Intel SSD 545s Review

Intel has a slew of new products planned that demonstrate the power of new memory technologies. The 545s is the first consumer model with new 64-layer NAND. The 545s targets the mainstream category where SATA still dominates the landscape. Intel's new second-generation 64-layer 3D NAND should be faster than the previous 32-layer NAND. That gives Intel a fighting chance to take down the Samsung 850 EVO that has dominated the mainstream category for several years.

At Computex, we snapped this rare picture of IMFT's second-generation 3D NAND. The new 3-bit per cell (TLC) NAND caught us by surprise. We expected to hear that IMFT progressed to a 768Gbit die, which is double the density over the first-generation 3D. Instead, the new 64-layer 3D NAND loses bits but provides increased density. The increased density comes via increased layers and IMFT's CMOS Under the Array (CuA) technology, which places the control circuitry under the storage array instead of on the periphery of the die.

We've been very critical of IMFT's floating gate 3D NAND. We've tested both the 256Gbit MLC and 384Gbit TLC variants, but we haven't seen either paired with a powerful controller. The flash started off on shaky ground. Ballistix, a division of Micron, announced and then canceled the TX3, which was supposed to be the first SSD with the new NAND.

The situation went from shaky to full-on earthquake when the Crucial MX300 and Intel 600p arrived. Both drives exhibited high latency under load. The MX300's first firmware revision suffered latency issues that extended beyond the extreme category. It broke time-based desktop-class benchmarks that even hard disk drives navigate with ease. Firmware improvements helped tame the latency, but neither Intel or Micron delivered a retail 32-layer 3D NAND SSD that competes with Samsung's V-NAND arsenal. They even lag behind Phison E7-based SSDs with Toshiba's 15nm planar NAND.

The companies never confirmed the source of the latency challenges. We suspect that issues in the flash and controller were working together to reduce performance. The controller is easier to explain, so we'll start there. On the consumer SATA side, we've only seen IMFT's first generation 3D NAND paired with four-channel Marvell and SMI controllers. Neither controller has more than two or three low-power cores. We think the limited computational horsepower started a chain reaction that exacerbated 384Gbit NAND's large page and block sizes.

Writing data to NAND is a complicated process. The controller reads the existing data, adds new data, and then writes the changes back to the media. Larger chunks of data lengthen the read, write, modify process. We're talking about very small increases in time, but it adds up. It's like saving your pocket change for a year. It's just a few cents per day, but in time it becomes a sizable amount.

The new 256Gbit die shrinks the pages and blocks to more traditional sizes used by other NAND manufacturers. The new die size also allows the SSD controller to utilize all available channels to the flash. In some cases, the previous generation's odd 384Gbit die resulted in fewer populated channels. For instance, the Intel 600p only leverages six of the controller's eight available channels. Let's find out if IMFT's new 256Gbit 3D TLC puts Intel back in the game.

Specifications

The Intel 545s comes to market in several capacities that range from 128GB to 2TB. We're testing the 512GB model that uses four NAND packages. Each package contains four die. The new NAND allows the series to reach up to 550/500 MB/s of sequential read/write throughput. Intel claims that random performance weighs in at 75,000 IOPS/85,000 read/write IOPS. The high write speed comes courtesy of the SLC buffer. Intel will use the same 256Gbit die for all 545s models even though a larger 512Gbit die will come to market later this year.

During our testing, we observed high sequential write throughput even when the workload saturates the SLC buffer. That tendency leads us to believe this controller uses a direct-to-die write algorithm to prevent a significant drop off in sequential write performance. This is the first time we've seen the feature on a Silicon Motion, Inc. (SMI) controller.

The Intel 545s uses Intel's custom firmware and an SMI SM2259 controller that is similar to the SM2258 found in the Adata Ultimate SU800 and other SSDs on the market. The controller has some hardware changes, but we haven't locked down what makes the SM2259 different from the older SM2258. We suspect it may have a higher clock speed.

We've already discussed the NAND, but we should note this is the first consumer SSD with new 64-layer TLC. Intel already announced enterprise SSDs using the technology. We expect to see a 600p replacement come to market in the next month or so under the 610p name.

Pricing, Warranty, And Endurance

Intel only released pricing details for the 512GB 545s that we're testing. The drive will appear at Newegg when this review hits the web. The 545s carries an MSRP of $179.

The 545 Series comes backed by a five-year limited warranty. The "limited" stipulation stems from the endurance rating. Each capacity has a different endurance specification. The 512GB model we're testing today has a TBW rating of 288TB.

Packaging

The SSD 545s 512GB's packaging is standard issue for Intel. There is very little information on the box other than the 5-Series branding. Intel will add another sticker on the retail box with the model information, capacity, and other details.

A Closer Look

Intel designed a new case for the 545s Series. This is the first completely new case design for Intel's consumer SSDs since the early drives came to market.

Inside the case, we found the custom SMI controller with Intel firmware, a single DDR3 DRAM package, and four NAND packages armed with 64-layer NAND. The components reside on a small PCB that only occupies a portion of the case.

MORE: Best SSDs

MORE: How We Test HDDs And SSDs

MORE: All SSD Content

Create a new thread in the US Reviews comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
30 comments
Comment from the forums
    Your comment
  • hannibal
    Good that other makers Are gaining Samsung! Intel will newer go price war with Samsung because it does not have to. It can always sell a Little bit slover at the same price or even higher, because Intel have very good reputation among users and exspecially corporates. But this means than Sansung does not get everything too easily anymore and other ssd makers will definitely cut down under Samsung, if They just have a chance.
    So competition is coming back to SSD Also! Also in higher level not only on very low end.
  • AgentLozen
    It's a shame that a big, well known company like Intel can't develop an SSD that beats a 2 year old competitor.

    What's important to keep in mind is that all modern SSDs are pushing against the SATA bandwidth cap. The benchmarks from this review indicate that every SSD tested performs pretty much the same in real world benchmarks.

    The most important variables right now (in SATA drives) are endurance and price. 3D flash memory should provide enough endurance for any mainstream user, but I would like to see the prices go down. I know we're in the middle of a flash shortage, but I was hoping that by 2017 we would have 1TB drives that cost $200.
  • derekullo
    The Real-World Software Performance must have been exceptionally boring to benchmark.

    Wow opened in ... omg 58 seconds again.
  • nzalog
    Anonymous said:
    It's a shame that a big, well known company like Intel can't develop an SSD that beats a 2 year old competitor.

    What's important to keep in mind is that all modern SSDs are pushing against the SATA bandwidth cap. The benchmarks from this review indicate that every SSD tested performs pretty much the same in real world benchmarks.

    The most important variables right now (in SATA drives) are endurance and price. 3D flash memory should provide enough endurance for any mainstream user, but I would like to see the prices go down. I know we're in the middle of a flash shortage, but I was hoping that by 2017 we would have 1TB drives that cost $200.


    I don't think anyone looking for top performance is going to get a Sata SSD and intel is doing just fine in their NVME PCIE drives. I'd still buy an intel drive over Samsung even if it performed a bit slower.
  • DerekA_C
    Ya you do that support the Intel agenda that breaks laws all over the world just like Microsucks and gets a slap on the wrist and business for them continues as usual while others struggle to make even a proper market share due to their devilish practices.
  • DerekA_C
    also if manufacturers pushed for this on motherboards sata would be more then fast enough
    SATA revision 3.2 16 Gbit/s 1.97 GB/s[e]
    SATA revision 3.0 6 Gbit/s 600 MB/s[72]
  • sillynilly
    What? Borderline incoherent.
  • derekullo
    Nothing like a japanese to english google translate bashing.
  • nzalog
    Anonymous said:
    Ya you do that support the Intel agenda that breaks laws all over the world just like Microsucks and gets a slap on the wrist and business for them continues as usual while others struggle to make even a proper market share due to their devilish practices.


    I'm not sure if that was directed towards me but I'm pretty sure Samsung doesn't scores much better on the ethics scale.
  • jtd871
    "2TB of flash ready to hold a Steam Library" This seems a bit overkill because 1) an Optane cache can reputedly make cheap and reliable "spinning rust" sing and 2) who keeps 2TB of games on local storage just in case they might want to play any random one of them?! (Or is that just Skyrim with all the mods? j/k)
  • Nintendork
    So the only alternative to 850 EVO is the Kingston Hyper X Savage MLC.
  • gamebrigada
    @NZALOG I wouldn't buy Intel. As someone that works in a department that has a couple thousand SSD's in service, Samsung can't be touched in reliability. I've got a bunch of dead Intel drives on my desk. I don't have any dead Samsung drives, and we have more of them in service now then any other SSD.

    Especially with the recently released endurance test... Samsungs cheapest offering, the 750 EVO's, outlived most of the midrange and prosumer level drives. Their 850 PRO wrote 9.1 Petabytes before it gave up. That's the second wave of endurance tests where Samsung is untouchable. Yet Intel's drives are still plagued by the widely documented, yet still unfixed 8mb bug.

    Intel doesn't even make the thing, for this drive, and the 540, they just made the case, and everything else was outsourced. Why are you still loyal to a company that's claim to fame was back when it rivaled OCZ with SLC nand? They've already given up on NAND, stop giving them business and letting them throw shit products at you.
  • bit_user
    Glad to see the progress over the 540. That was shockingly bad, IMO. I've bought to prior Intel SATA drives and was about to swear off them after seeing its numbers. This has regained my interest.

    Quote:
    I would only use Intel SSDs if reliability were my main concern.

    Only the ones with end-to-end error correction, IMO.

    http://ark.intel.com/Search/FeatureFilter?productType=solidstatedrives&EndToEndDataProtection=true

    Also, the 600p seriously had me questioning my loyalty to Intel SSDs. Even just as far as reliability is concerned.
  • Co BIY
    With all the Real World Performance scores within a few percent of each other I think this chart needs a Value (performance/price) graph.
  • bit_user
    Anonymous said:
    @NZALOG I wouldn't buy Intel. As someone that works in a department that has a couple thousand SSD's in service, Samsung can't be touched in reliability. I've got a bunch of dead Intel drives on my desk. I don't have any dead Samsung drives, and we have more of them in service now then any other SSD.

    That's interesting, but I think it's potentially a mistake to lump together all drives from a manufacturer. Intel makes high-end/professional drives, as well as mainstream and even low-end. If the low-end drives were used where they shouldn't have been, I wouldn't blame Intel for that.

    Anonymous said:
    Especially with the recently released endurance test... Samsungs cheapest offering, the 750 EVO's, outlived most of the midrange and prosumer level drives. Their 850 PRO wrote 9.1 Petabytes before it gave up. That's the second wave of endurance tests where Samsung is untouchable.

    SSD endurance is a moving target. I wouldn't infer anything about the 850 Pro for drives other than the 850 Pro. It's is a nice feather in their cap.

    Anonymous said:
    Intel doesn't even make the thing, for this drive, and the 540, they just made the case, and everything else was outsourced.

    I don't care if they didn't design the controller - no different than most drives. They do have custom firmware, no?
  • bit_user
    Anonymous said:
    also if manufacturers pushed for this on motherboards sata would be more then fast enough
    SATA revision 3.2 16 Gbit/s 1.97 GB/s[e]
    SATA revision 3.0 6 Gbit/s 600 MB/s[72]

    You'd do well to look into the details, rather than just posting up the top-line numbers. That's for SATA Express, and would require two data cables per drive.

    Not, that I'd mind the option to have 1 GB/sec per drive, with only one cable. But it hasn't caught on with motherboards (besides AMD) or SSD vendors.

    I'd be nice if they updated it for PCIe 4.0 and we got 2 GB/sec with a single cable, as I do like the ability to use a greater number of larger SSDs and mount them in my case (as opposed to having only a couple M.2 drives plugged into my motherboard).
  • bit_user
    Anonymous said:
    It's a shame that a big, well known company like Intel can't develop an SSD that beats a 2 year old competitor.

    You need to account for price per GB, though.

    Anonymous said:
    What's important to keep in mind is that all modern SSDs are pushing against the SATA bandwidth cap.

    That was true years ago. Starting with the previous generation of SATA SSDs (Crucial MX300, Intel 540, etc.), they actually had lower performance than their predacessors. It's nice to see Intel's 545 regain some ground.

    Anonymous said:
    intel is doing just fine in their NVME PCIE drives. I'd still buy an intel drive over Samsung even if it performed a bit slower.

    I wouldn't touch Intel's 600p. Go checkout the review & follow-up articles, if you haven't seen them.
  • nzalog
    Anonymous said:

    Anonymous said:
    intel is doing just fine in their NVME PCIE drives. I'd still buy an intel drive over Samsung even if it performed a bit slower.

    I wouldn't touch Intel's 600p. Go checkout the review & follow-up articles, if you haven't seen them.

    I actually have a 250GB 600p and yeah it's not the best drive. Part of the issue was how quickly the controller gets saturated with heat and the other part was excremental write speeds. That said, I made a nice home for it in my FreeNAS box as a L2ARC (kind of like read cache). Since for that purpose the writes trickle in slowly while read are most intensive. I also slapped a nice heatsink on it and so far so good.

    Either way I'd still take that NVME drive over a sata drive. It's pretty decent for one of the slower NVME drives.
  • darth_adversor
    Nice review, but the author makes me feel like a piece of crap for still running SATA drives. My desktop is an aging, Z68-based machine that doesn't support NVMe (at least not officially). I've got a 250GB 850 EVO paired with a 1TB WD Black, and I'm pleased with its performance. Battlefront load times are a little longer than I'd prefer (off the mechanical drive), but still twice as fast as a stock PS4's. Windows flies on the SSD, I can't imagine needing anything faster.

    Same story with the laptop my wife recently surprised me with. It shipped with a Sandisk X400 128GB. I didn't feel like reinstalling Windows, so I decided to keep the Sandisk installed, and added my 500GB 850 EVO as the secondary storage drive. I'm super pleased with its performance.

    If you can afford a 960 Pro, more power to you, but in my opinion, you can still be an "enthusiast" and run SATA drives.
  • derekullo
    Anonymous said:
    Nice review, but the author makes me feel like a piece of crap for still running SATA drives. My desktop is an aging, Z68-based machine that doesn't support NVMe (at least not officially). I've got a 250GB 850 EVO paired with a 1TB WD Black, and I'm pleased with its performance. Battlefront load times are a little longer than I'd prefer (off the mechanical drive), but still twice as fast as a stock PS4's. Windows flies on the SSD, I can't imagine needing anything faster.

    Same story with the laptop my wife recently surprised me with. It shipped with a Sandisk X400 128GB. I didn't feel like reinstalling Windows, so I decided to keep the Sandisk installed, and added my 500GB 850 EVO as the secondary storage drive. I'm super pleased with its performance.

    If you can afford a 960 Pro, more power to you, but in my opinion, you can still be an "enthusiast" and run SATA drives.


    Your message reminded me of:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpMvS1Q1sos
    http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/weirdalyankovic/itsallaboutthepentiums.html

    On a separate note the highest capacity the Samsung 960 Pro comes in is 2 terabytes meaning that with 3 M.2 ports the most capacity your computer could have would be 6 terabytes in a raid 0, with close to 10 gigabytes a second of theoretical read throughput which is ... impressive.

    Edit: I believe 3 M.2 is the highest I have seen on any motherboard so far, correct me if I'm wrong.

    On the other hand the size of the 850 Evos go up to 4 terabytes and you aren't limited to 3.

    So SATA does have at least one advantage over NVME/M.2 if you were trying to store more than 6 terabytes of data.