Samsung has been at the very front lines of the battle between the various SSD manufacturers, continuously breaking new ground against their competition thanks to the fact that they control all three parts of their SSD’s makeup that affect performance – the controller, the firmware and the flash memory made by Samsung in their fabrication plants. The only other companies which can come close to Samsung’s complete in-house, vertically-integrated offerings are Toshiba and SK Hynix.
And it’s the vertically integrated part that’s particularly important, especially today, because the new Samsung 850 Pro is on the block and giving Samsung the platform to flex their muscle and show the rest of the industry what it would be like to have even one company that could break away and outstrip the rest without a sweat. In the same way that Intel dictates the processor market conditions, Samsung, Toshiba and Hynix could do the same for SSDs.
The 850 Pro, now with 3D Vertical NAND
What makes the 850 Pro rather special is that Samsung has again broken away from the market norms and done a switch to a type of flash memory technology that is only found in the 850 Pro currently, but could spread out to the rest of the market as more flash memory manufacturers find ways around the problems with 3D V-NAND (Negated And or Not AND) memory.
They did a similar move previously with the 840 Evo series, relying on TLC (Triple-Level Cell) flash for the main storage and having a small amount of SLC (Single-Level Cell) memory acting as a write-cache for the drive, delivering preposterous speeds for a relatively low R/GB price ratio, with the end result being the 840 Evo showing up and even outrunning many faster drives from other brands.
3D V-NAND memory is a new arrangement of the transistors that store information on the SSD. Traditionally these transistors are laid out in a straight-line next to each other and have the top of the cell store the information. This allows you to stack up the memory quite neatly and even wire up all the chips independently without sacrificing space on the circuit board for the extra chips.
However, there is a limit to how many chips you can stack up on one another (in the picture above SanDisk 19nm MLC flash tops out at 16 dies). Going any higher produces more heat and you have to deal with more electrical interference and more complex wiring schematices, resulting in a circuit board with more traces and a higher production cost at the end of the day. Samsung has neatly sidestepped that issue with 3D V-NAND.
In the picture above, Planar NAND is on the left and Vertical NAND (generation Vi and V1) is on the right. With traditional NAND you end up shrinking the dies so that the transistors are closer together horizontally, but there’s a limit to how far you can go before heat and power consumption become an issue. So instead you take the same amount of transistors, mount them sideways vertically and have the middle be the area where the electrons are stored.
The best shape in the middle for maximum surface area exposure also turns out to be a cylinder, so you eventually end up with a flash chip that doesn’t have wires bridging out at the ends, but a group of cylinders with rods in the center to act as the transfer layer for the electrons. So you end up with clean-looking chips that look like this:
That makes the PCB wiring much cheaper and easier and it reduces the time to manufacturing. You can also put chips in the same location on the other side of the PCB and just solder them together, sandwiching the PCB in between the chips, like a fat-free slice of Beef pastrami inside two slices of Albany Best of Both bread with toothpicks driven into it and sawed off on the top and bottom of the sandwich.
The main benefit to Samsung, though, is that they can make these chips using older, cheaper 40-nanometer process nodes. If their existing 20nm TLC flash wasn’t cheap enough already, 40nm 3D V-NAND is literally a fraction of the production cost of planar memory. Samsung can increase the height of the dies to stack up more transistors and thus allow for a bigger capacity size into the same length and width dimensions, ensuring that they maximise the number of dies harvested from a batch of chips.
The other benefit here is that they can retain the same efficiency as 20nm Planar memory and the bigger die needs much less cooling and power. Win-Win. Anandtech calls the arrival of V-NAND the “resetting of the flash market,” because no-one has to manufacture planar memory that becomes more and more expensive as they go up the process nodes.
You may have recently read my column, Shots fired in the 2014 SSD price war, and thought that the R/GB ratio for SSDs was already low? You haven’t seen anything yet. When 3D V-NAND processes pick up speed in 2015, these things are literally going to be flying out of the gates at you.
The 850 Pro pushes against SATA 6Gb/s limitations
Although Samsung’s Pro versions of their drives have always been fast, this is just silly. Even the 128GB version of the 850 Pro is running right up against the limitations of the SATA 6Gb/s standard, which theoretically tops out at 572MB/s. Many of the modern controllers can exceed that with ease and are artificially speed-limited to allow for some headroom. The IOPS rating is also really high, with the 90K rating for write instructions to the SSD being higher than the read IOPS rating for most SSDs out there.
Like the 840 Evo, DevSLP is supported to allow for Intel Haswell-based computers to suck up much less power in connected standby mode than usual, saving on battery life. This also means that the drive doesn’t need to start from a cold boot – if you hibernate or put your system to sleep, it’ll wake up much quicker and consume less battery life in the process. This is thanks to tweaks made to Samsung’s MEX controller, which was also in the 840 Evo family.
The scary thing, really, is that the controller and the flash memory can go much, much faster. If Samsung had to put this kind of technology on a M.2 or PCI-Express-based SSD, read and write performance could double without any additional tweaks to the hardware.
The endurance rating is also one of the highest ever given to a drive, along with the much longer ten-year warranty. Most consumers will never, ever reach that endurance rating and if you do, it’s because you’re writing continuously to the drive 24/7. In reality, if you’re 20 years old today and buy one of these drives when they launch in late July and don’t suffer any hardware issues, factory or software defects or physical damage to the drive, the flash memory will still be perfectly functional and far below the endurance rating by the time you get to enjoy your 60th birthday.
If you’re between the ages of 30 and 40 years old today, the 850 Pro will outlive you. You will die first before it does.
No hard drive ever manufactured in the history of ever will be able to come close to that, it’s just been the nature of mechanical storage.
Price per Gigabyte is still foggy
Samsung’s retail launch prices are still a work in progress because the official launch is only on 21 July 2014, three weeks away. Some of the released pricing can be extrapolated into the tables that I made for my SSD price war column and I’ve only left in the drives which are most recent and the likely competitors for the 850 Pro at the same price point, using a mixture of Raru and Rebeltech’s prices as the base price that is closest to the RRP of drives already in the local market.
Below are Samsung’s released RRP prices in the US Dollar. Note that on launch it’ll be a little different if the company decides to tweak it to be more competitive with others and our prices won’t be as competitive, because we’re part of the EMEA region.
Samsung 850 Pro 128GB ~ US $130 (approx R1380)
Samsung 850 Pro 256GB ~ US $200 (approx R2100)
Samsung 850 Pro 512GB ~ US $400 (approx R4260)
Samsung 850 Pro 1TB ~ US $700 (approx R7460)
For the 128GB drive, its competitors will be in the upper echelon of the market, so we’re talking about the drives more commonly priced closer to R1400 – drives like the OCZ Vertex 460, Crucial’s M550, Seagate 600, Intel 530 and ADATA SP920 will be the drives that come close in terms of performance and price. However, the threat of Crucial’s MX100 and Corsair’s LX as well as older Crucial M500 drives will make it a tougher sell. Consumers would pick up a 850 Pro because they want the best in performance, potential battery life and lower heat levels.
The 256GB 850 Pro will run right up against the outgoing 840 Evo, which will go on frequent sales now to clear out stock. There’s also the Crucial M500, M550 and ADATA SP920 to worry about, the latter two which are nearly identical in performance and price. Crucial’s MX100 is once again the bigger threat, offering 256GB of storage for not much more than R1400 on average.
The 512GB drive sees the same story with the same faces competing for the same customers – Corsair, Crucial, ADATA, Seagate and Kingston are all vying for a slice of the pie in the R4000 price range and there isn’t a lot of leeway for Samsung because the launch will be their first batch of drives. As production ramps up, economies of scale will come into play and then they’ll be able to drop down to as much as R3500. Once again, the MX100 ruins the party, coming in at an average of R3000 for the 512GB model.
The 1TB drive has very little in the way of competition for now. The 840 Evo and Crucial M550 drives are the biggest pains and there aren’t a lot of other manufacturers aiming for the 1TB market. This is where Planar NAND bottoms out and becomes much less profitable, because it’s more cost-effective to manufacture a 512GB drive than it is to double capacity to 1TB. Samsung could do it cheaply with the 840 Evo because it used TLC flash and Crucial is able to do it in the M550 because they are owned by Micron, which has allocated most of their flash production to Crucial.
Its anyone’s guess how much it’s costing Samsung to make the 1TB model, but it probably costs them much less than the older 840 Pro drive at the same capacity.
Now all that Samsung needs to do is find a way to fit 3D V-NAND memory into drives for use on SATA Express or M.2 connectors and they’ll be screaming up there with the best in the enterprise business. I can’t wait to see this kind of flash memory spread out to other brands in the market. By this time next year, I might even have a SSD inside every build in my System Builder’s guide. Wouldn’t that be grand?