Media Sabertooth SSD Drive
Over the recent months there has been a lot of focus on SSD drives and their phenomenal performance over traditional hard disk drives. We identified this disruptive technology in 2003 and our estimates for 2010 are spot on given that the price has yet to fall to mainstream levels. One thing that has been disappointing is the performance of SSDs that come in NetBooks – mainly due to the low bar being set by the poorly performing hard drives they replace. With NetBook sales estimated at 33 million units this year (doubling from 2008) it seems that a significant market exists for replacement SSD drives in NetBooks.
Enter Active Media with their SaberTooth range of SATA drives that have connectors suitable for NetBook interfaces. We will be concentrating on their SaberTooth 32GB SSD drive with a Mini PCI interface designed to replace the stock SSD in an Eee PC 901 or compatible model.
Why do we need to replace the stock SSDs? Firstly, we must understand the specifications of the Eee PCs. Although the situation is changing with high-end NetBooks (albeit at a significant premium), SSD based NetBooks tend to have a small primary SSD (built-in and non-replaceable) and a slower larger SSD that can be easily replaced (on most NetBooks but not all) by the user. For this review we will consider the Eee PC 901 which sports a 4GB primary SSD and a 8GB secondary (slower) one. This is for the XP variant – the Unix one has a 4GB primary and 16GB secondary drive.
There are 2 main problems, namely that of speed and capacity. To cut costs in manufacturing the “fast” SSD needs to be restricted in terms of components (memory chips) which also indirectly causes the second problem – lack of adequate space. Naturally, it makes sense to use the faster 4GB drive to install the OS and this is fine until the user starts to run out of space (as we all know XP will keep getting bigger with each, almost daily, update) even if all possible programs and data are shifted to the larger and slower D: drive.
There are two solutions to these problems – replace the secondary drive with a bigger (and hopefully faster) drive and use that for the OS or compress the existing C: drive. The latter option is free but perceived to be fraught with peril as fears of performance slowing to a crawl, data going missing, files unable to be read etc. prey on the minds of many. ASUS provide a free utility to free up space on the C: drive but this only goes so far and the various guides on the internet that show how to slim down XP using nlite are by no means straightforward for non-technically minded persons. We are going to test the stock 4GB Phison SSD used by ASUS along with the same drive compressed to compare performance along with a replacement SSD drive.
Let me say from the outset that compressing the drive with XP’s built in facility (right click on the drive, select properties and check the “compress this drive” box, taking about 2 hours to complete) posed no problems and we suffered no issues during testing and after uncompressing the data.
The other solution is a replacement SSD and we will use Active Media’s SaberTooth 32GB SSD for that. The sale price for this is typically $99 for the 32GB version and given the high costs of NetBooks (compared to original expectations) it represents a small investment in the cost of ownership of a usefully functional NetBook.
Physically, both the SaberTooth and Phison models are essentially some memory chips coupled with a controller soldered on a single PCB.
Taking the back plate off our Eee PC 901 we can see where the SSD resides. Two small screws hold down the SSD and when these are removed it rises up and can be gently pulled out of the Mini PCI socket. The SaberTooth went in with a bit of a squeeze but nothing that would cause concern.
The screw holes did not line up perfectly but the screws went back without any problems.
To use the SaberTooth the BIOS version needs to be quite recent so it’s a good idea to upgrade the ROM. You can use ASUS update or, if that does not work (as in our case), copy the ROM file to a FAT16 (FAT32 will not be read and the process will fail) USB memory stick, remembering to rename the file to 901.rom
Then entering the BIOS allows the SaberTooth to be set as the primary drive. We installed XP Pro as normal following up with the usual Eee applications, tools and utilities.
Firstly, the read transfer rates
The SaberTooth leaves the Phison far behind with over 3 times the performance and begging the question as to why netbook manufacturers don’t spend a little more on their SSDs given the price points they are sold at. Interestingly it makes little difference to performance whether or not the Phison drive is compressed even allowing for a considerably lower minimum read speed.
Things are closer now but the SaberTooth is still twice as fast. Since the write tests need un-partitioned space there is no difference between compressed and uncompressed results on the Phison.
Time to look at specifics in detail.
Controller efficiency is indicated here and the SaberTooth is 2-3 times better performing, going some way to explaining why it is superior in performance.
Having divided data into fixed sizes of 512 Bytes, 4 Kilobytes, 64 Kilobytes, 1 Megabyte and Random (any of the previous sizes) we can see a pattern emerging. As expected access times are lower for the smaller data sizes. Again the SaberTooth is 2-3 times better performing than the Phison and again there is little difference between the compressed and uncompressed drives.
Average speed is a function of access times and transfer rates and her the same situation is repeated, the Phison is simply no match for the SaberTooth.
As a point of interest, the SaberTooth has a much higher CPU usage than the Phison, some 2-3 times as much, in line with the performance edge shown in the previous tests. That makes the normalised CPU usage the same but 7% CPU usage should be seen in the context of the 1.6GHz Atom processor and would be around the 1% mark in a modern desktop PC, so is relatively negligible.
There are two main conclusions that can be drawn from this test. Firstly, those unable or unwilling to upgrade their SSD should have no qualms about compressing their main drive to free up an average of 25% of their used space. Our legal representative would like us to point out that while we encountered no problems, readers should only proceed if they accept full responsibility for anything that may happen – we cannot accept any responsibility in this matter. Googling for the experiences of other who have compressed their drives may be useful.
The other important finding is that it costs very little to upgrade a netbook with a faster and much bigger SSD drive. The SaberTooth 32GB SSD drive we tested here gave us over twice the performance and eight times the capacity of our stock drive and at $99 represents excellent value for money for most netbook owners who have concerns over the performance and lack of free space on their stock SSD drives. We have no hesitation in awarding the SaberTooth 32GB SSD our Gold Award.
All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.