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Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive Review
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Date: Feb 06, 2012
Section:Storage
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications
Intel is launching a brand new line of solid state drives today, built around SandForce’s popular SF-2200 family of storage processors. The new SSD 520 Series solid state drives, as they are known, will supplant the Marvell-based 510 series at the top of Intel’s consumer-targeted SSD lineup and be offered in capacities ranging from 60GB to 480GB.

Like other SandForce SF-2200-based drives, the new Intel SSD 520 series is outfitted with a SATA III interface with sequential reads and writes speeds in the 550MB/s to 520MB/s ranges, respectively. According to their specifications, 4K random reads peak at around 50K IOPS (QD32), with 4K random writes hovering around 80K IOPS for the 240GB model (lower capacity drives, offer somewhat lower performance).

In terms of their specifications and features, the Intel SSD 520 series drives should look similar to other SandForce-based counterparts. Intel has, however, worked a bit magic with the SSD 520 Series’ firmware to improve performance, reliability, and compatibility. To that end, the controller has also been paired to selectively-binned 25nm NAND flash memory which reportedly offers optimal performance and longevity as well.

Intel SSD 520 Seriess Solid State Drives
Specifications & Features
Capacity: 60/120/180/240/480 GB

Components:
Intel 25nm NAND Flash Memory
Multi-Level Cell (MLC)

Form Factor: 2.5-inch

Thickness: 7 mm and 9.5 mm
7 mm: 120/180/240 GB
9.5 mm: 60/120/180/240/480 GB

Weight: Up to 78 grams

SATA 6Gb/s Bandwidth Performance
(Iometer Queue Depth 32)
Sustained Sequential Read: Up to 550 MB/s
Sustained Sequential Write: Up to 520 MB/s
Read and Write IOPS1
(Iometer Queue Depth 32)
Random 4 KB Reads: Up to 50,000 IOPS
Random 4 KB Writes: Up to 80,000 IOPS2

Latency (average sequential)
Read: 80 ?s (TYP)
Write: 85 ?s (TYP)

Data Compression

AES 256-bit Encryption

End-to-End Data Protection

Power Management
5 V SATA Supply Rail
SATA Link Power Management (LPM)

Power
Active (MobileMark 2007 Workload):
850 mW (TYP)
Idle: 600 mW (TYP)
Compatibility
Intel SSD Toolbox with Intel SSD Optimizer
Intel Data Migration Software
Intel Rapid Storage Technology
Intel 6 Series Express Chipsets (with SATA 6Gb/s)
SATA Revision 3.0
ACS-2
SSD-enhanced SMART ATA feature set
Native Command Queuing (NCQ) 
Data Set Management Command
Trim attribute 

Temperature
Operating: 0o C to 70o C
Non-Operating: -55o C to 95o C

Reliability
Uncorrectable Bit Error Rate (UBER):
< 1 sector per 1016 bits read
Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF):
1,200,000 hours

Shock (operating and non-operating):
1,500 G/0.5 msec

Vibration
Operating: 2.17 GRMS (5-700 Hz)
Non-operating: 3.13 GRMS (5-800 Hz)

Certifications and Declarations:
UL
CE
C-Tick
BSMI
KCC
Microsoft WHQL
VCCI
SATA-IO

Product Ecological Compliance
RoHS

The Intel SSD 520 series drives sport the same 2.5” form factor that’s common with other SATA solid state drives on the market. In fact, the drives look virtually identical to Intel’s older SSD 510 and 320 series products, save for the decal on top. We should also point out that SSD 520 series drives will be offered in both 7mm (120GB – 240GB) and 9.5mm z-height flavors.

 
Intel SSD 520 Series 240GB Solid State Drive

Crack an Intel SSD 520 series drive open by removing the four screws around its edge and the goodies that lie within are immediately visible. As we’ve mentioned, the SSD 520 series is built around one of SandForce’s popular controllers—the SF-2281 to be exact.

 

Paired to the SF-2281 in the 240GB drive you see pictured here are sixteen Intel 25nm synchronous NAND flash memory chips, eight on each side. The total NAND capacity on this drive is actually 256GB (16x16GB), the remaining 16GB is provisioned for wear leveling, garbage collection, and other SandForce proprietary features to ensure long-term reliability and more consistent performance.

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Test Setup, IOMeter 1.1 RC and SANDRA

Our Test Methodologies: Under each test condition, the Solid State Drives tested here were installed as secondary volumes in our testbed, with a standard spinning hard disk for the OS and benchmark installations. Out testbed's motherboard was updated with the latest BIOS available as of press time and AHCI mode was enabled. The SSDs were secure erased and left blank without partitions wherever possible, unless a test required them to be partitioned and formatted, as was the case with our ATTO, PCMark 7, and CrystalDiskMark benchmark tests. Windows firewall, automatic updates and screen savers were all disabled before testing. In all test runs, we rebooted the system and waited several minutes for drive activity to settle before invoking a test.

HotHardware Test System
Intel Core i7 and SSD Powered

Processor -

Motherboard -


Video Card -

Memory -

Audio -

Hard Drives -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Core i7-2600K

Asus P8Z6-V Pro
(Z68 Chipset, AHCI Enabled)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285

4GB Kingston DDR3-1600

Integrated on board

WD Raptor 150GB (OS Drive)
Samsung SSD 830 (256GB)
OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPs (240GB)
Corsair Force GT (240GB)
Crucial M4 (256)
OCZ Octane (512GB)
Intel SSD 520 (240GB)

OS -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-


Relevant Software:
Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 x64
Intel 9.2.0.1030, iRST 10.5.1027
DirectX 11

NVIDIA GeForce 275.33

Benchmarks Used:
IOMeter 1.1.0 RC
HD Tune v4.61
ATTO v2.47
AS SSD
CrystalDiskMark v3.01 x64
PCMark 7
SiSoftware Sandra 2011

IOMeter
I/O Subsystem Measurement Tool

As we've noted in previous SSD articles, though IOMeter is clearly a well-respected industry standard drive benchmark, we're not completely comfortable with it for testing SSDs. The fact of the matter is, though our actual results with IOMeter appear to scale properly, it is debatable whether or not certain access patterns, as they are presented to and measured on an SSD, actually provide a valid example of real-world performance for the average end user. That said, we do think IOMeter is a gauge for relative available throughput within a given storage solution. In addition there are certain higher-end workloads you can place on a drive with IOMeter, that you really can't with most other benchmark tools available currently.

In the following tables, we're showing two sets of access patterns; our Workstation pattern, with an 8K transfer size, 80% reads (20% writes) and 80% random (20% sequential) access and IOMeter's default access pattern of 2K transfers, 67% reads (34% writes) and 100% random access.

 

The Intel SSD 520 series drive's performance was mixed in our IOMeter tests. Intel's latest drive performed well overall, but trailed the other SandForce-based offerings using IOMeter's default access pattern. In our custom workstation test which ups the block size and changes the mix of sequential and random access, however, Intel's drive is among the best performers.

Also note, that since we got our hands on a pair of Intel SSD 520 series drives, we've included RAID 0 scores throughout our benchmarks as well. Although not comparable to any of the other single-drive results, we thought some of you would like to see how two of these drives perform when running in a RAID.

SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic HDD Benchmarking

Next we ran SiSoft SANDRA, the the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. Here, we used the Physical Disk test suite and provided the results from our comparison SSDs. The benchmarks were run without formatting and read and write performance metrics are detailed below.

Our SiSoft SANDRA tests show the Intel SSD 520 series drive performing as well as the other SandForce-based drives. In terms of read speeds, the Intel drive finished right alongside the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS drive, but the SSD 520 pulled ever so slightly ahead in the write test. RAID 0 performance was exceptional.
 

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ATTO Disk Benchmark
ATTO is another "quick and dirty" type of disk benchmark that measures transfer speeds across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and graphs them out in an easily interpreted chart. We chose .5kb through 8192kb transfer sizes and a queue depth of 6 over a total max volume length of 256MB. ATTO's workloads are sequential in nature and measure raw bandwidth, rather than I/O response time, access latency, etc. This test was performed on blank, formatted drives with default NTFS partitions in Windows 7 x64.

ATTO Disk Benchmark
More Information Here: http://bit.ly/btuV6w




All of the SandForce-based drives--including the Intel SSD 530 series drive--performed at essentially the same levels in the ATTO Read and Write tests. Once again, performance scales considerably with two drives running in a RAID 0 configuration.
 

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HD Tune Benchmarks
EFD Software's HD Tune is described on the company's web site as such: "HD Tune is a hard disk utility with many functions. It can be used to measure the drive's performance, scan for errors, check the health status (S.M.A.R.T.), securely erase all data and much more." The latest version of the benchmark added temperature statistics and improved support for SSDs, among a few other updates and fixes.

HD Tune v4.61
More Info Here: http://www.hdtune.com









The Intel SSD 520 series drives also performed well in the HD Tune benchmarks, and performed in-line with the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS, but trailed the Corsair Force GT in terms of write performance.
 

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CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks

CrystalDiskMark is a synthetic benchmark that tests both sequential and random small and mid-sized file transfers. It provides a quick look at best and worst case scenarios with regard to SSD performance, best case being larger sequential transfers and worse case being small, random transfers.

CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks
Synthetic File Transfer Tests










The Intel SSD 520 series drive performed much like the similarly SandForce-based Corsair and OCZ drives in the CrystalDiskMark benchmaks. One interesting note is that running a pair of drives in RAID 0 actually hurt 4K transfers at the lower queue depth. With the QD cranked up to 32, however, RAID 0 was significantly faster than a single drive.

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AS-SSD Compression Test

Next up we ran the Compression Benchmark built-into AS SSD, an SSD specific benchmark being developed by Alex Intelligent Software. This test is interesting because it uses a mix of compressible and incompressible data and outputs both Read and Write throughput of the drive. We only graphed a small fraction of the data (1% compressible, 50% compressible, and 100% compressible), but the trend is representative of the benchmark’s complete results.

AS SSD Compression Benchmark
Bring Your Translator: http://bit.ly/aRx11n


Read performance was similar for all of the drives in the AS-SSD compression benchmark. Write performance, however, differs quite a bit. The OCZ Octane, Crucial, and Samsung drives show flat write performance, which is to say performance doesn't differ much with incompressible or highly compressible data. The SandForce-based drives take a performance hit when writing incompressible data. Note that the Intel drive was somewhat faster than the OCZ Vertex 3 across the board.
 

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PCMark 7 Storage Benchmarks
We really like PCMark 7's Secondary Storage benchmark module for its pseudo real-world application measurement approach to testing. PCMark 7 offers a trace-based measurement of system response times under various scripted workloads of traditional client / desktop system operation. From simple application start-up performance, to data streaming from a drive in a game engine, and video editing with Windows Movie Maker, we feel more comfortable that these tests reasonably illustrate the performance profile of SSDs in an end-user / consumer PC usage model, more so than a purely synthetic transfer test.

Futuremark's PCMark 7 Secondary Storage
http://www.futuremark.com

The Intel SSD 520 Series drive performance slightly better than the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS, which was the other SandForce-based drive in the mix here. Overall, performance was among the best in the group in every test. Running a pair of Intel SSD 520 drives in a RAID 0 configuration, however, did little for performance according to PCMark 7, save for the application loading test which saw a significant boost in performance.
 

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The Intel SSD 520 series solid state drive performed very well throughout our entire battery of tests. Of course, we’ve already known for some time that drive’s based on SandForce’s SF-2200 series controllers, when paired to synchronous NAND, are some of the fastest available. For the most part, the Intel SSD 520 performs much like other SandForce SF-2200 based drive’s we’ve tested. In some cases it’s somewhat faster and in others, it trails slightly, but the performance deltas were never very dramatic.


The Intel SSD 520 Series

Intel SSD 520 Series solid state drives should be available very soon from OEMs and retailers. Although we have yet to see any actual street prices, Intel’s has set pricing (in 1K quantities) as follows:

  • 60GB - $149
  • 120GB - $229
  • 180GB - $369
  • 240GB - $509
  • 480GB - $999

If street prices approach these levels, the Intel SSD 520 series drives will be significantly more expensive than competitive SandForce-based offerings like the OCZ Vertex 3 or Corsair Force GT at similar capacities. For example, a 240GB Corsair Force GT can be had for $375 currently, or roughly $1.56 per GB. If the Intel SSD 520 series arrives priced around $509, its cost per GB would be approximately $2.12. Looking back at the numbers, it’s impossible to justify such a significant price disparity based on performance alone, but we should point out a few things. Despite some hiccups with a few models, Intel’s solid state drives have proven to be some of the most reliable on the market. Intel also put significant effort into tuning and optimizing the firmware on the SSD 520 series to maximize performance, compatibility, and reliability, which is part of the reason why it’s arriving so much later than other SansForce SF-2200 based drives. And Intel is also offering a 5 year warranty, whereas most competitors in the space offer 3 years.

We’ll have to wait and see where street prices settle on the Intel SSD 520 series drives, but based on what we’ve seen in our testing and what we’ve heard from Intel about this drive, we expect them to be very popular. Performance is very good and if Intel’s design choices and firmware customizations results in more reliable drives (time will tell), ultimately its consumers that win.

 

  • Strong Performance
  • 5 Year Warranty
  • Intel's Track Record For Reliability.

  • Pricing Somewhat High
  • Not any faster than other SandForce-based SSDs



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