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Remember Plextor? Now they’re making SSDs.

Those of you who’ve been around as long as I have–which is probably most of you–will remember Plextor as the maker of the very best SCSI CD-ROM drives back when there was a market for SCSI CD-ROM drives. I had one, and I haven’t used it in years, but I relied on it, especially when I was doing A/V work. And it never, ever let me down.

Then, in the late 1990s when CD burning was still something new and novel, Plextor did more than anyone else to make burning more reliable than a coin flip. It seems hard to believe now, but your chances of burning an unusable disc were pretty high, especially when you were using an IDE burner. Some combinations of drives and discs worked pretty well, particularly if you used Kodak or Taiyo Yuden discs. (Taiyo Yuden DVD-R discs are still available–and if you don’t regard optical discs as a single-use item, I recommend them.) But when I used ordinary discs in ordinary drives, the discs worked a little over half the time. And when burning a disc took 15 minutes–assuming you had a nice 4x burner–the wasted time and discs piled up.

Then along came Plextor with IDE burners that actually worked well. I don’t remember ever burning a bad disc in a Plextor drive. So for a long, long time, I told people not to even look at a CD burner that wasn’t made by Plextor. And I remember the PC hardware sites tracking which brand-name drives were actually relabeled Plextors, which made bargain hunting easier. Not everyone carried Plextor drives, but virtually everyone carried Iomega and Creative drives, and a few times a year, they’d put them on sale, too.

These days it isn’t hard to find a DVD burner for $20. In fact, it’s probably harder to find someone who wants to pay $20 for one. Up until five minutes ago I neither knew nor cared whether Plextor makes DVD burners anymore–it turns out they do–because I just don’t burn a lot of discs anymore, and when I do, plug in my USB burner and unplug it when I’m finished. My computers that have optical drives in them only have them because I recycled a case and don’t have a bay cover anymore to fill up that hole.

There are people willing to pay $45 for a Plextor DVD burner, and those who do rave about them, but these days, that’s a niche market if I ever saw one.

So I don’t blame Plextor for looking for something a little more profitable to make. And SSDs make sense.

Plextor uses a Marvell controller, just like Crucial/Micron does on its M4 drives and Intel does on its 510 drives. According to Anandtech’s analysis, Marvell provides its customers with bare-bones firmware that isn’t really shippable as a product, and the customers have to do most of their own firmware engineering. So while most Sandforce drives are pretty much equivalent–with the exception of the new Intel 520 drives–there is some variance in the performance between various Marvell-based drives.

Plextor is used to being a premium brand–they even stamp the words “Never compromise” on their retail packages–so that’s why the drive is priced at or slightly above Micron and Intel prices. If they can do for SSDs what they did 13 years ago for CD burners, they stand to do just fine.

Plextor enters a market flooded with inexpensive Sandforce-based drives that don’t work as reliably as they should. Plextor knows how to engineer reliable storage media; I’m confident they’re able to match Intel and Samsung in that regard. To me the question is whether they can secure enough high-quality Flash RAM chips. Plextor is buying memory chips from Toshiba, who also makes SSDs, mostly for Apple. Toshiba obviously is going to put its best chips in its own drives, but going with Toshiba is an interesting strategic choice. It means Plextor doesn’t have to fight OCZ and Kingston for chips from Micron and Intel.

I’m glad they’re trying. Enthusiasts of a particular age will scoop up these drives–given the reviews on Amazon, they already are–and it won’t be all that long before we have a fair amount of real-world data about their speed and reliability. So far the only knock on them is their limited support in Macs, which is expected.

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