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Crucial M4 256GB SSD Review

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AkG

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Crucial may be a newcomer to Hardware Canucks but their SSDs just happen to be some of the most popular around right now due to their excellent pricing and wide availability. Their newest line of M4-series drives continues down the same path as previous generations but now uses the same Marvel 9174 controller we saw in the Corsair Performance 3. With this kind of pedigree, these SSDs should have performance which is similar to the Corsair drive while retaining some impressive abilities to recover from a degraded state when used outside of a TRIM environment.

This is the direct successor to the iconic, wildly successful C300 which was the first ever high performance SATA 6GB/s solid state drive for consumers. Meanwhile, the M4 is basically the OEM version of the C300’s successor: the OEM-only C400. But what really makes this drive pop up on our radar is Crucial being a subsidiary of Micron who fabricates the 25nm NAND housed within many of this generation’s enthusiast level SSDs. Like Intel, Micron gets first pick from any batch of NAND for their own drives, so it will be interesting to see if this translates into a performance boost for the M4 over other, similar drives.

Another interesting wrinkle in the fabric of this drive is the fact that Crucial produces an in-house custom firmware for the M4. Since they also make the NAND housed within it, they can refine the firmware more precisely to get the absolute best performance out of the Marvell 88SS9174 controller. Not many other companies have this luxury and have to create firmware that is less refined for a given NAND, but able to work very well across a broader spectrum of designs.


With an average online asking price of $430, the M4 256GB drive actually hits a point below the similar $450 to $500 Corsair Performance 3 256GB while retaining the same warranty length of three years. This may make it the go-to drive for consumers who haven’t quite yet jumped onto the TRIM-supporting OS bandwagon.

The Crucial M4 certainly is an interesting looking drive. With its metallic silver case with black center stripe running the entire circumference of the case it certainly is aesthetically pleasing even though it is small enough to be completely overlooked within a windowed case. It is interesting to note that the label lists this as a “RealSSD C400”, but as mentioned previously the M4 and C400 are the same drive, just different brand names for different environments.

One thing that should be mentioned is that the maximum wattage rating is simply off the charts at a full 2 amps off the 5 volt line, or 10 watts of power. This of course is the absolute worst case scenario for the SSD but it is still up there with some high performance hard drives.


The internal architecture of the Crucial M4 is radically different from that of the Performance 3. Unlike the Performance 3 with its 1.8” form factor PCB, the M4 uses a more standard 2.5” form factor PCB. On the printed circuit board, there are sixteen Micron branded 25nm chips nestled into all 16 ICs, a Marvell 88SS9174-BLD2 controller chip and an external ram chip. Based on previous experience this cache chip should help buffer any weakness prevalent with the Marvel controller and also help negate any visible performance issues when running in a potentially degraded state (i.e. a non-Trim environment).


The cache chip is of course made by none other than Micron. “D9LGQ” tells us that this is a lead free, 96-ball (9 x 14mm) FBGA packaged IC with a capacity of a 128 Megabytes. More importantly it is a DDR3-1333 SDRAM chip with CAS Latency of 9.


Much like the PCB and NAND configuration is a departure from the design we saw in the Performance 3, so too is the controller. The Corsair drive uses the slightly older, first revision of the second generation Marvell 9174 controller (i.e. the 88SS9174-BKK2) while this Crucial drive has the second revision “BLD2” designation. The differences between these two revisions should be minor at best as they are a result of a continuous refinement process all Marvell products undergo.

The M4 uses the same Micron 25nm ONFi 2 NAND found in many of today’s 240/256GB drives such as the Vertex 3 240GB we reviewed awhile back. This is a departure from the Performance 3’s use of Toggle Mode modules.


Sicne we received the reviewers version of the Crucial M4 256GB drive, we can’t comment too much about the packaging or accessories. What we can say, is that the accessories which accompanie a retail M4 can vary greatly as there is three basic packages to chose from. The basic version comes with only the M4 SSD itself (sku CT256M4SSD2). The typical retail package comes with 2.5” to 3.5” adapter bracket (sku CT256M4SSD2BAA) and a third variation comes with a USB to SATA adapter, allowing you to back up / clone your existing drive to the M4 without first removing the older drive (sku CT256M4SSD2CCA).

For price comparison purposes against the Performance 3, we have chosen the mid-grade option with adapter plate since the Corsair drive comes with a similar set of accessories.
 
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AkG

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The TRIM Conundrum & Marvell's Answer

The TRIM Conundrum & Marvell's Answer


To get the absolute best long term performance out of a Solid State Drive your system has to be able to pass on the TRIM command. This is because most modern SSD controller designs are built and designed upon the assumption that the a system will be able to provide TRIM commands to the drive’s controller.



For the ATA TRIM command to occur there are many different components which need to work hand in hand for the TRIM command to be sent and received by the SSD controller. The primary lynchpin here is the operating system. If you are running an older OS (pre Windows 7) the operating system itself will not know how to send the TRIM command. In addition, the motherboard’s storage controller itself must be able to process the TRIM command. AMD motherboards which predate the 800-series chipsets and Intel products using a pre-ICH9R setup simply don’t support TRIM regardless of the OS being run. Further complicating things is the prerequisite that the onboard controller be working in AHCI mode as IDE isn’t supported nor can the SSD be part of RAID array. With the exception of some exotic, factory RAID’ed Solid State drives (such as the Revo 3) RAID + SSD means no trim support.

The last crucial link is the drivers which also need to support TRIM and currently Microsoft AHCI, Intel RST or AMD’s latest versions all work well. The easiest way to relate to all of these requirements is to think of each one as a link in a chain: if any one is broken your solid state drive will not receive TRIM commands and could degrade very quickly.



The introduction of TRIM really did have an impact upon the perceived longevity of SSDs but there are still many consumers who don’t posses systems capable of passing on the command. Unfortunately, most SSD controller manufacturers design their chips based on the assumption that TRIM will always be a possibility. This means in order to get the best possible long term performance out of a modern SSD, you’ll need a TRIM-supporting system which could mean a costly upgrade to go along with that brand new SSD.

So what about all those consumers who don’t have TRIM capabilities? Before TRIM was implemented, controller designers created routines to minimize and alleviate performance degradation. These self-maintenance routines go by many names but are usually called “Idle Time” or “Background” Garbage collection.



This “old school” solution is of course the somewhat perfect answer for non-TRIM environments. Sadly, not all algorithms and routines are created equal and efficiency varies greatly from one controller maker to another. Since SandForce expects people to have TRIM capable systems, their self maintenance routines are very mild a best and thus very slow. So slow in fact that without TRIM, even the mighty SF2281 based drives can see their performance degraded very quickly. In extreme cases pauses and stuttering can even occur.



While SandForce and others went the route of assuming their customers had TRIM, Marvell did not. In fact, Marvell seems to have actively focused upon and have designed their controller for consumers who want a large performance boost but don’t want to upgrade their entire system to get it. This is why Marvell controllers – especially this second gen “9174” - have more aggressive self-maintenance routines which start working sooner and faster than their competitors. The high performance, high efficiency self-maintenance routines within the Performance 3 really are the secret weapon in its arsenal but as we will see later in this review, they can act as a double edged sword as well.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a drive is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto folder on the drive in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account. There is also the SATA controller on your motherboard and how well it works with SSDs & HDDs to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for drives to shine. Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, inclination or monetary funds to do this. For this reason our testbed will be a more standard motherboard with no mods or high end gear added to it. This is to help replicate what you the end user’s experience will be like.

Even when the hardware issues are taken care of the software itself will have a negative or positive impact on the results. As with the hardware end of things, to obtain the absolute best results you do need to tweak your OS setup; however, just like with the hardware solution most people are not going to do this. For this reason our standard OS setup is used. However, except for the Vista load test times we have done our best to eliminate this issue by having the drive tested as a secondary drive. With the main drive being a Phoneix Pro 120GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD and PCMark Vanatage.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long a single 10GB rar file took to copy to and then from the devices. We also used 10gb of small files (from 100kb to 200MB) with a total 12,000 files in 400 subfolders.


For all testing a Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard was used, running Windows 7 64bit Ultimate edition (or Vista for boot time test). All drives were tested using AHCI mode using Intel RST 10 drivers.

All tests were run 4 times and average results are represented.

In between each test suite runs (with the exception being IOMeter which was done after every run) the drives are cleaned with either HDDerase, SaniErase or OCZ SSDToolbox and then quick formatted to make sure that they were in optimum condition for the next test suite.


Processor: Core i5 2400
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Mushkin DDR3 1300
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: 1x Seagate 3TB XT, OCZ 120GB RevoDrive
Power Supply: XFX 850


SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

<!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> <w:WordDocument> <w:View>Normal</w:View> <w:Zoom>0</w:Zoom> <w:punctuationKerning/> <w:ValidateAgainstSchemas/> <w:SaveIfXMLInvalid>false</w:SaveIfXMLInvalid> <w:IgnoreMixedContent>false</w:IgnoreMixedContent> <w:AlwaysShowPlaceholderText>false</w:AlwaysShowPlaceholderText> <w:Compatibility> <w:BreakWrappedTables/> <w:SnapToGridInCell/> <w:WrapTextWithPunct/> <w:UseAsianBreakRules/> <w:DontGrowAutofit/> </w:Compatibility> <w:BrowserLevel>MicrosoftInternetExplorer4</w:BrowserLevel> </w:WordDocument> </xml><![endif]--><!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> <w:LatentStyles DefLockedState="false" LatentStyleCount="156"> </w:LatentStyles> </xml><![endif]--><!--[if !mso]><object classid="clsid:38481807-CA0E-42D2-BF39-B33AF135CC4D" id=ieooui></object> <style> st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } </style> <![endif]--><!--[if gte mso 10]> <style> /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} </style> <![endif]--> OCZ Vertex 2 100GB: 1.33
OCZ Vertex 3 MI 240GB: 2.11
Crucial C300 128GB: 006
Corsair Force 3 GT 120GB: 1.3
Patriot Pyro 120GB: 3.1.9
Corsair Performance 3 256GB: 1.1
Patriot Wildfire 120GB: 3.1.9
Kingston HyperX 240GB: 3.2.0
Crucial M4 256GB: 002
 
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AkG

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Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. The long test was run to give a slightly more accurate picture. We don’t put much stock in Burst speed readings and thus we no longer included it. The most important number is the Average Speed number. This number will tell you what to expect from a given drive in normal, day to day operations. The higher the average the faster your entire system will seem.



With an average speed of 455 – or about 2% slower than the Corsair Performance 3 256GB – the Crucial M4 is certainly a peppy drive. It does exhibit sequential read speeds which are a touch low for its niche.,though it is still a great improvement over the C300's numbers. But as we have stated many times in the past, sequential performance is a less than optimal way of choosing your next drive.


Write Performance


For this benchmark HD Tune Pro was used. To run the write benchmark on a drive, you must first remove all partitions from that drive and then and only then will it allow you to run this test. Unlike some other benchmarking utilities the HD Tune Pro writes across the full area of the drive, thus it easily shows any weakness a drive may have.



Now this is interesting to say the least. While the average write performance of the M4 is indeed lower than that of a Corsair Performance 3, the minimum is right in line. This could hint at some capping on Crucial's part but we can't be sure.
 
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AkG

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ATTO Disk Benchmark

ATTO Disk Benchmark


The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.





The read power curve is certainly interesting with both the high and low end being very good, but the mid level file performance is a touch low. This in all likelihood is due to immature / firmware and will most likely be fixed as – based on the Corsair Perf 3's performance – we know this controller can do better.

Write numbers are also very intriguing. As you can see, the curve is very good but then tend to flattening out. Unlike the Performance 3 we doubt this is due to garbage collection routines kicking in as the average write speed was simply too high for that to be a likely scenario. The most likely cause of this is a possible cap being placed upon write performance.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark 7

Crystal DiskMark


Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your hard drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB.





Now these are the kind of numbers we were hoping to see! While the high end and mid end just prove our theory on performance being capped – as they are so close together- what is truly grin inducing is the 4k single and deeper queue depths. To put it bluntly, we are finally seeing what this controller can really do and the M4 is in a different class from the Performance 3. These numbers are downright great and obviously the background self-maintenance routines are not getting in the way of performance like they do with Corsair’s iteration.


PCMark 7


While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark 7, only one is pertinent: the HDD Suite. The HDD Suite consists of numerous tests that try and replicate real world drive usage. Everything from how long a simulated virus scan takes to complete, to MS Vista start up time to game load time is tested in these core tests; however we do not consider this anything other than just another suite of synthetic tests. For this reason, while each test is scored individually we have opted to include only the overall score.


With an increase of 320 points it is obvious that PCMark favors the Crucial M4 over that of the Performance 3. Whether or not it is because of different firmware or different NAND, it does not matter. It still may not be able to compete against SF2281 drives of a similar size but the gap is no longer significant enough to matter to most people.
 
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AkG

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AS-SSD / Access Time

AS-SSD


AS-SSD is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and small 4K read/write speeds as well as 4K file speed at a queue depth of 64. While its primary goal is to accurately test Solid State Drives, it does equally well on all storage mediums it just takes longer to run each test as each test reads or writes 1GB of data.





On the read performance side of things the Crucial M4 posts only slightly better single queue depth 4k numbers than the Performance 3, but the deeper 64 queue depth is like night and day.

While the read performance results of AS-SSD are mainly ambivilant the same just can't be said of the write performance which the Crucial M4 posts. With the Corsair Performance 3, AS-SSD write performance was one of its least impressive areas that resulted in slightly disappointing results. Compare and contrast that with the M4 256GB results which are good enough for a THIRD place finish.


Access Time


To obtain an accurate reading on the read and write latency of a given drive, AS-SSD was used for this benchmark. A low number means that the drive’ data can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive.



The random access performance of the M4 is significantly better than not only the Corsair Performance 3 256GB drive but many SandForce based devices as well. In fact, with a read access time of only .001ms slower than a Kingston HyperX it is safe to say that this controller is just as good as the SF2281.
 
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AkG

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Anvil Storage Utilities Pro

Anvil Storage Utilities Pro


Much like AS-SSD, Anvil Pro was created to quickly and easily – yet accurately – test your drives. While it is still in the Beta stages it is a versatile and powerful little program. Currently it can test numerous read / write scenarios but two in particular stand out for us: 4K queue depth of 4 and 4K queue depth of 16. A queue depth of four along with 4K sectors can be equated to what most users will experience in an OS scenario while 16 depth will be encountered only by power users and the like. We have also included the 4k queue depth 1 results to help put these two other numbers in their proper perspective. All settings were left in their default states and the test size was set to 1GB.





While the Anvil Professional results are not as rosy as the Crystal DiskMark or AS-SSD results, these they are still darn good. As is becoming a reoccurring theme these results are simply in a different league from that of the Corsair Performance 3. It is equally obvious that the garbage collection routines are indeed waiting for “idle time” to kick in; unlike the Performance 3 which has its cleaning routines set almost too aggressively.
 
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AkG

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IOMETER

IOMETER


IOMeter is heavily weighted towards the server end of things, and since we here at HWC are more End User centric we will be setting and judging the results of IOMeter a little bit differently than most. To test each drive we ran 5 test runs per HDD (1,4,16,64,128 queue depth) each test having 8 parts, each part lasting 10 min w/ an additional 20 second ramp up. The 8 subparts were set to run 100% random, 80% read 20% write; testing 512b, 1k, 2k,4k,8k,16k,32k,64k size chunks of data. When each test is finished IOMeter spits out a report, in that reports each of the 8 subtests are given a score in I/Os per second. We then take these 8 numbers add them together and divide by 8. This gives us an average score for that particular queue depth that is heavily weighted for single user environments.



As expected, IOMeter simply loves this drive. The results are not in the same league as a 240GB SandForce SF2281 drive, but they are certainly improved over the Performance 3 numbers.
 
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AkG

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Vista Start Up / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Vista Start Up


When it comes to hard drive performance there is one area that even the most oblivious user notices: how long it takes to load the Operating System. While all the other tests were run with a Windows 7 operating system, this particular test uses another older test bed's “day to day” OS (copied over to our new testbed) which has accumulated a lot of crud over the months from installs and removals. We chose the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line as it is the last program to be loaded on start up.



Four full seconds. That is how much faster this M4 version of the Marvel 9174 controller is compared to Corsairs. This is not only significant it is down right astonishing.

The M4 240GB may indeed still be four seconds slower than a SF2281 240GB drive, but these results are still more than good enough for a strong fourth place finish. Considering the line up of drives in our charts that is no small feat.


Adobe CS5 Laod Time


Photoshop is a notoriously slow loading program under the best of circumstances, and while the latest version is actually pretty decent, when you add in a bunch of extra brushes and the such you get a really great torture test which can bring even the best of the best to their knees. Let’s see how our review unit faired in the Adobe crucible.



With an average load time of only 12 seconds the M4 is not only extremely fast at loading bloat-ware like CS5, it is also good enough for a third place finish overall. Very impressive.
 
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