Introduction, Design Features
Plextor has been a player in the solid-state drive (SSD) game for years now. (And like Plextor, its parent company, Lite-On, has been in the larger storage business for decades.) But with its new M8Pe drive, Plextor is pushing all of its (flash) chips into the pot.
This is a nothing-held-back, flagship SSD designed to offer the maximum amount of performance allowed by international law, physics, and current technology. Plextor has even gone so far as to endow it with “gaming” accents and cooling fins, which, to our recollection, is the first time we’ve seen such a thing on a gumstick-shaped M.2 drive.
Most such SSDs are literally just chips stuck to a circuit board, with a small sticker on top. In other words, Plextor is making an aggressive push to court gamers this time around, and has even added some…well, shall we say, overwrought verbiage to its M8Pe product page to highlight this priority, which we’ll get to in a bit.
The M8Pe holds the top spot in the company’s product lineup. It’s got all the features that one could want in a high-end SSD here in late 2016, including a PCI Express interface, use of the cutting-edge NVMe protocol, and specs that are a quantum leap beyond that was possible back in the “olden days” [ahem, a year or two ago –Ed.] when people were stuck using SATA-based SSDs. That said, the M8Pe drive is an evolution of Plextor’s PCIe SSD lineup, replacing the M6e Black Edition from 2015, which had similar styling and was indeed an M.2 drive, just mounted to a PCI Express expansion card.
For the record, Plextor also sells a version of the M8Pe (pictured below) as a full-blown PCI Express add-in card. It’s distinguished on Plextor’s site as the “M8Pe(Y),” while the M.2 version we’re reviewing is listed as “M8Pe(G).” (Not terribly evocative product names, these.) There’s also an “M8PeGN” model that ditches the exterior stripes and styling for a more traditional bare-circuit-board M.2 drive.
All three versions are sold in the same capacities, and they all feature the same physical drive inside. So we’re going to refer to the drive in our review as just “M8Pe,” which is how it’s often listed at online stores, as well.
Samsung SSD 950 ProSSD 960 ProSSD 960 EVO, as well as the Kingston HyperX PredatorToshiba OCZ RD400Intel 750 Series. The good news for Plextor is that it doesn’t have too much competition in this space at the moment, compared to the vast number of drives that exist in the SATA world. But the bad news is, the company is up against the absolute fastest consumer SSDs available from gargantuan companies. So Plextor has its work cut out for it.
For its part, Plextor is giving its new drive a fighting chance at running with the top drives in its class. The M8Pe rides the PCI Express bus and uses four PCIe lanes, too, which is currently the most available for a single SSD. It also uses the all-new NVMe protocol instead of AHCI, which allows the drive to handle a much larger queue of requests than before, and reduces latency as well.
The main benefit to these two bits of tech is that the PCI Express bus has a much wider path than SATA, allowing up to 1GB per second of transfer speed per lane allocated to it, compared to SATA’s maximum theoretical throughput of 600MB per second. That means this drive could theoretically hit 4GB per second. Due to overhead, no drive will hit that mark, just as SATA drives generally top out at around 550MB per second. Still, PCIe x4 is a massive improvement over SATA; instead of running out of bandwidth, we’re now able to see SSDs that run as fast as current technology permits and still not saturate the bus.
When the day comes that four lanes isn’t enough, we imagine companies will just move to an eight-lane configuration, then 16, and so on. Of course, by then we could be using Intel Optane, or some other type of blazing-fast non-volatile memory standard for storage. But for now, PCI Express is the path forward in the world of storage, because it offers much more bandwidth than SATA, and bandwidth can be easily increased when that becomes necessary.
The M8Pe uses good old-fashioned multi-layer cell (MLC) NAND, which is known for its high performance and long endurance. The NAND is made by Toshiba and is relatively new, as it was made on a 15nm process. Controlling the action is a three-core chunk of controller silicon from Marvell, with the wonderfully descriptive model number “88SS1093.” As noted earlier, the drive is offered in both the M.2 form factor, as well as attached to an expansion card in case you have an older system that doesn’t offer a PCI Express M.2 slot. Anything older than Intel’s 6th-Generation/”Skylake” architecture on the Z170 chipset or a recent Intel X99-chipset board probably doesn’t have one of these connectors, meaning you’d have to opt for the add-in card variant, the M8Pe(Y). On Newegg.com, we saw an additional charge of $30 for the add-in-card version compared to the metal-clad M.2 drive, which is reasonable enough.
The drive is offered in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB capacities, and performance rises along with capacity, which is standard operating procedure for SSDs due to the parallelism in their design. The drive we’re testing is the middle child at 512GB, and it’s specified to run at 2.3GB per second for sequential reads, and 1.3GB per second for sequential writes. Random-read IOPS should hover around 250,000, while writes will be in the neighborhood of 150,000, depending on the workload.
To put that in context, this is just a notch or two down from the recently released Samsung SSD 960 Pro, which is rated at 3.5GB per second for sequential reads and 2.1GB per second for sequential writes. The Samsung drive uses “3D V-NAND,” however, which features flash dies stacked vertically on top of one another, whereas the Plextor drive relies on older, yet still effective, planar flash dies, where the cells are stacked side by side. That’s one reason why that Samsung drive currently tops out at 2TB of capaciy, but the Plextor maxes out at 1TB.
One thing that deserves to be pointed out, though, for its sheer ridiculousness is how Plextor is branding this drive as an “e-sports” SSD, as if such a concept made sense. We get it that e-sports are popular, no doubt, and that Plextor wants to cash in on the craze, but unless it’s physically malfunctioning, your SSD should make practically no difference in how an e-sports game performs on your system. Plextor goes so far as to say the M8Pe, “…delivers the smoothest gaming experience with its powerful infrastructure optimized for eSports.” We’re not sure what that even means, but then the verbiage gets even hokier by claiming it has “eSports level quality design,” which doesn’t even make sense. We’ve seen indications that many game-load and level-loading times aren’t improved by NVMe SSDs, so we can’t imagine how it would make any difference in e-sports games, which generally have much lesser system requirements than new AAA commercial game titles. Even if the drive did somehow make levels or games load quicker, the game would probably wait for your competitors’ levels to load before letting you start. And none of that has anything to do with “smooth” performance, anyway. We do like the gamer-friendly, sporty styling of the drive, but the e-sports lingo was an eye-roller.
The Plextor M8Pe includes a five-year warranty, which is expected for a top-end SSD (though Samsung’s SSD 960 EVO is covered for only three years). Plextor also notes the drive includes top-shelf features, such as error correction, a rigorous burn-in and QA process for each drive, and the ability to handle heat-inducing sustained reads/writes thanks to built-in heatsinks.
The drive doesn’t ship with any software for either SSD management or drive cloning. The Plextor product page does have a downloads section, but all we saw there were data sheets and firmware updates. The lack of software could be an issue for those who are looking to upgrade and don’t want to start fresh with a new installation of their operating system. This is an overall negative, since Samsung, Toshiba, Micron/Crucial, and Intel, as well as several other SSD makers, include excellent management and monitoring utilities with their SSDs. Though power users may not need this kind of software, it would be nice if Plextor offered even a bare-bones utility that allowed you to secure-erase the drive and check for/install firmware updates.
When we wrote this review in mid-December 2016, street prices for the M8Pe on Newegg.com (that’s the metal-wrapped M.2 model we tested) were $279 for 512GB, and $30 less ($249) for the bare drive with no cooler (which you’d probably want to opt for if you’re installing the drive in a slim laptop or 2-in-1). That’s reasonable for a PCI Express NVMe drive at that capacity, but the Samsung SSD 960 EVO was selling for around $265 at this capacity on Amazon.com. (And the Plextor drives were more expensive there than they were on Newegg.com.) And the Toshiba OCZ RD400 was about $275 to $280 on Newegg.com and Amazon.com. The Plextor drive’s pricing is competitive for this class of drives. But problems arise when we look at performance (as we’re about to) given the perspective that Plextor’s drive sells for about the same or slightly less (depending on model and capacity) than Samsung’s SSD 960 EVO. As is often the case, Samsung is tough to beat when it comes to balancing performance and affordability.