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The SSD Decoder Ring

I occasionally get a question about an SSD, usually when one goes on sale somewhere. Inevitably, I’ll get an e-mail message with a URL and the words “any good?” with it. Often I’ll know off the top of my head, but depending on whose name is on the drive, I may not.

But here’s a cheatsheet with all the major drives on the market, and who makes the controller in them.
Basically, the difference between two SSDs using the same controller comes down to firmware, and often even that is identical. SSDs are like memory modules were way back when; they’re all using chips from the same makers, so the biggest difference is marketing. Although today there’s “performance memory,” right now with SSDs there isn’t a lot they can do to tweak it. When they are, well, that’s on the cheatsheet too.

The controller is what you want to pay the most attention to. The most important thing to remember is “JMicron 602 = bad.” The 602 and 602b were used in early SSDs and they’re fine, most of the time. But when they’re bad, they’re really, really bad. Like trying to run Windows on a PC/XT bad, if you’ve been around long enough to know what that means. But you can scroll to page 3 if you can’t remember that.

So when you see a deal on an SSD, take a look at the chart to see the drive’s specs, and what the comparable drives are. Make sure the drive has a reputable controller in it, then make sure you can live with the warranty. Pay attention to what’s included. Some drives include a 3.5″ adapter so you can mount it in a desktop, while others don’t. Some bundle software to copy your old HDD to the new SSD and some don’t. Some bundle a cable and some don’t. The adapters aren’t terribly expensive, but they aren’t something you can just run down to the nearest Kmart or Walgreen Drug and buy. If you’ve bought hard drives at retail in pretty boxes versus saving 20 bucks by buying an OEM drive that comes bare in a shiny antistatic bag, you know the drill. The key is knowing what you’re getting, and preparing for it.

But all that info should be at the vendor’s site. Information about who made the controller, and what drives it’s comparable to, won’t be. So this is a page that’s worth a bookmark.

As I was listening to the This Week in Computer Hardware (TWiCH) podcast today, I heard a question that didn’t really get answered. Leo Laporte asked why makers aren’t addressing the cost per gigabyte issue. The answer is that they are, but to a degree it’s beyond their control. The demand for flash memory is huge right now, because it’s used in everything. Manufacturers are continuously adding capacity, but not all that capacity is on line yet. And memory goes through process shrinks, just like CPUs do. Basically, this means the transistors get smaller, so you get more chips per wafer of silicon. Process shrinks are the big reason why CPUs get cheaper over time–they get cheaper to make. Flash memory will get a process shrink later this year and that will make it cheaper and faster, but when it happens is beyond the SSD makers’ control. They’ll lower prices as soon as their costs come down.

There isn’t much else the SSD makers can do. They can use an older, less expensive controller and a slower, cheaper grade of memory, like OCZ does with their Onyx and Agility SSDs, but a 64 GB Onyx or Agility only costs $20-$30 less than a high performance model. Look at the cost of a 32 GB USB thumb drive or digital camera memory card and compare that  to the cost of a 32 GB SSD, and that gives you an idea of what the controller costs.

But, like the other commentators said, prices have come down. A year ago, you were paying $3-$4 per gigabyte. Today, depending on the drive, you pay $1.50-$2 per gigabyte. I won’t try to predict how far prices will drop this year, but they are dropping. Sure, conventional hard drives cost about 10 cents per gigabyte, but you don’t get all that much quality for that money. SSDs fail less often. You often can fix them when they do. And they fail more predictably.

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