SanDisk SSD Extreme Pro: reliability, performance and lifespan

SSDs miss moving parts, are durable and fast. They are the holy grail of computer storage, except for their price, which still is considerable when compared to common hard disks. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to prefer an SSD above a hard disk despite the price premium, but not any SSD will do. Some are plain unreliable, while others claim high throughput speeds but never deliver. SanDisk is at the top of the industry in flash memory storage solutions. Atomos lists their Extreme Pro SSD in the “Highly Recommended” category for video recording. Six out of seven server and storage OEMs and all leading PC manufacturers use SanDisk technology in their products. Time we took an Extreme Pro SSD for a ride.

The benefits of Solid State Disks (SSD) are well known. They are faster than spinning platter disks (aka hard disks), more robust and have a longer lifespan. Not all SSDs are created equal, though. The SanDisk Extreme Pro Solid State Drive is one of the fastest and most reliable SSDs on the market. SanDisk sent me a 480GB version to test with the Atomos Ninja Blade video monitor/recorder as well as with my iMac using the SSD as a startup volume.

The SanDisk Extreme Pro SSD comes in three sizes: 240GB, 480GB and (the newest) 960GB sized disk. SanDisk Extreme Pro SSDs all come with a SATA 6Gb/sec interface, which is a backward compatible with 3Gb/sec ad 1.5Gb/sec interfaces. The 480GB and 960GB types draw 0.15W of power, with a maximum power draw of 3.6W when writing. They are the physical size of a standard 2”5 hard disk drive. Extreme Pro SSDs operate at vibration levels of up to 5gRMS (10-2000 Hz) and aren’t bothered by shocks of up to 1500G (at 0.5msec half sine). They all come with a 10 year limited warranty. The drives are housed in a thick plastic enclosure. They support TRIM and S.M.A.R.T., come with bad block management, background garbage collection and support for thermal throttling (which makes them an excellent choice for iMacs).

Advanced features of the SanDisk Extreme Pro range include tiered caching, multi-stream support and minimal write amplification (increases endurance and performance). Their claimed throughput is around 550MB/sec (read) and 520MB/sec (write) speed.

The video recorder test

For the Atomos Ninja Blade test, I formatted the Extreme Pro SSD inside the Ninja Blade. With performance in excess of 300MB/sec I didn’t expect the recorder to have any problems with writing to ProRes 422 HQ, the highest quality movie format supported by the Ninja Blade. A good fast notebook hard disk won’t have problems with the relatively low bit stream required for ProRes 422 HQ either.

Problems do arise, however, when you start to move around with a camera. With a hard disk inside, camera motions are best kept to a strict minimum, and if you do have to move, you need to take care movements are slow and smooth. Abrupt changes of direction or sudden motions will almost inevitably result in the dreaded frame loss warning sign (Atomos being an Australian company, chose for an icon of a kangaroo inside a yellow triangle) popping up.

Another problem is heat. The Atomos Ninja Blade has no cooling system. It relies on its aluminium housing to cool both the internal electronics and the hard disk. Using a Ninja for two hours continuously makes the unit feel really hot. Heat is detrimental to electronics and hard disks. It shortens electronics’ lifespan and in the case of disks increases the risk of write errors.

None of these problems arose with the SanDisk Extreme Pro 480GB inside the Ninja Blade. Except for a much more lightweight user experience, the SanDisk had no trouble keeping up with even the most abrupt camera movements. It also didn’t become hot, only warm after three hours of continuous use.

The Atomos test didn’t tell me much about the speed of the SSD. It only revealed the robust character and superiority in terms of usability when in the field. The only problem I could see is when you would be using a SanDisk Extreme Pro SSD with a recorder that doesn’t have a cradle. The enclosure being in plastic you could theoretically break your SSD if you’re not careful handling it. However, in practice the plastic housing is strong enough to withstand even rough handling — throwing across the room, for example.

The iMac test

My iMac is a mid-2011 model with a hard disk to boot from. I cloned the 270GB worth of data on my hard disk to the Extreme Pro SSD with Carbon Copy Cloner 4 and installed the SSD as the startup disk.

However, before doing that, I tested the SSD’s performance with BlackMagic Design’s Disk Speed Test. The results were quite revealing. Write speed was around 460MB/sec while read speed hovered around 500MB/sec — both just a tad below the highest throughput speeds reported by SanDisk in their press material.

The real-world test came when I first booted up the Mac from the SSD. Booting from hard drive usually took about six minutes before the drive would settle and firing up an app like Mail would take a “Dock bounce” or three. Booting from the SanDisk SSD took less than two minutes before the drive would settle (although you can’t hear it — you need Activity Monitor to see the disk’s activity) while starting up Mail takes less than one bounce.

But it gets better. Starting Final Cut Pro X took about five to seven bounces from hard disk. From the SSD it takes less than four. And it still keeps getting better. I was convinced that rendering video effects in Final Cut Pro X wouldn’t be affected by the drive’s speed as rendering is GPU intensive and — as far as I knew — much less disk intensive.

That was wrong. I tested rendering a three minute clip with a Photon Noise Reduction effect first starting off a hard drive, then starting off the Extreme Pro SSD. The difference was not what I expected. When starting Final Cut Pro X off the SSD, rendering the clip was roughly 30% faster. I am now left wondering what a difference I would notice when rendering off an SSD and to an SSD (in other words: using nothing but SSDs). I guess I could shave off another 10% or so from the time.

Even when using the Extreme Pro SSD as the startup disk, its speed remains at comfortably high levels. With all apps installed and running Mail, Safari, LaunchBar and Ulysses from it, I decided to run BlackMagic Design Disk Speed again. This requires you to unlock the drive because the speed test app needs to be able to write a file to the root directory of the disk.

The result was still amazing, with reported writing speeds in excess of 350MB/sec and reading performance still close to 480MB/sec. And all of that in total silence…

Conclusion

Atomos has a web page that lists the drives they recommend for video recording to their Ninja, Samurai and Shogun devices. Highest on that list are the SanDisk Extreme Pro SSDs. Other SSDs suffer from random reliability problems, according to Atomos. I can’t check that claim, but I can confirm the SanDisk Extreme Pro 480GB SSD is an excellent and reliable product that has a very high throughput performance that won’t necessarily drop to average speeds as multitasking pressure builds up.

My own experiments also showed the drive to be robust and never heating up to uncomfortable levels. This should have a beneficial effect on the disk’s longevity (which I’ve read is in the range of some 2 million hours!). Performance didn’t suffer much from filling up the SSD either.

The price of the 480GB model is some EUR 350.00, while the price of the new 960GB model is EUR 569.00. That’s not as cheap as a premium quality hard disk, but then again you won’t get the speed and peace of mind out of that hard disk as you will from the SanDisk. Not having to wait for a program to start and waiting a lot less for a rendering of an effect to finish is good for your nerves and time schedule as well.

Together with Atomos, I therefore recommend the SanDisk Extreme Pro SSDs for both video recording and general purpose computing.

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