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Crucial M550 Series Solid State Drive Review
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Date: Mar 18, 2014
Section:Storage
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

The solid state storage market continues to be one of the hottest in the PC industry. Over the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen the release of the Intel SSD 730 and the OCZ Vertex 460 series of drives and there are still plenty more on the horizon, as many companies ready products with different capacities, form factors and connectivity options.

Today is Crucial’s turn to make some noise. The long-time memory maker is launching a new line of solid state drives, dubbed the M550 series, targeted at performance-minded, but budget-conscious enthusiasts. The M550 family of drives will be offered in array of form factors, including mSATA and M.2 flavors, but we’ve got a couple of 2.5” SATA models on tap for you here.

Below are the full specs for the Crucial M550 series and a few pics of the 1TB drive that’s been opened up to reveal its internals. We’ll discuss the drive’s performance (along with a 512GB model) on the pages ahead...


Crucial M550 2.5" Solid State Drive

Crucial M550 Series SSD 
Specifications & Features

  • RAIN (Redundant Array of Independent NAND)
  • Low Power Consumption (Device Sleep @ <3mW, Active power @ 150mW)
  • Data Integrity Algorithm—provides four layers of defense against data corruption
  • AES 256-bit Hardware Encryption
  • Meets TCG Opal 2.0 and IEEE-1667 encryption standards
  • Compatible with Microsoft eDrive
  • Adaptive Thermal Monitoring and Protection
  • Supports Device Sleep
  • Power Loss Protection
  • Client Data Path Protection—protects data at rest
  • Active Garbage Collection
  • SMART (Self-Monitoring and Reporting Technology)
  • ECC (Error Correction Code)
  • TRIM Support
  • Price: 1TB ($530 curr) - $99 - $369 128GB - 512GB


From the outside, the Crucial M550 looks just like many of the other 2.5” solid state drives currently on the market. The drive has a slim, 7mm Z-Height (though, an adapter is included in the box to 2mm if necessary), and it is adorned with a couple of decals listing the product family, model number and some other identifying information, but other than that, there’s not much to see.

Whip out your tool-kit and open up the M550 and you’ll find that the drive is built around the tried-and-true Marvell 88SS9189 SATA 6Gbs controller, which has been used by a variety of other SSD manufacturers as well. This particular drive is a 1TB model, and as you can see, the PCB is outfitted with 16 pieces of NAND—or more specifically, 20nm IMFT MLC NAND (all M550 drives features 20nm, 64Gb or 128Gb NAND)—and a bit of DRAM cache as well.

All of Crucial’s M550 drives are outfitted fitted with an LP DDR2 DRAM cache. This 1TB drive has 1GB of cache memory, though the lower capacity 128GB - 512GB drives have 512MB.

 

The Crucial M550 series of drives are rated for 550MB/s sequential reads with 500MB/s writes (350MB/s on the 128GB drive) and random read and write IOPS of 90K – 95K and 75K – 85K, respectively. All of the drives support technologies like SMART and TRIM, and have built-in AES 256-bit encryption capabilities. In addition, Crucial’s custom firmware supports active garbage collection, data path protection, and adaptive thermal monitoring, along with RAIN support (Redundant Array of Independent NAND). RAIN can be considered somewhat of an internal RAID 5-type solution that works across the flash channels in the drive. With RAIN, the M550 can recover lost data beyond page, block, and die-level failures, to ensure long-term data integrity.
 

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Test Setup, IOMeter 1.1 RC

Our Test Methodologies: Under each test condition, the Solid State Drives tested here were installed as secondary volumes in our testbed, with a separate drive used for the OS and benchmark installations. Out testbed's motherboard was updated with the latest BIOS available as of press time and AHCI (or RAID) mode was enabled. The SSDs were secure erased prior to testing, and left blank without partitions for some tests, while others required them to be partitioned and formatted, as is 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, ensured all temp and prefetch data was purged, and waited several minutes for drive activity to settle and for the system to reach an idle state before invoking a test.

HotHardware Test System
Intel Core i7 and SSD Powered

Processor -

Motherboard -


Video Card -

Memory -

Audio -

Storage -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Core i7-4770K

Gigabyte Z87X-UD7 TH
(Z87 Chipset, AHCI Enabled)

Intel HD 4600

8GB G.SKILL DDR3-1600

Integrated on board

Corsair Force GT (OS Drive)
AData XPG SX900 (256GB) 
Samsung SSD 840 EVO (250GB)
Intel SSD 730 (480GB)
OCZ Vertex 460 (240GB)
Crucial M550 (550GB / 1TB)

OS -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-


Relevant Software:
Windows 8.1 Pro x64
Intel 9.4.0.1027, iRST 12.8.0.1016
DirectX 11

Intel HD 10.18.10.33

Benchmarks Used:
IOMeter 1.1.0 RC
HD Tune v5.50
ATTO v2.47
AS SSD
CrystalDiskMark v3.0.3 x64
PCMark 7
SiSoftware Sandra 2014

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 reliable 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 can't with most other storage benchmark tools available currently.

In the following tables, we're showing two sets of access patterns; our custom Workstation pattern, with an 8K transfer size, 80% reads (20% writes) and 80% random (20% sequential) access and a 4K access pattern with a 4K transfer size, comprised of 67% reads (34% writes) and 100% random access.

Both of the Crucial M550 series drives we tested offered competitive performance in IOMeter, and hung right with some of the highest-performance drives we've tested with both access patterns.

In terms of total bandwidth, the Crucial M550 outpaced all of the other drives, save for the recently released Intel SSD 730 series.
 

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SANDRA and ATTO Disk Benchmark

Next we ran SiSoft SANDRA 2014, the the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. Here, we used the Physical Disk test suite and provide the results from our comparison SSDs. The benchmarks were run on unformatted drives and read and write performance metrics are detailed below.

SiSoft SANDRA 2014
Synthetic HDD Benchmarking

 

The Crucial M550 put up some of the best read and write scores we've seen in the SiSoft SANDRA physical disk benchmark.

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

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.

All of the drives we tested offered competitive performance in the ATTO Disk Benchmark, though the M550 drives put up some of the better write scores of the group with block sizes ranging from 4K - 64K.
 

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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 v5.50
More Info Here: http://www.hdtune.com



The new Crucial M550 series drives offered up some of the better access times and write scores in HD Tune, though read performance trailed some of the other drives by a fair margin.
 
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CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks

CrystalDiskMark is a synthetic benchmark that tests both sequential and random small and mid-sized file transfers using incompressible data. 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 Crucial M550 series drives finished at, or very near, the top of the charts in the various CrystalDiskMark tests. The drives performed especially well in the 4K QD32 tests.
 
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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



The compressibility of data has no effect on the performance of the Crucial M550 drives. Whether pushing highly compressible or nearly incompressible data, the drives offered high performance in this benchmark.
 
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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

Though the Crucial M550 series drives finished at the bottom in terms of overall PCMarks, keep in mind there is only a roughly 2.2% delta separating the "fastest" and "slowest" drives here.  If you look at the individual scores, the M550's actually offered class-leading performance in the starting applications test, the deltas separating the drives in the remaining tests are quite small.
 

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Our Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: We can’t speak to the lower-capacity drives in the series, but the Crucial M550 1TB and 512GB 2.5” drives we tested here offered strong performance, virtually across the board. The drives performed particularly well with 4K transfers, especially at higher queue depths. Sequential reads and writes were also among the best we’ve seen in a variety of tests, access times were very good, and performance remained consistent regardless of the compressibility of data being transferred.


The Crucial M550 Series Solid State Drives In Various Form Factors,
Find Them At Amazon.Com

The Crucial M550 series may be somewhat of an evolution of the manufacturer’s M500 series of solid state drives which were released last year, but that doesn’t make them any less attractive in our opinion. The drives use a controller that has proven to be reliable and overall performance is very good in light of competing drives.

Crucial has set the MSRPs for the 128GB M550 at $99, the 256GB drive at $168.9, the 512GB drive at $336.99, and the 1TB model at $530.99. Though we expect street prices to drift downward once availability ramps up, even at those MSRPs the M550 series falls squarely into affordable territory. The lower capacity drives aren’t quite as attractive in terms of cost per GB (at roughly $0.67 - $0.77 per GB), but the higher capacity drives, like the 1TB model which is only about $0.52 per GB, are competitively priced, especially considering their performance.

Our experience with the Crucial M550 512GB and 1TB drives was very good and we think they’ll serve users well. If you’re in the market for a solid state drive, the Crucial M550 series should absolutely be on your short-list of potential candidates.

  • Strong Performance
  • Competitive Pricing
  • Minimal Bundle (no mounting adapter or cloning software)



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