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Crucial M4 256GB Update: The Power of Firmware

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AkG

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Very recently we had the opportunity to look at a pair of second generation Marvel “9174” based solid state drives: the Corsair Performance 3 256GB and the Crucial M4 256GB. The latter of these impressed us with its reasonable asking price and abilities to perform well in a wide array of situations. During that review, we were using Crucial’s 0002 firmware but right after it went live, a brand new “0009” version was released.

Since this new firmware promises some significant performance increases without any drawbacks, we decided to revisit some of our previous numbers to see if Crucial’s promises live up to reality.



Most firmware updates usually bring about some minor improvements and bug fixes while allowing new NAND types to be recognized on subsequent drives within the same series. If an SSD is working perfectly fine these small tweaks can usually be overlooked but there are some situations where updating can fix some major issues. So as a rule of thumb, we usually recommend using a drive’s default firmware unless some problems are encountered.



We have yet to hear about any widespread issues with the M4 series so some of you may be wondering why a new firmware is being released. In this case, Crucial is actually bucking a longstanding trend by introducing an update that focuses almost exclusively upon wringing even more performance out of their drives. While new-build M4 units will be shipping with the 0009 firmware, it also has the ability to give consumers’ previously installed SSDs a significant (and free!) upgrade.


The term “firmware update” may conjure up images of potentially disastrous situations and bricked drives but installing it deceptively easy. Crucial has the firmwares listed on their site as ISO files which need to be downloaded and burned to a CD or DVD (we recommend IMGBurn for this).

Once the burning process is complete, simply reboot into your system BIOS, ensure IDE mode is selected, and set the CD as your primary boot priority. Upon another reboot the software will load, automatically find your drive, apply the firmware and tell you when it is done. Simply do a full reboot / power cycle, change back to AHCI mode (or whatever your default storage mode was) and enjoy the benefits of this new firmware.
 
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AkG

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Synthetic Tests

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.




When it comes to Crystal DiskMark and the M4’s read performance we are seeing an across the board increase which varies from small (4K single queue depth) to moderate (4K 32 queue depth) to drastic (512 and sequential). Sadly, on the write side of things most of the improvements are more minor in nature and more what we have come to expect from one firmware revision to the next.


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.



As with Crystal Diskmark it used to be impossible to see PCMark 7 averages go up this much from one firmware revision to the next. Crucial seems to have taken what was a very good drive and turned it into a great alternative to SF2281 SSDs.


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’s data can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive.



It seems in our sample the firmware caused the M4’s read latency to decrease (i.e. improves) but the write latency actually goes up by an infinitesimal amount. This is not always the case and we have seen credible reports of an across the board latency decrease.
 
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AkG

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Real World Performance / Parting Thoughts

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.



While an improvement of two seconds may not sound like all that much of improvement, it is shockingly good. More importantly, this shows that the firmware improvements are not just going to help benchmark junkies, but will actually have a noticeable impact on your real world usage. The results of this one test make it well worth your while to take the time and update your drive. Simply amazing and well deserving of its very respectable third place finish, which is up from the decent fifth place the previous firmware netted the Crucial M4 256GB.


Adobe CS5 Load 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 improvement of only one second, the results are not quiet as staggering as the load time results; but they are still good enough to move the Crucial M4 256GB Solid State Drive from fourth to a second place tie. This really is one amazing firmware update.


Parting Thoughts


Firmware updates are usually boring things that can improve drive life and stability but don’t usually have that much impact upon performance. The 0009 update on the other hand allows the M4 to fly above the dank morass of mediocrity which defines the current SSD market. It literally sets a benchmark that all other firmwares will be measured against.

The M4 was never close to being the fastest SSD on the block but this new firmware has allowed it to compete on an almost level footing with some of this generation’s best drives. Granted, Crucial didn’t concentrate upon write performance this time around but the real world numbers point towards an improved experience across a large number of applications.

Instead of offering a “tweaked” and ultimately more expensive version of the M4 (and we can point the finger at a few companies who have done and will be doing just that), Crucial is offering this upgrade free of charge to anyone who is willing to update their firmware. This rightly sets Crucial apart as a company that’s willing to put aside greed and offer their customers an easily applied firmware that works across the entire M4 SSD family.

If anything, this quick article should be taken as a case study which illustrates the importance of some firmware updates and the willingness of certain companies to go the extra mile. Congrats Crucial, you’ve managed to impress us.
 
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