It's a depressing time to be covering the consumer SSD market. Although performance is higher than it has ever been, we're still seeing far too many compatibility and reliability issues from all of the major players. Intel used to be our safe haven, but even the extra reliable Intel SSD 320 is plagued by a firmware bug that may crop up unexpectedly, limiting your drive's capacity to only 8MB. Then there are the infamous BSOD issues that affect SandForce SF-2281 drives like the OCZ Vertex 3 or the Corsair Force 3. Despite OCZ and SandForce believing they were on to the root cause of the problem several weeks ago, there are still reports of issues. I've even been able to duplicate the issue internally.

It's been three years since the introduction of the X25-M and SSD reliability is still an issue, but why?

For the consumer market it ultimately boils down to margins. If you're a regular SSD maker then you don't make the NAND and you don't make the controller.

A 120GB SF-2281 SSD uses 128GB of 25nm MLC NAND. The NAND market is volatile but a 64Gb 25nm NAND die will set you back somewhere from $10 - $20. If we assume the best case scenario that's $160 for the NAND alone. Add another $25 for the controller and you're up to $185 without the cost of the other components, the PCB, the chassis, packaging and vendor overhead. Let's figure another 15% for everything else needed for the drive bringing us up to $222. You can buy a 120GB SF-2281 drive in e-tail for $250, putting the gross profit on a single SF-2281 drive at $28 or 11%.

Even if we assume I'm off in my calculations and the profit margin is 20%, that's still not a lot to work with.

Things aren't that much easier for the bigger companies either. Intel has the luxury of (sometimes) making both the controller and the NAND. But the amount of NAND you need for a single 120GB drive is huge. Let's do the math.

8GB IMFT 25nm MLC NAND die - 167mm2

The largest 25nm MLC NAND die you can get is an 8GB capacity. A single 8GB 25nm IMFT die measure 167mm2. That's bigger than a dual-core Sandy Bridge die and 77% the size of a quad-core SNB. And that's just for 8GB.

A 120GB drive needs sixteen of these die for a total area of 2672mm2. Now we're at over 12 times the wafer area of a single quad-core Sandy Bridge CPU. And that's just for a single 120GB drive.

This 25nm NAND is built on 300mm wafers just like modern microprocessors giving us 70685mm2 of area per wafer. Assuming you can use every single square mm of the wafer (which you can't) that works out to be 26 120GB SSDs per 300mm wafer. Wafer costs are somewhere in four digit range - let's assume $3000. That's $115 worth of NAND for a drive that will sell for $230, and we're not including controller costs, the other components on the PCB, the PCB itself, the drive enclosure, shipping and profit margins. Intel, as an example, likes to maintain gross margins north of 60%. For its consumer SSD business to not be a drain on the bottom line, sacrifices have to be made. While Intel's SSD validation is believed to be the best in the industry, it's likely not as good as it could be as a result of pure economics. So mistakes are made and bugs slip through.

I hate to say it but it's just not that attractive to be in the consumer SSD business. When these drives were selling for $600+ things were different, but it's not too surprising to see that we're still having issues today. What makes it even worse is that these issues are usually caught by end users. Intel's microprocessor division would never stand for the sort of track record its consumer SSD group has delivered in terms of show stopping bugs in the field, and Intel has one of the best track records in the industry!

It's not all about money though. Experience plays a role here as well. If you look at the performance leaders in the SSD space, none of them had any prior experience in the HDD market. Three years ago I would've predicted that Intel, Seagate and Western Digital would be duking it out for control of the SSD market. That obviously didn't happen and as a result you have a lot of players that are still fairly new to this game. It wasn't too long ago that we were hearing about premature HDD failures due to firmware problems, I suspect it'll be a few more years before the current players get to where they need to be. Samsung may be one to watch here going forward as it has done very well in the OEM space. Apple had no issues adopting Samsung controllers, while it won't go anywhere near Marvell or SandForce at this point.

The SF-2281 BSOD Bug
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  • secretanchitman - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the great review Anand! I'm rocking a Patriot Wildfire 240GB in my 2011 15" mbp (2.2ghz, 8GB, 6750m 1GB, 1680x1050 anti-glare) and it's been 100% perfect. I haven't seen any errors whatsoever in snow leopard, lion, and windows 7 via boot camp.

    These benchmarks are pretty consistent with what I see on my own drive, although the 240GB is a bit higher all around. :)
  • Movieman420 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Here is a good summary of the issue to date:

    From Ocz:

    '...I think the ultimate fix will come with a FW coupled with Orom change and new RST/IME driver and possibly UEFI update for the motherboards, the issue needs to be nailed down, at this time its floating around with Orom changes etc and what ever SF do can be countered by what the Orom is doing...and yes SF are talking to Intel so i would hope between them they can get it worked out....

    Full Post:
  • Nickel020 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Was gonna post this as well as the likely cause for the problems with the Asus board.

    Then again, if the Intel H67 is your testbed Anand, have you even updated the BIOS or are you staying with an older one for comparability? With an older BIOS it might have an older OROM as well and thus the issue could then not be solely caused by the OROM.
  • xijox - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Thank you for another great write-up, Anand!

    I'm curious why you left the Corsair out of several of the benchmark results (4KB Random Read, 128KB Sequential Read and Write)?
  • beginner99 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    maybe because it preformed worse than expected and the site got a little bribe from Corsair not to publish but instead put a nice commercial on the last page?
  • philosofool - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Don't be a jerk. If you're going to accuse someone of something like this, have some evidence.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Or because I accidentally put the wrong graphs in the piece :) It has been fixed.

    Take care,
  • Beenthere - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Sorry but the current SSDs are unreliable at this point in time and it's unscrupulous to continue selling these SSDs when a mfg. doesn't know the root cause, have a resolution for the operational/compatibility issues and can not tell consumers what systems can use these SSDs without issue.

    It's good to see Anandtech substantiate what I have been saying for some time. Now consumers need to stop purchasing these SSDs until they are properly revised so they function without issues for everyone.
  • gevorg - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    SSDs offer amazing performance, but too many of them are cursed with reliability problems. A is faster than B at price point C is not sufficient to make buying decisions with SSDs. When and how can benchmarks examine SSD quality issues?
  • Axonn - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Why is the Corsair Force 3 in only 1 of the benchmarks @ Random/sequential speed? And I can't see the Corsair GT anywhere on the first page?

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