on July 9, 2013
Intel released this 520 series in late 2011 with the sandforce controller and are killing it. It even comes with a five year warranty! That is unheard of in the SSD industry, especially with the Sandforce controllers which are known for reliability issues. While OCZ encountered problems after rushing to market, the Intel 520s are stable and reliable, if not a year late to the party. Intel tests thoroughly to maintain a high degree of quality. They release products only after they pass rigorous standards. Intel gets the best binned NAND flash memory which will inherently last longer than the lower binned chips other manufacturers receive; it's nice to own the chip factory! Because Intel manufactures the NAND flash, they can conceivably tease more performance and reliability out of them when they write the firmware (anandtech). This gives Intel a decisive advantage. If your on the fence, get this drive, especially now that the price is half of what it was when it released. I picked this up for $175, that's less that $1/GB. That's a mile mark for SSDs!
I went with Intel again because I like the support and reputation. I also like the ease of installation; Clone your drive with the supplied software and replace your old one. Intel drives just work. All the tools and firmware are easily found on Intel's download page. Plus the firmware updates don't erase your data. However, you should back up anyway.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
If you are upgrading from a spinning HDD, this will blow your mind. There is no better upgrade that speeds your computer up. Not a CPU upgrade, not a video card, or anything. Everything loads fast, like under a couple of seconds to nearly instantly. The operating system is snappy and smooth. No more being uncertain if it's loading after clicking on a shortcut, it just opens. SSD is pricey, but well worth it IMO. Having said that, if you are contemplating an upgrade from another SSD I have to say the difference is not dramatic. I can notice a difference in this drive compared to my X25-M, but it's not dramatic. It's perhaps not worth the pricy upgrade. I wanted the 180GB so that justifies it for me. Your experience may differ.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR:
Make sure to check that your cloned OS is aligned properly or you will not see all the performance benefits of your new drive. When I cloned my drive it did not align the partition properly. I only recently realized this after running AS SSD benchmark. There is a partition alignment display that indicated I had a bad alignment. I went to Intel's download center and found an Acronis Alignment Tool that is for the Intel 500 series. It says that it is only for XP users but I have windows 7 and it worked fine for me. I backed up and ran the tool. It realigned my partition and the improvement is noticeable! My benchmark numbers have been updated below accordingly. I can't believe I missed this #rookie mistake.
The 180GB version doesn't sacrifice performance. The 120GB and 60GB versions have slower IOPS than the 180GB and 240GB. 75% of what we can perceive as a performance boost comes from Reads. The most important of those are the small file random reads and access time. Pay close attention to the IOPS in the 4K file sizes below, as most system files are in that size range. Access time is also important because it represents the time it takes after reading one file to start to read the next. The lower the access time the better. Below is a comparison to my other Intel SSDs:
Intel X25-M 80GB G2 (SATA 2):
- 268MB/s Read, 87MB/s Write maximum throughput, 32,969 IOPS Read 4K QD32, 0.144ms access time, and Windows Experience Index gives it a 7.2.
Intel 510 Elm Crest 120GB (SATA 3):
- 477MB/s Read, 223MB/s Write maximum throughput, 21,473 IOPS Read 4K QD32, 0.148ms access time, and Windows Experience Index gives it a 7.8.
This Drive, Intel 520 180GB (SATA 3):
- 542MB/s Read, 500MB/s Write maximum throughput, 75,073 IOPS Read 4K QD32, 0.174ms access time, and Windows Experience Index gives it a 7.9.
Even though the maximum throughput shows dramatic performance increases, it doesn't translate much to your perceivable experience; the snappiness of the operating system. You'll notice the 4K IOPS increased from 33,000 to 75,000 (CrystalDiskMark), while the access time actually went up from 0.144ms to 0.174ms (AS SSD). While the net result is still a faster drive, as you would expect, the increasing access time is undermining the performance gains. This represents a fundamental limit in SSD NAND flash technology. It's also a trend that's expected to continue as NAND flash's manufacturing process gets smaller and SSDs increase in size.
I upgraded from an X25-M 80Gb G2 to an Intel 510 120Gb, and now again to an Intel 520 180Gb. The X25-M was the best drive available when it came out. The 510 was a very good drive, but the Sandforce powered OCZ drives were the king of speed. However, OCZ was and is still having trouble with firmware related issues. The problem is that a customer will report a problem and return the drive, but it will test perfectly in OCZs computers. OCZ has released firmware to fix most issues people have with their drives. They are a reasonable buy, but they are still trying to track down gremlins in the works. I have heard of similar problems from other manufacturers too. If you decide to try these drives, back up your system, update drive firmware, and retain all your purchase information incase you need to return it. Of these issues Intel seems to have the fewest, which is why I keep going with them.
Sandforce tried to track down the problem and had discussions with Intel about it. So it may be an issue with the controller itself. I take it that they were successful in tracking down the problem and ironing it out in the controller. This Intel 520 with the Sandforce controllers are living up to Intel's reputation. Meanwhile OCZ is still having intermittent problems and trying to hide it. Intel must not be sharing what they learned from those discussions with Sandforce. Also, Sandforce must not be allowed to reveal what Intel discovered, that is if Intel even told them at all (anandtech).
Single Level Cell (SLC) SSDs were the first to appear and were very expensive with only small drives. To reduce the cost and increase size the industry went to Multi Level Cells (MLC) while also reducing NAND flash manufacturing process to the current 20nm. However, significantly slower access times are a direct result. There are plans for Triple Level Cell (TLC) and even smaller manufacturing processes to allow even bigger drives to be made for a reasonable price. However, the performance will take another hit. I should point out that the X25-M, 510, and this drive are each MLC. The only difference between them are the NAND manufacturing process and the firmware/controllers. So even advancements within MLC are resulting in slower access times. This trend is alarming as it signals an end to the SSD performance bubble. Everything that goes up, must come down. All good things must come to an end. If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't. And so on. Because of this, researchers predict that in 2024 as NAND reaches 6.5nm manufacturing process and SSDs reach 4GB-MLC and 16GB-TLC they will hit the end of their performance gains (tomshardware). SLC and MLC solutions will likely still be faster than HDD technology can ever reach, especially if SLC can come down in price/GB. Either way SSDs will hold a niche as the best performing choice for operating system drives. Since you don't need a huge OS drive, and data can be put on a large conventional HDD, SSD has solidified it's place in the enthusiast computer market.
There are always improvements to be made and manufacturers will come up with stop-gap solutions to these problems. There are some TLC SSDs appearing on the market that are not sacrificing performance thanks to innovative memory caching methods. The controller sets aside a portion of the NAND to use as a caching buffer, writing to this portion as SLC to speed up the writing process. Samsung calls this a "Turbo Write Buffer". However, this method will only be effective as long as the write size is smaller than the cache buffer. If it exceeds the cache buffer the disk starts writing directly to the TLC NAND sacrificing performance. As long as writes don't exceed the Buffer the disk performs like SLC and in this way manufacturers are getting around the limitations of TLC. Remember that although the end is in sight, SSD's will likely be faster than HDD for the foreseeable future.