Hard-Drive Roundup June 2010

9. WD Scorpio Black 320GB11. IOPS - Should you care?


Hard-Drive Roundup

Firmware Information and the SandForce IOPS issue.

So, we may as well be honest with those reading… when thinking about hard drive firmware whether it be for mechanical models or SSDs the situation can be confusing, frustrating and essentially customer un-friendly. Not in the way that updating a drive is hard or fraught with danger but because many drive and controller manufacturers seem stuck in the past as far as support is concerned. Then, even when they are forthcoming with updates, information on the changes is often limited or non-existent which stops consumers from making a fully informed purchase.

Nowadays consumers, especially enthusiasts like those who buy high specification drives, are used to updating components quickly and easily. Our motherboards are updated regularly, optical drives too. On occasion video cards need BIOS update and then there are the peripherals such as performance mice and even headsets which benefit from regular firmware updates. For the majority of these the updates are user friendly and full information is provided to the consumer on the reasons for or benefits off the update. Its time the drive manufacturers joined us in 2010 and sorted out their practices.

Anyway, lets take a look at how each company being covered today stacks up in the firmware stakes.

Mechanical Drive Firmware Updates

Seagate – Seagate do offer firmware updates for some of their products, currently there is no publically available update for the Barracuda XT. However they do offer a serial number check on their website which will inform consumers of any future availability.

Western Digital – For the Scorpio Black we are not aware of any firmware updates though experience tells us that Western Digital always ship new drives with the latest Firmware. With regard to the VelociRaptor there have been a number of firmware updates since launch and as noted above WD are prompt at adding the latest firmware to their shipping products. Disappointingly, existing customers contacting Western Digital direct will get nowhere with regards to getting the latest firmware. For those who already have a drive, Google is your friend and should allow you to update to the latest version in a DOS environment with data left intact (always backup for safetys sake though). The latest available version for the 150/300GB drives is 04.04V04 and it was used for the testing in this review.

SSDs

Kingston/Toshiba – Kingston have not yet released a firmware update for their latest V-Series drives. Given the target consumer and maturity of the controller we do not expect to see a firmware release for this model unless a major issue is found with the existing version.

Indilinx/Corsair – Indilinx have been one of the most consumer friendly controller manufacturers. They have produced frequent updates to their drives, adding performance and features (e.g. TRIM) throughout the lifetime of their product and continue to update their Barefoot firmware to this day. Firmware updates generally make it to consumers with a meaningful version number and often with detailed release notes. In terms of the flashing process, some drives require a destructive flash but others can be updated while retaining data, this is down to the drive manufacturer. Generally IDE mode is recommended for flashing. OCZ are best at providing non-destructive updates in a timely and frequent manner and have a good relationship with Indilinx resulting in higher performance drives/firmware such as the Vertex Turbo. Corsair has the option to release updates also but often state that firmware versions do not meet their standard for release.

The Nova V128 SSD being tested today has yet to receive an update to the Indilinx firmware released by other manufacturers in May/June 2010.

Crucial/Marvell
– Crucial have released one firmware update for the C300 drives. Initially there was an issue with the firmware flasher on some systems however this has been resolved and currently Crucial offer the update in bootable ISO format with full release notes and guide. The update moves the drive to version 0002 and has to be performed in IDE mode. This is a destructive flash however Crucial hope that future updates will retain data.

SandForce/Corsair/OCZ – This is where the firmware situation becomes most complex. For some time OCZ have been very up-front about how good a relationship they have with SandForce and state that this has allowed them to release an exclusive version of the SF1200 firmware with maximum IOPS performance for the Vertex 2, starting with Firmware 1.0 which was based on SandForce 3.0.5. This increased IOPS performance should allow 50,000 IOPS (4K aligned). On other SandForce based drives the firmware is intended to be limited to 10,000 IOPS however the version released by Corsair, based on 3.0.1 and called 0.2 does not have the IOPS limit in place and they too offer 50,000 IOPS on the F100.

Clearly the initial OCZ firmware is newer and has some bug-fixes/enhancements over the 3.0.1 code but to complicate matters further the Corsair version of 3.0.1 actually has a fix to improve stability over other 3.0.1 versions which caused issues with low power states. Corsair have stated that they intend for the 3.0.1/0.2 based drives to retain the 50k performance level however it is not clear at this time whether this will be achieved by sticking with the existing firmware code they have, or if they can obtain and release an updated build with the latest changes/enhancements intact along with 50k IOPS.

At the beginning of June 2010 OCZ released firmware version 1.10 for their SandForce based drives and that was used in the testing for this article.

Updates can be performed in Windows using a simple tool which flashes the drive and then reboots the system, AHCI mode recommended. OCZ have provided a change log for the firmware noting changes such as improvements to the wear levelling efficiency and 50k IOPS performance is retained. OCZ are however not forthcoming on what SandForce code version 1.10 is based on and do not intend to release this information. This restricts users from comparing their drives to others based on the same controller to see who has the best/newest firmware. Chances are that OCZ will always have the latest version but clarity is always appreciated by consumers.

So, what about this IOPS issue…

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