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Not All SSDs Are Created Equal: The Story Continues

We want to be very clear right up front about what goes into an OWC SSD and what you should expect from a Solid State Drive marketed as “high performance.” At OWC, we take your data seriously. It doesn’t matter if it is your corporation’s database, pictures of you family’s vacation, or a spam email. If it is on your drive, we have done everything we can to ensure that it stays there until you decide what to do with it. When we designed our SSDs, we spent the extra time to ensure that the circuits would work in any environment you may use the drive in, we use better quality passive components in our manufacturing process, and we always use first quality Flash storage devices. We could make a few more cents by using cheaper components, but it’s not worth risking your trust.

That’s why the product specification tables for OWC products exhaustively cover every aspect because we want to ensure you have all the information needed to make a properly informed purchase decision. OWC has nothing to hide and has always built our products for extreme performance.

Go ahead; check any of the OWC Mercury SSD models’ specs…you’ll see that we only use premium Tier 1/Grade A flash memory components. Then, check other SSD brands. Can’t find what type of flash memory they’re using? Perhaps there’s a reason for that.

We are always interested in being as competitive as possible against products that are presented as comparable to our own. OWC is the only company with volume SSD production and design in the USA and that in itself affords a level of control in the manufacturing process not typically found in other brands.

That said, another SSD manufacturer, OCZ, somewhat defies the norm. Some documented investigation on our behalf, however, may explain how OCZ can price the way they do and why they should not be seen as comparable….and if you’re an OCZ owner, you might not like what we found.

If you recall about a month ago, we ran a post about how OWC SSDs can actually get faster over time. That post also touched on the questionable decision of OCZ’s to market a new drive model as 120GB when they actually only offer 115GB of capacity.

We recently acquired three of their Vertex 2 SSDs, one 120GB and two 240GB versions, models that compete with and some believe to be comparable with our Mercury Extreme Pro SSD model. The Vertex 2 falls under a High Performance heading on their site.

click to enlarge

As you can see from the screen shot above, this OCZ SSD ordered Wednesday from a major retailer and received yesterday is still advertised as 120GB, yet is actually a 115GB version.

Then, when you watch the unboxing video below, you see the memory chips used are considered “OEM grade”—not the Tier 1 quality grade used in the OWC Mercury SSD family.

Do not open your OCZ drive, as this will void your warranty. If you have any questions, we recommend contacting OCZ.
click to enlarge

The truth is, we did not set out to see whether OCZ had cleared up the capacity discrepancy. Rather, the original inquiry was to determine if these retail sourced SSDs shared a troubling concern we uncovered with the third SSD, a 240GB Vertex 2 model, obtained directly from OCZ.

When we took the cover off of this third, direct from OCZ SSD, we found a ‘S’ stamped over Micron logo on all the flash devices (see the image to the left). This indicates the device is “off spec” product because it failed some parameter of Micron’s full performance and/or quality specification testing. “Off spec” memory is typically used in low-level applications such as toys, offering considerable cost savings over Tier 1 level to an SSD manufacturer.

As OWC only uses (and would only ever consider using) Tier 1/Grade A chips in our Mercury SSD models, an inquiry was made with a Micron product representative on their thoughts on the use of off-spec flash memory in a Solid State Drive application.

“It is a very brave action to take, using these chips in a data storage device,” was the reply given.

Receiving that statement from a device expert is what’s most troubling and was the impetus for this post. When we discover anything that potentially puts the reliability of your data at risk, regardless of the source… well, we’re going to call that out faster than if we found a four-leaf clover. Quite simply, we don’t think you or other consumers would make a risky decision of using anything less than full spec flash memory in your SSD if you had the choice.

Therein lies your dilemma if you own or are considering an OCZ SSD. You can‘t open the case to determine what quality of flash memory it has or you void your warranty; and because the type of flash memory isn’t specified in any product description we could find, you really are playing the lottery with less than full spec flash memory when it comes to the reliability of your data.

Now perhaps our findings could just be chalked up to a manufacturing anomaly and an isolated incident. After all, many review sites have shown the Vertex 2 with full Micron spec memory. But, when you order three SSDs in the same family and each uses a different spec level of memory, to us, that just goes to show that truly, not every SSD is created the same.

If you’re left feeling like the old adage “buyer beware” now exists in your SSD purchasing decision, we have a simple solution for you. Unless the brand of SSD you are buying clearly specifies the key internal components used – there are better – and perhaps more reliable – choices on the market. It’s one thing to think you’re comparing “apples to apples” when it comes to a price being paid, it’s totally different if in reality there could be a worm in that apple and, at that, while it would surprise you – it wouldn’t surprise the provider of said apple since they’ve made certain decisions in their component selection that open the door for just that.

Stay tuned to this saga, as we have a dozen more drives on order, all of which will be received with a videotaped unboxing so you have reliable source in which to base your important data storage purchasing decisions upon.


UPDATE 3/22/11

As we had several requests for additional images of the SpecTek flash memory to show it was absolutely genuine and unaltered by us, we’ve created this extensive gallery for your perusal:

[nggallery id=7]

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  • Well I’m waiting for the price of 240GB SSDs to drop (I’m not willing to spend $500 USD on a SSD). I’d like to see a 25nm version even if the capacity has to be dropped a little to keep the performance up.

  • Hi Keith and thanks for bringing this up.

    Yes, the new 115GB is built using 25nm NAND device technology. Like OWC, SandForce is extremely conservative in what Flash devices they approve for use in drives driven by their processor and the formula for over provisioning to ensure the reliable usage of the product over the long long haul. 25nm flash is new and related to initial write cycle ratings, the amount of over provisioning was increased. Currently only our 115GB and 480GB Pro models utilize 25nm flash.

    The sustained peak sustained data performance of our 25nm based solutions is absolutely in line with the prior 34nm based options. There are some differences up and down depending on type of testing, but overall – the performance remains exceptional.

    Since you raise some concern about OCZ units, they have had multiple differences which do not apply to us:

    • While OCZ shipped a 120GB formatted capacity drive which was actually a 115GB formatted capacity drive, we were planning this move to 115GB capacity well in advance….which was reflected in the 115GB model being listed in our Macworld US and Macworld Australia print ads that published Feb/Early March and the ads were submitted to the magazines in late January weeks before the OCZ capacity fiasco even broke out.

    • Concerning OCZ’s performance drop, the key fact to know is that the SandForce controller supports 16 channels. As we understand it, the way the OCZ 60GB/55GB 25nm drive was built, only half the channels were actually populated/operating. With half the data bus, one would have to realize performance would take a hit. Additionally, there is also a likely impact in individual units where OEM or other grade NAND was used instead of Tier 1/Grade A chips.

    The bottom line – as we see it, is that OCZ’s actions put a black eye unnecessarily on 25nm NAND technology.

    There is no mystery here. The industry is moving to 25nm technology. What makes all the difference in this move is how SSD manufacturers build and design to use this flash type. OWC could have been shipping 25nm based product weeks before we did…but the firmware supporting this was still in testing and we were still testing built options for this use.

    So right you are, not all SSDs are created equal.

  • I’m posting here because I was looking for some explanation why suddenly your 120GB Mercury Extreme Pro SSD model (OWCSSDMX120) seems to have been quietly replaced with a 115GB model (OWCSSDMX120,) with the only spec change being 7% over-provisioning bumped up to 11% – explaining the 5GB drop in capacity.

    More telling on some underlying change is the $40 drop in price from the old 120GB model to this new one – not counting the current $10 discount!

    Has (what is basically a 128GB drive) model been changed to 25nm NAND chips? And why has the over-provisioning been bumped up to 11%?

    OCZ’s recent move to 25nm 64gB NAND chips for their Vertex 2 drives resulting in a major performance drop (as mentioned above) has left a sour taste in my and numerous others mouths as potential buyers of SSD this year.

    From these newer Vertex 2 drives, it has given many people the impression that the move to the 25nm chip equates to a price drop which doesn’t justify the loss of speed.

    Can I ask that you – OWC – clarify why this change to the 120GB/115GB model was made, and what the implications are in terms of performance hits or improvements? In fact, a separate blog entry with actual benchmark comparisons would be fantastic.

    After all, not all SSD’s are created equal, right?

  • You Grant as a representative of OWC are very disingenuous when you say the Micron quoted source said:
    “It is a very brave action to take, using these chips in a data storage device,” to mean using SpecTek graded AL chips. Why don’t you ask Micron source about SpecTek graded AL chips?

    I first thought OCZ should never be used. Now I realize OWC is the one to NOT BE TRUSTED!!! OWC is digging their own grave. Bye-bye guys.

    • Hi Jim and thanks for your opinion. Regardless of the AL grade, Micron is the parent company of SpecTek. We asked the Micron source for their opinion…since we would only expect to see top tier chips in an SSD. I’m not sure how us pointing out that not all SSDs are created equal is disingenuous; as well stressing in that same post that we always use the highest grade flash available. Our specifications are complete so that consumers truly know – and trust – what they are buying.

  • Hi, do guys mind sharing with us the failure rate for your OWC SF-based SSDs?

    Intel (well trusted brand as far as SSDs) has just stated it’s 1.4% for their G2 drives (source: http://www.macworld.com/article/158868/2011/03/intelssd.html).

    Reason for asking: I happen to own an OCZ SSD (mainly because they were the only affordable, Mac-friendly, efficient solutions in Poland when I bought it and getting an OWC here would have cost much more – and in case of any failures would mean MUCH more hassle to RMA the disk).

    Having read this post I may never buy OCZ again and will reconsider OWC – but looking around OCZ forums it is scary how many drives went dead. Is it the low-cost memory or maybe SF firmware issues? I don’t know.

    But it makes me wonder if there’s something specific about SF controllers that make SSDs based on them less reliable than others. I’d appreciate if you could put some light on it. Thanks

    • Hi Gitarzysta to you in Poland! Always like to say a special hello to our very distant visitors.

      Hope you can understand, but we cannot disclose business information. We can appreciate your question, but can assure you the SandForce processor is highly reliable and in fact offers better reliability and longevity that others on the market. That’s why we chose it for our line. Plenty of reviewers have noted they have had our SSD now for over a year without any issue. With a three year warranty and a 2 million MTBF, you can buy OWC with confidence.

  • I just checked and noticed that my MacBook has SATA I ports (too much looking at System Profiler on my other Macs recently I guess).

    Still I would think faster SSDs would be of some benefit. Sequential read/writes aren’t everything.