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SSD Shell Game: Why Ultrabook Makers Won't Tell You What's Inside

When you go to a grocery store, you can look at any food item's packaging and see not only what’s in it, but often where it came from. You want grass-fed beef from the farmer upstate? No problem. Locally-sourced peaches? Aisle Five. It’s high time we start demanding the same accountability from notebook makers, who don't disclose what model of SSD they use and sometimes use completely different drives  in different production runs of the same PC.

We love SSDs, but not all of them are created equal. In the past few weeks, we’ve received two Ultrabooks, the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A and the Samsung Series 9 15”, that both came with SanDisk SSDs that woefully underperformed.

How bad? In the case of the Series 9, on our transfer test (duplicating 5GB of multimedia files) the 128GB SSD was slower than most 7,200-rpm mechanical hard drives.  It offered a transfer rate of just 33.7 MBps. That's almost 20 MBps slower than the category average (50.8 MBps), and more than 100MBps slower than the SSD in the Series 9 we tested back in April.

That’s hardly the performance I expect out of a $1,400 notebook. It’s even crazier when you consider that Samsung makes one of the best SSDs on the market in the 830 Series. Even SanDisk makes a decent SSD in its Extreme series, as we proved in our last SSD showdown.

ASUS, to its credit, said that it would be switching to faster ADATA SSDs on later production runs of the UX31A, but Samsung said it would continue to source from "multiple SSD suppliers in order to maintain a diverse supply chain to meet the demand and performance of our Series 9 units." 

You know what that means? You’ll never know what SSD you’re getting in your notebook until you turn it on at home. Even if tech publications like LAPTOP see one model of SSD in the review units we receive, there's no guarantee that the notebook you buy will have the same drive inside.

Sorry, Forrest. Buying a notebook shouldn’t be like a box of chocolates. Laptop makers should say what the make and model of the SSD is in the laptop. After the CPU and GPU, the storage drive is perhaps the next most important component. In our benchmark tests, it’s remarkable to see the difference in performance between a good SSD and a bad one or a fast hard drive and a slow one.

In building their notebooks, OEMs must purchase hundreds of different parts. Everything from the the LED panel to the screws that hold the chassis in place has to come from somewhere. And it's much easier if the manufacturer has the freedom to switch parts when they see another supplier offering them a cheaper product.  

A few companies are transparent, but it’s not Apple, Dell, HP, or any of the big guys. Only the small boutique shops—AVADirect, Eurocom, and Maingear, to name a few—let you know the make and model of the hard drive you’re getting before you buy a notebook.

Considering so much is brand-driven these days, letting consumers know what kind of drive they’re getting could even become a competitive advantage for some notebook makers. Wouldn’t you be inclined to purchase a notebook--pay more, even—if you knew it had a particular kind of storage drive? AMD, Intel, and Nvidia are savvy enough to demand that stickers get slapped on every notebook with their components, and maybe it’s time that storage drive makers follow suit.

Believe me, the last thing I want is another sticker junking up the keyboard deck. But if that’s what it’ll take for better transparency, it’ll be worth the extra five seconds it takes to peel it off.