RAID IS ONE of those things that you either know what it is, or you don’t care what it is. However, it does offer benefits that make it worth looking into if you’re looking at either getting some extra performance out of your hard drives or want peace of mind that you’ll never lose your data.
Most higher-end motherboards come with onboard RAID support courtesy to the chipset, but this can be complex to configure and it can’t be moved from one system to another. We have had a look at a couple of different PCIe x1 solutions from a couple of new players in the RAID card market and both solutions have their own advantages and downsides.
You might be familiar with Lian-Li as a case manufacturer, but the company has now decided to try its luck by launching its first add-on card in the shape of the IB-01 RAID controller. Photofast on the other hand is most likely a company you haven’t heard of, but it is quickly becoming famous for its high performance SSD drives and is one of the most popular choices in the Japanese market. Just as Lian-Li, Photofast has come up with its own RAID controller that goes under the name of EVO2.
At a first glance, the two cards don’t look that different, as both feature a PCIe x1 interface and five SATA 3Gb/s ports. Both cards also use a JMicron JMB393 SATA port multiplier with RAID functionality. The JMB393 offloads the CPU, although it’s not a traditional hardware RAID controller, as it doesn’t have any cache memory. Nor is it a SATA controller. However, it does support RAID 0, 1, 3, 5 and 10, as well as JBOD and CLONE modes. So what does this all mean? Well, read on and we’ll try to explain it.
Let’s take a closer look at the two controllers first, starting with the Lian-Li IB-01. The IB-01 sports a JMicron JMB362 SATA 3Gb/s host controller in addition to the JMB393 and this makes the IB-01 a standalone SATA RAID solution. The JMB362 is a very basic PCIe x1 two port SATA 3Gb/s host controller with AHCI support. This is used as the main interface between the system and the JMB393 port multiplier. This means that there’s something of a bottle neck should you exceed the bandwidth of the JMB362 and its SATA 3Gb/s interface, although as long as you’re using hard drives this is unlikely to occur.
Lian-Li has used the second port from the JMB362 to add an eSATA connector, but it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t part of the RAID setup. However, this could be useful for those that want to connect an external drive to their system to back up data onto. There’s also a small speaker, a tiny button and a set of jumpers on the IB-01, but we’ll get to these a little bit later in the review. Lian-Li also provides a set of five SATA cables and a wire that connects the card to the hard drive LED connector on the motherboard.
The Photofast EVO2 controller doesn’t have any additional SATA controller, instead it features a sixth SATA port which is used to connect the EVO2 to a spare SATA port on your motherboard. This means that depending on the performance of the SATA controller on your motherboard, you’ll get better or worse performance out of the EVO2, something you’ll see in our benchmarks later on. The EVO2 also features a small speaker, but instead of using jumpers, Photofast has added a rotary dial on the rear of the card that is easily accessible at the back of the PC and there’s also a small button here.
The jumpers on the Lian-Li card and the rotary dial on the Photofast card are both used for setting the RAID configuration of the JMB393. It’s much easier to use the rotary dial as the jumper block on the Lian-Li card consists of four jumpers and two settings per jumper. Once you’ve set the RAID option you want, you simply press the button on the respective card while your system powers on and you’re ready to go. It’s important to note that the Photofast card needs to be attached to an AHCI SATA controller to work properly. To change RAID setting you need to first reset the RAID configuration which is done the same way, but with a different setting of the jumpers or the rotary dial.
Having a manual way of setting the RAID configuration is great, especially if you’re using an OS that is a bit finicky about which SATA controllers it supports. This is where the Photofast card really shines, as it’s OS independent, the Lian-Li card requires that your OS supports the JMB362 controller. However, if you’re running Windows, both cards can be configured using the JMicron RAID configuration utility. We had some issues with this and the Lian-Li controller, as every time we changed the RAID setting we were forced to reboot the system. The same happened with the Photofast card when connected to a JMicron JMB363 controller on the motherboard, but wasn’t required when the EVO2 was connected to a SATA port connected to the Intel chipset in our test system.
We tested both of the controllers with a set of four G-Monster SSDs provided by Photofast and although these are fairly slow SSDs compared to the latest generation of drives, they provided an easily comparable test setup. Both controllers were tested in RAID 0 and RAID 5 mode using HDTach. The Lian-Li IB-01 performed very similar to the Photofast EVO2 card when connected to the onboard JMB363 controller, although it didn’t manage to keep up in the burst read and read tests in RAID 5 mode.
However, the Photofast EVO2 card is clearly the winner in terms of performance when connected to the Intel P55 chipset of the motherboard in our test system, no matter in RAID 0 or RAID 5. It doesn’t get a huge boost in performance in the write test in RAID 0, but the read performance is miles ahead of the competition. As the JMB393 SATA port multiplier relies on the host SATA chipset for the bus bandwidth, it’s fairly clear that the culprit in this case is the JMB362 on the Lian-Li card and the JMB363 on the motherboard.
It’s a bit hard to sum things up, as both cards offer the same functionality, albeit they take a different approach on how to do it. If you don’t have any spare SATA connectors on your motherboard, then the Lian-Li card would be the better option and the addition of an eSATA port might appeal to some. However, the performance is lacking compare to what you could get from the Photofast card if connected to a fast SATA controller. The Lian-Li card is also a bit trickier to set up with the jumpers, but this is only an issue for those not using Windows.
The Photofast card requires a spare SATA port that operates in AHCI mode, but this shouldn’t be a huge issue on any modern motherboard. Its performance relies on the host SATA controller and as such it can vary quite a bit. The upside to this is that if your motherboard has a fast SATA controller, you’ll get much better performance from the Photofast card than the Lian-Li card.
Both products should be available on the market shortly, although we don’t have the retail prices of either card, but they should cost somewhere between $100-200.S|A
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