PCI Express NVMe drives may be scooping up all the glory in the SSD market these days, but basic SSD upgrades that shame your hard drive on speed are still the lion’s share of what sells. With that in mind, Plextor is going after the big slice—entry-level SSDs—with its latest family of drives, the S3 series.
Plextor certainly has its fingers in the rarified enthusiast/performance market, too; see, for example, our review of the Plextor M8SeY (512GB)See our picks for the best M.2 solid-state drives. We reviewed the previous-generation M.2 version of this line in the form of the Plextor S2G (PX-256S2G)See our SSD lingo explainer for more on NAND flash types.) Also, the drives in both families are available only in lower capacities. The 2.5-inch S3C is offered in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB models, while the M.2-based S3G comes in just 128GB and 256GB flavors.
Both drives are SATA 3 drives, so for the S3C it has a maximum performance rating that’s mostly standard for a midroad SATA upgrade: 550MB per second for sequential reads, and 520MB per second for sequential writes. The ratings for random read/write performance are about what you’d expect, at 92,000 IOPS for reads and 79,000 IOPS for writes.
Overall, these are typical performance projections for a TLC-based SSD, so we wouldn’t expect too many surprises from this drive, as it’s designed purely as an upgrade for folks looking to step up from a spinning hard drive. Let’s take a closer look.
The S3C sample we’re examining comes in a classy silver 2.5-inch shell with a 7mm Z-height, so it can be popped into any laptop or desktop with the appropriate bay. It uses Hynix 14nm TLC NAND flash modules. This type of memory is used in value-minded drives, as it allows for one more bit of data per cell compared to the former mainstream-standard flash-module type, multi-level-cell (MLC). In short, the TLC approach allows a company to get more storage capacity out of its silicon versus MLC. This lowers manufacturing costs, and ultimately makes the drives less expensive.
Generally speaking, of late, TLC NAND has become SSD makers’ favored type of memory for mainstream/consumer SSDs. It’s fast enough for most applications, and it is very affordable in a relative sense. In the case of the S3 series (whether in the S3C or the S3G form), Plextor makes use of a Silicon Motion controller to run the show. (Specifically, it’s the Silicon Motion/SMI SM2254.)
To help—in theory—to boost performance a bit, Plextor has included some interesting technologies that we’ll examine at one at a time. First up is a caching technology called “PlexNitro.” It is baked into the drive’s firmware, so there’s no need to enable it manually or install software. Technologies like PlexNitro are a common feature of TLC drives, in that the controller automatically treats an unused portion of the drive as a pseudo-“SLC” cache for write operations. (SLC, or single-layer-cell, is a premium type of memory that stores one bit per cell and thus accrues performance benefits from that.) Using such a cache can help cover up TLC’s innate difficulties with write operations.
Next up is PlexTurbo, which is similar to the long-running “Rapid Mode” supported by Samsung drives. It allows you to use up to 16GB of system RAM for caching files and application data. This kind of technology can show gaudy improvements in formal benchmarks, but its detectable real-world effect is slight. Still, we like it, and it’s not a bad thing, so long as you’re not running mission-critical data and would be put out by losing data parked in RAM cache in a power failure. Then there’s PlexCompressor, which takes files that haven’t been accessed in the last 30 days and crunches them to save space on the drive. This is a behind-the-scenes process. If you try to access these compressed files, the utility unzips them transparently, and voila, your files are ready.
Finally, the drive supports a feature called PlexVault. It gives you the ability to create a secure, encrypted partition on the drive that’s hidden when not mounted, similar to what you experience when using the iconic TrueCrypt. This is a useful feature if you’re storing sensitive information on your SSD, though you can also just use TrueCrypt, as it’s still free. That said, technically TrueCrypt has been decommissioned, and the developer doesn’t recommend using it. Still, for casual lockdowns of personal data, either solution will do nicely. The S3C also supports Plextor’s PlexTool maintenance software, which we’ve covered previously in our review of the Plextor M6e Black Edition PCI Express SSD.
Another interesting feature of the S3C is that, in the 256GB version we tested, as well as the others in the line, it offers the full capacity of the supplied flash for your storage purposes right out of the box. No flash is set aside for maintenance or “overprovisioning,” in which a portion of the NANDs are set aside for activation at later times when others “wear” out. It’s the reason why some drives at a given capacity point fall a little short; drives you might expect to be, for example, 256GB, often ring up at only 250GB or 240GB. The extra capacity is there, but you can’t access it, since it’s reserved by the drive’s controller when it needs to move data around for maintenance.
The benefit of Plextor’s approach is that you get more effective gigabytes for your dollar. SSDs without overprovisioning are the exception rather than the rule, so this is a benefit, though if you overdrive the SSD with writes hard and often for its projected lifespan, there may be a consequence.
The S3 series includes a three-year warranty and has decent overall endurance ratings: 35TB of writes in the 128GB-capacity version, and 70TB for the 256GB and 512GB ones. These aren’t wildly high endurance numbers, but even a power user wouldn’t be able to hit those numbers in three years (much less 10 years), so they are more than adequate.
The one clear thing we didn’t see with the S3C: drive-cloning software. Our only guess is that because this is a budget-priced drive, Plextor is trying to make the package as affordable as possible and leave some daylight between it and more premium drives. Indeed, there’s nothing in the box with the drive apart from the warranty leaflet, not even the usual plastic 7mm-to-9.5mm spacer…
All of the software comes as downloads from the Plextor support site. As for the pricing on the S3 series, this was the list-price lineup as we wrote this in August 2017, across the Plextor S3 line…
Overall, this is competitive pricing for our test drive, as it undercuts the gorilla among budget/midrange SATA SSDs, the Samsung SSD 850 EVOCrucial MX300, which has a 275GB model that was going for a $99 street price when we wrote this in August 2017. That model is one of our favorites among budget SATA SSDs of late.
Before we get started here, 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 faster. Most of today’s 2.5-inch SSDs make use of a specific interface, SATA 3.0 (also called “6Gbps SATA”), to achieve maximum speed versus older, but still extant, SATA 2 ports, which top out at 300MB per second. We test all our SATA SSDs on a SATA 3.0-equipped test-bed PC to show their full performance abilities. To get the most speed possible from modern drives, you’ll need a system with SATA 3.0 capability, as well.
If your system is based on almost any recent Intel chipset (or one of the newer AMD chipsets), it has this interface. Be sure before buying, though. If your system is well-aged and doesn’t have SATA 3.0 support, there’s little point in paying a premium for a drive with the maximum possible performance. SATA 3.0-capable drives will work just fine with previous-generation SATA ports, and there’s scant reason to pay extra for drive speed that your system can’t take advantage of. Any basic current SSD will work just as well, in that SATA 3.0-less scenario.
AS-SSD (Sequential Read Write Speeds)
This test uses the AS-SSD benchmark utility, which (as the name suggests) is designed to test SSDs, as opposed to traditional spinning hard drives. The sequential tests measure 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.
Though Plextor lists this drive as being capable of 550MB-per-second transfer rates, it was only able to muster 514MB per second in this test, which is understandable as drives seldom reach their absolute maximum rate in this real-world benchmark. As you can see above, it’s right in the mix, especially considering it is a value-oriented drive. In fact, it was just a few megabytes per second behind the high-dollar Samsung SSD 850 Pro, so it’s up there with one of the fastest SATA drives available. So far, so good.
The Plextor S3C also hung tough in this benchmark, not far off the pace of the fastest SATA-based drives we’ve tested of late. If you look at the chart, you can see the fastest SATA performance we’ve seen of late is 500MB per second on this test, so the Plextor S3C isn’t too far off the mark. Solid, but again, most of today’s SATA SSDs deliver similar performance. So we’ll call this showing “good,” but the table stakes to compete in 2017. Onward…
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 kinds of files (especially dynamic link library, or DLL, files in Windows), the faster your OS will “feel.” Since small files like these get accessed much more frequently than large media or game-level files, a drive’s performance on this test will have a greater impact on how fast a drive feels in everyday use.
The Plextor S3C didn’t perform as well on this random read test as it did in the sequential test, where it was definitely in the hunt. A lot of factors go into a drive’s random read/write performance, so it’s difficult to nail down why the Plextor placed as it did, as it could be the flash, the controller, or some combination of the two. Suffice to say, it was behind most of this competitive SATA set with a performance of just 24MB per second. To be fair to Plextor, however, the Editors’ Choice Crucial MX300 was just as fast (it had strengths in other areas), so this result in and of itself doesn’t make the S3C a bad drive. Still, we’ll be curious to see how it fares in the rest of the tests.
It looks like the Plextor S3C struggled a bit in this test as well, as random small-file writes are generally the most punishing task a consumer SSD will endure. Still, we’re surprised to see it end up so far down the roster, in a class by itself. Most drives are somewhere in the 90MB-per-sec range or so, which means the Plextor S3C has some catching up to do.
Anvil’s Storage Utilities
Like AS-SSD, Anvil is an SSD-specific set of drive-benchmarking tests. We’ll report here the Overall Score, which is derived from Anvil’s Read and Write scores with the utility running at default settings (that is, with 100 percent incompressible data). Again, the drive was secure-erased before the test was run.
On the one hand, seeing the Plextor S3C land in the lower quadrant of this benchmark chart isn’t too big of a surprise, since it’s a value drive. It’s also right next to other well-known entry-level SSDs such as the ho-hum Crucial BX200Toshiba OCZ TL100. So, in a way, its performance is as expected.
On the other hand, the previous drives we mentioned came out well before the S3C. It would have been nice if the newer technology in the Plextor S3C helped it outpace older-generation drives despite having similar specifications. Instead, it pretty much fell into its expected performance bucket.
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 subtest 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, 4K in size. While it’s reading these files, a queue of 32 outstanding requests is lined up (a “queue depth” 32 requests deep). That’s typical of a high-volume Web server, which has to fulfill requests coming in at the same time from various clients.
If you looked at this benchmark chart and started at the bottom looking for the Plextor drive, we don’t blame you; again, not a surprise given how it performed in the last few tests. Now, this test is designed to punish an SSD to the maximum extent possible, and in a way no reasonable user would deploy the S3C. But plenty of consumer-grade SATA drives performed at a much higher level, despite using the same interface and in some cases a similar type of core flash memory. The Samsung SSD 850 EVO, for example, was twice as fast as the Plextor S3C on this test.
On to the write scoring of this test…
Another predictable placing; the S3C’s score of 227.2MB per second puts it solidly in the lower portion here, as most SATA drives we’ve tested finished this test somewhere in the 300MB-per-second range. Given its performance in the read portion of this test, though, this result isn’t terribly surprising.
PCMark 7 Secondary Storage Test
Our last test is the PCMark 7 Secondary Storage Test. This holistic trial simulates everyday drive accesses in a Windows environment.
Despite its lackluster performance in several of our benchmarks, the S3C managed a solid mid-pack placement in this system-wide benchmark. It’s smack-dab in the middle of all the other drives, tied with the illustrious Crucial MX300. It’s still 200 points away from the king, the Samsung SSD 850 EVO. Still, this is a solid showing for a value drive such as the S3C, though there really isn’t a lot of daylight between the drives in the middle of this pack; most are within the margin of error of one another.
Overall, the Plextor S3C is a solid-enough basic upgrade, and a safe pick if the pricing is right. But it’s a bit underwhelming in a larger-picture sense due to its middling performance. It’s also hard to get excited about an entry-level SSD that’s offered only in small capacities, though if that’s all you need (and most folks need only these sizes), that’s fine; Plextor need not defend the mainstream capacities it comes in.
The thing is, these days pretty much any mainstream-maker SATA SSD (and plenty of SSDs from lesser-known ones) “feels” the same to the end user, so consumers can’t be blamed for buying based on brand recognition, warranty coverage, and pricing instead of all-out performance. So we’ve seen a race to the bottom in terms of pricing at a given capacity and NAND type, and the S3 series is both a consequence and a clear illustration of that. In short: It’s affordable in a relative sense, it’s good enough for most people, and it covers all the basics an SSD needs to cover.
Now, mind you, it’s not exciting or sexy, but Plextor and its Lite-On brand are no newbies to this business: They are well-established and reputable, and despite this drive’s low price, it does offer some interesting technology in the forms of PlexCompressor and PlexTurbo. On the flip side, though we like the fact that it comes with a decent maintenance utility, the lack of cloning software is a demerit. We understand that most people will do a clean install of their OS, anyway, as that’s always better, but we’d at least like to have the option in the box, without scrounging for freeware or a third-party utility.
As it stands, the S3C is a decent entry-level SSD that caters to folks who just want a basic, affordable SSD for their laptop or desktop. For workaday upgrades, it’s just fine, if not ground-breaking or advancing the product category in any meaningful way. If sheer performance matters and you have the budget flex, though, we’d still go with the Samsung SSD 850 EVO, since it costs only $10 more at this capacity point. Performance, in our tests, with that drive was clearly a step above, and it comes with a longer warranty.
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