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M550 SSD: Evolving Value Into High Performance

The Crucial M550 SSD Review: Striking Back With More Performance
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Our tests show that Crucial's refinements yield tangible performance improvements over the M500 SSD family. Marvell's 88SS9189 controller is responsible for much of this, though an optimized firmware helps make the M550 as fast as the quickest drives available today. The M500 was initially tuned for reliability in the face of a new 20 nm process. Mature manufacturing now makes it possible to turn the dial toward performance without giving up longevity. And so the M550 maintains three-year warranty coverage, even as it exposes more capacity and better benchmark numbers. You are asked to pay more for those privileges, though. Expect a premium of 15 or 20% over the M500's price.

Is the M550 worth that extra cash? Given the volatility of street pricing, it's hard for me to say. After we were told about the M550's higher price, I turned around and looked for good deals on existing M500s. It turns out that you can pick up a 480 GB drive for less than $240 from Crucial's own storefront. The 512 GB M550 goes for almost $340. That's a huge spread. The M550 is wicked-fast, but it's not worth an extra 40%. 

Of course, we're in the throes of post-launch pricing. In a few weeks, it's possible that the gap between M500 and M550 will narrow. We might actually see it shrink to the expected 15 to 20%. But it's hard to evaluate the M550 in the meantime; we just don't know where it's going to end up relative to some very compelling competition. And so we're left to rely on the hard facts, courtesy of Crucial's website.

I'd have no problem recommending the M550 at a slightly higher price than the M500, if only because the new drive gives you extra capacity worth paying for. Take the 512 GB model, for example. That's an extra 32 GB over the 480 GB M500, worth half of a 15% bump, let's say. Superb performance justifies the rest. But a 40% spike is too severe. We'll have to count on this being a temporary state of affairs.

The two lines from Micron’s Consumer Products Group are bound to establish some sort of equilibrium. And maybe it’s not fair to use the M500’s excellent value against the M550’s top-tier performance. But if I'm out shopping for a Crucial SSD, that's exactly the comparison I'm going to make. Fortunately, the M550 is still being introduced well under the M500's prices from last April.  

If you were already considering an M500, the M550 may give you reason to hold off on a purchase. For those of you planning to use one SSD as a boot drive, think about stepping up from the 120 and 240 GB M500s to a 128 or 256 GB M550 as they come down in price. Crucial's decision to swap in 64 Gb dies gives both smaller M550s a massive speed advantage, while shrinking the amount of space gobbled up by RAIN results in more useable space. Every gigabyte is precious on a small boot drive, after all.

I have a harder time pegging the 512 and 1024 GB M550s. Both sell for $100 more than their M500 equivalents, and I personally would put that money into another subsystem able to push performance higher. Crucial is aiming a little too high, possibly pushing enthusiasts into the arms of Samsung's 840 EVO. The triple-level cell-based SSD performs somewhere between the M500 and M550, and that's a good place to be.

Almost assuredly, prices on the M550 will drop once the buzz subsides. Today, though, we have to run with the information we have, and I'm not willing to bet on predicting tomorrow's prices. So let's forget about value for a moment. My takeaway is that Micron's M550 remix is a shot across the bow of other solid-state storage vendors vying for enthusiast attention. The last time we saw Crucial get aggressive in the upper echelon was 2010, when it launched the first SATA 6Gb/s drive, its C300. We're happy to see the company doing business in that space again.

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