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Not Just Another SandForce SSD

Intel SSD 520 Review: Taking Back The High-End With SandForce

New performance-oriented SSDs are almost always compared to drives based on SandForce's technology, a result of consistently good performance from its first- and second-gen controller hardware. Up until now, the problem has been that so many SSD vendors are using its controllers, trying to differentiate on price, that sometimes mistakes happen and problems crop up. Though they seem to be addressable via fairly simple firmware updates, if three or four different SandForce-based models ship with issues that need to be corrected, the common denominator becomes SandForce. 

Now that Intel is in the company's camp too, it has to be hoping that the SandForce brand becomes as synonymous with reliability as it already is with performance. 

And how about Intel's implementation, specifically? Representatives made it a point that they had worked long and hard on custom firmware, though the effects of that effort aren't immediately apparent. What we can say, however, is that the 60 and 240 GB SSD 520s we tested perform right on par with OCZ's Vertex 3, the first SF-2281-based drive we tested almost a year ago.

At the same time, Intel must now contend against the legion of other vendors peddling drives based on similar technology. Not surprisingly, it's playing the reliability hand, arming its SSD 520 drives with top-bin NAND flash from IMFT and emphasizing its faith in the product with an unmatched five-year warranty. Intel's big opportunity is combining familiar second-gen SandForce controller performance with typical Intel reliability. It joins OWC as one of the only companies offering such long-term warranty protection on prosumer-oriented SF-2281-based SSDs.

But the highest bin of flash memory costs more, as does guaranteeing a piece of hardware for two or three years longer than the competition. Other vendors rely on SandForce's RAISE technology to maintain data integrity, even as they use NAND world's equivalent of well liquor to mix up your SSD. And they're able to push prices down as a result.

The question then becomes: would you rather pay a premium for high-quality NAND, more confidence-inspiring warranty coverage, and Intel's support structure, or do you have enough faith in SandForce's controller technology to compensate for the use of lesser memory at a lower price point?

This could go either way for many people. When cost is a top concern, paying less for something that should work trouble-free for years is the smart way to go. Conversely, personal data is important enough that we'd be willing to pay for a higher probability of long-term reliability. Remember that Intel isn't impervious to problems with its SSDs either, and we've reported on numerous issues that required firmware fixes over the years. The hope, however, is that a now-mature controller and higher-quality components get you as close as possible to a trouble-free experience. Only time will tell if that holds true.

How much more will you need to pay for Intel's take on SandForce's technology? Here's what we know so far:

Market Price
Channel Price (1000 Units)
Intel SSD 520 60 GB
Intel SSD 520 120 GB
Intel SSD 520 240 GB
OCZ Vertex 3 60 GB
OCZ Vertex 3 120 GB
OCZ Vertex 3 240 GB

In short, we need to see where these drives fall when they start shipping. But we're certainly ready for a SandForce-based SSD free of catastrophic bugs that require quick firmware patches. Let's hope Intel is up to the task. Oh, and a special thanks to the folks at Crucial for getting us some last-minute memory to help with our Mac OS X-based tests.

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