Intel is still playing by the 2014 playbook, re-purposing datacenter technology to fit your desktop and budget. This time, the company is reaching for its top-shelf controller technology to guarantee a winner.
Despite Samsung's enthusiastic claim of offering the first consumer-orientated NVMe SSD, Intel ends up with the checkered flag. PCIe-based SSDs represent the pinnacle of storage performance. But in the seven years since Fusion-io released its ioDrive, few native PCIe-based solid-state drives have surfaced. The enterprise segment, where the ioDrive resides, prioritizes performance over cost. The rest of us live in a world where $5000 PCs (much less single components) are rare.
The enterprise drives storage with large R&D budgets, and desktop derivatives often follow with less aggressive specifications. Intel and its competitors already have NVMe products in datacenters. They're so fast that we often find them in cache systems as tier 0.
Intel's SSD 750 is a client-oriented high-performance SSD based on the same controller used in the DC 3700/3600/3500 families. This latest series was designed for use in workstation environments or enthusiasts who demand the best possible storage experience. The 750 Series utilizes Non-Volatile Memory Express technology to deliver exceptional performance with low system resource overhead. Given the pedigree and feature set, you don't even need to ask if the SSD 750 is fast. Do you need to ask a Lamborghini owner if his car is quick?
The half- and full-height cards offer more surface area than a 2.5" drive to mount components, which is good because Intel's third-generation controller with NVMe optimization uses more channels to the flash than typical eight-channel processors in this space. The performance comes from reading and writing to 18 flash packages at one time on the 1.2TB model we're testing today. Intel does manage to stuff these components into a 2.5" version with stacked PCBs as well, but the add-in card with its larger surface cooling area requires less airflow to keep the drive happy.
Intel released the SSD 750 Series in two form factors and two capacity sizes for a total of four product SKUs. Most will purchase this drive in its traditional half-height half-length (HHHL) PCIe card form factor. As mentioned, Intel also has a 2.5" 15mm model (SFF-8639 connector) for system integrators to use in small form factor designs. The two capacity sizes could be somewhat contentious: 400GB and 1.2TB. The 750 Series suffers a wide gap in pricing between the 400GB ($389) and 1.2TB ($1029) models. We would love to see an 800GB version fill this space at less than $800. The 750 Series ships with a half-height and full-height adapter bracket, as well as USB media with the drivers and Intel's SSD Toolbox utility software. Both capacities should be available by the end of April 2015.
Under the large heat sink is the same third-gen controller modified for NVMe. It employs 18 channels to read and write to the flash. The low-overheard command set paired with the large number of channels and Intel's 20nm MLC ONFi NAND flash delver sequential read performance at up to 2400 MB/s. It's difficult to say that with a straight face; I feel the corners of my lips pressing against my ears. The SSD 750 Series doesn't let up when it comes to sequential writes either, at least on the 1.2TB model. Intel claims 1200 MB/s sequential write performance. The 400GB model purportedly achieves 2200 MB/s sequential reads and 900 MB/s sequential writes. Those numbers remain aggressive, even though the 400GB model only uses half as many channels to the flash.
Intel claims 4KB random read performance just shy of a half a million IOPS (440,000 to be precise, though at this level, who's counting?). The 4KB random write IOPS peak at 290,000. The 400GB model is nearly as fast with random data: 430,000 read IOPS and 230,000 in writes.
Normally, when enterprise components make the transition to the desktop, issues arise due to heat and power consumption. The Intel SSD 750 Series didn't have any problems in these areas during our testing. We reached out to Intel to find out what process node the controller was built on, but the company wants to keep that information private. Still, we asked because the 750's controller is the coolest NVMe-capable processor we've tested to date. With moderate airflow in your system, the drive remains cool, even under heavy loads. The 2.5" model requires three times the cooling capacity due to its smaller form factor and more compact design.
At idle, the 750 Series products consume just 4W of power. That jumps to 25W under heavy load. The consumption is more than a typical SATA-based SSD, but the power to IOPS ratio is very good. Compared to SATA-based products, the SSD 750 is four times faster at peak performance.
The Intel 750 Series is covered by a five-year warranty and is rated at 70GB written per day.