It’s no secret that the advent of solid state drives (SSDs) has irrevocably changed the technology landscape. Quite simply, SSDs eliminated what has been the largest bottleneck in computing performance for quite some time – the spinning disk. With SSDs, performance metrics on workstations such as latency, throughput and input/output operations per second (IOPS) are nearly irrelevant, as other system components such as the SATA interface become the limiting factor.
There are other attributes of SSDs that aren’t often emphasized, however, such as size, weight and portability. This is likely owing in large part to the fact that drives typically conform to a standard 2.5″ or 3.5″ form factor to maintain backwards compatibility. However, crack open a typical 2.5″ SSD and it becomes pretty obvious that SSDs could be significantly smaller than the standard dictates. And though hard disk drives (HDDs) have also packed more and more data onto their 2.5″ and 3.5″ platters, it is stated that SSD storage density surpassed that of HDDs in 2016, and is expected to continue to out-pace advances in HDD recording technologies.
When I travel, I always like to have some sort of portable storage with me. And, to be frank, portable is a term that’s thrown around pretty loosely these days. My mobile phone is “portable,” yet it barely fits in my front jeans pocket, and I certainly can’t climb into my buddy’s Tundra with it in there. This, it seems, has been the unfortunate trend in portable devices these days – as performance demand increases, so does the size. Often times, I simply grab a USB thumb drive or two when I’m on the road. But when it comes to thumb drives, even the best performing of the bunch leave a little to be desired. I could carry a 2.5″ external drive in my laptop bag, I suppose, but the added bulk becomes cumbersome, especially when competing for space with a mouse, extra batteries, an assortment of cables, and the laptop’s AC adapter. What I really want is something small, light, and fast. I want something easy to carry, but not limited with respect to capacity or performance – you know, like an SSD.
Silicon Power Bolt B10
Having been a longtime fan of Silicon Power’s wallet-friendly line of SSDs for our lab server OS drives, I was delighted when Silicon Power sent me a Bolt B10 portable SSD to review. This is the first portable SSD I’ve intimately used and, spoiler alert, I won’t be going back to thumb drives when I travel any time soon. Now let’s dig into the details of this little gem.
Conceptually, one of the things I like most about portable SSDs is that we’re finally capable of breaking existing form factor molds. Before SSDs, 2.5″ and 3.5″ hard drives defined the size and shape of portable mass storage. This meant relatively large, clunky, and generally unattractive boxes. Since internal SSDs only conform to these form factors to remain relevant in server, desktop, and laptop applications, design can take a front row with portable SSDs. Portable SSDs tend to possess sleeker lines, smaller packages, and generally more attractive aesthetics. They don’t even have to be rectangular – some manufacturers like Silicon Power even offer round flavors of portable SSDs.
The Bolt B10 conforms to a traditional rectangular shape, though by no means is this a bad thing. The drive is understated, yet attractive, and it’s credit card sized form fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. The drive is featherweight at 25g, almost too light, though not cheap feeling, and the smooth plastic just feels right. It’s the kind of combination that makes you want to fidget with it, like the satisfying click of a well-made ball point pen. You can see here that the drive has a smaller footprint than a Logitech M325 wireless mouse.
Inside the drive you’ll find the PCB that occupies about half of the actual drive enclosure volume, which is to say it’s quite small. Directing the show, you’ll find the Phison PS3111-S11 controller, which gets generally favorable reviews. We’ve had nothing but luck with Phison-controlled SSDs, so we’ve got no complaints here. You can also see the 4 x 32GB NAND chips as well as a micro-USB 3.1 Gen1 connector soldered to the PCB.
Power, Heat & Noise
One of the numerous benefits of small form-factor 2.5″ hard drives is that their enclosures can be driven solely from USB power. The Bolt B10 is no exception. It’s a USB 3.1 Gen 1 device, but is also 2.0 backwards-compatible so it’s power draw cannot exceed the USB 2.0 specification of 5 power units of 100mA, or 500mA total. At 5V this equates to a maximum power consumption 2.5 W, though I suspect the B10 draws about half of that, even when continuously reading or writing.
In fact one of the more interesting use cases (for me) of portable hard drives is slinging lossless music around when I’m on the go. Specifically, I like to be able to plug a drive into an after market stereo head-unit with front-panel USB. Unfortunately, the front-panel USB just doesn’t deliver enough power to spin up most standard 2.5″ USB drives. The B10 works flawlessly in this application, giving you up to 512 GB of easily transportable lossless music for your commute.
Additionally, solid state drives generate less heat and noise than their spinning counterparts, as one might expect. The SP Bolt B10 makes no discernible noise during operation and the tiny case feels cool to the touch even after long continuous writes.
Specifications & Features
Included in the box is the Bolt B10 and a Micro USB 3.0 cable as shown here.
Now let’s take a look at the manufacturer specifications for the B10:
|Power supply||DC 5V|
|Cable||Micro-B (B10) to Type-A (PC/NB)|
|Capacity||128GB, 256GB, 512GB|
|Dimensions||80.0 x 49.5 x 9.4mm|
|Interface||USB 3.1 Gen1 / USB 3.0, USB 2.0 compatible|
|Supported OS||Windows 10/8.1/8/7/Vista/XP, Mac OS 10.5.x or later, Linux 2.6.31 or later|
|Operating Temperature||0℃~ 70℃|
|Storage Temperature||-40℃~ 85℃|
Performance and Features
Ultimately, performance is probably what people care about most in a portable SSD. The USB interface has a long history of offering underwhelming performance. USB 2.0 offered pretty measly transfer rates of 480 Mbps or 60 MB/s. Due to bus limitations, real-world speeds were closer to 35 MB/s, however. Even in 2000 when USB 2.0 was introduced, an average spinning drive could easily saturate the USB link. It wasn’t until the advent of USB 3.0, nearly 10 years later, that the USB interface was no longer the bottleneck. With transfer speeds of 5 Gbps (625 MB/s), USB 3.0 suddenly made spinning drives feel slow, and the thought of portable SSDs began to make a lot of sense.
In this case, the Bolt B10 tested was a 128 GB model and testing was performed on a modest Dell Laptop: a Latitude E6430, Core i7-3720QM CPU @ 2.60 GHz, 8 GB RAM, Silicon Power S60 120 GB SSD. Given that the Bolt B10 has theoretical maximum throughput of 400 MB/s, we should not be bottlenecked by the USB 3.0 interface.
With the queue depth set to 4, ATTO Benchmarks showed write speeds very near the claimed 400 MB/s, peaking at nearly 360 MB/s, while read speeds exceeded the listed specifications, reaching speeds of approximately 430 MB/s.
CrystalDiskMark’s numbers weren’t quite as glowing, but were still quite good overall.
Some real-world file copies yielded satisfactory results. Large file copies were generally characterized by peaking at over 280MB/s then leveling out to ~130-150MB/s for the duration of the copy.
Small file copies can be quite taxing for any storage media. The results here were also on par with other similar drives we’ve tested. Here you see the copy of the WinSXS Folder – 5.96 GB (6,405,198,876 bytes) containing 76,348 Files, 23,163 Folders.
Finally, Silicon Power lists the drive’s features as follows:
- Ultra-compact and lightweight for great portability
- Clean and smooth exterior design
- Large storage capacity of up to 512GB
- Superfast transfer rates of up to 400MB/s read & write speed*
*The transmission speed will vary depending on system performance, such as hardware, software, file system, usage and product capacity. Speeds are tested by Silicon Power with FAT32 (for cross-platform sharing) or NTFS (for single file over 4GB) file formats using CDM or ATTO tests.
- Supports LDPC error correction and Wear Leveling
- Free download of SP Widget software for data backup & restore, AES 256-bit encryption, and cloud storage
One thing to note is that out of the box the Bolt B10 was formatted to FAT32, which is an interesting choice. As such, I could not initially copy files larger than 4 GB to the drive. Now to someone who’s been in IT for 20 years, this isn’t a big deal, and a quick reformat to NTFS resolved the issue. However, I can easily see how this might confuse someone a bit less technology savvy. Additionally, one of my pet peeves about many external hard drives are the hordes of autorun software that come pre-loaded. Most people simply want to drag and drop files to their USB drives, so this software is ordinarily just a nuisance. On a positive note, the SP Bolt B10 contains very little on the drive out of the box. In fact, the only files present on the drive were there to remind you to register your product with Silicon Power.
It should be no surprise that SSDs are now the logical choice when it comes to no-compromise portable storage. And though you’re certainly not going to tote around 4TB SSDs anytime soon (unless you have really deep pockets), affordable, portable SSDs are now large enough to meet most users’ needs. Silicon Power offers just such a drive in the Bolt B10. Are there faster portable SSDs out there? Sure, at least on paper. Considering that you’ll be tossing this in your bag and possibly leaving it on the table at the coffee shop, I’m not sure I can justify the extra cash for a few arbitrary MB/s. Additionally, it seems that many manufacturers rate their products in the lab, and under conditions that are hard to replicate in the real-world. It’s been my experience, however, that Silicon Power’s products usually meet or exceed claimed specifications. Frankly, realistic product specifications are a breath of fresh air, and make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, all while patronizing a company that clearly wants to earn your trust.