Corsair MP500 Force 240GB & 480GB M.2 SSD Review
2016 was certainly an interesting year for anyone who was looking for a new SSD. Through their partnership called IM Flash Technologies, Intel and Micron finally followed in Samsung's footsteps and released their amazingly dense '3D' TLC NAND. Toshiba reaffirmed their commitment to creating exciting solid state drives within the OCZ brand. On the other hand, the enthusiast marketplace was virtually snubbed by most companies since everyone seemed to flesh out their mid range and entry level offerings.
In other words, it was a good time to be a mainstream consumer but not so much if you were an enthusiast looking to scratch that upgrade itch and move on to a second generation NVMe drive. Now granted there were some glimpses of greatness with Intel’s U.2-based SSDs, Kingston's HyperX Predator and a few other high level NVMe offerings but past those, the storage market didn’t move forward all that much from a performance standpoint.
Thankfully 2017 does not appear to be following in Auld Lang Syne's footsteps and in late 2016 Corsair dropped a bombshell on the marketplace – the MP500 Force series. This new series shows that Corsair's storage division is returning to their enthusiast roots. This new powerhouse has its sights firmly set on the people looking to upgrade their existing Intel 750 (or Samsung equivalent) drive but are not entirely sold on Toshiba's RD400 series. Nor are they idea of stacking NAND 48 cells deep per layer like Samsung's latest and greatest. Let's face it; when dealing with the larger versions of the 860 Pro thermal limitation is a real possibility.
The Force series MP500 is being offered in capacities from 120GB to 480GB and boasts speeds that either meet or exceed the expectations set by the likes of OCZ’s RD400 and many other alternatives in its price bracket. The one difference is that unlike many first generation M.2 drives, this one won’t be offered with a PCIe add-in bracket option. Simply put, this is due to the fact that every current generation motherboard has an M.2 slot built in. If you need an add-in card, there are plenty available from third-party sellers.
Arguably going for the high performance market is a great move by Corsair but the Intel 750 has proven to have stamina and staying power that few could envision when it was first released. Plus 'upstarts' like Toshiba's OCZ division and their RD400 have set the bar awfully damn high – even if the RD series is not a true successor to the workstation-orientated RevoDrive series. Mix in the fact that the MP500 does not rely upon any flavor of 3D NAND and it is pretty obvious why this new Force series flew under the radar when it was announced.
So how did Corsair go about taking on the titans of industry and do so without any flashy stunts? By going back to creating models that combine the best, highest performance NAND the industry offers with a new controller that is set to make waves – but hasn't yet. The last time Corsair tried this, the resulting Link A Media -based Neutron series was… good but never lived up to its performance potential and promises. This time however appears to be different as they have opted for the new PHISON PS5007.
This is not the first time we have seen the NVMe PS5007 controller in action, and if the PNY CS2030 240GB is any indication Corsair could not have made a better choice. This controller eats high I/O demands for breakfast and then spits out low queue depth high performance for an encore.
As I mentioned a little while ago, even though the MP500 series is meant to take on the Intel 750 and other first generation NVMe drives it does not use a PCIe Add In Card (AIC) or 2.5-inch 12.5mm U.2 form-factor. Instead makes use of the much smaller M.2 2280 interface. Obviously to use the MP500 a motherboard will need a four lane PCIe enabled M.2 port but this does make things a lot easier as most modern motherboards come with an M.2 port but not necessarily have a free PCIe x4 slot let alone the rare U.2 port.
As this is a M.2 based design it should come as no surprise to see that the entire MP500 – including the 240GB and 480GB reviewed today – make use of four NAND ICs, a single DDR3L RAM cache IC (though the upcoming 960GB has two), and the PHISON controller. The only differences between the various capacity versions will be the size of the RAM cache (the 240GB makes use of 256MB, the 480GB has 512MB) and number of NAND layers that the controller has access to. All capacities will use 15nm Toshiba MLC Toggle Mode NAND 'chips'.
Before we being a deep dive into this series there are two potential issues we do need to point out. Firstly, it’s obvious the 480GB model is going to be the faster of the two capacities being tested as each of the 8 channels will have four layers of NAND on it, whereas the 240GB will only have two. More NAND interleaving means more performance so the smaller capacities may also suffer on the performance per dollar front.
On the positive side this amount of NAND interleaving is not possible with any 3D NAND model. Those newer 3D NAND ICs are much denser and require fewer layers to reach a given capacity point. Thus, Corsair has made a perceived handicap into a real-world benefit.
Oddly, within the MP500 there isn’t a heatsink for the controller or NAND which means adequate airflow is going to be critical to ensure optimum real world performance. To help – somewhat- alleviate this Corsair does use a thin metal strip 'heatsink' sandwiched between the label and heatpad. This will help equalize temperatures but as it lacks both mass and surface area it is going to be of limited value. This is a common issue with all M.2 NVMe drives but by using older NAND instead of hotter running '3D' NAND this is not an overly worrisome issue.
From a first opinion standpoint, the MP500 appears to get more right than wrong. When you combine the newer controller with higher grade NAND and in mix in a few firmware tweaks, the end result should be fantastic. Today we will see if the 240GB and 480GB MP500 Force M.2 NVMe drives can indeed live up to their asking price of $180 and $320 respectively.
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