Angelbird's Wings PCIe-based SSD preview and benchmarks

Storage enthusiasts (yeah, there is such a thing -- what of it?) would probably tell you that PCIe-based SSDs are a dime a dozen these days. But in all seriousness, the prices we're seeing are proof that a few more competitors wouldn't hurt. A few weeks back, Austria's own Angelbird started to ship a solution that we first heard about during 2010, and we were fortunate enough to pop a Wings PCIe SSD RAID card into our Mac Pro for testing. For years, we've been booting this up and running every single application off of its stock HDD -- a 640GB Hitachi HDE721064SLA360 (7200RPM) -- as we surmise many of you desktop owners might be. Anxious to see if these are the Wings your existing tower needs to soar? Head on past the break for our impressions. %Gallery-134642%

As it stands today, consumers have but a smattering of options when it comes to PCIe-based SSDs. Without spending a few thousand bucks on an enterprise solution, there's the ioXtreme, RevoDrive and PhotoFast's PowerDrive-LSI. The thing is, none of these are "expandable." Angelbird has quite the unique offering -- rather than simply selling a few different cards with a few different amounts of NAND stacked on 'em, prospective consumers have three Wings board options. There's a €161 "Lite" board that offers no onboard storage at all, a €201 model with 16GB built-in and a 32GB edition that sells for €241. From there, you'll have access to four expansion slots, each of which can be filled with Crest 60GB (€115 each) or 115GB (€171) pop-in modules. And they genuinely do pop right in. Better still, third-party SSDs are supported (sans casing), so you could theoretically put four of your favorite low-cost drives into a blank Angelbird board for an even more economical end result.

In our test scenario, we had a 32GB base board along with four 60GB modules. Grand total? €725, or around $975. Compared to even five years ago, that's a steal for 240GB of RAID 0 speed (with 32GB leftover for good measure), slapped directly onto one's motherboard, but here's the rub. OCZ's 240GB RevoDrive 3 X2 offers similar throughput for less -- a lot less if you're in the States. That guy's selling for $578 on Amazon as we speak, and while it's obviously not upgradable, you can nearly buy a pair of 'em for the price that Angelbird's selling this single solution for. Of course, some folks will claim that OCZ's reliability isn't exactly world-class, but the very nature of using NAND as a boot drive should cause you to break into hives if you aren't doing daily backups already. %Gallery-134644%
So, where's the value? It ought to be fairly obvious to technophiles, particularly those craving an SSD solution for a multi-boot setup. Based on our conversations with the company, this guy is "designed to be a multipurpose drive used especially in mixed OS environments," with the (admittedly optional) onboard storage useful for storing a third-party bootloader to handle Windows, OS X and Ubuntu on your Mac Pro. Meanwhile, the expansion module storage would carry out your OS duties, and in rapid fashion, too. An extreme case, sure, but those dabbling in the superweird would undoubtedly see the utility.

The other upside here is the flexibility. If you've only got the outlay for two 60GB modules now, you can start with that. Down the road, another pair of 60 giggers would allow you to run a mirrored combo of 120GB striped RAID arrangements, or you could rebuild the entire thing to double your storage and increase your speed potential. Granted, there's no telling how long the company will continue making its existing 60GB / 240GB modules (the world of NAND moves fast), but at least the option exists for now.

In our test, we utilized a 2009 Mac Pro (OS X 10.6.7) with a 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon CPU, 6GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 memory, NVIDIA's GeForce GT 120 and the aforesaid Angelbird / Hitachi hard drives. In our initial install, we attempted to raid two 60GB cards -- based on SandForce's SF-1222, by the way -- into a striped 120GB array (and then repeat it on the other two), in order to create a RAID set with 120GB of mirrored storage. Pricey redundancy, sure, but it was worth a shot; turns out, the initial drivers we were sent weren't tailored to handle such a setup, forcing numerous crashes and plenty of tears. Eventually, we were given a new driver package that addressed the issue, so those looking to do likewise will benefit from our early misfortune.

For our actual benchmarking, however, we striped all four modules into a 240GB RAID 0 array, with 32GB leftover for -- well, whatever else. Our bootup time improved from around 105 seconds to 70 seconds, while launching applications took but a fraction of the time. As an example, launching Google Chrome after a fresh reboot took around four "Dock bounces" on the HDD; with the Wings solution, it was fired up on the first downbeat. Firefox, Photoshop, Excel, Word and every other application we loaded saw similarly impressive improvements. Given our consumer focus here, we didn't put the drive through any insane enterprise-level stress testing. Instead, we simply used the device and ran it through a number of calculated file transfers while also putting it up against our DiskTester benchmarking suite. For smaller reads and writes, we routinely saw measurable transfer rates approaching 200MB/sec. On larger groups of files -- between 1GB and 8GB -- those speeds averaged between 230MB/sec and 260MB/sec. To be perfectly clear, this is us copying files on the Wings RAID set with a precision clock, and then calculating the actual transfer rate that was realized on our machine. Compare that to the 45MB/sec - 65MB/sec that we saw on our Hitachi magnetic drive, and it's pretty clear which is more enjoyable to use.

DiskTester's Sequential Read Test: Wings PCIe SSD (4x60GB RAID 0)

In test scenarios, the company claims that a four-drive arrangement can approach 750MB/sec, and with monolithic video exports relocating themselves, perhaps that's accurate. In the Sequential Read test within DiskTester, we saw average speeds of 538MB/sec to 730MB/sec -- just about what was claimed. In the full Sequential Suite, the drive clocked ~138MB/sec whilst handling diminutive 32KB files, but soared to 825MB/sec when transferring 256MB chunks. But even still, OCZ's RevoDrive can hit similar speeds at a lower price point, leaving Wings without a pedestal to stand on outside of its flexibility. What we're left with is a clever design and solid execution, but a price point that simply has to come down if it hopes to compete for consumer dollars in this space. Thankfully, that's in the cards. We're told that a proper US store and distribution channel are nearly done, and hopefully that'll provide the pricing necessary to have folks truly consider the upstart. Make no mistake -- the real-world speed gains here will truly change the way you compute, but is the form factor worth the premium? Depends on how many SSDs you've got sitting around, now doesn't it?