Introduction, Design Features
Plextor has been making an aggressive push into the solid-state drive (SSD) world for some years now, and with its latest line of PCI Express-bus SSDs, it’s looking to plant its flag in the high end of the SSD market.
Dubbed the M8Se family, its newest flagship SSDs are a follow-up to a previous drive set called the Plextor M8Pe. The M8Se is a line of PCI Express x4-compatible models with support for NVMe, and these SSDs have all the latest technology. (Some early Plextor PCI Express SSDs we tested were rated for only PCI Express x2 and lacked NVMe support.) Just like with the previous line, Plextor has paid a lot of attention to the overall look of its drives and made them pieces of enthusiast hardware you’d be happy to show off through a windowed PC chassis.
That’s something you won’t see in most other PCI Express SSDs; they tend to be bland-looking. Most SSD makers, such as Samsung and Micron/Crucial, release their PCI Express SSDs only as M.2 sticks, little circuit boards that you mount onto your PC’s mainboard. And in most cases, they’re about as appealing as wrapping your product in a paper bag; at best, you have about 2 square inches of surface to show off, and many makers just slap a sticker on top or leave the memory modules, or NANDs, bare. This isn’t that big of a deal, though, since M.2 SSDs are attached to the motherboard and usually not all that visible, even in a desktop tower through a case window.
For desktop systems that cannot accommodate an M.2 gumstick drive (or that lack a slot for an additional one), you can also go the expansion-card route, like Plextor does in one of its M8Se models, specifically the M8SeY we are looking at here. Plextor wrapped this bad boy in a cool-looking heat sink, on a half-height add-in card that looks aggressive and sleek. Plextor also offers this drive as a plain M.2 stick, M8SeG, either for a laptop or a desktop. (That model has a heat-spreading plate on top that, to our eyes, is handsomer than most, in terms of aesthetics.)
Whether in expansion-card form or as a straight M.2 drive, the M8Se is positioned as a mainstream PCI Express NVMe solution instead of a fire-breathing “We spared no expense!” type of drive. So it should be suitable for a wide range of home users who care about transfer-rate performance: gamers, content creators, video editors, and media archivers. Let’s check it out.
Samsung SSD 960 EVOBuying an SSD: 20 Terms You Need to Know.)
The 128GB version of the M8Se is rated for much lower speeds than the rest of the drives in the family, while the 256GB, 512GB and 1TB drives are all rated pretty much the same. The latter three offer sequential-read speeds up to 2.4GB per second and sequential-write speeds up to 1GB per second. Random-read IOPS are rated at up to 205,000, and random-write IOPS are at 160,000. That’s pretty decent for read speeds, but the write speeds are about half of what Samsung claims for its 800-pound gorilla in this market segment, the SSD 960 EVO. (The Samsung drive is rated for 3.4GB-per-second sequential reads and 1.9GB-per-second sequential writes.)
Despite being a bit slower than the Samsung drive on paper, the M8Se still offers a solid five-fold improvement over a typical SATA SSD in sequential reads and a two-times boost in the write department. It’s certainly not a slow SSD, by any stretch of the imagination.
Interestingly, PCI Express drives have become fast enough that, during sustained read/write operations, overheating NANDs have become a concern, which is why Plextor took the trouble on the expansion-card version of this drive we’re reviewing here to wrap it in a sleek, thick heat sink. Motherboard manufacturers have started to put heat spreaders on top of the M.2 slots on their motherboards, as well, because some M.2-stick versions of PCI Express/NVMe drives do not have a robust heat sink on top. That can lead to thermal throttling, meaning they reduce their operating speeds to keep temperatures in the safe zone.
That’s obviously a situation we all want to avoid, so it’s comforting to know the heat-sink versions of this drive should never experience that. On the M.2-stick side of things, Plextor offers the M8SeG with a snazzy, thin heat spreader on top. There’s also a “naked” M.2 version (M8SeGN) that has no heat protection. Why? You might want to opt for this version of the drive to snap underneath a motherboard maker’s M.2 existing heat shield, or into a laptop M.2 slot with no extra clearance for a heat spreader.
The M8Se line is rated for rather high write endurance, with the 512GB drive we’re examining here able to write up to 320TB in the course of its lifetime before cell wear/shutdown may become evident. That’s a huge amount of data, and since this is a mainstream drive with a three-year warranty, few normal users would feel any pinch from that; almost none would write that much data to it in such a short time period. You could write gigabytes of data to the drive every day for more than 20 years and still not reach the drive’s limit. Suffice to say, its endurance is fine for any home user, and even the 128GB version allows up to 80TB to be written to it. That’s still a ton of data, given the drive size.
Pricing for this family of drives varies according to which drive you are buying, as it’s offered in the three varieties we mentioned: the PCI Express add-in card, the PCI Express M.2 with a heat sink, or the naked version of the M.2. Here’s the pricing for each of the models…
Half-Height PCI Express Card (Plextor M8SeY)
M.2 With Heatsink (Plextor M8SeG)
Samsung SSD 960 Pro and SSD 960 EVO, so it’s competitive. For example, the 512GB version of the M8SeG is $282, while the Samsung SSD 960 Pro is $299, with the SSD 960 EVO at a $249 MSRP. The expansion-card version is a bit above them all at 512GB (around $327 at this writing), so it’ll be interesting to see if it is worth it.
It’s also worth mentioning that the half-height expansion card has pretty lights, if you need some bling for your rig. Get ready for some blinding blue…
Because it relies on TLC NAND flash, the M8Se includes Plextor’s PlexNitro technology. A form of this technology is common across TLC drives and helps to compensate for difficulties that this type of flash has with write operations. It uses an unused portion of the drive as a “pseudo SLC” NAND cache for writes, which works well with small and moderate write loads. The only problem with this solution, and it affects all TLC drives, is that the cache is usually a fixed size. So if your write operation is larger than the cache, you have to write directly to the flash, and that can be slow. Therefore, TLC drives are usually not recommended for people who often need to write huge chunks of data (10GB or larger, typically). For the vast majority of writes, the cache works wonderfully, assuming the writes are smaller than a few gigabytes in size.
As we stated earlier, the drives include a three-year warranty, which is standard for this class of SSDs. No supplementary software comes with the drive, not even to clone your data to the drive, so it’s about as plug-and-play as it gets. It doesn’t even support the company’s own PlexTools maintenance software at this time, since the drive uses NVMe. (The software is only useful with Plextor SATA drives.) Plextor tells us a forthcoming patch will fix this, but it’s not coming out until November. This isn’t a huge deal, as you rarely, if ever, need to use the maintenance and monitoring software, but it is puzzling that the company released a drive without this support.