Corsair Neutron Series 256GB SSD Refresh Review

Author:Hugh Briggs

Editor:Kyle Bennett

Date: Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Corsair keeps pace with continuing innovation in the NAND market by switching from 25nm IMFT NAND to the rarely seen 22nm SK Hynix NAND. This NAND provides a lower price point and extra capacity. Today we take a look to see if the Neutron Series performance remains and how this new SSD build stacks up to the competition.

Corsair Neutron Series 256GB SSD Basics

Corsair has refreshed its LAMD-powered Neutron Series SSDs with SK Hynix 22nm NAND, making the switch from IMFT 25nm, but have opted to stay with the same product name. This can be a dicey situation for manufacturers. The reality of the NAND market dictates that the constant shrinking of NAND requires adjustment from manufacturers to provide the best value for its customers. On the flip side of the coin, sometimes newer NAND can feature markedly lower speeds which requires a reboot in the naming convention.

Nothing will generate negative press faster than a NAND refresh that results in lower capacity or performance. A few years ago, OCZ notoriously swapped the NAND on the Vertex SSD Series without informing customers. Unfortunately this led to lower performance and capacity, leading enthusiasts to run for the pitchforks and torches. OCZ apparently learned from this poor handling of the initial situation, and with the latest switch to a smaller geometry NAND OCZ went with a new SKU to reflect the changes.

As NAND shrinks, it becomes less pricey. When new steppings switch to mass production, manufacturers have to walk the tightrope between providing the right performance and the right value for customers. Most die shrinks lead to lower performance, less endurance, and higher bit error rates. The severity of the performance impact upon the drive typically revolves around the potency of the controller and the new firmware.

The LAMD LM87800 controller was originally designed to work with a wide variety of NAND options, from Toggle to ONFI and MLC, SLC, and TLC. This broad compatibility provides a strong platform that should allow the transfer to 22nm SK Hynix NAND to be relatively painless. The new Neutron also features more capacity than its predecessor, with 16 extra Gigabytes of space. This will make the distinction between the two products easy to spot. The old Neutron sports 240GB, and the new version features 256GB. Surprisingly the base specifications are very close between the two versions.

LAMD was acquired by SK Hynix soon after Corsair began shipping LAMD-powered SSDs. SK Hynix was ranked fourth of five NAND fabricators, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence, pushing Micron out of the number three spot. This makes the switch to SK Hynix NAND important for a few reasons. Many speculated that SK Hynix would take the LAMD controller and use it for its proprietary SSDs, effectively removing it from the market.

SK Hynix NAND is usually not seen outside of SK Hynix's own SSD products, there are virtually no other SSDs on the market that feature SK Hynix NAND. The use of SK Hynix NAND in the new version of the Neutron may point to a friendly relationship between Corsair and Hynix that may continue in the future. With LAMD having been absorbed into SK Hynix this provides a great understanding of the underlying technology behind SK Hynix NAND, which leads to a tight integration of the new NAND.

The last time we visited the Neutron Series SSD we were taking the wait-and-see approach with the new LAMD controller. LAMD (Link_A_Media) had a solid pedigree with experience in enterprise SSDs, but the LAMD Amber controller was untested in the consumer realm at the time. In our experience, many previous launches of new controllers from competitors have been fraught with problems, ranging from BSODs to complete brickings and losses of user data. This led us to forgo the Gold award until the new controller had some time in the market to prove itself.

Due to solid design and engineering the LAMD controlled Corsair SSDs have never succumbed to the pitfalls that other products have suffered from in the past. Even with extended time in the market, the LAMD controllers have been remarkably reliable, with no reports of issues.

Some of this reliability definitely harkens back to LAMDs enterprise roots. Some enterprise SSD manufacturers never release a single firmware update during the life of the product. The SSDs in the enterprise space are so reliable and have been through such in-depth qualification cycles that firmware updates are rarely needed.

This focus on reliability also seems to have bled over to the consumer LM87800 Amber controller, which has also not seen a single firmware update since its introduction to the SSD arena. While the new model of the Neutron does have a different firmware (M306), this is to ensure the compatibility with the new SK Hynix NAND. Today we will compare the 22nm Neutron Series SSD, and its lower price point, to its previous build of materials and other competing SSDs from other manufacturers.