G.Skill Phoenix Blade 480GB PCI-E SSD Review
Due to their massive potential bandwidth and relatively compact form factor, PCI Express SSDs are becoming a big thing these days and G.Skill is the latest to take advantage of this growing market with their Phoenix Blade 480GB. We’ve already seen many examples from Intel that cater to datacenter-based applications and others like Plextor’s M6e and OCZ’s RevoDrive series which target more mass-market clientele. The Blade falls firmly into the latter category but has its roots firmly planted in the professional market as well.
Not that long ago, adding the Blade to their product stack would have been an impossibility for G.Skill. After being the first to offer a relatively affordable SSD and following up with several strong product ranges, they made the decision to temporarily pull out of the SSD market. That happened at a time when SSDs were a dime a dozen and it seemed like every company was jumping on the bandwagon with nearly identical products. Without any way of offering any form of differentiation, G.Skill took the time to reorganize their storage division and the first byproduct of that effort is the Phoenix Blade.
By targeting the ultra high end market G.Skill is wading into a hotly contested area but the Blade 480GB’s specifications hold a ton of promise. Specifically this half height PCIe 2.0 x8 device is rated for 2000MB/s sequential read and write performance when dealing with uncompressed data, and a still respectable 1900/1050 MB/s when dealing when dealing with compressed data. Equally impressive is its rating of 90K/245K IOPS for small file performance abilities, which is great for workstation consumers. For those keeping track at home, those figures put it well in advance of OCZ’s Revodrive 350.
Another interesting aspect here is endurance which is rated for 1.68 petabytes of data or an MTBF of just over one million hours. Numbers like that allow the Phoenix Blade to bridge the gap between enterprise-class products like the Intel DC-P3700 and OCZ’s RevoDrive. This is backed by a 3-year warranty which is par for the course these days but it also gives G.Skill’s drive a sense of dual identity; is thisa workstation drive or one that targets gamers? The answer to that is “both”…..sort of which is why we'll be looking at both sides of the coin in this review.
Pricing is also an important aspect here and another factor that contributes to its slight identity crisis since, when compared against its closest competitors, the Blade is actually quite affordable for some users. At $700 for just 480GB of space it is far outside the reach of most gamers but buyers for workstation-class storage will be hard pressed to find a better value. Enthusiasts on the other hand will look at the RevoDrive’s higher cost versus its lower performance ratio and jump towards G.Skill’s offering.
In order to reach such high performance levels and yet keep the asking price within the realm of reasonable G.Skill has opted for slightly older technology. They are utilizing a PCI-E 2.0 interface rather than PCIe 3.0 like most new PCI-E based SSDs. This has led to the use of an x8 interface instead of x4 PCI-E 3.0 layout.
G.Skill’s chosen format may cause compatibility problems issue when used alongside dual GPU systems on many Z97 motherboards since they typically offer two PCI-E 3.0 slots alongside a very limited number of PCI-E 2.0 slots. One option is to forget about dual card setups on Z97 and install the Blade into the board’s secondary PCI-E 3.0 slot which will knock down the primary slot to x8 as well, potentially limiting GPU performance. Luckily X99 boards or Z97 boards equipped with PLX PCI-E lane multipliers won’t face these issues but they should still be taken into account before buying the Phoenix Blade.
Even though the metal fascia is a touch more aesthetically pleasing than most, at its most basic the G.Skill Phoenix Blade is a fair representation of what many PCI-E based storage devices look like. It uses a half-height, single slot form factor and is about as long as your typical mid-range video card at about 6.75”.
Lifting the external cover we can see that the Blade has a lot of components stacked closely together which tends to lead to a significant amount of heat buildup. Thankfully, G.Skill has limited the power draw to well below PCI-E levels and included large and robust heatsinks.
Around back there’s a secondary heat spreader as well which should aid in dispersing any excess heat from the topside components.
Once we removed the top fascia and those impressively large heatsinks, the actual design of this model was very, very familiar and hearkens back to the RevoDrive 350 in many ways. Unlike some of the competition, this is not a native PCIe device but rather an amalgam of multiple SATA SSDs, a RAID controller and a simple PCI-E bridge controller.
In this multi-board approach the main PCB consists of a large RAID controller, the PCI-E bridge controller IC, a connector for the daughterboard, two SATA SSD controllers and 16 NAND ICs. The smaller daughterboard has 16 more NAND ICs and two more controllers.
This setup in and of itself is not exactly cutting edge, but as the Intel 910 series proved it can be a very, very potent configuration. It really does come down to the components that G.Skill opted for and how they have configured the parts to work together.
While there are some points of differentiation, G.Skill’s design is quite basic at its heart. Rather than looking towards Marvell or Samsung, or even Intel for their controllers we once again see the SandForce SF2281 rear its head. Each SF2281 controller uses 8 NAND ICs and for all intents which means there are four separate 120GB SATA drives that share a common PCB. As with most of these designs G.Skill has once again take a page directly from OCZ's RevoDrive series and made these four SF2281 controllers into one large RAID 0 pre-configured 480GB storage device.
Unlike some datacenter-centric devices in the PCI-E storage market, the G.Skill Phoenix Blade is bootable as long as you preload the drivers into the OS and it is TRIM enabled. The latter of which was very reassuring as it took OCZ many years before they made their SandForce-based RevoDrive series received TRIM support.
G.Skill has accomplished this via the use of custom drivers which does come at the expense of increased CPU overhead. In testing the overhead was approximately the same as most of the more expensive competition or between 2-8% on an eight-thread CPU. This is much higher than it would have been if G.Skill had gone for advanced native PCI-E aware SSD controllers, or better still NVMe controllers. However this choice ultimately made the Blade more affordable and modern CPUs do have cycles to burn unless you are spending your days rendering.
We have to give credit where it is due since G.Skill has opted for the latest incarnation of the SF2281 and the 'new' VB2 stepping of this well respected controller. The VB2 iteration was released to address compatibility with newer NAND and is also known to be much more power efficient than previous generations. The addition of high end 19nm Toshiba NAND should also lead to some great performance.
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