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Crucial M500 480GB SSD Review

AkG

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At CES 2013 Crucial announced the release of their new M500 series SSDs. This new model was meant to replace the aging M4 series and push the SSD industry towards a more budget friendly direction. This is what the M500 promised to deliver and on paper it appears to live up to these highly laudable goals.

For the most part, a Solid State Drive lives and dies by the controller it uses and while this is still the case with the M500, it is actually not the most impressive feature it boasts. Using the latest Marvell 9187 controller is certainly noteworthy, but the M500 is not the only drive on the market to make use of this flexible, high performance controller. What makes the M500 truly unique is the NAND it uses. Unlike any other drive available today the Crucial has used massive 20nm 128 Gigabit MLC ONFi 3 ICs and does so across its entire model line-up.


IMFT 20nm NAND made its first appearance in Intel’s 335 series and for the most part it represents an excellent blend of frugality and performance. However, Intel’s 20nm NAND is slightly different than Crucial’s. Crucial – via Micron – have taken the 20nm NAND design and given the performance vs. price ratio a huge boost by the simplest means possible: making the NAND ‘chip’ larger.

Using these enormous 128GBit ONFi 3.0 MLC NAND IC’s for their entire line allows for not only the inclusion of gigantic 960GB versions, but also for some impressively reasonable price tags. In the 480GB instance this new drive retails online for an average price of only $360 – or 75 cents per GB. For a newly released drive this is extremely low and if history is any indication, it should only get cheaper.

Of course a great price per gigabyte ratio is great but Crucial has backed it up with what promises to be a very good price to performance ratio as well. A very good argument can be made that this second ratio is just as important as the first. Along with using a larger footprint NAND IC, Crucial has also taken the opportunity presented to make this new 20nm technology meet the stricter ONFi 3 specification.

On paper the M500 may not have the raw performance of some of the latest generation controllers to hit the market but the Marvell 9187 controller utilizes proven technology. Crucial has years of experience in creating custom firmware for Marvel controllers so the M500 should come with customizations specifically tailored for its new NAND.


The silver exterior of the M500 may look very similar to the previous M4, but the decrease from a 9.5mm to a 7mm height does hint at improvements and refinements which can’t be seen by the naked eye. To help with compatibility Crucial also includes a black plastic adapter to convert the M500 into a more typical 9.5mm form factor.


At first glance the interior architecture also appears to follow the M4 line. There is a single Marvell controller, 16 NAND ICs and a single DDR3-1600 external ram cache IC. While the speed of the ram cache hasn’t changed much from the previous generation’s DDR3-1333, the size has doubled from 128MB to 256MB.

Also unlike the M4, the M500’s PCB comes equipped with onboard capacitors which allow for FlushIn Flight abilities. Seeing a consumer grade drive with FiF is very rare as this ability mitigates data corruption from unexpected power loss, but is costly to implement and such is a feature usually reserved for more expensive Enterprise models.


While this drive only comes with a 3 year warranty, the 20nm NAND is rated for twice the usage of the modules found within Intel’s 335. Instead of being rated for a mere 20GB a day for 3 years or 22TB, the entire M500 line-up is rated for 40GB of writes per for five years, or over three times the endurance at 72TB.

Some of this increased endurance comes from sophisticated thermal management which drops performance to ~40% of nominal speeds if the NAND reaches its limit of 70° C. This performance reduction will be in place until temperatures cool down but it certainly won’t happen all that often. This is one of the few consumer grade devices to include such features and the increased endurance rating reflects Crucial’s confidence in their M500’s thermal management abilities.


Taken as whole the new M500 appears to be a blend of consumer and enterprise technologies which make it as unique as the NAND it uses. This does give this relatively inexpensive drive the potential a high performance, highly durable SSD which won’t break the bank.
 
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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 test-bed 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 Windows 7 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 an Intel DC S3700 800GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD, Anvil Storage Utilities and PCMark 7.

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. 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.

Please note:
Due to the unique nature of the hybrid setup certain tests results have been omitted as they require an unformatted drive to test or gave erroneous results.

Processor: Core i5 2500
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Corsair Vengeance LP “blue”
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: Intel DC S3700 800GB, OCZ 480GB RevoDrive3 x2
Power Supply: XFX 850

SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

OCZ Vertex 2 100GB
: 1.33
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB: 2.2
Crucial M4 256GB: 000F
Intel 520: 400i
SanDisk Extrene 240GB: R211
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB: M206
OCZ Vector 256GB: 1.03
Intel 335 180GB: 335t
Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB: 505
SanDisk UltraPlus 256GB: 365A13F0
Kingston SSDNow V300 240GB: 505
Crucial M500: MU02

SandForce SF1200 Drives:
OCZ Vertex 2 - ONFi 2 NAND

SandForce SF2281 Drives:
Intel 520 - custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND
Intel 335 - custom firmware w/ 20nm ONFi 2 NAND
SanDisk Extreme - stock firmware w/ 24nm Toggle Mode NAND
SSDNow V300 - custom firmware w/ 19nm Toggle Mode NAND

LAMD:
Corsair Neutron GTX - Toggle Mode NAND

Marvell:
Crucial M4 - Custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 NAND
SanDisk UltraPlus - Custom firmware w/ eX2 ABL NAND
Crucial M500 - Custom firmware w/ 128Gbit ONFi 3 NAND

Barefoot 3 controller:
OCZ Vector - ONFi 2 NAND
 
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AkG

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Oct 24, 2007
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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.



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.


Both the sequential read and write performance of this large SSD are best describe as ‘decent’ and tend to fit right in-line with its price. The increase in write performance is certainly a welcome sight as this was one area the M4 lagged significantly behind in. However, the M500’s performance is not groundbreaking or even all that noteworthy compared to most drives in the charts.
 
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AkG

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Oct 24, 2007
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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.




These performance curves are very interesting. Both the read and write performance top out well above this drive's maximum rated performance of 500Mb/s & 400Mb/s respectively.

Unfortunately on the other end of the performance curves the M500 does suffer somewhat from its doubling of both its page and block size. Instead of 8KB size pages with 256 per block, this new ONFi 3 128Gbit NAND uses 16KB page sizes and 512 per block. This does have a negative impact in overall performance and while the controller is obviously quite powerful, it is unable to fully mask this shortcoming. In all likelihood some more performance will be forthcoming from firmware refinement as Crucial’s team gets used to the particular characteristics of ONFi 3 NAND.
 
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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.



As expected, the M500 shows across the board performance increases over the M4 it replaces. Compared to more modern drives, the large and medium size results are also quite decent if not exactly chart topping.

Unfortunately, the single queue depth 4K results are a touch low and there is only a moderate improvement over what an M4 can accomplish. On the positive side, once the queue depths get deeper the 4K results are right up there with the best of the best.


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.


Once again the M500 posts a very reasonable score of well over 5300 points. This is a nice boost over the previous generation's sub-5200 score. By the same token the combination of a new controller with unrefined firmware using ultra large ONFi 3 NAND is once again hampering overall performance.
 
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AkG

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AS-SSD / Anvil Storage Utilities Pro

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 6. 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.




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.



As with all the other synthetic test results, both AS-SSD and Anvil show what was already blatantly obvious: this a good drive but its low queue depth small file performance is lacking. Whether this is from the ultra large ONFi 3 NAND being used, immature firmware or a combination of the two is immaterial.

At this point in time the M500 is a very good upgrade from the M4 but it certainly isn't going to woo consumers away from the Vector or Neutron GTX’s of the marketplace. Of course with such a reasonable asking price this is to be expected as its price to performance ratio is unbeatable.
 
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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,3xk,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.


Using any mainstream orientated drive for such a demanding environment is never an optimal choice. Fortunately, while it does post noticeably lower results than that of most other drives in the chart, the M500 is able to provide much better performance curves than its predecessor the M4.
 
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AkG

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Windows 7 Startup / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance


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. Where Windows 7 has become nearly ubiquitous for solid state drive enthusiasts we have chosen Windows 7 64bit Ultimate as our Operating System. In previous load time tests we would use the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line; this however is no longer the case. We have not only added in a secondary Anti-Virus to load on startup, but also an anti-malware program. We have set Super Anti-Spyware to initiate a quick scan on Windows start-up and the completion of the quick scan will be our new finish line.



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!



Even removing the M4 vs M500 comparison from the equation there is no doubt about it: this is a very fast drive. These results are quite good and very few consumers will find fault with the M500’s performance. It was not all that long ago that this level of performance would have easily given enthusiast grade devices a run for their money. Of course, those days are in the past and it is hard to call this an enthusiast grade SSD; rather it is a great mainstream SSD. This is as it should be considering this drive was never meant to be Vector or Neutron GTX competitor.
 
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AkG

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Oct 24, 2007
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Firefox Portable / Real World Data Transfers

Firefox Portable Offline Performance


Firefox is notorious for being slow on loading tabs in offline mode once the number of pages to be opened grows larger than a dozen or so. We can think of fewer worse case scenarios than having 100 tabs set to reload in offline mode upon Firefox startup, but this is exactly what we have done here.

By having 100 pages open in Firefox portable, setting Firefox to reload the last session upon next session start and then setting it to offline mode, we are able to easily recreate a worse case scenario. Since we are using Firefox portable all files are easily positioned in one location, making it simple to repeat the test as necessary. In order to ensure repetition, before touching the Firefox portable files, we have backed them up into a .rar file and only extracted a copy of it to the test device.



Once again these results are not only noticeably better than the previous generation M4’s but are in their own right very good. A time of 113 certainly will never be a chart topper, but considering how reasonably priced this large SSD is, we aren't complaining.


Real World Data Transfers


No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it can not really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.




As expected, the large file performance is excellent and the small file performance is decent. This new ONFi 3.0 128Gbit NAND is slower when it comes to small file performance and it will take time for manufacturers to refine their controllers' firmware to help minimize this rather large issue.
 
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AkG

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Oct 24, 2007
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Partial and Full Drive Performance

Partial and Full Drive Performance


While it is important to know how a drive will perform under optimal conditions, more realistic scenarios are just as important. Knowing if a solid state drive will behave differently when partially or even nearly full than when it is empty is very important information to know. To quickly and accurately show this crucial information we have first filled the drive to 50% capacity and re-tested using both synthetic and real world tests. After the completion of this we then re-test at 75% and 90% of full capacity.

Synthetic Test Results

For our synthetic testing we have opted for our standard PCMark 7 test.



Real World Results

For a real world application we have opted for our standard Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance test.


There is a very large drop off in performance once this drive is filled with data. This is par for the course with most SSDs and even with Crucial taking steps to increase the Over-Provisioning it does cost the M500 dearly. This is once again due to a combination of immature firmware, new NAND with massive block and page sizes and a controller architecture which is showing its age.
 
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