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Not Just Another SandForce SSD

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


MSRP
Market Price
Channel Price (1000 Units)
Intel SSD 520 60 GB
?
?
$149
Intel SSD 520 120 GB
?
?
$229
Intel SSD 520 240 GB
?
?
$509
OCZ Vertex 3 60 GB
$160
$105
-
OCZ Vertex 3 120 GB
$300
$190-
OCZ Vertex 3 240 GB
$525$350
-


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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  • -8 Hide
    Anonymous , February 6, 2012 3:04 PM
    Hmmm, maybe I missed a good excuse, but I'd like to see the Octane in these tests.
  • 2 Hide
    phamhlam , February 6, 2012 3:11 PM
    I love Intel SSD. 128GB for about $210 isn't bad. It is just hard to not chose something like a Corsair GT 120GB that cost $150 with rebate over this. I would always put a Intel SSD in a computer for novice since it is reliable.
  • 3 Hide
    thessdreview , February 6, 2012 3:32 PM
    Nice Review!
  • 0 Hide
    jaquith , February 6, 2012 3:59 PM
    Nice article :) 

    Just need more SSD's to compare, I'd like to see similar tests done with 120GB...180GB...256GB and several more brands. Further, as I mentioned before in the other article please list the exact model numbers and OEM specs including their 4KB IOPS; otherwise folks don't understand the results and if relying on this a purchasing will have in many cases a 4 in 5 chance of selecting the wrong SSD.

    Prior article - http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/sata-6gbps-performance-sata-3gbps,3110.html
  • -3 Hide
    theuniquegamer , February 6, 2012 3:59 PM
    costly but i think reliability comes at a price. These ssds are best for enterprises . If the price will be little lower then the common user can afford these and get a good reliable ssd.
  • 1 Hide
    danraies , February 6, 2012 5:55 PM
    These prices are lower than I thought. $20-$40 extra (depending on the comparison) for peace-of-mind is not outrageous.
  • 2 Hide
    acku , February 6, 2012 6:02 PM
    carn1xHmmm, maybe I missed a good excuse, but I'd like to see the Octane in these tests.


    We didn't have the Octane on hand in the 256 GB capacity, but we'll be sure to make that side by side comparison down the road.

    phamhlamI love Intel SSD. 128GB for about $210 isn't bad. It is just hard to not chose something like a Corsair GT 120GB that cost $150 with rebate over this. I would always put a Intel SSD in a computer for novice since it is reliable.


    Excellent point. Price is always a fickle thing.

    thessdreviewNice Review!

    Thanks Les. :) 

    jaquithNice article Just need more SSD's to compare, I'd like to see similar tests done with 120GB...180GB...256GB and several more brands. Further, as I mentioned before in the other article please list the exact model numbers and OEM specs including their 4KB IOPS; otherwise folks don't understand the results and if relying on this a purchasing will have in many cases a 4 in 5 chance of selecting the wrong SSD. Prior article - http://www.tomshardware.com/review [...] ,3110.html


    We'll keep that mind for future reviews. However, we already list model and firmware on the test page.

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware.com
  • 6 Hide
    willard , February 6, 2012 6:03 PM
    bildo123Getting out of standby on my HDD is a matter of seconds.

    And with an SSD, your computer comes out of standby faster than your monitors do. Not kidding.
  • 7 Hide
    mrkdilkington , February 6, 2012 6:08 PM
    Anyone else disappointed Intel isn't producing their own high end chipset? Been waiting to upgrade my X25-M for a while now (Intel 320 isn't a big upgrade) but might just go with Samsung.
  • 0 Hide
    boletus , February 6, 2012 6:49 PM
    Good to see Intel throw its hat into the ring for the prosumer market. We should be able to expect performance and out-of-the-box functionality (as opposed to theoretical endurance) for the amount of money these devices cost. As the article repeatedly infers, this has not always been the case to date (although the last year has seen some major kinks worked out). Competition at the mid to upper end of the market will lead to higher expectations.
  • 1 Hide
    universalremonster , February 7, 2012 12:26 AM
    Quote:
    Anyone else disappointed Intel isn't producing their own high end chipset? Been waiting to upgrade my X25-M for a while now (Intel 320 isn't a big upgrade) but might just go with Samsung.


    Yes, I'm with you on that one. I've had an Intel 320 128Gb SSD for quite some time now and have nothing but the greatest things to say about my particular experience with it. I purposely held off from buying the Marvell controller 510 in hopes that the next refresh would have a new Intel made 6Gb controller. One thing I am curious about, does the new 520 still have the Intel Toolbox software with it? I have gotten alot of use out of it with my current drive and would really hate to not have it on a new one.
  • 0 Hide
    acku , February 7, 2012 12:29 AM
    universalremonsterYes, I'm with you on that one. I've had an Intel 320 128Gb SSD for quite some time now and have nothing but the greatest things to say about my particular experience with it. I purposely held off from buying the Marvell controller 510 in hopes that the next refresh would have a new Intel made 6Gb controller. One thing I am curious about, does the new 520 still have the Intel Toolbox software with it? I have gotten alot of use out of it with my current drive and would really hate to not have it on a new one.


    You can use the Toolbox software with the SSD 520. It will however not work with other SF drives.

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware.com
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , February 7, 2012 12:47 AM
    Andrew, could you please comment on the encryption capabilities of the new drive. Does it support AES encryption like the Intel 320? Is there an option for pre-boot? Thanks in advance!
  • 2 Hide
    compton , February 7, 2012 3:03 AM
    Andrew,

    Your SSD investigations/reviews/history lessons are Tier 1.


    But I always get curious when Intel starts on and on about how it has the best NAND around. It's not that I even doubt them when they say this, but AFAIK Intel/Micron/IMFT are made and binned in the same place.

    IMFT is supposed to be 49% Intel and 51% Micron-owned. Now both companies' own drives are stocked with what I presume is the best available NAND at that price point, but how did Intel get the reputation of having better NAND? (and if I'm honest, there is at least some evidence that it does). Micron doesn't run around talking up their NAND as much as they should, and this makes me think that the details of the IMFT arrangement are probably pretty strange. In a blind taste test, they taste pretty similar.

    But not all Micron NAND is created equal, nor is Intel's (for example, does Kingston really get Intel's top shelf shtuff?). The IMFT NAND used in so many drives today runs the gamut from fantastic down to mediocre, only one step above Hynix's too-dirty-for-television flash. I'm probably the one person on this planet that wants to know more about Intel, Micron, and their bastard love child, IMFT.
  • 0 Hide
    nikorr , February 7, 2012 4:15 AM
    So, does this SandForce's SF-2281 controller has the bug as well?

    Or it is already fixed?

    Or they have replaced it with a new version?
  • 0 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , February 7, 2012 6:11 AM
    nikorrSo, does this SandForce's SF-2281 controller has the bug as well?

    As far as Anand can tell... no.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/5508/intel-ssd-520-review-cherryville-brings-reliability-to-sandforce


    Intel's SF2281 implementation seems to be stable, and BSOD free.

  • 1 Hide
    DjEaZy , February 7, 2012 8:38 AM
    ... my OCZ Vertex 3 is still strong...
  • 0 Hide
    triny , February 7, 2012 9:00 AM
    I have a crucial 128 my next will be Samsung
  • 2 Hide
    TEAMSWITCHER , February 7, 2012 11:44 AM
    Thank you for the OS X benchmarks! There are real differences between Windows 7 and OS X and having these benchmarks helps Mac users make better upgrade decisions.
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