May 1st, 2012 by Brian Beeler
Buying an SSD - The Brands That Matter
When evaluating SSDs in the consumer space, the buyer can get easily confused with the dizzying array of options. Rather than consolidating in the last year, the client SSD space continues to explode. Well, that's not entirely accurate, the number of manufacturers selling SSDs has increased, though the variation in solutions has not. To put a finer point on it, there are manufacturers who are innovating or otherwise adding value, and there are those who are simply slapping a brand on an SSD, without providing consumers with much of a support network or adding even incremental value along the way.
As the editorial team at StorageReview considers our content focus going forward, we think it's important to narrow our coverage to the key brands that consumers should be evaluating when buying an SSD. As a service to those purchasing an SSD for personal use, StorageReview is launching what amounts to a "Who's Who" in the SSD space to help consumers sort through the clutter. The brand buying guide will be updated regularly with manufacturer updates like new product releases or other major events occur to affect brand quality in the SSD space.
When evaluating consumer SSD companies, we're looking at four key factors: controller technology, NAND fab ownership, engineering prowess and brand power.
Controller Technology - We place extra emphasis on brands who own the SSD controllers they use. The benefits of using an in-house controller are massive from both a drive performance and reliability perspective, to drive support should an issue arise that needs to be addressed with a firmware revision.
NAND Fab Ownership - Much like the controller technology, an in-depth understanding of the NAND and being able to configure the NAND for specific SSD duty offers big advantages. Those who own their own NAND fabs also generally have pick of the litter when it comes to selecting the best of the best NAND for their own drives.
Engineering - A bit more difficult to define, but when evaluating engineering skills, we look at not only the total engineering staff for a manufacturer, but also interesting or unique software or firmware features an SSD possesses.
Brand Power - This catch all category generally applies to manufacturers who have a large presence in the US in terms of SSD sales and support, but are generally ordering parts and outsourcing assembly, rather than creating products on their own. Many of the former and current memory companies fit into this category as they look for ways to expand their business.
SSD Brands that Matter (in alphabetical order)
Corsair - Corsair has high brand awareness in the US consumer market, with products available at many US local and online retailers. Corsair also offers strong support channels, including telephone and online forum outreach. They also offer a wide range of top-performing controller options in their SSD families, including models that are based on both the SandForce and Marvell chipsets.
Crucial (Micron) - While their current generation m4 SSDs might not tip the scales from a performance perspective, Micron has earned credit for offering reliable products and rapid response when there's an issue like the 5,200 hour firmware bug. They of course also own their own NAND fabs and have extensive in-house engineering teams and a brand that's well respected.
Intel - Intel is quick to point out at that they do more qualification work on their SSDs than anyone else. They were late to switch to SandForce controllers for this reason - the platform needed more stability before the Intel name went on SandForce based SSDs. Intel retains a NAND fab advantage even though they sold most of their NAND production interest back to Micron, and they of course offer engineering expertise via consumer and enterprise SSD controller technologies and offer a trusted brand name.
Kingston - While not always the first to market, Kingston takes a more measured approach that generally nets good results. Kingston offers an extensive client-focused SSD line that offers both performance and value models. Their SSDs are offered with an upgrade kit to easily transfer data from existing storage to a new SSD using Acronis cloning software and an external USB enclosure. Kingston has a long-standing support framework in place and while they don't have in-house engineering on the consumer SSDs, they do have an investment in JMicron flash controllers.
OCZ - OCZ owns their own controller technology and currently offers a full line of SandForce products. While the long term plan is probably to go exclusively to their own technology for consumer SSDs, OCZ for now has some of the most popular SSDs available. OCZ is also buying enough NAND volume to get chips stamped with their own brand, the closest you can get to owning a fab without the capital commitment.
OWC - With other brands making a name for themselves on sheer sales volume, OWC has gained a following for their custom hardware and upgrade solutions for Apple products. OWC might not own their own fab or controller, but they design hardware for unique platforms such as the Apple MacBook Air with the Mercury Aura Pro Express 6G gumstick SSD. Offering product support for devices long since considered abandoned by other companies, OWC cuts out a corner of the storage market with products and services that no other companies offer.
Patriot - Patriot offers a deep line of SandForce-based SSDs, trying to offer something for everyone. While they don't own a fab or have engineering strength, the brand is well-respected and Patriot SSDs can be found at most retailers in the US.
Plextor - Joint partnership with Lite-On, who is better known as the place that makes or designs many other companies' SSDs, Plextor is growing their brand awareness in the US storage market. With in-house engineers and unique software, Plextor is getting more out of Marvell-based SSDs than just about anyone else.
Samsung - Samsung is unique in the consumer SSD space in that they make every part inside the SSD, including controller, NAND, and SDRAM. With all components made in-house, Samsung can engineer products with strong integration from the hardware to software level. Going beyond performance advantages, this allows Samsung to quickly respond to firmware bugs and fully understand component failures at any level of the SSD.
SanDisk - Another late entry to the SandForce controller space, SanDisk pairs their own NAND and storage engineering expertise with SandForce to deliver one of the leading enthusiast SSDs in the SanDisk Extreme. SanDisk has been making flash-based storage for ages and certainly is a trusted and available brand in retail.
What if an SSD brand isn't on this list?
If we don't list a brand as one that matters it could be because of several reasons. This is a US-centric list, so if a brand isn't generally available through major retailers in the US, it's probably not on our list. We also consider access to support, which again focuses on those with a large US footprint. Lastly, if we haven't seen an extensive number of a manufacturer's drives in our lab for testing, we can't vouch for the overall quality of the brand.
If a company isn't listed, we don't think their drives are worth buying at this time, outside of certain niche situations. StorageReview will only be providing editorial coverage for the brands on this list on a go forward basis. That said, the "Top SSD Brands That Matter" list will be updated as the industry evolves. Of course this is just a starting point, not all SSDs from even our Top 10 are worthy investments. For more detailed conversation and recommendations, use the StorageReview "What Drive Should I Buy?" forum.
Update 3/1/13 - Nearly a year after first published, we have pruned the list from ten brands that matter to nine, as Patriot Memory has reduced their offering significantly enough to effectively remove them from the SSD business.