Over the last three years, Samsung has become one of the most dominant players in the SSD industry. Samsung's strategy has been tight vertical integration ever since the beginning, which gives Samsung the ability to be in the forefront of new technologies. That is a massive advantage because ultimately all the parts need to be designed and optimized to work properly together. The first fruit of Samsung's vertical integration was the SSD 840, which was the first mass produced SSD to utilize TLC NAND and gave Samsung a substantial cost advantage. Even today, the SSD 840 and its successor, the 840 EVO, are still the only TLC NAND based SSDs shipping in high volume. Now, two years later, Samsung is doing it again with the introduction of the SSD 850 Pro, the world's first consumer SSD with 3D NAND.

For years it has been known that the scalability of traditional NAND is coming to an end. Every die shrink has been more difficult than the previous as the endurance and performance have decreased with every node, making it less and less efficient to scale the size down. Scaling below 20nm was seemed as a major obstacle but the industry was able to cross that with some clever innovations in the NAND design. However, the magic hat is now running out of tricks and a more signficant change to the NAND design is required to keep scaling the cost. 

The present solution to the scalability problem is 3D NAND, or V-NAND as Samsung calls it. Traditionally NAND and other semiconductors are scaled horizontally along the X and Y axes but due to the laws of physics, there is a limit of how small the transistors can be made. To solve the problem, 3D NAND introduces a Z-axis i.e. a vertical dimension. Instead of cramming transistors horizontally closer and closer to each other, 3D NAND stacks layers of transistors on top of each other. I will be going through the structure and characteristics of 3D NAND in detail over the next few pages.

By stacking transistors (i.e. cells when speaking about NAND) vertically, Samsung is able to relax the process node back to a much more convenient 40nm. When there are 32 cells on top of each other, it is obvious that there is no need for a 10nm-class node because the stacking increases the density, allowing production costs to scale lower. As we have seen with the history of NAND die shrinks, a higher process node provides more endurance and higher performance, which is what the 850 Pro and V-NAND is all about.

Fundamentally the only change in the 850 Pro is the switch to V-NAND. The interface is still SATA 6Gbps and the controller is the same triple-core MEX from the 840 EVO, although I am still waiting to hear back from Samsung whether the clock speed is the same 400MHz. The firmware, on the other hand, has gone through a massive overhaul to adopt the characteristics of V-NAND. With shorter read, program and erase latencies and higher endurance, the firmware needs to be properly optimized or otherwise the full benefits of V-NAND cannot be utilized. 

I bet many of you would have liked to see the 850 Pro move to the PCIe interface but I understand Samsung's decision to hold off with PCIe for a little while longer. The market for aftermarket PCIe SSDs is still relatively small as the PC industry is figuring out how to adopt the new interface, so for the time being Samsung is fine with watching from the side. The XP941 is and will continue to be available to the PC OEMs but for now Samsung will be keeping it that way. From what I have heard, Samsung could bring the XP941 to the retail market rather quickly if needed but Samsung has always been more interested in the high volume mainstream market instead of playing in the niches. 

Samsung SSD 850 Pro Specifications
Capacity 128GB 256GB 512GB 1TB
Controller Samsung MEX
NAND Samsung 2nd Gen 86Gbit 40nm MLC V-NAND
DRAM (LPDDR2) 256MB 512MB 512MB 1GB
Sequential Read 550MB/s 550MB/s 550MB/s 550MB/s
Sequential Write 470MB/s 520MB/s 520MB/s 520MB/s
4KB Random Read 100K IOPS 100K IOPS 100K IOPS 100K IOPS
4KB Random Write 90K IOPS 90K IOPS 90K IOPS 90K IOPS
Power 2mW (DevSLP) / 3.3W (read) / 3.0W (write)
Encryption AES-256, TCG Opal 2.0 & IEEE-1667 (eDrive supported)
Endurance 150TB
Warranty 10 years
Availability July 21st

The performance figures in the table above give us the first glimpse of what V-NAND is capable of. Typically modern 128GB SSDs are only good for about 300MB/s but the 850 Pro is very close to saturating the SATA 6Gbps bus even at the smallest capacity. This is due to the much lower program times of V-NAND because write performance has been bound by NAND performance for quite some time now. 

Endurance Comparison of High-End SSDs
Samsung SSD 850 Pro Intel SSD 730 SanDisk Extreme Pro OCZ Vector 150
150TB 91TB (240GB)
128TB (480GB)
80TB 91TB

The other major improvement from V-NAND is the endurance. All capacities, including the smallest 128GB, are rated at 150TB, which is noticeably higher than what any other consumer-grade SSD offers. Moreover, Samsung told me that the endurance figure is mainly meant to separate the 850 Pro from the enterprise drives to guide enterprise clients to the more appropriate (and expensive) drives as the 850 Pro does not have power loss protection or end-to-end data protection for example. However, I was told that the warranty is not automatically denied if 150TB is reached under a client workload. In fact, Samsung said that they have a 128GB 850 Pro in their internal testing with over eight petabytes (that is 8,000TB) of writes and the drive still keeps going, so I tip my hat to the person who is able to wear out an 850 Pro in a client environment during my lifetime.

Another interesting aspect of V-NAND is its odd capacity per die. Traditionally NAND capacies have come in powers of two, such as 64Gbit and 128Gbit, but with V-NAND Samsung is putting an end to that trend. The second generation 32-layer V-NAND comes in at 86Gbit or 10.75GB if you prefer the gigabyte form. I will be covering the reason behind that in more detail when we look at V-NAND more closely in the next few pages but as far as I know there has never been a strict rule as to why the capacities have scaled in powers of two. I believe it is just a relic from the old days that has stayed in the memory industry because deep down binary is based on powers of two but the abnormal die capacity should have no effect on the operation of the NAND or the SSD as long as everything is optimized for it. 

NAND Configurations
  128GB 256GB 512GB 1TB
# of NAND Packages 4 (?) 4 8 (?) 8
Package Configurations 2 x 4 x 86Gbit
2 x 2 x 86Gbit
2 x 8 x 86Gbit
2 x 4 x 86Gbit
4 x 8 x 86Gbit
4 x 4 x 86Gbit
4 x 16 x 86Gbit
4 x 8 x 86Gbit
Raw NAND Capacity 129GiB 258GiB 516GiB 1032GiB
Over-Provisioning 7.6% 7.6% 7.6% 7.6%

Due to the odd die capacity, the die configurations are also quite unusual. I found two different capacity packages inside my review samples and with Samsung’s NAND part decoder I was able to figure out the die configurations for each capacity. Unfortunately, Samsung did not send us the 512GB model and I could not get the 128GB model open as Samsung uses pentalobe Torx screws and I managed to wear out the screw while trying to open it with an inappropriate screw driver (it worked for the other models, though), so thus there are question marks at those capacities in the table. However, this should not impact the raw NAND capacities as long as all capacities follow the same 7.6% over-provisioning trend but the package configurations may be different. I will provide an update once I receive a confirmation from Samsung regarding the exact configurations for each capacity. 

The 850 Pro also switches to smaller PCB designs. The PCB in the 1TB model populates around two thirds of the area of the chassis, while the 256GB PCB comes in at even smaller size. The reason for the different PCB sizes is the amount of NAND packages as the 256GB only has four, whereas to achieve the capacity of 1TB eight NAND packages are required.

Why We Need 3D NAND
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  • Cerb - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    As soon as it is cheap enough. But, don't get your hopes up about performance. SD cards are mostly limited by the controllers being slow, and in the tiny package they fit in, with the narrow margins they have, there's not a lot of room, physically and economically, to give them fast controllers, even if you get a big one that must have several NAND dies, and are talking about full-size SD, where multiple channels might be viable. It sucks, and I dislike shopping for SD cards as much as anybody, but today, that's how it is.
  • frenchy_2001 - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I think he was talking about V-NAND (3D cells) which is independent of the controller.
    I would guess it will, as density will continue to scale up which will make it the cheaper technology.
    It is cutting edge now, but will let Samsung scale higher densities very aggressively in the coming years, replacing all their 2D NAND production (they announced it when presenting the 3D cells).
  • Harry Lloyd - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Personally I have no interest in this kind of performance, and I really hope they focus on reducing prices and increasing capacities. The MX100 is just great for home usage (system and gaming), and I would like to see a 512 GB equivalent for around 100 $ by the end of 2015.
  • Spatty - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    "Oftentimes when cell size is discussed, it is only the actual size of the cell that is taken into account, which leaves the distance between cells out of the conclusion."

    Incorrect. Oftentimes what is being discussed is the half pitch. The 16nm, 19nm, 20nm, etc of the die. That is not the cell. The cell is Always defined as the repeatable structure in a memory device, and this includes the space between cells as described. The cell size is incorrectly referenced as being the half pitch.

    Then there is marketing gimmick by companies who call their products 19nm when it is really 19nm by 2xnm. A rectangle and not a true 19nm square half pitch.
  • Larry Endomorph - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Good review. Bad charts. All of these are useless to color blind people:
  • Cerb - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I never paid much attention, but you're right. If they changed the point shapes, and maybe dashed a couple of the lines, they could take care of that easily.
  • fokka - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    it's great to see a new drive from samsung and even greater seeing them advancing ssd tech and performance in such substantial ways. keeping that in mind i'm not really surprised about the msrp sammy is asking for its drives. and as always when new devices hit the scene, we're comparing msrp with real market prices here, so the difference should be a bit lower in a couple weeks when enough stock is available.

    that said, even if sata3 remains the most important storage interface today, it's kind of a shame seeing such a beautiful drive limited by this "old" interface. i know the new standards like m2, sata3.2 and pci-e-drives are still kind of a mess, but we already saw what higher throughputs in combination with more efficient interface protocols can do and seeing an expensive enthusiast drive like the 850 pro connected to sata3 just makes it seem more limited than it needed to be.

    all that said, it doesn't change much for the average user, or advanced users even, since for most people a good sized evo or crucial is all they ever need in the years to come. upgrading to expensive drives like the 850 will only make sense for the most demanding users, for the rest it will only get interesting again when pci based storage gets more affordable.
  • Daniel Egger - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Minor nit: There's no such thing as "pentalobe torx" it's either one or the other but I'm guessing that it might have been torx security since pentalobe screws have only been used by Apple a couple of years back.
  • iwod - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Its great to see its doing well in power consumption area. Which is important in Notebook. I hope we could bring this down to 2W or even 1.5W during operation.

    I really do think our SSD storage tier deserve a PCI-E lane direct from CPU. It would be great if the market just settle on 2x PCI-E 3.0 from CPU. We get 2GB/s out of it. That is plenty of headroom to grow until we move to PCI-E 4.0
  • hojnikb - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Thats what sata-express is doing

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