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The Crucial M550 SSD Review: Striking Back With More Performance

The Crucial M550 SSD Review: Striking Back With More Performance
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Crucial's M500 brought mainstream performance, enhanced features, and rock-bottom pricing together in one of the most-recommended SSDs of 2013. Following up, Crucial has a refined version called the M550, juiced-up for performance-hungry enthusiasts.

The more time we spent with Crucial's M500, the more we appreciated it. It wasn't super-fast by most accounts, but like the m4 that came before, the M500 helped pull SSD prices down to never-before-seen levels. I remember being particularly happy to see M500s going for about $0.50 per gigabyte.

Samsung's game-changing 840 EVO was the M500's first real competitor, boasting a comparable feature set, a similar price, and stellar performance. Whereas Crucial arms its SSD family with 20 nm NAND capable of storing two bits per cell, the 840 EVO employs three-bit-per-cell flash. At least on paper, Samsung was the one at a disadvantage. However, the company uses a number of techniques to overcome its memory's inherently slower performance. As a result, the M500 and 840 EVO lock horns at the top of most recommendation lists. Just look at the top sellers on Amazon's Internal Solid State Drive page; you'll often see the top eight or nine spots monopolized by Crucial and Samsung.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. Both companies know that driving SSD adoption requires mainstream support, necessitating attractive prices. For Samsung, that means evolving its triple-level cell technology. Crucial, on the other hand, is pushing the benefits of its MLC memory and advanced manufacturing. The pair similarly serves up three-year warranty coverage. But after Samsung introduced the 840 EVO with its Turbo Write feature, essentially creating an internal SLC-like cache to improve write performance, Crucial found itself behind in a number of our benchmark charts.

If you're Crucial one year later, how do you strike back? Where do you go after the M500, already such a compelling piece of hardware? How about adding an even faster option to the portfolio called the M550?

The M550 is mostly the same as the M500. Except, whereas the M500 is clearly a value-oriented play for folks looking to emphasize big solid-state capacities, Crucial's M550 is massaged to serve up higher-end performance. It's built with the same IMFT L85 20 nm flash, on the same PCB, equipped with the same capacitors for power-loss protection, and backed by the same DRAM cache at each capacity point. Physically, the main difference comes down to an evolved controller.

This is the first SSD we've opened up with Marvell's 88SS9189 processor inside. It's an improvement over the M500's 88SS9187, designed with the new realities of storage over SATA in mind. Power management is more advanced through features like DevSlp and lower idle consumption. I suspect that there were some performance-oriented tweaks as well, facilitating the M550's speed-up. 

Crucial maintains the M500's same range of capacities. This time around, however, the company isn't relying on as much over-provisioning (that space was primarily used for a cross-die redundancy feature called RAIN). So, now the advertised sizes are binary. Instead of 120 GB, for example, you get 128 GB. Along the same lines, M550s will also be available in 256, 512, and 1024 GB form.

Crucial M550
128 GB
256 GB
512 GB
1024 GB
Controller
Marvell 88SS9189-BLD2
NAND
64 Gb density, Micron 20 nm L85 ONFi
128 Gb density, Micron 20 nm L85 ONFi
Die Count
16
32
32
64

DRAM
Micron LP DDR3 128 MB
Micron LP DDR3 512 MB
Micron LP DDR3 512 MB
Micron LP DDR3 1024 MB
Max Seq Read/Write (MBs)
550 / 350
550 / 500
Max 4 KB Read/Write (IOps)
90,000/75,000
90,000/80,000
95,000/85,000
Part Number (SATA)
CT128M500SSD1CT256M500SSD1CT512M500SSD1CT1024M500SSD1
Part Number (mSATA)CT128M500SSD3CT256M500SSD3CT512M500SSD3N/A
Part Number (M.2 2280)CT128M500SSD4CT256M500SSD4CT512M500SSD4N/A
Price
$100
$170
$340
$530

That pricing info is manufacturer-suggested. Crucial expects the M550 to retail for 15 to 20% more than the M500, but with the 240 GB M500 selling for just $120 in some stores, I suspect that post-launch pricing will drop quite a bit. Of course, some vendors probably plan to capitalize on the M550's newness at first. And like the M500, M550s will ship in M.2 and mSATA form factors as well. Pricing on those could vary, too. 

A glance further up the specification table suggests some fierce performance claims. One criticism of the M500 was that Crucial should have used 64 Gb dies in the 120 and 240 GB models. Samsung did this with its 830, arming lower-capacity models with 32 Gb die and the largest version with higher-density parts. As such, the smaller drives had more dies for interleaving operations, benefiting their benchmark results. Now Crucial follows suit, so the 128 and 256 GB M550s should behave a lot like the 512 and 1024 GB offerings.

Otherwise, the M550 inherits its predecessor's feature set, including support for encryption standards like Microsoft eDrive, TCG Opal 2.0, and IEEE-1667. Thermal protection is part of the package, as is RAIN, Crucial's NAND parity system for protecting against the failure of a flash element. Without a technology like RAIN, losing just one part of a die could kill an entire SSD.

The M500 couldn't overcome an entire die failure. Fortunately, that's a rare occurrence. It could instead spring back from something less dire like the loss of one plane in a die, recovering in much the same way as a RAID 5 array. We know from talking to engineers at Micron that the M500 used 15 NAND elements to each parity block, meaning one-sixteenth of the drive's flash was reserved for parity information. So, 32 GB of the 480 GB model's on-board flash was set aside.

The M550 gets away with using less spare space. It hits similar reliability targets without the reserved NAND thanks to refinements and knowledge gained from the M500. Back when that SSD surfaced, its 20 nm flash was fairly new, and RAIN was necessary. Purportedly, the M550 achieves its better performance, improves reliability, and lets you hold onto more usable space.

Display 16 Comments.
  • 2 Hide
    ikyung , March 18, 2014 2:44 PM
    Heard rumors of Samsung planning to market the 850 with aggressive pricing this year. Would like to see Crucial and Samsung duke it out in pricing.
  • 1 Hide
    _potts_ , March 18, 2014 2:50 PM
    I just splashed $250 (delivered to Oz) on a M500 480GB mSATA, eh, can't complain.
  • 0 Hide
    cryan , March 18, 2014 3:51 PM
    Quote:
    Heard rumors of Samsung planning to market the 850 with aggressive pricing this year. Would like to see Crucial and Samsung duke it out in pricing.
    They already have IMHO. The Samsung 840 EVO is significantly cheaper than it was at launch. It and the M500 have seemed to move in lockstep. Along the way, we've seen other manufacturers follow suit. Even Intel's 530 series, which has been on the more expensive side of mainstream products has been seen for just $140 for the 240 GB version here in the State.Regards,Christopher Ryan
  • -1 Hide
    venk90 , March 18, 2014 5:16 PM
    INSANELY GOOD DEAL ON AMAZON ! The 512 GB SSD is listed at 169$ incorrectly ! Grab them before they change it. I ordered 20 myself ! Will e-bay all of it or feel bad and return it to Amazon !
  • 3 Hide
    cryan , March 18, 2014 6:53 PM
    Quote:
    I just splashed $250 (delivered to Oz) on a M500 480GB mSATA, eh, can't complain.
    I hope Crucial continues to sell the M500 right where it is. The deals are just too good, and it'd be truly sad were Crucial/Micron to up the price on us.And they're not slow. I know it seems like they're sub par compared to some of the last few drives we've tested, but the reality is most users are never going to notice the speeds between different SSD models. The only exception is jumping from an older SATA II drive to a modern SATA III SSD. Even then, you'd need solid hardware in the system.Regards,Christopher Ryan
  • 0 Hide
    Ankursh287 , March 18, 2014 8:58 PM
    M500 available at $240 (amazon)..damn good drive for the price, performance difference between M500 , M550 & 840/840 pro won't visible to normal user.
  • 0 Hide
    Nada190 , March 18, 2014 10:55 PM
    When I look at SSD's I want price to performance because I won't even notice a difference.
  • 0 Hide
    Drejeck , March 19, 2014 2:56 AM
    Specifically for gaming which would be the best? All sort of tricks are allowed, from tweaks to samsung's magician (ram caching).
  • 0 Hide
    RedJaron , March 19, 2014 12:43 PM
    Quote:
    Of course, we're in the throes of post-launch pricing. In a few weeks, it's possible that the gap between M500 and M500 will narrow.
    Typo on the last page. One of those should be 550.


    Happy to see Crucial with this update. I'm with a lot of people, you don't see a difference in SSD performance outside benchmarks. Give me something reasonably fast with great durability and I'm sold. With all this talk of the maturing of 20nm manufacturing, I'd love to see an M500 V2 with less overprovisioning.
  • 0 Hide
    gizmoguru , March 19, 2014 2:29 PM
    Hay Tom's the chart for Sequential Reads Benchmark is labled "Random Writes", please correct
  • 0 Hide
    mapesdhs , March 19, 2014 7:05 PM
    I notice the PCMark Vantage graph's x-axis does not start at zero. This
    is very bad practice, please don't do it. The visual result is totally misleading.
    It makes the results look more differentiated than they really are.

    Ian.
  • 0 Hide
    game junky , March 20, 2014 6:12 PM
    I have had nothing but good experiences with Crucials M4s so this could be an exciting development depending on how they compete with Samsung. Keep 'em coming, guys
  • 1 Hide
    snakyjake , March 24, 2014 10:40 PM
    In terms of reliability and maintaining data integrity, how does this compare to SanDisk X210?
  • 0 Hide
    f s , March 29, 2014 4:29 AM
    M550 price doesn't match the performance unfortunately, $60 less would have made the difference.
  • 0 Hide
    cryan , April 1, 2014 11:00 PM
    Quote:
    In terms of reliability and maintaining data integrity, how does this compare to SanDisk X210?


    Most data integrity protocols for client/consumer SSDs are centered around maintaining data at rest. That is, once data is written to the flash, you want to minimize and counteract operations which can skew existing data. Things like Read Disturb Management fit this category, where reading one cell can affect the voltages of adjacent cells.

    That said, both drives have three year warranties. Both are made by fabbed SSD manufacturers, both have stakes in NAND foundries. Both use Marvell controllers and custom firmware/PCB packages. When SanDisk updates the X210 with the newer Marvell 9189, it's probably going to be awesome. The X210 is undoubtedly the most underrated drive in circulation. If you can get a good deal on one, it's probably the drive for desktop applications, assuming you want something that's been through its paces. The M550 is too early into its launch to know much about it yet, at least over more than a couple weeks.

    Regards,

    Christopher Ryan
  • 0 Hide
    frank5868 , April 14, 2014 1:24 AM
    Hi, Christopher
    Thanks for the nice review. I have some questions and wondering if you could offer some answers for them:
    Is the drive using AES encryption? 128 bit or 256 bit? How about the "Block cipher mode of action"? Is it ECB? CBC or XTS?
    Please dig as much as possible. I think the readers would be happy to be aware of the mode of action. As well known, the ECB isn't secure but the CBC or XTS is far better.

    Thanks.
    Frank
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