rates and more about the random behaviour,
    consistency, and other features like encryption that people want to know about now,
    especially with so many being used in laptops, notebooks, etc. I also like to know how
    what's being offered anew compares wrt pricing, ie. are things really getting better?
    It's great that 1TB models are finally available, but I still yearn for the day when SSDs
    can exceed HDDs in offered capacities. I read that SanDisk seem determined to push
    forward this is as quickly as possible, moving to 2TB+ next year. I certainly hope so.
    Nothing wrong with having 4TB+ rust-spinners, but backing them up is a total pain (and
    quite frankly anyone who uses a 4TB non-Enterprise SATA HDD to hold their precious
    data is nuts). By contrast, having 4TB+ SSDs at least means doing backups wouldn't
    be slow. When I use Macrium to create a backup image of a 256GB C-drive SSD onto
    some other SSD, the speeds achieved really are impressive.

    I guess the down side will be that, inevitably at first, high capacity SSDs will be expensive
    purely because it'll be possible to sell them at high prices no problem, whatever they
    actually cost to make. I just hope at least one vendor will break away from the price
    gouging for a change and really move this forward; if nothing else, they'll grab some
    hefty market share if they do.

    Ian.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, June 27, 2014 - link

    "The benefit of ARC is that it is configurable and the client can design the CPU to fit the task, for example by adding extra instructions and registers. Generally the result is a more efficient design because the CPU has been designed specifically for the task at hand instead of being an all around solution like the most ARM cores are."

    This is marketing speak. In future, rather than just repeat the claims about why "CPU you've never heard of is more awesome than anything you've actually heard of" please provide numbers to back up the claim, or ditch the PR speak.
    If this CPU is "more efficient" than, e.g., an ARM (or MIPS or PPC) competitor, let's have some power numbers.

    My complaint is not that they are using ARC --- they can use whatever CPU they like. My complaint is that the two sentences I quoted are absolutely no different from simply telling us, e.g. "this SSD is more efficient than its competitors" with no data to back that up. Tech claims require data. If MSI aren't willing to provide data to back up a tech claim, you shouldn't be printing their advertising in a tech story.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, June 28, 2014 - link

    Nothing regarding the controller's architecture came from ADATA or SMI. In fact, I got the ARC part from Tom's Hardware, although I added the parts about ARC's benefits. If I just put ARC there and leave out the explanation, what is the usefulness of that? Yay, yet another acronym that means absolutely nothing to the reader unless it is opened to them.

    To be clear, I did not mean that an ARC CPU is always more efficient in every task. However, for a specific task with a limited set of operations (like in an SSD), it usually is because the design can be customized to remove unnecessary features or add ones that are needed. It's not an "ARM killer", it is simply an alternative option that can suit the task better by removing some of the limitations that off-the-self CPU designs have. Ultimately the controller is just a piece of silicon and everything it does is operated by the firmware.
    Reply
  • epobirs - Saturday, June 28, 2014 - link

    After all of these years, when I see the Argonaut name I find myself wondering when a new Star Glider will be published. (Star Fox doesn't count other than spiritually.) Reply
  • s44 - Saturday, June 28, 2014 - link

    How do we know this is even going to be the controller in future units of this model? The bait-and-switch with the Optima deserves more than passing mention, I think. Reply
  • hojnikb - Saturday, June 28, 2014 - link

    Well, to be fair, sandforce version of optima is faster, so really, you're getting a better drive.
    Still not okay, but not nearly as bad as kingston's bait and switch.
    Reply
  • smadhu - Sunday, June 29, 2014 - link

    To muddy the controller waters further, we are planning to launch a fully open source NVM Express controller this year. This is from IIT-Madras, an Indian university in conjunction with the IT Univ. of Copenhagen. The development itself is in public, the main source is at bitbucket.org/casl/ssd-controller. This is part of a larger open storage stack project called lightstor, see lightstor.org. Lightstor is an extremely ambitious effort to reinvent storage from the controller up to the application stack. The SW stack, called Lightnvm is up and running on a Linux branch. Google Lightnvm. There is also an emulator to run it now.

    We will be launching a Xilinx based PCIe card with our controller IP and open source CPU (1-4 cores). CPU is based on the RISC-V ISA from UCB, another partner of ours. The PCIe EP and ONFI will have to be proprietary initially but we will be completing our open source ONFI 4.0 early next year. All PHY will still have to be 3rd party since we do not want to get into analog PHY development.

    Add a SATA controller instead of PCIe and you have a SATA SSD.

    All HW source is BSD licensed, so anyone can download it and tape it out with no copyleft hassles. Final version should be the fastest controller out there. Idea is to beat every controller out there and not just launch a univ. test bed. Core currently runs at 700 Mhz on a 32 bit datapath.

    If anybody wants to help in testing, bench-marking or coding drop us a note. If nothing else, have fun going through the source of an SSD controller. It is a lot of fun. Language is Bluespec, a very high level HDL which is easy for SW geeks to understand. Hides a lot of the HW. plumbing. Comes from MIT, another collaborator of ours so we are partial to the language.

    Hopefully we will do to the storage world what Linux did to the OS world !

    The core is being bench-marked right now, hope to publish something by early winter.

    I apologize for what technically is an ad for our project but I figure a BSD licensed open source SSD controller qualifies for free ads !
    Reply

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