As part of our investigation into the consumer SSD market, we’ve reached out to multiple manufacturers to better understand the practice of shipping different versions of an SSD under the same SKU. Over the past 10 days, we’ve learned that at least four manufacturers — Western Digital, Samsung, Crucial, and Adata — have engaged in this practice in the recent past.
The net effect of this behavior is that the drives that go out for launch day reviews and the drives that consumers later buy may offer very different performance. This sabotages trust between readers, reviewers, and manufacturers to the detriment of all three groups. We have discussed this practice with Crucial and Western Digital, both of whom have already pledged to take steps and make this right (WD) or signaled they are at least open to the conversation (Crucial). We’ll see how things play out the next time a new tranche of SSDs hit the market.
We asked Intel if it had ever shipped a high-performing drive variant at launch and then swapped it for a drive that performed worse in any industry-standard benchmark:
No. Intel does not, and has never, engaged in the practice of swapping SSD hardware components in any of our product lines for lower-performing ones after product launch. To do so would violate company principles of integrity and product quality. Any change that would impact performance would be clearly communicated to customers.
Intel is not the largest player in consumer SSDs, but right now it’s one of the companies selling hardware that we’re completely confident will meet the performance you see in online reviews. We do not think every manufacturer is swapping NAND on every drive — there’s no indication of that — and the problem does seem mostly confined mostly to the budget market. Just last week, however, we thought the problem was confined to just a few companies and that Samsung was unaffected. Given this, we’re a bit leery of making pronouncements about affected drive configurations without manufacturer statements.
This is welcome news. It is no secret that I have criticized some of Intel’s behavior with respect to benchmarks in the past, but that has never extended to whether Intel sold the hardware it claimed to be selling. AMD and Nvidia are no different. While it’s true that Intel and AMD have sometimes updated their products without changing the branding, I cannot think of an instance in which the swap harmed customers. The newer version of a chip always improves on the original, either in terms of slightly higher boost frequencies or lower power consumption at the same frequency.
The closest example might be the fact that the various Spectre and Meltdown patches had a negative impact on x86 performance, but it’s not a good comparison. Intel and AMD were up-front about the problem and the objective reasons why patches were needed. Multiple sites published articles on the impact of the Spectre and Meltdown fixes on both Windows and Linux. There are ways to disable certain fixes to regain lost performance. Every facet of the topic has been publicly discussed from the beginning. The companies affected by Spectre and Meltdown were clear about the impacts of both the security flaws and the various changes required to mitigate them. Intel and AMD continue to participate in vulnerability disclosures three and a half years after the problem was discovered.
The SSD manufacturers who have departed from best practices need to return to them. Crucial and WD have indicated a willingness to take at least some steps towards doing so. This can best be achieved through better transparency, the release of updated SKUs when new product variants launch, and by manufacturer’s paying closer attention to what it means to offer equivalent performance between two different versions of an SSD. What’s going on is a problem, but it’s not a problem without a solution. It’s also a problem Intel doesn’t need to solve. This should not be read to mean Intel is the only honest SSD manufacturer, but it’s the only large company we’ve contacted thus far that provided a definitive “No” when we asked about this practice.
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