Skip to main content

Intel SSD 510-Series 250 GB Review: Adopting 6 Gb/s SATA

Intel Relinquishes The High-End

Back when Intel launched its first-gen X25-M, the company really validated solid-state storage as an option for enthusiasts. Up until that point, SSDs were neat, expensive toys that power users with money to blow installed for bragging rights. The X25-M was still pricey, but it was at least within reach for anyone building a Core i7-based workstation—the exact market Intel wanted to conquer.

I specifically remember sitting in on its briefing at IDF 2008, where representatives told us outright that what it had seen from SSDs up until that point was insufficient enough to compel the company’s engineers to create its own controller. The X25-M was, at the time, the best-performing SSD we had ever tested (Intel’s X25-M Solid State Drive Reviewed), its 10-channel architecture based on multi-level cell NAND running faster than even some SLC-based competitors.

Needless to say, Intel lit the fires of innovation that drove companies like JMicron, Indilinx, Marvell, and SandForce to design and improve their own controllers. Between then and now, we’ve seen the performance crown bounce around. But the benchmark by which SSDs continue to be measured is Intel’s X25-M (now in its second generation, employing 34 nm NAND).

500 GB of Intel SSD 510 drives, boxed up

How Do You Follow That Up?

Intel designed its first controller because it wanted in on the SSD market, but wasn’t satisfied with existing controllers. We were impressed with the result. As time passed and competing drives started overtaking the X25-M, we wondered how Intel might respond.

Imagine our surprise when we learned several weeks ago that Intel was actually happy with the state of controllers, and would be selecting a third-party component to drive its next-generation drives.

On one hand, this sorta makes sense. Intel originally presented its SSDs as the key to getting maximum performance from its Nehalem-based platforms, which were previously getting hampered by conventional magnetic storage. Confronted by plenty of new, faster drives, Intel’s original mission is accomplished, and its fastest processors no longer face an artificial bottleneck at the hands of hard drives.

On the other…damn. We all love a good fight (how else do you explain the existence of the UFC?). Knowing full well that SandForce-based drives are among the fastest currently available and its own second-generation part is weeks from retail availability in OCZ Vertex 3 drives, the choice to go with any controller vendor other than SandForce would seemingly be a setup for defeat.

Inside The SSD 510

And sure enough, Intel chose Marvell’s 88SS9174. This isn’t the same 88SS9174 seen in Crucial’s C300, though. It’s of the –BKK2 persuasion—Marvell’s second-generation 6 Gb/s controller. The C300 employs the first-gen –BJP2. We haven’t reviewed anything with –BKK2 in it yet. With that said, Intel claims the SSD 510’s firmware is its own, and the drive’s performance is optimized for a specific usage model. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’ll become very clear in the benchmarks.

Marvell's first-gen 6 Gb/s controller, in Crucial's RealSSD C300

Marvell's second-gen 6 Gb/s controller, in Intel's SSD 510

Intel also uses its own 34 nm NAND—interesting, given the controversy we see elsewhere as a result of vendors shifting over to 25 nm flash. The company will ship two versions of the SSD 510: 120 GB and 250 GB. The 250 GB model we have in the lab employs 16 multi-die packages, each adding 16 GB to the drive’s capacity. Intel adds 128 MB of DDR3-1333 from Hynix as a buffer. Of course, both drives fit into a 9.5 mm form factor.

All of that hardware working together yields what I consider a perplexing spec sheet, given Intel’s existing 3 Gb/s SSDs and a competitive landscape recently ravaged by OCZ’s Vertex 3 (OCZ's Vertex 3: Second-Generation SandForce For The Masses).

The random read and write performance from this 250 GB drive is lower than the X25-M. In contrast, the forthcoming Vertex 3’s random 4 KB writes are rated at up to 60 000 IOPS. Intel is much more competitive in sequential reads, which should peak at up to 500 MB/s over a 6 Gb/s connection. OCZ’s offering is expected to maintain an advantage in writes though, offering 525 MB/s to Intel’s 315 MB/s.

Intel SSD 510 250 GBIntel SSD 510 120 GBOCZ Vertex 3 240 GBIntel X25-M G2 160 GB
Sequential Read PerformanceUp to 500 MB/sUp to 400 MB/sUp to 550 MB/sUp to 250 MB/s
Sequential Write PerformanceUp to 315 MB/sUp to 210 MB/sUp to 525 MB/sUp to 100 MB/s
Random Read PerformanceUp to 20 000 IOPSUp to 20 000 IOPSUp to 35 000 IOPS
Random Write PerformanceUp to 8000 IOPSUp to 8000 IOPSUp to 60 000 IOPSUp to 8600 IOPS
NAND Flash Components34 nm MLC34 nm MLC25 nm MLC34 nm MLC
Raw NAND256 GB128 GB256 GB160 GB
InterfaceSATA 6Gb/sSATA 6Gb/sSATA 6Gb/sSATA 3Gb/s

You can expect the 120 GB model’s performance to drop quantifiably. Why does this happen? Remember that SSDs achieve their best performance numbers by spreading requests out across multiple flash devices. Intel’s X25-M employed a 10-channel architecture. The SSD 510-series uses an eight-channel design.

My guess would be that Intel uses half as many of the same NAND modules on its 120 GB SSD 510. In the real-world, you’d really need to push a lot of concurrent requests to best demonstrate the difference between the two drives, though—and as we’re about to see, those aren’t the environments where this SSD performs well, anyway.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.