The Intel X25-M 80GB Solid State Drive Arrives
Solid State Drives (SSD) have been around for over 25 years, but only recently have SSDs started to prove ready for the mainstream computing market now that performance is getting better and the price is coming down. As many of our readers know, there are over a dozen companies that currently have solid state drives on the market today, but the performance reliability on many of the drives are unpredictable. It's been no secret that Intel has been working on a SSD for some time now and whenever Intel does something you know they pumped a ton of cash into the project and had some of the brightest minds in the industry making a product that would blow the others away. When I was at the Intel Developer Forum last month I got a chance to see these drives at work and even saw the insides of one. The take home message from the show was that Intel had developed a new series of Solid State Drives that would own anything on the market as Intel developed their own controller and it was no joke.
Today, Intel is launching two MLC-based Solid State Disks, the X18-M and X25-M. For this article we will be looking at the Intel X25-M drive, which is a 2.5" form-factor drive that is 80GB. Intel has a 160GB version of this drive as well as 1.8" versions in both 80GB and 160GB capacities. Both the Intel X25-M and X18-M are pictured above to give you an idea of the size difference between the two new drives. When it comes to performance the specifications are very impressive with a maximum read bandwidth of 250MB/sec and write bandwidth of up to 70MB/sec. If these specifications fail to impress you then you'll be happy to know that Intel will have an SLC NAND solid state drive under the eXtreme series that will be coming out in 2009. The Intel X25-E SSD will be available in 32GB and 64GB capacities, which may seem small, but they were designed to replace drives that enterprise customers are currently using. Intel believes that many of their customers are still using 32GB and 64GB drives in enterprise applications and that the eXtreme series will replace those and offer a significant speed boost. What kind of speed boost are we talking about? How about a write speed of 170 MB/s instead of the 70 MB/s found on the mainstream models!
The drive that we have in-house for testing is the Intel X25-M pictured above. The form factor is that of a normal 2.5" hard drive, so if you want to mount it in a desktop 3.5" drive bay you will have to use an adapter. During IDF we noticed that many of the systems had SSDs that were double sided taped to the bottom or top of the chassis, which bring up the point that these drives can be mounted virtually anywhere. If you are already wondering about pricing the 80GB MLC version is priced at $595 for quantities up to 1,000 and is shipping to OEM and Channel customers this week. The SSD will then begin shipping from these customers in their PC solutions or as a stand alone drive.
The connections are located on the side of the drive and are just your standard SATA data and power connectors. This means that there is no need for any adapters! The drive does have four screw holes in order to mount it in drive trays or anything else you can put a screw through.
Inside the X25-M SSD
Since this is our first time I have seen an Intel X25-M SSD, I just had to take it apart. The label located on the cover of the X25-M lists the model number of SSDSA2SH080G1GN and it's described as a 2.5", 3GB/s SATA SSD 80GB, 5V, 1A. The label also informs us that the drive is an engineering sample that is Pb-free (lead free, RoHS compliant) and made in China. Removing the four Philips screws located on the corners of the top cover the inside of the drive can be accessed. With the cover removed we see a total of ten Intel NAND Flash memory chips, but that is just this side of the drive.
Removing the drive from the housing and flipping it over we can take a look at the interesting part. Again, I found ten more Intel NAND Flash chips, an Intel branded controller and a single Samsung DRAM chip. The lone Samsung DRAM IC is used as a cache buffer for the flash memory controller ASIC from what I was told by an Intel fellow.
Here is a closer look at some of the chips on the Intel X25-M 80GB Solid State Drive. All 20 of the Intel NAND Flash chips are used in conjunction with a wear-leveling algorithm that Intel developed to make sure that the erase/re-write cycle is spread across all of the memory ICs. If a sector ever goes bad the data won't be lost, it just can't be written over again. In theory no data should ever be lost when the drive finally wears out after the drive has reached it's lifespan. Intel states that these drives have a read read latency of 85 microseconds, which is hands down faster than any hard drive on the market today. The power consumption is also very low as the drive uses 150mW on a typical PC workload and at idle it uses just 0.06W. Not bad at all considering most hard disk drives use close to 10W at idle! With no moving parts inside and low power consumption that means hardly any heat and no noise!
Testing and The Test System
To test out the Intel X25-M 80GB SSD I took the $595 price tag into consideration and figured that the best drive to compare it to was actually a pair of Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB drives in RAID 0. The Western Digital VelociRaptor WD3000HLFS model drives retail for $303 on PriceGrabber , so they are in the same price category and are both desired by enthusiasts.
Pictured above are the pair of brand new Western Digital VelociRaptor WD3000HLFS model drives and the Intel X25-M 80GB drive for size comparisons. Both the Intel X25-M and Western Digital VelociRaptors are 2.5" drives and need to be placed into a housing to be mounted in many cases.
In order to test the Intel X25-M 80GB solid state drive I used a board that hasn't been reviewed on the site, the Gigabyte EP45-DQ6. This board was used for one critical reason, it uses the Intel ICH10R south bridge. The Intel ICH10R is rumored to have better SSD performance than the ICH9R and since the ICH10R will be the chipset to have in the months to come it was used for this article.
HD Tach v3.0.4
HD Tach is a low level hardware benchmark for random access read/write storage devices such as hard drives, removable drives (ZIP/JAZZ), flash devices, and RAID arrays. HD Tach uses custom device drivers and other low level Windows interfaces to bypass as many layers of software as possible and get as close to the physical performance of the device possible.
Western Digital 150GB Raptor WD1500ADFD:
Western Digital RE3 750GB WD7502ABYS:
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB WD3000HLFS:
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB WD3000HLFS in RAID 0:
Intel X25-M 80GB SSD:
Benchmark Results: HD Tach showed that the Intel X25-M had the lowest Random Access Time of 0.1ms and the highest average read speed at 219.5MB/s. The next closest access was the VelociRaptor at 6.8ms. The pair of Western Digital VelociRaptor hard drives turned in the highest burst speed with a 413.3MB/s versus 261.1MB/s on the Intel SSD. The other hard drives included were unable to compete at this performance level as you can see by the results. The CPU utilization on all the systems ranged from 1-4%, but the margin of error in this test is +/- 2%.
HD Tune Pro v3.10
HD Tune Pro 3.10 is an extended version of HD Tune which includes many new features such as: write benchmark, secure erasing, AAM setting, folder usage view, disk monitor, command line parameters and file benchmark.
Benchmark Results: The Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 were the victor in burst rate test with an impressive 175.6MB/s result versus the 140.9 MB/Sec on the Intel X25-M solid state drive. The Intel X25-M easily took the lead in the other tests and again pulled off an impressive 0.1 ms access time! The average transfer rate was a solid 209.4 MB/s, which dwarfed the 175.6 MB/s score seen on the VelociRaptors in RAID 0.
64MB File Test
Benchmark Results: Running the built-in file benchmark test in HD Tune shows how the Intel SSD great again at read performance, but falls behind in the write test when when moving 64MB files.
CrystalDiskMark is a small HDD benchmark utility for your hard drive that enable you to rapidly measure sequential and random read/write speeds.
Benchmark Results: The Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 did very well in the write tests used in CrystalMark 2.1 and performed the best in the sequential writes and Random 512KB writes. The Intel X25-M Solid State Drive was better in all the read tests along with both 4KB Random 512KB reads/writes. The Intel X25-M is rated at ~70MB/s for the write speeds and that proves to be true.
SiSoftware Sandra 2009
SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility. Sandra provides most of the information (including undocumented) you need to know about your hardware, software and other devices whether hardware or software. In order to test the Intel SSD I used SiSoftware Sandra 2009 build 15.42, which was just released on Septemeber 8th, 2008. The graphical results that Sandra gives you after the test is completed nicely shows drives perform over time and where at on the drive the performance is seen.
Benchmark Results: In the read performance test that is used in SANDRA 2009, the Intel X25-M drive offered the fastest sustained read bandwidth at 233.61MB/s. The Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 were not too far behind, at 202.70MB/s. That makes the read speed on the X25-M 15.2% quicker than the VelociRaptors in RAID 0.
ATTO Disk Benchmark v2.34
ATTO is one of the oldest hard drive benchmarks that is still used today. ATTO measures transfers across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and places the data into graphs that you can easily interpret. The test was run with the default runs of 0.5kb through 8192kb transfer sizes with the total length being 256mb.
Benchmark Results: Once again, the Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 did very well in the write tests, but were found to be slower in the read tests. Let's take a look at the I/O Comparison test before I move on...
Looks like the results pretty much stayed the same!
PCMark Vantage provides you with the correct tools for performance measurement of every type of Personal Computer with Microsoft's new Microsoft Windows Vista operating system from Office Productivity computers and Gaming Machines to PCs configured for the creative user. With an easy to use interface and clear scoring, you will be able to select exactly the type of tests you want to use and then choose the right upgrade components or complete PC that will fit your needs. This easy-to-use product gives you the same tools and knowledge that virtually every professional tester in the industry uses. We used the hard drive test in PCMark Vantage to put the two hard drives to the test to see which one is the best!
The overall score on the Intel SSD was 22,256 versus the 6,434 that the WD VelociRaptors were able to turn in! The detailed performance test results showed that the Intel X25-M owned the set of Western Digital VelociRaptors in seven of the eight tests! Since it's hard to compare all eight of the tests let's graph these data points.
The only test that the WD VelociRaptors in RAID 0 did better on was the Windows Media Center benchmark. According to the whitepaper on the benchmark, this specific test measures concurrent disk drive performance of MC tasks: A) SDTV video playback, B) SDTV video streaming to Extender for Windows Media Center, and C) SDTV video recording. All of the other tests were owned by the Intel SSD!
Last month when I was at the Intel developer forum, I watched Falcon Northwest General Manager Bradd Berdelman inform those attending the show that he saw Crysis performance double when using the Intel Solid State Drives versus using a pair of Western Digital VelociRaptors in Raid 0. He flipped the numbers in the chart, so don't look at that too close! He gave a live demo and explained that during the games built-in benchmark that the disk access times are so important that the performance goes up by a significant margin. I figured why not give it a shot since I am using the same drives for testing that he did!
I loaded up the full retail version of the game Crysis with patch 1.21 for benchmarking and fired up the game at 1920x1200 resolution with all the graphics quality options set to medium.
Results: Taking a look at the benchmark numbers using the built-in benchmark showed us no where near the results that Bradd Berdelman showed off at IDF, but the performance was slightly better on the Intel X25-M solid state drives when I averaged the benchmarks from six runs.
Results: Crysis has a built in timer that is used to calculate the amount of time it takes to load a level, which is perfect for testing the differences between these two hard drives. A difference was noted when we loaded the level eight times and took the average of the time it took to load at a point we saved at random. The decrease in load times was found to be 6%.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
One of our friends at another hard drive company told us at the very last minute to fill up the Intel X25-M solid state drive to where it is nearly full and see what happens to performance. With the Intel SSD being only 80GB it fills up quite quickly, so I figured what the heck and gave it a shot. I filled the Intel X25-M up to where it was 80% full, which means that only 14.9GB of the available 74.5GB was available.
Obviously, something is going on here to get the decrease in performance that was witnessed in PCMark Vantage. I tested the Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 with them at 80% full also and the scores actually went up across the board, but not by a significant amount like what we see on the SSD. The overall score with just Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit installed and PC Mark Vantage was found to be 22,256. With the drive 80% full and after a reboot the system same system scored 15,519, which is a 30% drop in the overall score. Looks like this is something worth taking a closer look at in the future!
Final Thoughts and Conclusions:
The Intel line of Solid State Drives is certainly one of the most anticipated pieces of hardware for 2008. Intel without a doubt raised the bar with what one can expect with Solid State Drives by producing a drive that can compete with any drive on the market, be it solid state or a hard disk. The highlights of the Intel X25-M has to be the fast that it uses hardly any power, puts off little heat and the insanely fast read and access speeds. The SSD architecture looks a lot more appealing now that Intel has entered the market and I’m sure that this is only the beginning of many more exciting products to come down the pipes.
The X25-M performance is out of this world thanks to the 250MB/s sustained read rates that many of the benchmarks highlighted so well. With read speeds like that and 0.1 ms access times one would think that the drive would be perfect, but there is one area that can use some improvement and that would be the write speeds. The Intel X25-M didn’t look too hot on the write speeds and got creamed by the Western Digital VelociRaptors in RAID 0 when it came to write performance at roughly the same price point. Part of this is due to the MLC design that the drive uses and remember Intel has an Extreme series of Solid State Drives coming out that are use SLC and have a 100MB/s faster write speed. This means that the Extreme drives will be able to write at 170 MB/s, which would put it close to the VelociRaptors in many of the benchmarks. The only other area that showed weak performance was when the drive was nearly full. This could have been due to the wear leveling that Intel has designed for this drive or something else all together.
When it comes to pricing Intel X25-M 80GB MLC version that I covered in this article is priced at $595 for quantities up to 1,000 and is shipping to OEM and Channel customers this week. The SSD will then begin shipping from these customers in their PC solutions or as a stand alone drive. If you aren't turned away by the drive being just 80GB then the Intel X25-M is a wicked little solid state drive that is sure to leave you smiling at the end of the day.
If you want to wait for the single-level cell (SLC) SSDs for your system you’ll have to wait about 90 more days for them to come to market. I'm drooling right now just thinking about the performance of one of those!
For taking MLC SSDs to a new level by creating their own controller and using their own NAND flash IC's it seems only right to give the X25-M the innovation award!
Legit Bottom Line: The Intel X25-M Solid State Drive has raised the bar when it comes to multi-level cell (MLC) SSDs and worth a look if you have never used an SSD before!