ZOTAC Sonix 480GB NVMe PCIe AIC SSD Review

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn
Pros:
  • User Experience
  • Build Quality
  • High TBW
Cons:
  • Moderate Workload Performance
  • High MSRP

Introduction

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_01

NVMe SSDs are all the rage in enthusiast circles, and it’s easy to see why. One NVMe SSD can deliver the performance of four to six SATA-based SSDs running in RAID. Until today, consumers wanting to go NVMe have been limited to just two choices; Intel’s 750 Series or Samsung’s 950 Pro. Both Samsung and Intel’s NVMe offerings leverage proprietary controllers and both deliver massive amounts of performance through four 8 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) PCIe Gen 3.0 lanes. Intel’s 750 Series SSDs are available in two form factors, AIC (Add-In-Card) or 2.5″ U.2 form factor. Samsung’s consumer NVMe SSDs are all M.2 form factor.

Last August at Flash Memory Summit, we got our first glimpse of Phison’s upcoming turn-key merchant NVMe controller, the E7, in action. We came away impressed by the performance E7-powered drives were capable of delivering, and since then, we have been eagerly awaiting E7-powered SSDs hitting the retail market. Much to our surprise, ZOTAC is first to market with an E7-powered NVMe SSD. ZOTAC is a well-known hardware vendor, but they are relatively new to SSDs having only just launched their first line of SATA-based SSD products a few months back.

ZOTAC’s “Sonix” PCIe SSD is built on the NVMe interface, powered by Phison’s E7 controller and available as an Add-In-Card (AIC). ZOTAC is targeting gaming, creative content, and general productivity applications where quicker access to large files is highly advantageous. The Sonix, like Intel’s 750 Series and Samsung’s 950 Pro, utilizes 4-lanes of Gen 3.0 PCIe to interface with the host. The Sonix employs a 15nm Toshiba MLC flash array. 15nm Toshiba MLC flash has proven to be potent, cost-effective, and reliable, hence making it an excellent choice.

At launch, the ZOTAC Sonix 480GB AIC SSD carries an MSRP of $369. We anticipate street prices will quickly drop because the Sonix is competing for market share with Intel’s 750 and Samsung’s 950 Pro.

Specifications

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_02

ZOTAC’s Sonix NVMe PCIe AIC SSD is available in a 480GB capacity. Performance for the 480GB Sonix we have on the bench is listed at up to 2,600 MB/s sequential read and 1,300 MB/s sequential write. Sequential speeds given are for incompressible data. Compressible data speeds are significantly higher as we will demonstrate with ATTO. Random performance is not given. As mentioned, the Sonix leverages a 15nm Toshiba MLC flash array. The Sonix is backed by a limited three-year warranty. Warranted endurance for the 480GB model is up to 698TB or 637GB per day for three years. Reliability (MTBF) at the 480GB capacity point is two million hours.

A low profile bracket is bundled with the drive. ZOTAC has a downloadable NVMe driver for Windows 7 users, which we are happy to see, but we would really like to see an F6 driver made available so Windows 7 can easily be installed on the Sonix. Power consumption is listed at 5.57W Read, 7.27W Write, and 0.5W Idle.

Drive Details

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_03

The Sonix retails in yellow and gray themed packaging. The front of the box features a partial photo of the enclosed drive. Capacity, form factor, interface, sequential speeds, and warranty are all advertised.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_04

On the rear of the packaging, ZOTAC refers to the Sonix as the “Silent Silver Bullet”. ZOTAC touts the drive’s AIC form factor as plug and play, and cable management free. Various attributes of the enclosed SSD are listed.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_05

Inside the box is the drive itself, a half-height bracket, and a printed user’s guide.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_06

The front of the drive features a full-length metal cover perforated with vent holes.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_07

The back half of the drive also features a sheet metal cover that acts as a heat sink and provides protection for the ICs located underneath it.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_08

Here is the drive completely disassembled. There is a thick aluminum passive heat sink that removes heat from the drive’s controller, flash packages, and cache package.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_09

The front half of the PCB houses the drive’s Phison E7 NVMe controller, cache package, and four of the drive’s eight flash packages.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_10

The back half of the drive’s PCB houses the remaining four flash packages.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_11

The quad-core, eight-channel, Phison E7 controller that powers the Sonix.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_12

One of the eight 64GB Toshiba 15nm MLC flash packages that populate the Sonix PCB.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_13

The drive’s Nanya branded 512MB DDR3 cache package.

Drive Properties

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_14

The majority of our testing is performed with our test drive as our boot volume. Our boot volume is 75% full for all OS Disk “C” drive testing to replicate a typical consumer OS volume implementation. We feel that most of you will be utilizing your SSDs for your boot volume and that presenting you with results from an OS volume is more relevant than presenting you with empty secondary volume results.

System settings: Cstates and Speed stepping are both disabled in our systems BIOS. Windows High-Performance power plan is enabled. Windows write caching is enabled, and Windows buffer flushing is disabled. We are utilizing Windows 10 Pro 64-bit OS for all of our testing except for our MOP (Maxed-Out Performance) benchmarks where we switch to Windows Server 2012 R2 64-bit.

Synthetic Benchmarks – ATTO & Anvil Storage Utilities

ATTO

Version and / or Patch Used: 2.47

ATTO is a timeless benchmark used to provide manufacturers with data used for marketing storage products.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_15

Compressible sequential read/write transfers max out at 3,056/2,270 MB/s. Keep in mind this is our OS volume, and it is filled to 75% of its total capacity. As is typical of Phison-powered SSDs, the Sonix provides higher than advertised performance when digesting compressible data.

Sequential Write

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_16

The Sonix ramps up slower than the rest of the drives in our test pool, but because the data is compressible, the ZOTAC Sonix can outperform the competition significantly by the end of the test.

Sequential Read

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_17

Again the Sonix rips through the tests compressible data transfers. However, even with compressible data, Samsung’s NVMe SSDs display superior small transfer performance.

Anvil Storage Utilities

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1.0

Anvil’s Storage Utilities is a storage benchmark designed to measure the storage performance of SSDs. The Standard Storage Benchmark performs a series of tests; you can run a full test or just the read or write test, or you can run a single test, i.e. 4k QD16.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_18

Scoring

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_19

Anvil’s scoring gives a good indication of a drive’s overall performance. The Sonix displays acceptable read performance and excellent write performance.

(Anvil) Read IOPS through Queue Depth Scale

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_20

The Sonix is outperformed by the rest of the test pool when reading random 4K data.

(Anvil) Write IOPS through Queue Scale

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_21

The Sonix cannot catch the Intel 750, but surpasses the Samsung drives at QD4 and higher.

Synthetic Benchmarks – CrystalDiskMark & AS SSD

CrystalDiskMark

Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0 Technical Preview

CrystalDiskMark is disk benchmark software that allows us to benchmark 4k and 4k queue depths with accuracy. Note:Crystal Disk Mark 3.0 Technical Preview was used for these tests since it offers the ability to measure native command queuing at QD4.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_22

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_23

This backs up what we saw with Anvil’s testing; the Sonix has the lowest read performance of the drives in our test pool.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_24

We will notch this as a win for the Sonix. It has far better sequential write performance than the 400GB Intel 750, and better random 4K QD4 – QD32 write performance than the Samsung offerings.

AS SSD

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.7.4739.38088

AS SSD determines the performance of SSDs. The tool contains four synthetic as well as three practice tests. The synthetic tests are to determine the sequential and random read and write performance of the SSD.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_25

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_26

AS SSD is a demanding test, and the Sonix handles it with ease. The Sonix outperforms the 512GB Samsung SM951 AHCI, and the Samsung 950 Pro 256GB.

Benchmarks (Trace-Based OS Volume) – PCMark Vantage, PCMark 7 & PCMark 8

PCMark Vantage – Hard Disk Tests

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2.0.0

The reason we like PCMark Vantage is because the recorded traces are played back without system stops. What we see is the raw performance of the drive. This allows us to see a marked difference between scoring that other trace-based benchmarks do not exhibit. An example of a marked difference in scoring on the same drive would be empty vs. filled vs. steady state.

We run Vantage three ways. The first run is with the OS drive 75% full to simulate a lightly used OS volume filled with data to an amount we feel is common for most users. The second run is with the OS volume written into a “Steady State” utilizing SNIA’s guidelines. Steady state testing simulates a drive’s performance similar to that of a drive that been subjected to consumer workloads for extensive amounts of time. The third run is a Vantage HDD test with the test drive attached as an empty, lightly used secondary device.

OS Volume 75% Full – Lightly Used

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_27

OS Volume 75% Full – Steady State

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_28

Secondary Volume Empty – FOB

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_29

There’s a big difference between an empty drive, one that’s 75% full/used, and one that’s in a steady state.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_30

The important scores to pay attention to are “OS Volume Steady State” and “OS Volume 75% full.” These two categories are most important because they are indicative of typical of consumer user states. When a drive is in a steady state, it means garbage collection is running at the same time it’s reading/writing. This is exactly why we focus on steady state performance.

Moderate workload performance is an area where we would like to see some improvement. Phison-powered SSDs have always struggled a bit with moderate workload performance. We have seen incremental improvements with each new firmware release, and we fully expect to see improvements in this area through future firmware updates.

PCMark 7 – System Storage

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.4.0

We will look to Raw System Storage scoring for evaluation because it’s done without system stops and, therefore, allows us to see significant scoring differences between drives.

OS Volume 75% Full – Lightly Used

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_31

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_32

This test backs up our Vantage results. The Sonix again struggles with moderate workloads.

PCMark 8 – Storage Bandwidth

Version and / or Patch Used: 2.4.304

We use PCMark 8 Storage benchmark to test the performance of SSDs, HDDs, and hybrid drives with traces recorded from Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, and a selection of popular games. You can test the system drive or any other recognized storage device, including local external drives. Unlike synthetic storage tests, the PCMark 8 Storage benchmark highlights real-world performance differences between storage devices.

OS Volume 75% Full – Lightly Used

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_33

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_34

PCMark 8 is the most intensive moderate workload simulation we run. With respect to moderate workloads, this test is what we consider the best indicator of a drive’s performance. The Sonix performs much better than any SATA-based SSD, but again falls short when compared to the NVMe based competition.

Benchmarks (Secondary Volume) – Max IOPS, Disk Response & Transfer Rates

Iometer – Maximum IOPS

Version and / or Patch Used: Iometer 2014

We use Iometer to measure high queue depth performance. (No Partition)

Max IOPS Read

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_35

Max IOPS Write

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_36

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_37

ZOTAC does not specify random 4K performance for the Sonix. With our configuration, we were able to hit maximum 4K IOPS of 340K read and 230K write.

Iometer – Disk Response

Version and / or Patch Used: Iometer 2014

We use Iometer to measure disk response times. Disk response times are measured at an industry accepted standard of 4K QD1 for both write and read. Each test runs twice for 30 seconds consecutively, with a 5-second ramp-up before each test. We partition the drive/array as a secondary device for this testing.

Avg. Write Response

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_38

Avg. Read Response

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_39

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_40

Write response is decent, but read response (latency) is higher than we expected to see. This really runs contrary to the outstanding user experience we are getting while running the Sonix as our OS disk.

DiskBench – Directory Copy

Version and / or Patch Used: 2.6.2.0

We use DiskBench to time a 28.6GB block (9,882 files in 1,247 folders) composed primarily of incompressible sequential and random data as it’s transferred from our DC P3700 PCIe NVME SSD to our test drive. We then read from a 6GB zip file that’s part of our 28.6GB data block to determine the test drive’s read transfer rate. Our system is restarted prior to the read test to clear any cached data, ensuring an accurate test result.

Write Transfer Rate

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_41

Read Transfer Rate

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_42

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_43

The Sonix delivers excellent read transfer performance, as do all the drives in our test pool. The Sonix write transfer performance is the lowest of the NVMe drives we’ve tested.

Benchmarks (Secondary Volume) – PCMark 8 Extended

Futuremark PCMark 8 Extended
Heavy Workload Model

PCMark 8’s consistency test simulates an extended duration heavy workload environment. PCMark 8 has built-in, command line executed storage testing. The PCMark 8 Consistency test measures the performance consistency and the degradation tendency of a storage system.

The Storage test workloads are repeated. Between each repetition, the storage system is bombarded with a usage that causes degraded drive performance. In the first part of the test, the cycle continues until a steady degraded level of performance has been reached. (Steady State)

In the second part, the recovery of the system is tested by allowing the system to idle and measuring the performance after 5-minute long intervals. (Internal drive maintenance: Garbage Collection (GC)) The test reports the performance level at the start, the degraded steady-state, and the recovered state, as well as the number of iterations required to reach the degraded state and the recovered state.

We feel Futuremark’s Consistency Test is the best test ever devised to show the true performance of solid state storage in an extended duration heavy workload environment. This test takes on average 13 to 17 hours to complete and writes somewhere between 450GB and 14,000GB of test data depending on the drive. If you want to know what an SSDs steady state performance is going to look like during a heavy workload, this test will show you.

Here’s a breakdown of Futuremark’s Consistency Test:

Precondition phase:

1. Write to the drive sequentially through up to the reported capacity with random data.

2. Write the drive through a second time (to take care of overprovisioning).

 Degradation phase:

1. Run writes of random size between 8*512 and 2048*512 bytes on random offsets for 10 minutes.

2. Run performance test (one pass only).

3. Repeat 1 and 2 for 8 times, and on each pass increase the duration of random writes by 5 minutes.

Steady state phase:

1. Run writes of random size between 8*512 and 2048*512 bytes on random offsets for 50 minutes.

2. Run performance test (one pass only).

3. Repeat 1 and 2 for 5 times.

Recovery phase:

1. Idle for 5 minutes.

2. Run performance test (one pass only).

3. Repeat 1 and 2 for 5 times.

Storage Bandwidth

PCMark 8’s Consistency test provides a ton of data output that we use to judge a drive’s performance.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_44

We consider steady state bandwidth (the blue bar) our test that carries the most weight in ranking a drive/arrays heavy workload performance. Performance after Garbage Collection (GC) (the orange and red bars) is what we consider the second most important consideration when ranking a drive’s performance. Trace-based steady state testing is where true high performing SSDs are separated from the rest of the pack.

 In a steady state, the Sonix is handily outperformed by the rest of the drives in our test pool. As the drive cleans itself up, it draws closer to the rest of the test pool, but still falls significantly short in terms of total throughput.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_45

We chart our test subject’s storage bandwidth as reported at each of the test’s 18 trace iterations. This gives us a good visual perspective of how our test subjects perform as testing progresses. This chart sheds more light on how the drives perform as they progress through the testing phases.

Total Access Time (Latency)

We chart the total time the disk is accessed as reported at each of the test’s 18 trace iterations. This chart piques our interest when we look at the recovery phases. The Sonix actually displays better latency than the Samsung drives.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_46

Disk Busy Time

Disk Busy Time is how long the disk is busy working. We chart the total time the disk is working as reported at each of the tests 18 trace iterations.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_47

When latency is low, disk busy time is low as well.

Data Written

We measure the total amount of random data that our test drive/array is capable of writing during the degradation phases of the consistency test. Pre-conditioning data is not included in the total. The total combined time that degradation data is written to the drive/array is 470 minutes. This can be very telling. The better a drive/array can process a continuous stream of random data, the more data will be written.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_48

Combined read/write latency, capacity and overprovisioning are the biggest factors that determine the outcome of this portion of the test. This is a win for the Sonix. The Sonix is benefiting from over-provisioning and writes more random data than the rest of the drives in our test pool.

Benchmarks (Secondary Volume) – 70/30 Mixed Workload

70/30 Mixed Workload Test (Sledgehammer)

Version and / or Patch Used: Iometer 2014

Heavy Workload Model

This test hammers a drive so hard we’ve dubbed it “Sledgehammer”. Our 70/30 Mixed Workload test is designed to simulate a heavy-duty enthusiast/workstation steady-state environment. We feel that a mix of 70% read/30% write, full random 4K transfers best represents this type of user environment. Our test allows us to see the drive enter into and reach a steady state as the test progresses.

Phase one of the test preconditions the drive for 1 hour with 128K sequential writes. Phase two of the test runs a 70% read/30% write, full random 4K transfer workload on the drive for 1 hour. We log and chart (phase two) IOPS data at 5-second intervals for 1 hour (720 data points). 60 data points = 5 minutes.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_49

What we like about this test is that it reflects reality. Everything lines up, as it should. Consumer drives don’t outperform Enterprise-Class SSDs that were designed for enterprise workloads. Consumer drives based on old technology are not outperforming modern Performance-Class SSDs, etc.

Intel’s 750 dominates this brutal test. The Sonix delivers very good performance, for the most part on par with the Samsung 950 Pro 512GB. The Sonix does display a lot more variability than the rest of the drives in our test pool, but its average performance is good enough for second place.

Maxed-Out Performance (MOP)

This testing is just to see what the drive is capable of in an FOB (Fresh Out of Box) state under optimal conditions. We are utilizing Windows Server 2012 R2 64-bit for this testing. Same Hardware, just an OS change.

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_50

Compression 0-Fill:

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_51

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_52

Compression 0-Fill:

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_53

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_54

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_55

Final Thoughts

zotac-sonix-480gb-nvme-pcie-aic-ssd-review_56

We are really excited to see a new NVMe SSD hit the consumer retail space. More competition will help to drive pricing lower and performance higher, and that’s a good thing for the consumer. ZOTAC’s Sonix 480GB NVMe AIC SSD is a high-quality piece of hardware. Just looking, you can see the level of design and detail that went into this AIC SSD. It is one of the more attractive pieces of hardware I’ve ever owned. In terms of absolute performance versus the competition, the Sonix is almost there, but the competition has a distinct edge when we look closely at the numbers.

Benchmark results are very important in determining how well a drive performs, but we also feel that user experience is just as important and that benchmark numbers do not always reflect user experience fully. This is one of those rare times. Because TweakTown reviews SSDs running as our OS disk loaded up with data, we are in a somewhat unique position to comment with authority on how good or bad of a user experience our test subject actually delivers. Boot speed, Windows load times, and overall snappiness are all key to a good user experience. In terms of overall user experience, the ZOTAC Sonix really delivers. For example, below is a video showing the boot speed we are getting from the Sonix:

 

The Sonix boots like lightning, much faster than Intel’s 750 Series, damn near that of the 950 Pro. It also loads Windows much faster than Intel’s 750, again almost as fast as a 950 Pro. After using the Sonix as my boot disk for a while, it became apparent that it was one of the snappiest drives I’ve ever used. Contrary to what the numbers would lead us to believe, I could notice a difference between it and Intel’s 750, the Sonix is definitely snappier, and for me it provided a slightly better user experience.

Based on actual user experience satisfaction, the Sonix is TweakTown recommended. Based on MSRP ($369), it is not. We believe the ZOTAC Sonix 480GB NVMe AIC SSD needs to be priced at around 10% lower than a 950 Pro to be a compelling option for our readers. Because the drive only launched a couple of days ago, and pricing typically falls rapidly, we expect we will soon see pricing drop into a range where we can recommend the Sonix 480GB without any reservation.

(tweaktown.com, http://goo.gl/2UbSsl)

Comments

comments

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn