U.2 (pronounced Udot2, lest Bono exercise legal force) has made a major appearance on PC platform updates from motherboard vendors, including Gigabyte with new X99 and Z170X motherboards at PAX. The form factor used to be called SFF-8639 (SSD Form Factor) and was targeted almost entirely at server and enterprise markets. In a move toward greater user-friendliness, the interface has rebranded as “U.2,” easier to remember with the M.2 interface also proliferating across the market.
This “TLDR” article explains the U.2 vs. M.2 vs. SATA Express differences, with a focus on PCI-e lane assignment and speeds or throughputs.
PAX is always surprisingly full of PC gaming hardware, and we’ve run across a couple more items that aren’t yet available – but will be soon. PNY brought the newest addition to their red-and-black gaming suite, an overclocked Nvidia GTX 960, and OCZ came with an M.2 SSD, the RD400 NVME. Both devices are set to release sometime in May.
The last week's worth of computer hardware news contained a few disappointments – the removal of non-K overclocking from some boards, for one – and a few upshots. One of those upshots is on the front of VR, headed-up by Epic Games in a publicly released video reel of unique implementations. Virtual reality's use cases also expanded this week, as developers Epic Games have learned new means to utilize the technology (something we think needs to happen).
Our weekly hardware news recap is below, though the script has been appended for the readers out there. Topics for this week's round-up include Intel's crack-down on non-K overclocking, editing games within VR, AMD's Wraith, a Sony SSD, and some new peripherals.
Plextor has been making SSDs since 2008, but their presence in the PC gaming market is nearly unrecognized. They are the third-largest OEM SSD manufacturer behind only Samsung and SanDisk, and Plextor's drives are used in Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, ASUS, Microsoft, and Samsung computers. The company is working to change its consumer recognition as it continues to manufacture high-throughput PCI-e and SATA SSDs. At CES 2016, Plextor announced the M8Pe on the PCI-e side and the M7V on the SATA side, two drives which we think are of serious note for the consumer and gaming audiences.
The M8Pe is a PCI-e Gen 3 x4 M.2 SSD running the NVMe protocol. The drive will be available in the 2280 form factor or as an M.2 stick, then mounted on an HHHL PCB with a styled heatsink (similar to the HyperX Predator). The new M8Pe uses the Marvell 88SS1093 controller to handle Toshiba 15nm MLC NAND. The M8Pe will have 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB of flash memory with up to 1GB of DDR3 for caching, which acts as a sort of pre-buffer to speed-up storage transactions. The drive is a welcomed competitor in a market which consists of a whopping 3 competing companies: Intel (750 SSD), Kingston (HyperX Predator), and Samsung (950 Pro). At the moment, Samsung is king according to published, raw numbers. These numbers aren't really representative of all aspects of drive performance, though, and that's for a number of reasons we define in our SSD Architecture & Anatomy article. There are other discrepancies as well, but we'll look into those in future posts.
Two new SSDs piqued our interest from Kingston Technology at this year's CES: the Kingston UV400 and unnamed PCIe HyperX SSD. The second drive comes from the gaming side of the company – badged under its HyperX branding – and is a high-performance, NVMe drive set to champion the Predator SSD.
Kingston's UV400 SSD is the manufacturer's first foray into TLC Flash NAND. The drive isn't really new, though – it's just new to the US. The product was first tested in a few foreign markets to see how buyer response would be; in India and Russia, for instance, a price delta of a few bucks can be the swing needed to crush or propel a product into its market position. Following the company's international experiments, the UV400 is being brought to US e-tailers near the end of 2Q16. TLC will drive price down to a yet-unnannounced, but predicted, "very affordable" class.
Samsung's vertically stacked NAND was introduced in June of 2014, heralding an era of increased capacity with (theoretically) reduced endurance concerns when compared against TLC. The NAND type takes a page from Intel's 3D transistor book and stacks NAND vertically, making for greater density in “apartment high-rise” fashion.
The SSD market has grown exponentially over the past few years, the product of reduced NAND cost and increased capacity at affordable prices. TLC and VNAND saw rapid gains in drive capacity at the cost of some endurance, though controller advancements have offset this downside considerably; TLC and VNAND also both offer the endurance required for the majority of consumer use case scenarios. As SSD cost has plummeted to below $0.50 per gigabyte, we've seen inclusion of SSDs in most system builds within the mid-range or better categories.
Samsung's 850 EVO and 850 Pro have been around for a little while now, with the 850 Pro debuting 3D NAND (also called “VNAND”). The company's 850 Pro capped at 1TB of storage, but has been refreshed in 2TB capacities as of today; the 850 EVO – a cheaper alternative for consumer-class usage – has also been refreshed to 2TB.
Following the comparatively bombastic launch of the HyperX Predator SSD, an M.2 SSD fitted to a PCI-e adapter, Kingston this week launched its “Savage” SATA SSD. The Savage SSD assumes the modern branding efforts fronted by HyperX, which has streamlined its product lineup into a hierarchical Fury, Savage, Beast/Predator suite. These efforts eliminate long-standing names like “Genesis” and “Blu,” replacing them with – although sometimes silly – names that are more cohesive in their branding initiative.
The new Savage SSD sees integration of the Phison PS3110-S10 controller, usurping the long-standing HyperX 3K SSD and its SandForce 2nd Gen controller from Kingston's mid-range hot-seat. HyperX's Savage operates on the aging SATA III interface; this ensures claustrophobic post-overhead transfer limitations that can't be bypassed without a faster interface, largely thanks to information transfer protocols that consume substantial bandwidth. 8b/10b encoding, for example, eats into the SATA III 6Gbps spec to the point of reducing its usable throughput to just 4.8Gbps (~600MB/s). This means that, at some point, the argument of SATA SSD selection based upon speed loses merit. Other aspects – endurance and encryption, for two easy ones – should be held in higher regard when conducting the pre-purchase research process.
The first consumer-priced PCI-e SSDs are finally trickling to market. OCZ's RevoDrive was one of the only consumer-facing PCI-e SSDs, priced out of range for most gamers and facing somewhat widespread endurance and stability issues as the device aged. During a period of SandForce domination, the industry waited for the third-generation refresh of the SF controllers to introduce widespread PCI-e SSDs. The third gen controllers promised what effectively would act as an interface toggle, allowing manufacturers to purchase a single controller supply for all SATA and PCI-e SSDs, then “flip the bit” depending on demand. Such an effort would reduce cost, ultimately passed on to the user. This controller saw unrelenting delays, giving rise to alternatives in the meantime.
Then M.2 became “a thing,” bringing smaller SSDs to notebooks and desktops. The M.2 standard is capable of offering superior throughput to SATA III (6Gbps) by consuming PCI-e lanes. Pushing data through the PCI-e bus, M.2 devices circumnavigate the on-board SATA controller and its abstraction layers, responsible for much of the overhead showcased in peak 550MB/s speeds. The M.2 interface can operate on a four-lane PCI-e 2.0 configuration to afford a maximum throughput of 2GB/s (before overhead), though – as with all interfaces – this speed is only awarded to capable devices. Each PCI-e 2.0 lane pushes 0.5GB/s (GT/s). Some M.2 devices utilize just two PCI-e lanes, restricting themselves to 1GB/s throughput but freeing-up the limited count of PCI-e lanes on Haswell CPUs (16 lanes from the CPU, up to 8 lanes from the chipset).