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Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3: New Firmware Face-Off

Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3: New Firmware Face-Off

Earlier this year the second round of SATA 6Gbps SSDs arrived, first in the form of Marvell-controlled drives such as the Crucial M4 256GB and Intel 510 series, and then with SandForce 2281-based drives such as the OCZ Vertex 3 240GB and Patriot Wildfire 120GB.

However, despite most drives using similar 25nm NAND, be it Intel or Micron in origin, the performance of the drives were very different. We found SandForce drives, even when handling incompressible data, were capable of read speeds in excess of 515MB/sec, while Crucial and Intel’s SATA 6Gbps drives languished with sequential read speeds of around 435MB/sec.

At the time we presumed this was due to the use of the Marvell drive controller, but it looks as though the lower write speeds were simply a result of Crucial still getting to grips with the controller. Remember that companies using Marvell SSD controllers need to write the firmware themselves, while SandForce supplies firmware with its controller chips. With the latest 0009 firmware release, Crucial has announced a significant uptick in data throughput, as well as reduced write latencies.

Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3: New Firmware Face-Off Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3 - New Firmware Face-Off Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3: New Firmware Face-Off Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3 - New Firmware Face-Off
Both the Crucial M4 256GB and Vertex 3 240GB are fast drives, but the Vertex 3
won out convincingly in benchmarks when it was first launched

In the meantime, SandForce and its preferred partner, OCZ, have been busy with firmware updates of their own. However, these have offered performance tweaks rather than the significant performance gains that Crucial claims for its M4 range's firmware.

£1 per GB - Almost There!

The SSD market as a whole seems to have finally woken up to the pricing demands of consumers, as well as delivering more speed. Since its release, the Crucial M4 256GB has dropped almost £100 in price, with SandForce-based drives receiving price cuts across the board in recent weeks. We’re seeing prices edging closer and closer towards the magic £1/GB, and in the case of special offers, frequently dipping below that.

In short, the drives we reviewed back in February have significantly changed, so it’s time for a re-test and reassessment.

Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3: New Firmware Face-Off Crucial M4 vs OCZ Vertex 3 - New Firmware Face-Off
Can the Crucial M4's new 0009 firmware reel in the awesome
SandForce 2281 drive controller?

Crucial M4 Firmware Deployment

Crucial’s latest firmware is available as an ISO file, which can be burnt to a CD or DVD via Windows 7’s integrated Disc Image Burner. You’ll also need to move your SSD port 0, 1, 2 or 3 on the motherboard, and set the SATA configuration from AHCI to IDE, before booting from the disc.

The flashing process takes a few minutes (we found it was much longer when flashing the larger 256GB version), and flashes any retail M4 SSD to the latest 0009 firmware. The firmware updater can process multiple M4s at once, and from our experience, doesn't reformat or damage any files on the drive (although you should still backup irreplaceable files before updating regardless). Once updated, switch your SATA configuration back to AHCI and the drive will boot up, complete with the new firmware.

OCZ Vertex 3 Firmware Deployment

OCZ deploys its firmware via its increasingly capable OCZ Technology Toolbox software, which doesn't require you to change BIOS settings or burn disc images. The application runs in Windows, automatically detects eligible OCZ SSDs connected to the system, and then downloads and deploys the firmware. It’s also able to give you information about your SSD’s usage, and perform a secure erase of the drive.

It’s certainly less of a fuss than the M4’s updater, but it can't be used to update the firmware of the drive from which Windows boots; for that you’ll need an alternative install from which to update the drive. As with the M4’s updater, data on the drive wasn’t damaged when we updated its firmware, but you should always make a back-up regardless, as any firmware update carries a (very small) risk of bricking the drive with it.