NVMe performance in USB Thumb drive

Rapid advances in flash technology and constant improvements to high-speed interfaces have led to the growth of small portable SSDs with bus drive. In recent years, these types of drives have relied on a dual-chip solution – typically placing a SATA or NVMe SSD behind a USB chip. SSD controller manufacturers, such as Phison and Silicon Motion, have recognized the growth potential of the portable SSD market and have come up with USB Flash Drive (UFD) controllers that use a high-speed direct connection interface on the upstream side and talk directly with flash packets downstream. These controllers have now created a new category of portable SSDs by lowering costs without sacrificing performance.

Kingston’s DataTraveler Max was introduced in August 2021 as a USB-C flash drive that can reach speeds of 1 GBps. The required performance numbers justify calling the flash drive as a portable SSD. Although Kingston has not publicly revealed the interior of the drive, a number of factors and performance indicate the use of the original UFD controller. Kingston is not the first on the market with such a high-performance portable SSD. Crucial’s X6 (updated in 2021 with Phison’s U17 UFD controller) reaches speeds of 800MBps +, but retains the industrial design of the older version (which was the SATA drive behind the USB – SATA bridge).

To that end, today we are digging through the 1TB version of DataTraveler Max (here called DT Max), offered by Kingston. We will consider the performance, energy efficiency and value of the DT Max. We also opened a drive to confirm which UFD controller Kingston is using.

Introduction and product impressions

Bus-powered outdoor storage devices have grown in both storage capacity and speed over the last decade. Thanks to rapid advances in flash technology (including the advent of 3D NAND and NVMe), as well as faster host interfaces (such as Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2), we now have palm-based flash storage devices that can deliver 2 GBps + speed.

The shape factor of the thumb drive is attractive for several reasons – there is no separate transmission cable, and the case can be designed to include a loop for the transmission keys. Vendors like Corsair and Mushkin briefly experimented with the SATA SSDs behind the USB jumper chip, but the thermal solution and size made the UFDs a bit awkward. Although the weight was good for a male type A connector, placing such drives behind a type C connector would require an extensive redesign. With the introduction of native high-performance UFD controllers, this category has once again become sustainable.

Kingston’s DT Max retains the traditional DataTraveler thumb-powered data format. However, it takes full advantage of the USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C male connector promising a speed of 1 GBps. Available in three capacities – 256 GB, 512 GB and 1 TB, Kingston says they can deliver those high speeds in all three SKUs.

The industrial design is slightly different from other DataTraveler UFDs. The Type-C male connector is protected by a sliding cap. Pulling and re-covering can be done with one hand. There is also a blue LED indicator and a key loop at the end. The thumb drive measures 82.6 mm x 22.3 mm x 9.5 mm and weighs about 12.5 grams.

Demolishing the UFD is easy by removing the sliding cap and pulling out the inner cover. There are no screws in the drive. The bare plate inside has no special thermal solution. Here we see the Silicon Motion SM2320 UFD controller, but the package seems to be different from the one we saw in the reference design of the SM2320 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 reviewed earlier this month.

Kingston XS2000 (reference design SM2320) [top] vs. Kingston DT Max (SM2321?) [bottom]

For comparison, with our new test package and test stand we only have limited results of 1 TB. Therefore, we present only a metric with two USB 3.2 Gen 2 NVMe bridges from Akasa – one using ASMedia’s ASM2362 and the other using Realtek’s RTL9210B.

CrystalDiskInfo provides a quick overview of internal memory capabilities. Because the program handles each bridge / controller differently, and the SM2320 is brand new, many entries are marked as vendor-specific, and some features (such as the interface) are misinterpreted. The temperature control worked well though.

SMART Passthrough – CrystalDiskInfo

The table below presents a comparative overview of the specifications of the different storage bridges presented in this overview.

Comparative configuration of direct data storage devices
Downstream Native Flash 1x PCIe 3.0 x2 (M.2 NVMe)
Upstream Port USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C (male) USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C
Bridge Chip Silicon Motion SM2320 ASMedia ASM2362
Power Bus Powered Bus Powered
Use Case Compact 1 GBps class USB flash drive with retractable Type-C connector cover M.2 2230/2242/2260/2280 NVMe SSD aluminum housing
Transfer a Class 1 GBps Class SSD with a factor similar to a USB flash drive
Physical dimensions 82.6 mm x 22.3 mm x 9.5 mm 125 mm x 32 mm x 10.8 mm
Weight 12.5 grams 52 grams (without SSD)
Cable N / A 30 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C to Type-C
SMART Passthrough Yes Yes
UASP support Yes Yes
TRIM Passthrough Yes Yes
Hardware encryption Not available Dependent on SSD
Evaluated Storage Micron 96L 3D TLC SK hynix P31 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD
SK hynix 128L 3D TLC
Price 180 USD 60 GBP (scanning)
Review link Kingston DT Max 1TB Review Akasa AK-ENU3M2-03 Review

Before looking at the reference numbers, energy consumption and efficiency of the thermal solution, a description of the test plate setup and assessment methodology is given.

Test bench setting and evaluation methodology

Direct-connect storage devices (including thumb drives) are evaluated using Quartz Canyon NUC (basically, Xeon / ECC version of Ghost Canyon NUC) configured with 2x 16GB DDR4-2667 ECC SODIMMs and PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD-im-IM2P33E8 1TB from ADATA.

The most attractive aspect of the Quartz Canyon NUC is the presence of two PCIe slots (electric, x16 and x4) for additional cards. In the absence of a discrete graphics processor – for which there is no need for a DAS test desk – both slots are available. In fact, we also added a spare SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe SSD to the CPU directly plugged into the M.2 22110 slot on the motherboard to avoid bottlenecks in the DMI when evaluating Thunderbolt 3 devices. This still allows two additional cards running on x8 (x16 electric) and x4 (x4 electric). Since the Quartz Canyon NUC does not have the original USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 port, Silverstone’s optional SST-ECU06 card is installed in the x4 slot. All non-Thunderbolt devices were tested using the Type-C port provided by the SST-ECU06.

The specifications of the test table are summarized in the table below:

2021 AnandTech DAS test space configuration
System Intel Quartz Canyon NUC9vXQNX
CPU Intel Xeon E-2286M
Memory ADATA Industrial AD4B3200716G22
32 GB (2x 16 GB)
DDR4-3200 ECC @ 22-22-22-52
OS Drive ADATA Industrial IM2P33E8 NVMe 1TB
Secondary drive SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe 3D SSD 1TB
Additional card SilverStone Tek SST-ECU06 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C host
YOU Windows 10 Enterprise x64 (21H1)
Thanks to ADATA, Intel and SilverStone Tek for the building components

Testing hardware is only one segment of evaluation. In the last few years, typical loads of memory cards with direct connection have also developed. High-speed 4K videos at 60 fps have become commonplace, and 8K videos are starting to appear. Game installation sizes have also grown steadily even on portable game consoles, thanks to high-resolution textures and artwork. With this in mind, our scheme for estimating portable SSDs and UFDs includes multiple workloads that are described in detail in the relevant sections.

  • Synthetic workload using CrystalDiskMark and ATTO
  • Real-world access tracking using PCMark 10 storage benchmarks
  • Custom workloads for robocopy reflect the typical use of DAS
  • Sequential writing stress test

In the next section, we have an overview of Kingston DT Max performance on these scales. Before giving concluding remarks, we have some observations on the number of energy consumption of the UFD and the thermal solution.

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Naveen Kumar

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