Review: Samsung's 32GB, 1.8-in. SSD drive -- the fastest yet

Producing a totally solid-state drive is a bit of a gamble for Samsung

"Solid state" is a term that's been applied to almost anything that's marched forward from tubes to transistors, especially when it also included a move away from the mechanical -- as we did when we dropped rotary tuners in favor of phased lock loop chips.

It gets better now as we gut the traditional hard drive of everything normally found inside and stuff it full of NAND memory chips, replicating its storage ability without one single moving part. Enter the solid-state disk (SSD), epitomized, for right now at least, by Samsung's 1.8-in. 32GB SSD.

The Samsung 32GB Solid State Disk drive

The Samsung 32GB solid-state disk drive

Typically, you'll hear of "hybrid drives" -- a mix of solid-state and traditional mechanical components -- that can be used in laptops and desktops. It's the best of both worlds, with their solid-state components slashing boot times and providing "Ready Boost" services for Vista and the relatively high cost of NAND memory offset by the relative cheap cost per gigabyte of a standard hard disk platter.„

Producing a totally solid-state drive is a bit of a gamble for Samsung but the potential benefits are attractive (see "Computex: Solid-state disks coming on strong"). At the very least, a solid-state drive uses much less power than a standard hard disk, meaning your portable's battery will breathe easier. As well, mechanical hard disks tend to fragment data over time, decreasing their speed. That's not very likely with a solid-state device. But there are downsides as well.

At 32GB, its capacity hardly competes with the 1.8-in. hard drives inside current generation 60GB or 80GB iPods or even the little 40GB drive inside the iRiver H340. As well, Samsung's SSD commands pricing that hovers around $500 for just its 32GB model. That's hardly a value point for anything -- except perhaps subnotebook or ultralight portables where the ultimate convenience trumps premium pricing.

You also don't want to just buy this drive by itself unless you're really a hard-core geek looking to also acquire a lineup of interface and power adapters and have some duct and electrical tape handy -- or unless you already have an older ultralight that you're looking to upgrade. The extra bits you'll need to install it anywhere else -- as in anything that doesn't already have a 1.8-in. drive -- are available, but the result is neither pretty nor practical.

You'll need an adapter to get it to 2.5-in. interface spec, and another to raise that to 3.5-in. IDE compatibility if you're thinking desktop. Then you'll need a tray to sit it in, a hold-down bracket to keep it in the tray, and an adapter bracket if you're trying for a 3.5-in. bay. Of course, attempting to stuff any of that into the cramped confines of a portable is equally daunting. As well, try as we might, we couldn't get the drive to cohabitate on the same cable as another drive. so count on re-installing your operating system and all its drivers.

Still, if you do hanker after one of those ultraportables and you're thinking about taking the easy way out by finding one with an SSD already installed, you're probably wondering what to expect. Theoretically, the answer is speed -- and lots of it. Theory is nice. Fact is always better. Unfortunately, there aren't any equipped devices available at the moment. So we did the next best thing: We got our hands on a PATA version of Samsung's 32GB SSDs, glued, stapled and taped a string of interfaces to transform its 1.8-in. connector into a standard 40-pin IDE configuration, Velcroed it to the side of a desktop system, and took it for a spin … er, test.

Using Simpli Software's HD Tach benchmark testing software, the standard 120GB hard drive -- a Western Digital WD12000JB -- inside the desktop computer was the first victim. Compared to a Seagate ST98823AS hard disk we had previously tested in a laptop computer, the Western Digital drive had 1.5msec. faster random access, a scant 2% CPU utilization compared to the Seagate's 10%, and ran out 43.2MB/sec. in average read against the Seagate's lesser 30.6MB/sec.

That's all well and good and should tell you that desktop hard drives are faster than those typically found in portables. Everyone knows that already. Sit down, however; the Samsung SSD results embarrass those drives handily. Its random access rating was a miniscule 0.2msec. CPU utilization, you wonder: Just 1%. And the average read rate? How does 51MB/sec. sound to you?

Still, you're thinking, "Well, its solid state. It should be faster!" You're right. So we clocked it against Corsair's Voyager GT, which many claim is the fastest USB drive in the known universe. But while the Voyager GT was a lesson in rapid data transit (0.9msec. random access, 5% CPU utilization, and 32.4MB/sec. average read), it wasn't even close to the Samsung SSD's speed

Samsung solid state disk benchmark comparison results

  Lower Values Are Better Lower Values Are Better Higher Values Are Better
  Random Access CPU Utilization Average Read
Lexar ExpressCard 0.7msec. 10% 31.5MB/sec.
Corsair Voyager GT 0.9msec. 5% 32.4MB/sec.
Seagate ST98823AS 16.3msec. 10% 30.6MB/sec.
Hitachi DK14FA-20 21.3msec. 40% 7.5MB/sec.
Corsair Readout 7.8msec. 4% 24.9MB/sec.
Samsung 32GB SSD 0.2msec. 1% 51.0MB/sec.
WDC WD12000JB 7.8msec. 4% 43.2MB/sec.

Samsung, of course, is quick to point out that PATA is an old interface standard and Serial ATA (SATA) with its 3Gb/sec. rated transfer speed is faster still. It is, and there is a SATA version of the Samsung SSD in the works. It just wasn't available now. When it is (and hopefully the overall cost of NAND chips will settle down a bit), simple drool will turn to rampant lust and there will be a run on glue, staples and electrical tape as we all rush to brag that we have the fastest (solid-state) drive in the world.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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