Intel 510 Series 120GB £220
19th Apr 2011 | 14:55
Intel gets back in the SSD game
Intel 510 Series 120GB: Overview
Just as the world and its faithful canine companion gets ready to release its new SandForce-powered SSDs, Intel has jumped the gun with its Intel 510 Series 120GB SSD.
Intel might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about SSD's as a whole, but it's the proud parent of one of the world's bestselling SSD drive series, the Intel X25-M.
The X25-M sold huge quantities in its original 50mm technology. It still is, for that matter, as the X25-M G2 using 34mm NAND memory.
While the X25-M was aimed at the mainstream market, Intel had nothing for the high-performance segment, and SandForce-based drives have made a real killing in this area.
Now Intel has looked to plug this gap in its roadmap with the 510 series (code name ElmCrest), which launched with 120GB and 250GB capacities and a SATA 6Gbps interface aimed at gamers, enthusiasts and workstation users.
The 250GB drive has sequential read and write speeds of up to 500MB/s and 315MB/s respectively, which is nice and rapid.
However the drive we're looking at, the 120GB version, has a reduced capacity and corresponding reduced read/write speeds of 450MB/s and 210MB/s respectively.
The 510 series though isn't quite what Intel had in mind when it began looking for a SandForce killer, but problems with the new controller forced their hand to bring us the 510 series.
Intel 510 Series 120GB: Architecture
The reason it's not the drive Intel originally planned it to be can be seen once you open the metal alloy case, because sitting on the PCB in place of where the Intel controller should be is a third-party Marvell controller.
The Marvel 88S9174-BKK2 controller is not unique to the Intel drives, and can be found in a few other drives, for example Corsair's Performance 3 drives have it, and Crucial use it in the C300 drive.
But Intel has tried to distance itself from other manufacturers by tweaking the firmware to give better sequential read performance.
To help push the performance along even further especially when it comes to dealing with small files, there's a 128MB DDR3 1333MHz cache courtesy of a Hynix chip, which is a giant leap over the good old X25-M, which had to make do with just 32MB of DRAM.
For the 510 series, Intel has kept faith with the 34mm MLC NAND memory chips made by IM Flash Technologies – unlike many of its competitors, which are now or soon will be transitioning to 25mm chips.
To achieve its 120GB capacity, the drive uses 16 8MB 34mm chips (coded 29F6408CAMDD) – eight on each side of the PCB.
Once the drive is formatted and Windows installed, you have a usable 111GB, the rest of the space (12.7%) reserved for over-provisioning duties.
The 510 is the first Intel drive to have the 6Gbps interface and it makes a lot of sense not only from the performance point of view given that the sequential read transfer rates already flood the 3Gbps interface, but from a marketing point of view.
It allows Intel to market the whole mainboard/processor/storage solution thanks to the native SATA 6Gbps support found on the Sandy Bridge supporting P67 and H67 mainstream and performance chipsets.
Intel 510 Series 120GB: Benchmarks
To test SSDs in as close to a real-life scenario as possible, we install them as a boot drive and install a full operating system – in this case Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit.
We test in this clean state and then fill the drive up with data and then delete it, running through this cycle a few times before testing the drive again to see if there's much difference in the results after subjecting the drive to this usage cycle.
In general, there wasn't a great deal of difference between the two sets of results, although through longer-term usage there might be.
Sequential read/write performance
4K random read/write performance
Burst speed performance
Intel 510 Series 120GB: Verdict
The timing of the 510's launch couldn't come at a worse time really.
With the next generation of drives using SandForce's SF-2000 controller about to appear anytime soon and if the speculation about the pricing of the new drives is correct then Intel way well be hit by a double whammy – competition with much faster drives at the same price point.
But back to the 510's performance, the tweaking that Intel has done to the Marvell controller certainly adds to the sequential read/write performance, as does its SATA 6Gbps interface.
It gets close to the quoted sequential read speed of 450MB/s when tested with the ATTO benchmark, and just exceeds the quoted figure for writes.
These attentions to upping the sequential speeds have come at the expense of the 4K write speeds, which are on the low side. So like a great many SSDs it's ideal for moving large files around but not so handy at moving small file packages around the place.
You may be thinking then it's a bit unfair to pitch the 510 120GB up against OCZ's RevoDrive 120GB because they use completely different interfaces, with the RevoDrive knocking lumps out of any traditionally interfaced drive put up against it when it comes to comparing performance.
While that may be true, performance isn't the only factor when considering which hard drive to buy and the important point in this respect is that both OCZ's RevoDrive 120 and the Intel 510 Series 120GB are price in the same £220-£230 price bracket, so the comparison is valid from the £ per Gigabyte point of view.
The one thing that the Intel 510 Series SSD does have in its favour is Intel's attention to detail when it comes to reliability and longevity in a drive.
The 510 comes with an MTBF of 1.2 million hours, and not only does it come with TRIM support but it's also backed by Intel's superb SSD Toolbox software utility.
The utility includes everything you need to keep the drives performance as sharp as it can be and includes an SSD optimiser, a system tuner and a secure erase package.
Also worth a mention is the comprehensive bundle that comes with the retail boxed drive.
It's everything you need to get the drive installed and up and running: a 3.5-inch mounting bracket; a four-pin Molex to SATA power adapter; a SATA cable; data migration software; and Intel's superb SSD Toolbox software utility.
The sequential read performance is excellent, but then again it should be, since the Marvell controller has been tuned for just that. Another plus point is the 6Gbps interface. We also liked the TRIM support and the inclusion of Intel's SSD toolbox.
In some respects, the 510 is Intel treading water while sorting out the controller for the next generation of the X25-M Yes, it's a fast drive, but it leaves more of a thought of what might have been especially with the new SandForce controller equipped drives appearing anytime soon.
Intel's 510 isn't a bad drive – in fact if you are just moving large files around it's a very good choice to go for – but the timing of its release hasn't done it any favours.