Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD Review: RGB-Infused USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Storage

The gaming market has experienced significant growth over the last decade. In addition to boosting PC sales, the peripherals market associated with the segment has also expanded. Installed sizes for games now regularly run into 100s of GBs, thanks to support for increased resolutions and more detailed graphics. The data also needs to be loaded into memory as fast as possible in order to improve the gaming experience. It is, therefore, not much of a surprise that gamers want the fastest possible portable SSDs to store their games. The 20 Gbps transfer rates promised by USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 has an instant appeal in this market segment. Keeping this in mind, many vendors have introduced USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 bus-powered portable SSDs targeting the gaming crowd. Last year, we looked at Western Digital’s WD_BLACK P50. Seagate’s FireCuda Gaming SSD was available in the market around the same time, but it didn’t make it to our testbed in time for that review. We recently got the Seagate offering into our latest testbed, and took the opportunity to refresh the numbers for the WD_BLACK P50 with our latest test suite as well. The review below looks at the performance and value proposition of the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD.

External bus-powered storage devices capable of 2GBps+ performance have become quite common in the market today. Rapid advancements in flash technology (including the advent of 3D NAND and NVMe) as well as faster host interfaces (such as Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.x) have been key enablers. While USB4 (USB’s most recent avatar) mandates a minimum of 10Gbps data transfer rate only, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20 Gbps) has emerged as a parallel standard. It has been slow to gain traction, partly due to the lack of widespread host support in desktops and other computing platforms. While that has been changing slowly, portable SSD vendors have been hard at work creating products in this category. Professional content creators and gamers are key consumers willing to pay a premium for these high-performance devices.

On the silicon front, ASMedia happens to be the main (if not, the only) solutions supplier on the device side. Similar to the WD_BLACK P50 reviewed last year, the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD is also based on the ASMedia ASM2364 bridge chip, and has a premium metal construction. The FireCuda Gaming SSD’s unique selling point is the available of RGB lighting that can be controlled using Seagate’s Toolkit. One can dismiss RGB as a fad, but the fact is that RGB sells in the gaming market.

The FireCuda Gaming SSD is more compact (104.4 mm x 52.5 mm x 10 mm) compared to the WD_BLACK P50, while also weighing 15g lesser (100g). Only one USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C cable in supplied with the SSD, but it is longer (50cm) than the one supplied with the WD_BLACK P50. Both SSDs sport a high-performance M.2 2280 NVMe SSD inside, and have a premium metal construction.

 

A quick overview of the internal capabilities of the storage devices is given by CrystalDiskInfo. This also serves to verify S.M.A.R.T access from the host port. Note that we are including results from our DIY 20Gbps external SSD – the Silverstone MS12 equipped with a SK hynix Gold P31 1TB NVMe SSD.

S.M.A.R.T Passthrough – CrystalDiskInfo

The table below presents a comparative view of the specifications of the three 1TB USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 options presented in this review.

Comparative Direct-Attached Storage Devices Configuration
Aspect
Downstream Port 1x PCIe 3.0 x4 (M.2 NVMe) 1x PCIe 3.0 x4 (M.2 NVMe)
Upstream Port USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C
Bridge Chip ASMedia ASM2364 ASMedia ASM2364
Power Bus Powered Bus Powered
     
Use Case Premium RGB-infused 2GBps-class, compact portable SSD in a gumstick form-factor targeting the gaming market Premium 2GBps-class, compact, and sturdy portable SSD in a gumstick form-factor targeting the gaming market
     
Physical Dimensions 104.4 mm x 52.5 mm x 10 mm 118 mm x 62 mm x 14 mm
Weight 100 grams (without cable) 115 grams (without cable)
Cable 50 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C to Type-C 30 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C to Type-C
30 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C to Type-A
     
S.M.A.R.T Passthrough Yes Yes
UASP Support Yes Yes
TRIM Passthrough Yes Yes
Hardware Encryption Not Available Not Available
     
Evaluated Storage Seagate FireCuda 510 PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 2280 NVMe SSD
SanDisk / Toshiba BiCS 3 64L 3D TLC
Western Digital SN750E PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 2280 NVMe SSD
SanDisk / Toshiba BiCS 4 96L 3D TLC
     
Price USD 210 USD 210
Review Link Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD 1TB Review WD_BLACK P50 Game Drive SSD 1TB Review #1 (2020)
WD_BLACK P50 Game Drive SSD 1TB Review #2 (2021)

Testbed Setup and Evaluation Methodology

Direct-attached storage devices such as the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD are evaluated using the Quartz Canyon NUC (essentially, the Xeon / ECC version of the Ghost Canyon NUC) configured with 2x 16GB DDR4-2667 ECC SODIMMs and a PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD – the IM2P33E8 1TB from ADATA.

The most attractive aspect of the Quartz Canyon NUC is the presence of two PCIe slots (electrically, x16 and x4) for add-in cards. In the absence of a discrete GPU – for which there is no need in a DAS testbed – both slots are available. In fact, we also added a spare SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe SSD to the CPU direct-attached M.2 22110 slot in the baseboard in order to avoid DMI bottlenecks when evaluating Thunderbolt 3 devices. This still allows for two add-in cards operating at x8 (x16 electrical) and x4 (x4 electrical). Since the Quartz Canyon NUC doesn’t have a native USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 port, Silverstone’s SST-ECU06 add-in card was installed in the x4 slot. All non-Thunderbolt devices are tested using the Type-C port enabled by the SST-ECU06.

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

The 2021 AnandTech DAS Testbed Configuration
System Intel Quartz Canyon NUC9vXQNX
CPU Intel Xeon E-2286M
Memory ADATA Industrial AD4B3200716G22
32 GB (2x 16GB)
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
Add-on Card SilverStone Tek SST-ECU06 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C Host
OS Windows 10 Enterprise x64 (21H1)
Thanks to ADATA, Intel, and SilverStone Tek for the build components

The testbed hardware is only one segment of the evaluation. Over the last few years, the typical direct-attached storage workloads have also evolved. High bit-rate 4K videos at 60fps have become quite common, and 8K videos are starting to make an appearance. Game install sizes have also grown steadily, thanks to high resolution textures and artwork. Backups tend to involve larger number of files, many of which are small in size. Keeping these in mind, our evaluation scheme for DAS units involves multiple workloads which are described in detail in the corresponding sections.

  • Synthetic workloads using CrystalDiskMark and ATTO
  • Real-world access traces using PCMark 10’s storage benchmark
  • Custom robocopy workloads reflective of typical DAS usage
  • Sequential write stress test

In the next section, we have an overview of the performance of the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD in these benchmarks. Prior to providing concluding remarks, we have some observations on the drive’s power consumption numbers and thermal solution also.

 

Benchmarks such as ATTO and CrystalDiskMark help provide a quick look at the performance of the direct-attached storage device. The results translate to the instantaneous performance numbers that consumers can expect for specific workloads, but do not account for changes in behavior when the unit is subject to long-term conditioning and/or thermal throttling. Yet another use of these synthetic benchmarks is the ability to gather information regarding support for specific storage device features that affect performance.

Synthetic Benchmark – ATTO

Seagate claims read and write speeds of up to 2000 MBps, and these are backed up by the ATTO benchmarks provided below. ATTO benchmarking is restricted to a single configuration in terms of queue depth, and is only representative of a small sub-set of real-world workloads. It does allow the visualization of change in transfer rates as the I/O size changes, with optimal performance being reached around 512 KB for a queue depth of 4.

ATTO Benchmarks
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Synthetic Benchmark – CrystalDiskMark

CrystalDiskMark. for example, uses four different access traces for reads and writes over a configurable region size. Two of the traces are sequential accesses, while two are 4K random accesses. Internally, CrystalDiskMark uses the Microsoft DiskSpd storage testing tool. The ‘Seq128K Q32T1’ sequential traces use 128K block size with a queue depth of 32 from a single thread, while the ‘4K Q32T16’ one does random 4K accesses with the same queue configuration, but from multiple threads. The ‘Seq1M’ traces use a 1MiB block size. The plain ‘Rnd4K’ one uses only a single queue and single thread . Comparing the ‘4K Q32T16’ and ‘4K Q1T1’ numbers can quickly tell us whether the storage device supports NCQ (native command queuing) / UASP (USB-attached SCSI protocol). If the numbers for the two access traces are in the same ballpark, NCQ / UASP is not supported. This assumes that the host port / drivers on the PC support UASP.

CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks
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The FireCuda Gaming SSD has a slight edge in the low queue depth, large-sized sequential, as well as random reads common in gaming scenarios. However, as queue depth increases, the WD_BLACK P50 returns better numbers. Fortunately for Seagate, most gaming workloads have only low queue depths – the ones in which the FireCuda Gaming SSD returns better numbers.

AnandTech DAS Suite

Our testing methodology for storage bridges / direct-attached storage units takes into consideration the usual use-case for such devices. The most common usage scenario is transfer of large amounts of photos and videos to and from the unit. Other usage scenarios include the use of the unit as a download or install location for games and importing files directly from it into a multimedia editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. Some users may even opt to boot an OS off an external storage device.

The AnandTech DAS Suite tackles the first use-case. The evaluation involves processing five different workloads:

  • AV: Multimedia content with audio and video files totalling 24.03 GB over 1263 files in 109 sub-folders
  • Home: Photos and document files totalling 18.86 GB over 7627 files in 382 sub-folders
  • BR: Blu-ray folder structure totalling 23.09 GB over 111 files in 10 sub-folders
  • ISOs: OS installation files (ISOs) totalling 28.61 GB over 4 files in one folder
  • Disk-to-Disk: Addition of 223.32 GB spread over 171 files in 29 sub-folders to the above four workloads (total of 317.91 GB over 9176 files in 535 sub-folders)

Except for the ‘Disk-to-Disk’ workload, each data set is first placed in a 29GB RAM drive, and a robocopy command is issue to transfer it to the external storage unit (formatted in exFAT for flash-based units, and NTFS for HDD-based units).

robocopy /NP /MIR /NFL /J /NDL /MT:32 $SRC_PATH $DEST_PATH

Upon completion of the transfer (write test), the contents from the unit are read back into the RAM drive (read test) after a 10 second idling interval. This process is repeated three times for each workload. Read and write speeds, as well as the time taken to complete each pass are recorded. Whenever possible, the temperature of the external storage device is recorded during the idling intervals. Bandwidth for each data set is computed as the average of all three passes.

The ‘Disk-to-Disk’ workload involves a similar process, but with one iteration only. The data is copied to the external unit from the CPU-attached NVMe drive, and then copied back to the internal drive. It does include more amount of continuous data transfer in a single direction, as data that doesn’t fit in the RAM drive is also part of the workload set.

Audio and Video Read

The FireCuda Gaming SSD is the clear winner in almost all write workloads (we will see the reason further down in this review). However, our robocopy read benchmarks are high queue depth / multi-threaded, since we try to copy up to 32 streams in parallel. As we saw in the CrystalDiskMark workloads, the performance suffers a bit compared to the WD_BLACK p50 in that department. The SK hynix P31, on the other hand, is a consistent performer across both types of workloads. For all practical purposes, the casual user will notice no difference between them in the course of normal usage. However, power users may want to dig deeper to understand the limits of each device. To address this concern, we also instrumented our evaluation scheme for determining performance consistency.

Performance Consistency

Aspects influencing the performance consistency include SLC caching and thermal throttling / firmware caps on access rates to avoid overheating. This is important for power users, as the last thing that they want to see when copying over 100s of GB of data is the transfer rate going down to USB 2.0 speeds.

In addition to tracking the instantaneous read and write speeds of the DAS when processing the AnandTech DAS Suite, the temperature of the drive was also recorded. In earlier reviews, we used to track the temperature all through. However, we have observed that SMART read-outs for the temperature in NVMe SSDs using USB 3.2 Gen 2 bridge chips end up negatively affecting the actual transfer rates. To avoid this problem, we have restricted ourselves to recording the temperature only during the idling intervals. The graphs below present the recorded data.

AnandTech DAS Suite – Performance Consistency
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The first three sets of writes and reads correspond to the AV suite. A small gap (for the transfer of the video suite from the internal SSD to the RAM drive) is followed by three sets for the Home suite. Another small RAM-drive transfer gap is followed by three sets for the Blu-ray folder. This is followed up with the large-sized ISO files set. Finally, we have the single disk-to-disk transfer set. A closer look at the first write shows that the FireCuda Gaming SSD maintains 1800 MBps all through, but the WD_BLACK P50 has a 1.8 GBps peak but then flatlines to around 1.4 GBps. This points to a really small SLC cache that does get reclaimed fast enough (in the read interval) to service the next write set. On the other hand, the disk-to-disk transfer set (300GB+) brings the FireCuda Gaming SSD to its knees – ending up with a 600 MBps wrte speed towards the last set of files. This points to the SLC cache of the Seagate SSD being somewhat lesser than 300GB in size. On the temperature front, the Seagate SSD doesn’t pass 52C at any point of time during the benchmarking. The P50, on the other hand, goes as high as 76C before settling down to 68C at the end of the benchmarking process. The P50 is at a slight disadvantage, though. The operations previous to the performance consistency test had ended up with the P50 at 53C (compared to 37C for the FireCuda).

PCMark 10 Storage Bench – Real-World Access Traces

There are a number of storage benchmarks that can subject a device to artificial access traces by varying the mix of reads and writes, the access block sizes, and the queue depth / number of outstanding data requests. We saw results from two popular ones – ATTO, and CrystalDiskMark – in a previous section. More serious benchmarks, however, actually replicate access traces from real-world workloads to determine the suitability of a particular device for a particular workload. Real-world access traces may be used for simulating the behavior of computing activities that are limited by storage performance. Examples include booting an operating system or loading a particular game from the disk.

PCMark 10’s storage bench (introduced in v2.1.2153) includes four storage benchmarks that use relevant real-world traces from popular applications and common tasks to fully test the performance of the latest modern drives:

  • The Full System Drive Benchmark uses a wide-ranging set of real-world traces from popular applications and common tasks to fully test the performance of the fastest modern drives. It involves a total of 204 GB of write traffic.
  • The Quick System Drive Benchmark is a shorter test with a smaller set of less demanding real-world traces. It subjects the device to 23 GB of writes.
  • The Data Drive Benchmark is designed to test drives that are used for storing files rather than applications. These typically include NAS drives, USB sticks, memory cards, and other external storage devices. The device is subjected to 15 GB of writes.
  • The Drive Performance Consistency Test is a long-running and extremely demanding test with a heavy, continuous load for expert users. In-depth reporting shows how the performance of the drive varies under different conditions. This writes more than 23 TB of data to the drive.

Despite the data drive benchmark appearing most suitable for testing direct-attached storage, we opt to run the full system drive benchmark as part of our evaluation flow. Many of us use portable flash drives as boot drives and storage for Steam games. These types of use-cases are addressed only in the full system drive benchmark.

The Full System Drive Benchmark comprises of 23 different traces. For the purpose of presenting results, we classify them under five different categories:

  • Boot: Replay of storage access trace recorded while booting Windows 10
  • Creative: Replay of storage access traces recorded during the start up and usage of Adobe applications such as Acrobat, After Effects, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Lightroom, and Photoshop.
  • Office: Replay of storage access traces recorded during the usage of Microsoft Office applications such as Excel and Powerpoint.
  • Gaming: Replay of storage access traces recorded during the start up of games such as Battlefield V, Call of Duty Black Ops 4, and Overwatch.
  • File Transfers: Replay of storage access traces (Write-Only, Read-Write, and Read-Only) recorded during the transfer of data such as ISOs and photographs.

PCMark 10 also generates an overall score, bandwidth, and average latency number for quick comparison of different drives. The sub-sections in the rest of the page reference the access traces specified in the PCMark 10 Technical Guide.

Booting Windows 10

The read-write bandwidth recorded for each drive in the boo access trace is presented below.

Windows 10 Boot

Booting Windows involves lots of low queue depth random reads, and the FireCuda is a champ in that department.

Creative Workloads

The read-write bandwidth recorded for each drive in the sacr, saft, sill, spre, slig, sps, aft, exc, ill, ind, psh, and psl access traces are presented below.

Startup - Adobe Acrobat

The startup and usage sequences for various applications involves different amounts of queue depths and random / sequential reads. Depending on the exact mix, the P50 edges ahead in some, while the FireCuda gets the honors in others. The SK hynix P31 comes in the middle of the pack.

Office Workloads

The read-write bandwidth recorded for each drive in the exc and pow access traces are presented below.

Usage - Microsoft Excel

The SK hynix P31 is an all-round better performed for office workloads compared to either of the P50 or the FireCuda.

Gaming Workloads

The read-write bandwidth recorded for each drive in the bf, cod, and ow access traces are presented below.

Startup - Battlefield V

The FireCuda Gaming SSD performs way better than the P50 across all of the game startup traces, though it is actually the SK hynix P31 coming out on top in two of the three.

Files Transfer Workloads

The read-write bandwidth recorded for each drive in the cp1, cp2, cp3, cps1, cps2, and cps3 access traces are presented below.

Duplicating ISOs (Read-Write)

All these are low queue depth operations, and mostly sequential in nature. Since the size of the workloads is much lesser than the SLC cache of the FireCuda Gaming SSD, it is no surprise that the Seagate offering comes out on top in most of them.

Overall Scores

PCMark 10 reports an overall score based on the observed bandwidth and access times for the full workload set. The score, bandwidth, and average access latency for each of the drives are presented below.

Full System Drive Benchmark Bandwidth (MBps)

Overall, the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD emerges with the leading score in the PCMark 10 Storage Bench, though it is followed quite closely by the SK hynix P31 in the Silverstone MS12 enclosure.

The performance of the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD in various real-world access traces as well as synthetic workloads was brought out in the preceding sections. We also looked at the performance consistency for these cases. Power users may also be interested in performance consistency under worst-case conditions, as well as drive power consumption. The latter is also important when used with battery powered devices such as notebooks and smartphones. Pricing is also an important aspect. We analyze each of these in detail below.

Worst-Case Performance Consistency

Flash-based storage devices tend to slow down in unpredictable ways when subject to a large number of small-sized random writes. Many benchmarks use that scheme to pre-condition devices prior to the actual testing in order to get a worst-case representative number. Fortunately, such workloads are uncommon for direct-attached storage devices, where workloads are largely sequential in nature. Use of SLC caching as well as firmware caps to prevent overheating may cause drop in write speeds when a flash-based DAS device is subject to sustained sequential writes.

Our Sequential Writes Performance Consistency Test configures the device as a raw physical disk (after deleting configured volumes). A fio workload is set up to write sequential data to the raw drive with a block size of 128K and iodepth of 32 to cover 90% of the drive capacity. The internal temperature is recorded at either end of the workload, while the instantaneous write data rate and cumulative total write data amount are recorded at 1-second intervals.

Sequential Writes to 90% Capacity – Performance Consistency
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This test confirms our findings in the AnandTech DAS Suite performance consistency section. The SLC cache size for the WD_BLACK P50 is around 12GB, but the direct-to-TLC write is a very respectable 1400 MBps. On the other hand, the FireCuda Gaming SSD has a very liberal 200GB of SLC cache. Once that runs out, the writes first drop to around 900 MBps before moving down to the 550 MBps range. As long as the workload size is within the SLC cache region, the FireCuda Gaming SSD will emerge as the better performer in most cases. For larger workloads, the WD_BLACK P50 delivers better performance consistency. However, the P50 also runs a bit hot compared to the FireCuda Gaming SSD while deliver the performance.

Power Consumption

Bus-powered devices can configure themselves to operate within the power delivery constraints of the host port. While Thunderbolt ports are guaranteed to supply up to 15W for client devices, USB 2.0 ports are guaranteed to deliver only 2.5W (500mA @ 5V). In this context, it is interesting to have a fine-grained look at the power consumption profile of the various external drives. Using the Plugable USBC-TKEY, the bus power consumption of the drives was tracked while processing the CrystalDiskMark workloads (separated by 5s intervals). The graphs below plot the instantaneous bus power consumption against time, while singling out the maximum and minimum power consumption numbers.

CrystalDiskMark Workloads – Power Consumption
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Despite the presence of RGB lighting, the FireCuda Gaming SSD does not have any power consumption penalty. In fact, the peak power consumption of the P50 is higher at 8.42W compared to 8.30W for the FireCuda. The Seagate SSD also goes down to a low power state faster than the P50.

Final Words

The Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD is currently on Amazon for $210. Interestingly, the WD_BLACK P50 1TB is also priced the same. The FireCuda Gaming SSD holds the edge in most cases with its generous 200GB of SLC cache. This ensures that only heavy power users transferring more than 200GB of data in one go ever get to dip down to the 900 MBps TLC-direct write speeds. The WD_BLACK P50, on the other hand, holds steady at around 1400 MBps all through after the 12GB SLC cache runs out. The P50 delivers better long-term consistency, but the FireCuda Gaming SSD wins out on the important game loading trace replay benchmarks in the PCMark 10 Storage Bench. Seagate’s configurable RGB feature makes the portable SSD blend well with other gaming peripherals – and this essentially comes at no extra cost. The 0.5m Type-C cable of the FireCuda Gaming SSD is also useful for gaming desktops where the Gen 2×2 port might be tucked away in the rear I/O. So, our recommendation is for the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD unless there is a demonstrable need to write more than 20% of the drive’s capacity at full speed in one pass.

Users solely focused on performance (with no interest in RGB functionality or industrial design matching their existing gaming gear) can save quite a bit by going the DIY route – the Silverstone MS12 ($70) + SK hynix Gold P31 ($135 – $20) combination works out to $185. Despite costing $25 less, it performs just as well for regular gaming usage as the Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD and the WD_BLACK P50.