Saturday, 18 June 2016

Zotac Sonix PCIe 480GB SSD

Zotac Sonix PCIe 480GB SSD

Buckle up, because Zotac just found the loud peddle for PC storage!

For a long, long time there was only one significant way to connect storage to a PC, and that was SATA. But these days we’ve got that option plus various M.2 choices, mSATA, SATA Express and PCIe.

I suspect that M.2 will win out ultimately, but in the meantime, if you’d like to have some of the fastest storage around, then Zotac has this Sonix PCIe solution.

From the outside it looks like a video card without a fan or outputs but with a metal case to protect the inner workings. There’s a PCIe X4 edge connector and, as you would correctly surmise, it's designed to go in a free PCIe slot.

Zotac also kindly included a low-profile end plate, should you want to put it into a rack system or a media PC with a shrunken case.

There's no power connector, because it draws less than the 7.27 watts this system needs from the slot when writing, and on Windows 10 it doesn’t even need an NVMe driver installed.

Once it’s in place, you can manage the 480GB of NAND storage on it, as if it was a SATA SSD or a physical hard drive, but this thing goes like the Roadrunner downhill, while making SATA SSDs look utterly pedestrian.

Due to the bandwidth limitations of SATA-3 (6Gbps) the maximum speed of an SSD is about 550MB/s. With PCI Express 3.0 using a 4X connection on Gen 3 mode, the bandwidth on tap is about 8GB/s (not bits, bytes), and Zotac designed the Sonix to exploit a good chunk of that greater capability.

This hardware is built around Phison’s PS5007-E7 NVMe controller, driving multi-level cell (MLC) NAND flash memory made by Toshiba, and it threw in 512MB of DDR3 RAM for good measure.

The Phison PS5007-E7 NVMe is very special, with eight channels for interfacing to SLC/MLC/TLC and 3D NAND modules. It can address up to 4TB and has built-in AES-256 encryption.

The Zotac quoted speeds are sequential reads of 2600MB/s, writes of 1300MB/s and random 4K read IOPS of 350k and writes of 250K. In short, if you’ve never connected six SATA SSDs in a RAID pack, then you’ve never seen performance like this.

And it’s not just paper specifications either, because in my testing, I achieved these numbers and occasionally even more. A staggering 2575MB/s read and 1437MB/s writes, to be accurate.

Most home users won’t really care about the IOPS, but anyone running a big database server will be impressed and be budgeting to have this installed at the earliest opportunity.

If you think the jump from spinning iron to SATA SSD was spectacular, then this is an even greater jump in performance from normal SSD technology.

One thing that concerns some people is the lifespan of NAND, and they might worry when they see that this drive is only rated for 3,000 program/erase cycles and a total of 698 TBW. But that’s 3,000 writes of every byte on the drive, and since the controller is designed to wear-level the operations, a typical home user would never actually achieve that much in a typical lifespan (the users, not the device). Even if you wrote 48GB every day, it would still take you 30,000 days (82 years) to hit that level! As most people would write much less than that, the lifespan of this storage should not be a problem.

Zotac Sonix PCIe 480GB SSD

The pricing is also rather steep for those who've seen the cost of SATA SSDs fall dramatically over the past year. A Crucial BX200 480GB is typically about £100, so this is three times the cost, though more than five times the performance at reading and three times at writing.

On that basis, the price is probably where it should be, being £45 cheaper than Kingston’s HyperX Predator 480GB Gen2 x4 PCIe HHHL SSD (1400MB/s read, 1000MB/ write).

So what’s the catch? There are a couple, even if you are happy to pay the performance premium. The first is that to make all this work as advertised, you need a PCI Express 3.0 slot and sufficient PCIe lanes to make this work without impacting on other devices like the video card. That effectively means Intel X9/X99 or Z170, though you might be able to make it work in other contexts if you don’t use a discrete graphics card.

The card will work with PCIe 2.0 (and 1.0), though the results will be capped due to the reduced bandwidths available.

Overall, this is a tough product to fault for those who want the ultimate system. A 960GB model would be great, but for now the Zotac Sonix is the most desirable SSD around. Mark Pickavance

The ultimate in performance PCIe SSD, for now.