Apacer AS330 Panther 960GB SSD Review
Even though Apacer isn’t as well known in North America as they are in other areas of the world, that hasn’t stopped them from trying to expand further in this market. Some of their efforts have focused upon innovation above all else (look no further than the unique dual interface AS720 for that) while others aim to achieve a perfect balance between the usual “bread and butter” fundamentals of SSD design and pricing.
Their AS330 Panther series targets the later situation perfectly since it is well priced, uses a solid controller and houses well-respected NAND. That seems like a combination for success but we can’t forget that the segment this SSD series plays within is also loaded with alternatives from more-recognizable companies.
On the surface things may appear a tad grim for the AS330 as it does have a noticeably lower model designation than the ‘AS720’. Remember that SSD was rather anemic in its performance so a reasonable person could conclude that this model is even lower powered and directly targets sub-entry level buyers. While the AS330 Panther may indeed be a lower cost solution – the 960GB has a rather reasonable asking price of just $200 at the time of writing this article– this has more to do with the fact that it doesn’t feature the unique USB / SATA interface layout of its close cousin.
The simple fact of the matter is the AS330 series is not meant to be as boundary-pushing or as innovative as the AS720 series. Rather is an entry level model meant to compete with the likes of OCZ’s Trion 150 / TR150, PNY’s well respected CS1311, and even Crucial’s BX200 series. This however does not mean it is as under-powered as the difference in model numbering would lead you to believe.
Unlike the AS720 which is a JMicron JMF670 controller based design that cut a few corners on the amount of onboard RAM cache, the AS330 Panther uses the much more impressive PHISION PS3110-S10 controller. This 4-channel controller has been cutting quite the swath lately in the entry level corner of the marketplace and has powered some very impressive drives lately – with everything from the PNY XLR8 CS2211, to the Kingston HyperX Savage, to even the ZOTAC Premium Edition. In other words, there is very little reason to believe that the AS330 is anything but an excellent drive. Its cost per gigabyte is also among the lowest available right now.
With that being said the PHISION controller has gained a reputation of being able to work with a wide variety of NAND types and as such the amount of performance it can offer does tend to vary. Put another way, the NAND paired with this controller actually makes a huge difference. Unfortunately, this is where the lower model number designation also comes into play. Unlike the AS720 series which used 16nm 128Gbit MLC NAND from Micron, the AS330 relies upon 15nm Toshiba TLC NAND.
The Panther is not the first drive to use this specific combination as it is exactly the same as what the PNY CS1311 uses. This is why when we cracked open the rather colorful full metal case - which the AS720 should have used – there was no surprise upon seeing a half-length PCB which is populated with only eight NAND ICs. On the positive side, and unlike the smaller PNY CS1311 we looked at, this 960GB version has excellent NAND interleaving. Each of the controller’s four channels has access to eight layers of TLC NAND, or a full two NAND ICs. This will help keep performance high and should help alleviate some of the negatives usually associated with TLC NAND.
Just as with most other manufacturers that use this combination the AS330 Panther has a small portion of each NAND IC set aside to act in pseudo-SLC (pSLC) mode. This not only boosts the endurance of the otherwise fragile TLC NAND to acceptable levels but also increases real world write performance.
Further helping to keep this drive as quick as possible, Apacer made the right call and included two 256MB NANYA branded DDR3L-1600 RAM ICs. Half a gigabyte of RAM buffer should be more than enough to satisfy the needs of the typical home consumer. Of course this too is the same amount PNY uses on their larger CS1311 models as well.
Unfortunately, there is no true hardware based data loss protection on this model. While we were not expecting to see rows upon rows of capacitors on this entry level drive, relying almost solely upon firmware based solutions like ECC to keep data from being corrupted isn’t quite optimal in today’s competitive market.
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