The funky Ares solid-state drive (SSD) comes to us from Drevo, a rare total newcomer to the Computer Shopper testing lab. Yes, we’ll be the first to admit: It’s the first SSD that we have any recollection of calling “funky.” SSDs are usually a staid lot, but this one stands out, first and foremost, for its “armored unicorn” design theme. (Yeah, we know. We’ll unpack that in a moment.)
Drevo makes a variety of PC-peripheral and storage gear, including a set of flashy PC keyboards, but its flagship SSD is the first of its products that we’ve had the opportunity to test and review. (Also expect a review of the company’s Drevo Calibur RGB gaming keyboard in the coming weeks.) The company makes a handful of Serial ATA-bus SSDs, but the Ares is its only PCI Express model. The PCI Express bus support makes it the de facto flagship SSD the company offers, but it’s available only in one capacity: a rather tight 256GB. That’s a curious mix of interface and top capacity.
Despite this dichotomy, the Ares’ form factor and specifications pit it against some of the best SSDs the market has to offer right now. It also includes some interesting hardware, and it looks one-of-a-kind. And it’s bootable too, of course.
Could it be the next SSD to house your OS? Let’s unbox it and check it out.
The Ares is a half-height PCI Express card, essentially an M.2-format gumstick SSD mounted on an expansion card topped by a fancy, radical heat sink. The backplane pre-installed on the card is for a full-size PC case, but Drevo also includes a short retention bar for installing it into a slimline PC.
Having the SSD mounted to a heatsink and a card like this allows any desktop user with a spare PCI Express slot to install and run the SSD; only late-model motherboards tend to have M.2 slots. True to its name, the heatsink also absorbs heat, cooling the SSD and preventing performance-punishing throttling. (In theory; we’ll see.) Because most desktop-PC motherboards on the market have a PCI Express slot but lack an M.2 slot, the Ares can work with pretty much any PC made or built in the ’10s. Most brand-new motherboards will have M.2 slots on the board proper, and using that slot will be a space- and money-saving alternative to an add-in-board (AIB) SSD solution like the Ares. (For more on M.2 and the various kinds of SSDs on the market today, read our decoder, Buying an SSD: 20 Terms You Need to Know.)
The Ares is not only a PCI Express x4 SSD, but it also supports the newer NVMe protocol, instead of the older AHCI. (Early PCI Express SSDs did not necessarily support NVMe.) NVMe is faster all around, but despite the support for both PCI Express and NVMe, the Ares has specifications that are closer to the fastest SSDs of 2016 than what we see in today’s top-of-the-line drives.
To wit, the Ares’ maximum sequential-read speed is 1.4GB per second, whereas a drive like the Samsung SSD 960 ProSamsung SSD 950 Pro. That drive was rated read at 2.5GB per second and write at 1.5GB per second. It’s still quite a bit faster, but a closer match.
The storage silicon inside the Ares is a combination of 3D MLC NAND, which is the new hotness in the SSD world these days. Having the bits of flash stacked vertically, or in 3D-defined layers as it were, has a side benefit of increasing drive endurance. 3D MLC is used to great effect here: This 256GB drive has a wildly high rated endurance (350TB of writes), which is many lifetimes of drive usage for most home users. The 3D MLC NAND is paired with a controller from Silicon Motion (SMI). An SMI controller of some stripe is a pretty common go-to these days for SSD manufacturers like Drevo, who are unable to manufacture their own controllers in the way market leader Samsung can.
Easily the most interesting attribute of the Ares (arguably, that is, apart from the spiky unicorn logo) is the hardware switch on the back of the drive. You can flick it to one of three positions: “S,” “D,” or “P.” This is a power-saving feature, and the three settings are for “gaming,” “daily leisure,” or “power saving,” respectively. We’re not sure why the “S” setting is the one for gaming, but it’s the fastest. [Maybe the “S” is for “speed”? -Ed.]
Just for kicks, we put the switch into the “P” position for some tests, and it dropped the Ares to roughly the same speeds as a slower SATA-bus SSD, in the unlikely event you want to hobble your drive.
In practice, the idea of an SSD power-saving setting is noble but impractical. Inclined to spend a premium for a performance-minded SSD, and savvy enough to distinguish between an ordinary SATA SSD and a PCI Express one? We just can’t see many such speed-minded users running the drive at any level but “S.” Also, the notion of reaching behind your desktop PC to shift a three-position switch for your SSD is equal parts inconvenient and puzzling. We can’t fathom a scenario where we would want to do such a thing, given that most other components in our PC would be far bigger power hogs. (And the thought of, “Gee, I think my SSD is too fast” has never crossed our minds.)
So, while the switch looks cool, 99 percent of users will leave it at “S” and never look back. It reminds us of the Turbo buttons from the days of yore, which we also always left “enabled.”
One other interesting hardware feature, switch aside, is the pronounced row of capacitors visible on top edge of the PCB, close to the backplane. Drevo says these capacitors provide backup power in case the system loses power while data is in-flight. They should theoretically send enough power to the SSD to let you finish any write operation you’re in the middle of, assuming it’s almost complete. Between the capacitors, the heatsink’s aluminum alloy, the unicorn theme, and “breathing” blue-triangle LEDs along the leading edge, the Ares conquers traditional SSDs in the war for visual coolness.
Drevo covers the Ares with a three-year warranty, but no software comes in the package. When we wrote this in October 2017, the 256GB Ares was priced at $150 on Amazon. (The list price is $189.99.) That’s about average or a little below, for this capacity in an AIB-style PCI Express SSD. The drive’s main AIB SSD competition, the Plextor M8SeYSamsung SSD 960 EVO, using a PCI Express bus. It runs about $130, and that SSD is the true nemesis of this one if you can install a bare M.2 PCI Express SSD. Meanwhile, lower down the price spectrum, 250GB/256GB SATA M.2 drives can be found for less than $100. So, on the whole, this drive’s pricing (assuming it sticks around the $150 point) is at best average in the PCI Express drive space, or slightly better than average, but not aggressive. It all depends on whether you can put a price on unicorns and gratuitous LEDs.
If you’re new to the world of solid-state drives, a few things are worth noting when it comes to performance.
For starters: If you’re upgrading from a standard spinning hard drive, any modern SSD will be a huge improvement, speeding up boot times and making programs launch more quickly. Most of today’s mainstream SSDs make use of the Serial ATA 3.0 interface (also called “6Gbps SATA”) and the AHCI drive protocol. The drive we’re looking here, though, is an M.2 drive (installed on a PCI Express carrier card), and not one that uses the SATA bus. This requires that you install it in a compatible PCI Express expansion-card slot.
The actual name of the standard it uses is PCI Express 3.0 x4, the third iteration of PCI Express, and it uses a slot that has access to at least four lanes. You can put it in a x16 slot, but it will just use four of those lanes. In other words, be sure to consult your motherboard manual to make sure you can take advantage of it using an available slot before spending any money. This is not a new standard, however, so any modern motherboard should be able to run this SSD at full speed, assuming there’s a compatible slot free.
AS-SSD (Sequential Read Write Speeds)
This test uses the AS-SSD benchmark utility, which is designed to test SSDs (as opposed to traditional hard drives). It measures a drive’s ability to read and write large files. Drive makers often quote these speeds, as a theoretical maximum, on the packaging or in advertising.
Sequential speeds are important if you’re working with very large files for image or video editing, or you play lots of games with large levels that take a long time to load with traditional hard drives. We secure-erase all SSDs before running this test.
The Drevo Ares is rated for 1,400MB per second in sequential read speeds, and it actually ran faster than that in this test, which is a good thing. We obviously don’t expect it to hit the 2GB per second of many leading drives given that rating, so though it’s not the fastest SSD, 1.6GB per second in read speeds is three times faster than a SATA SSD at its best, and it does exceed its specification, so we can’t ask for much more than that. Overall, it’s about the same speed as previous-generation M.2 PCI Express SSDs, as we indicated earlier.
Now, as for writes on this test…
In this test the Ares once again outperformed its spec, another pleasant surprise. It’s rated to perform sequential writes at 600MB per second, but in this “worst-case scenario” test, it was able to hit a decent 678MB per second, better than we expected. Still, in comparison to leading-edge PCI Express SSDs, it’s about mid-pack, and it trailed some year-old or older drives, such as the Toshiba OCZ RD400. It’s still faster than a SATA drive, of course, but much behind the leaders here.
AS-SSD (4K Read Write Speeds)
This test, also a part of the SSD-centric AS-SSD benchmark, measures a drive’s ability to traffic small files. Often overlooked, 4K performance, particularly 4K write performance, is important when it comes to boot speed and program launch times.
When booting up and launching programs, many tiny files get accessed and edited frequently. The faster your drive can write and read these (especially dynamic link library, or DLL, files in Windows), the faster your OS will “feel.” Since small files like these get accessed much more often than large media or game-level files, a drive’s performance on this test will have a greater impact on how fast the drive feels in everyday use.
As expected, the Ares turned up mid-pack again in this test, showing once again that it’s significantly faster than a SATA SSD, but not much competition for a lot of current-gen PCI Express-based SSDs. To its credit, though, its score of 38MB per second is just 1MB per second slower than the beastly Intel SSD 750 Series, which was a pioneering drive in its time, the fastest SSD in existence when it was launched in 2015. Times have changed, though, and as you can see from the chart, that level of performance is now passe.
Moving on to 4K writes…
The Ares performed quite well in this test, landing right next to the SSD industry’s reigning champion, the Samsung SSD 960 Pro. Its score of 153.3MB per second put it in the top tier of drives we’ve tested. So, despite a tight capacity and midrange scores elsewhere, it was at the top of the pack on small writes. Once again, the Ares has delivered a score we did not anticipate.
Anvil’s Storage Utilities
Anvil’s Storage Utilities is, like AS-SSD, an SSD-optimized set of drive benchmarking tests. We’ve recently added it to our testing suite, and we’ll report here the Overall Score, which is derived from the Read and Write scores with the utility running at default settings. (That is, with 100 percent incompressible data.)
The Ares landed in the middle of our chart once again, leaning toward the bottom of the second tier of PCI Express SSDs here but still faster than even some newer PCI Express SSDs, such as the Corsair Force MP500Kingston HyperX Predator. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; all PCI Express SSDs “feel” really fast in operation and are well-suited for enthusiast PCs and workstations. Still, it is odd that a new-in-2017 drive would boast previous-gen performance.
Crystal DiskMark (QD32 Testing)
Crystal DiskMark uses incompressible data for testing, which stresses most modern SSDs quite a bit since they rely on data compression to achieve their maximum level of performance. This particular test is designed to replicate the duties of an SSD located inside a Web server, as it’s asked to perform a smattering of small reads, which are 4K in size. While it’s reading these files, there is a queue of 32 outstanding requests lined up. That’s typical of a high-volume Web server, which has to fulfill requests that come in at the same time from various clients.
The Ares stumbled in this grueling benchmark, landing near the bottom of the chart with a buddy, the SATA-based HyperX Savage. That’s not good; the Ares performed more like a SATA drive in this test than a PCIe drive. We’re not sure if it was an anomaly with the test or the drive, but the Ares landed the equivalent of a belly flop in a deep pool this time around. In its defense, this is not a typical workload for this kind of drive.
The Ares redeemed itself in the write portion of this test, rejoining its PCI Express brethren nearer the top of the benchmark chart. Oddly enough, its read specification is much faster than its write specification (at least as far as PCIe SSDs go) so the results on this test were quirky. Still, the Ares performed well, essentially tying the superbly performing Samsung SSD 960 EVO.
Overall, the Ares is a decent midrange SSD, and it generally performed at or above our expectations in our benchmark suite. Its specs are relatively low for a PCI Express/NVMe SSD, though, especially since it also uses tried-and-true 3D MLC NAND. It has all the right parts for a fire-breathing SSD, but is simply a midrange effort, the equivalent of a top-of-the-line PCIe SSD from 2015.
Now, that’s no sin, considering it still offers a gigantic leap in performance compared to a SATA SSD. Plus, no denying: It looks really cool, more blinged-out than any other AIB-style SSD we’ve ever met. Why don’t manufacturers makes SSDs look cooler, like this one? Why not make them RGB knockouts like some video cards? Just sayin’…
Now, despite its cool factor, given the price per gigabyte, we can’t come up with many strong arguments in favor of buying the Drevo Ares under most circumstances. That is, of course, unless you simply want something different than the standard Samsung, Crucial/Micron, or Kingston/HyperX variety of SSD. There’s that novelty factor, along with the fact that it’s the only SSD on the market adorned with a unicorn. That’s got to be worth something, right? We think it is, but given that you can get a better-performing drive like the M.2 SSD 960 EVO and an aftermarket PCI Express M.2 card for less, you have to be buying this one for the bling factor.
In the end, the real selling point of the Drevo Ares, beyond the bling, is that it’s available pre-installed on a half-height PCI Express card, so it’s compatible with pretty much any desktop made in the recent past. That said, its small capacity of 256GB is somewhat of a head-scratcher. We’ve never seen an internal SSD offered at just one capacity—especially not one as small as this—so it’s not an ideal pick for power users.
That begs the question, then: Who is this SSD really for? We’re not sure; though it looks like a flagship power-SSD, it’s just a midrange, single-capacity drive. Throw in the fact that there’s no bundled software (and ignore the oddball performance switch), and it’s more of a novelty than a strong SSD alternative. It’s not a bad drive, mind you, but if you must have an SSD on a half-height PCI Express card, the Plextor M8SeY makes for a better deal with more capacities, close pricing at the 256GB capacity point, a software presence, and more established warranty support. We’d look again at the Ares were its pricing to undercut the Plextor’s at 256GB by $30 or more; at this writing, it was more like $15.
An add-in-card SSD from newcomer Drevo, the Ares is unique in design among PCI Express drives. (Anyone for a speed switch on the back, LEDs on the edge, and a unicorn on the side?) But its lone cramped capacity and middling performance for an NVMe model make it a tough sell.
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