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ZOTAC Sonix 480GB NVMe PCIe SSD Review

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For some time now it’s been clear that SATA SSD’s have hit their limits as far as performance gains are concerned. For many years the PC market has been waiting for the next big thing to come along. We’ve got M.2, the stillborn SATA Express and more recently, U.2 that all promise to be the next interface for PC storage. What’s somewhat strange is that the PCI Express interface has been with us for some time. We’ve seen a few attempts come and go, but outside the enterprise sector, PCI Express storage has never really taken off compared to SATA based drives, despite the complete market saturation of PCIe, with many PC’s having unused slots just waiting to be used. Reasons include low capacity, prohibitive pricing, compromised performance or poor availability, or combinations thereof.

Enter the Zotac Sonix PCIe SSD. This new drive uses the NVMe protocol and is powered by a new generation Phison’E7 controller. This controller takes care of a lot of the shortcoming of previous PCIe SSD’s and promises to bring PCI Express SSD’s to a compelling price point. Zotac hopes to engage the common PC enthusiast. Groups such as gamers, content creators and power users. I.e. the people reading VR-Zone where quicker access to files is highly advantageous. The Zotac SONIX PCIe SSD, with its Add In Card form factor utilizes 4-lanes of Gen 3.0 PCIe for its bandwidth. This places it head to head with the likes of The Intel 750 series and Samsung 950 Pro series. The Phison controller in the Sonix is paired with 15nm Toshiba MLC flash. This choice indicates the Zotac Sonix SSD should be a reliable, affordable and fast choice for users looking to move past SATA to next generation data storage. Forget 600 MB/s SATA, would you fancy 2600MB/s read and 1300MB/s write speeds?

 

Explaining the tech behind the Zotac Sonix PCIe SSD

What is NVMe?

NVMe stands for Non Volatile Memory Express. It’s full name is Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface Specification (NVMHCI). Essentially it is a new device specification designed for flash storage media media attached via the PCI Express bus. SATA, and its aging AHCI protocol was initially designed with hard drives in mind. Since SSD’s are orders of magnitude faster in many situations, such as access times and operations per second, the much needed new NVMe standard was designed from the ground up to maximize the performance of flash media. We’re getting to the stage where even the cheapest entry level PC’s have a SSD as the boot drive. This means SATA can be relegated to drives for storage, where performance is not a top priority anymore. With NVMe, your SSD’s will no longer face the SATA bottleneck that has held back performance progress for several years.

NVMe based drives use several form factors. Usually M.2, SATA Express, PCIe and now U.2. While M.2 drives have the greatest market penetration, they are hampered by physical constraints. As they are often placed underneath graphics cards, heat is a problem too. PCI Express drives face no comparable limitation, allowing for higher capacities on larger PCB’s (more flash chips) as well as a heatsink. We consider SATA Express to be still born, with no drives available outside of demonstration prototypes despite being present on motherboards boards for years now. U.2 is perhaps the logical successor to SATA, as it retains the same connection mechanism without needing to be directly attached to the motherboard. U.2 is gathering steam with motherboard manufacturers too, with many new X99 motherboards for Broadwell-E being equipped with it. Look for U.2 to become increasingly supported in the future. We’d expect it to be present on all next generation (Z270?) mid range and higher motherboards. Currently only the Intel 750 Series SSD uses the U.2 connection.

Why do IOPS matter?

Manufacturers like to boast about the 999999 MB/s speeds of their drives. While maximum speed is definitely important for large file transfers, it’s actually the In/Out Operations per Second (IOPS) and access time that give your PC the perceived responsiveness you get from moving from a hard drive to a SSD. The operating system is doing all sorts of things in the background involving tiny files, reads and writes. While SATA drives are no slouches in terms of IOPS and access times, they have pretty much hit a brick wall because of the aging SATA interface and AHCI (NVMe predecessor). Now that NVMe drives are coming into the mainstream market, a well designed NVMe SSD takes us a step closer to that ‘instantaneous’ PC reaction time we all want. More IOPS, lower access times, combined with higher read and writes speeds. Bring it.

Unboxing and Overview

First, lets check out the specs of the Zotac SONIX 480Gb PCIe SSD. A key number here is the 2,000,000 hours mean time between failures. That’s over 83000 days or 228 years thank you very much. We don’t info on the actual physical capacity of the drive. but we’d guess its actually 512Gb, leaving a few GB hidden for wear leveling or a buffer for bad sectors. suffice to say, this should prove to be a very reliable drive.

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Our first exposure to the Zotac Sonix PCIe SSD comes from the box. All the key information is here for the consumer to assess.

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Moving to the contents, we have some simple documentation and a low profile bracket. This means small form factor cases can accommodate the SONIX PCIe SSD.

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Here is the drive itself. It is finished in an attractive gun metal grey color that should blend in well with most systems.

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There’s a backplate too. This acts as a heatsink for the components on the rear of the PCB. There are thermal pads on top of the flash chips for this reason.

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As you can see, the controller, flash chips and memory are cooled by a passive heatsink. The drive doesn’t really run hot, though it’s good to have this bit of cooling in a packed system surrounded by hot GPU’s.

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The 480GB configuration is made up of eight Toshiba 15nm MLC flash packages, with four on each side of the PCB. There’s a 512MB DRAM cache that is provided by a single package Nanya DDR3 chip.

 

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Here we have the engine of the system, a Phison PS5007-E7. Key features of this controller include support for NVMe 1.2, up to 4Gb of cache, built in error correction, 256Bit AES encryption and support for MLC, TLC and 3D Flash. We expect this controller to appear in several company’s PCIe SSD’s.

 

Test System

Intel Core i7 6600K @ 4.5Ghz

ASRock Z170 OC Formula (read our review here)

4x8Gb Crucial DDR4 @ 2400Mhz 15-15-15-36

MSI GeForce GTX 980 Gaming 4G

Antec HCP-1200

Windows 10 Pro 64bit

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Benchmarks

We tried to get hold of a Samsung 950 Pro M.2 drive for this comparison, but were unable to get hold of one on short notice. It’s not going to be any surprise that the Zotac drive is going to obliterate the SATA drives we had on hand for testing.

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ATTO is an old but simple benchmark used to measure read and write speed with different sized files. You can see here the SONIX PCIe SSD absolutely destroys even the best SATA SSD’s on the market, the Samsung 850 Pro.
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It’s a similar story here. AS SSD tests sequential and random reads and writes along with access times to generate an overall score. Game over for performance SATA drives.

 

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Moving on to Crystal Disk Mark, just look at those 4K q32 reads and writes. Even the best SATA SSD’s cannot match that with sequential data.

 

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Finally here’s a look at what HD tune Pro has to say about the performance. Closing in on 2.5 GB/sec!. During testing, we copied some files over from a NAS, via Gigabit LAN, at 100MB/s.. It’s great to have blazing fast drives, but the humble Gigabit LAN has to be ditched soon in favor of 10 Gigabit.. end rant.

 

Conclusion

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Anyone coming from an older SSD or, god forbid, a hard drive as the boot drive will be instantly impressed by the amazing boot times on offer. This is one of the fastest SSD’s available for the consumer market and in day to day use it will make your whole system feel so snappy and responsive. The Zotac SONIX 480Gb PCIe SSD deserves some serious attention as long as you have a spare slot and a system to make use of it. Add in a 3 year warranty and 2 million hours of expected lifetime and you’ve got storage that’s great for a game library, video transcoding, multitasking, content creation and just about every other consumer application you can think of.

The Zotac Sonix 480Gb PCIe SSD is currently selling for $369.99 US Dollars. We feel that this is a touch high, but only because the competing Samsung 950 Pro is very well priced. Despite this, there are some advantages in the Zotac’s favor. Some motherboards are compromised when running M.2 NVMe drives due to chipset PCIe lane limitations. M.2 drives can run hot when sandwiched underneath a hot graphics card and finally, obviously not every system has a M.2 slot, whereas most ATX systems will have a spare PCIe slot. So, all things considered, you may find the Zotac PCIe solution makes the best sense, even with its price premium.

A PCI Express device like the Zotac Sonix SSD is likely to have a long usable lifetime. While we are offered the likes of  SATA Express, M.2 (with its different key designs) and now U.2, the storage ecosystem is yet to coalesce into one single interface like we enjoyed with SATA (or USB for comparison). For this reason, the old SATA is likely to remain the interface of choice for a couple of generations yet. PCI Express is well established and is going nowhere. You can buy a PCIe SSD and know that it will run in virtually any PCI Express slot for many years to come.

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Pros:

Fast.. Very fast

Low profile option

NVMe drives are within reach of the mainstream

PCIe form factor has none of the M.2 compromises

 

Cons:

Ideally needs to be a few dollars cheaper.

 

A fast SSD is one of the best and most noticeable upgrades you can bring to your PC. Move beyond the confines of SATA and supercharge your system with this Zotac PCIe SSD. Only the relative expense kept it from receiving our Editor’s Choice award.

 

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