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Intel 525 Series 120GB & 180GB mSATA SSD Review

AkG

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With the mSATA standard gaining popularity at a quick pace, many SSD manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon. Intel’s latest 525-series is looking to capitalize on this upsurge of interest by offering a high performance alternative to competing solutions. With that in mind, the 525 not only represents a rather significant upgrade over previous Intel mSATA drives but it also provides Ultrabook manufacturers with a viable high end yet compact storage device.

Historically, mSATA SSDs have had one primary focus: meeting the rather tiny mSATA form factor specifications. Capacity, performance and even price typically took a back seat to miniaturization and efficiency. While there have been aberrations to this rule, the marketplace is filled with rather lackluster options at ridiculously high prices. With Intel’s focus on the Ultrabook market, it comes as no surprise that increasing throughput would be at the top of their “to do” list. Intel needed a serious mSATA lineup which combined good performance, relatively high capacity and a reasonable asking price while still meeting the rather strict mSATA form factor specifications.

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Considering many manufactures have tried this route and failed, Intel entrusted this endeavor to their own in-house and well accomplished storage division. To create the 525 series, they took a standard mSATA storage device’s PCB, installed an LSI SF2281 controller and used up to four dual die NAND 25nm IMFT MLC NAND ICs.

It may seem a controversial move to use older 25nm NAND instead of newer 20nm modules (the 335 Series did) but Intel needed NAND that left zero doubts about performance while still allowing for a reasonable MSRP. This also explains the inclusion of an LSI SandForce SF2281 controller instead of third generation Intel unit. Costs had to be maintained in order to offer a good mSATA drive at a price point most consumers, OEMs and system integrators would feel more comfortable with.

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While the 525 series does come in a variety of sizes – with everything from 30GB to 240GB- we will be focusing in on two of the more mainstream sizes: the 120GB and 180GB models. These two capacities should be the most popular as notebook upgrade solutions and their designs are interesting as well.

As you can see in the chart above, the 120GB uses four lower capacity NAND ICs and populates all eight channels of SF2281 controller, whereas the 180GB only populates six of the eight channels but uses denser NAND. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses but the 180GB should actually be faster thanks to its increased interleaving even if it only makes use of three NAND ICs and populates less of the controller’s channels.

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With online average asking prices of $147 and $210 for the 120GB and 180GB models respectively, the 525-series may seem a tad expensive, but in the mSATA marketplace this is actually quite reasonable. Unlike the standard 2.5” SSD marketplace, the mSATA segment was in desperate need of shakeup. If the 525 series is indeed able to offer relatively good performance along with such a low asking price, this may just be the model UltraBook consumers have been waiting for. However this is a very big ‘if’ as many other companies have tried –and failed – to offer such a blend in the past.
 
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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: 2.0
Intel 335 180GB: 335t
Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB: 505
SanDisk UltraPlus 256GB: 365A13F0
Kingston SSDNow V300 240GB: 505
Intel 525 120/180GB: LLKi

SandForce SF1200 Drives:
OCZ Vertex 2 - ONFi 2 NAND

SandForce SF2281 Drives:
Intel 525 - custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 25nm NAND
Intel 520 - custom firmware w/ ONFi 2 25nm 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

Barefoot 3 controller:
OCZ Vector - ONFi 2 NAND
 
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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.

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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.

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Intel's 120GB and 180GB 525 Series drives have very good sequential read and write performance. This has never been an area of concern for mSATA drives but hopefully it is a sign of things to come.
 
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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.

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Considering that these two small drives are in amongst larger 2.5” SSD’s, both the 120GB and 180GB's performance curves are excellent. Based on these results, unless a consumer knew that the 525 series was an mSATA drive, they wouldn't be able to tell it from these charts.

Unfortunately, ATTO test suite has always been a strong suit of LSI SandForce SF2281 based drives and the compression characteristics of this controller could in fact simply be masking an underlying issue. This would explain the near parity of both drives' performance curves.
 
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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.

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Once again both of these micro sized drives post results which are surprisingly good. The small file single and deep queue depth results are a touch lower than you would want to see in a modern drive, but the results are still excellent for the mSATA market. You would never expect this level of performance from such a small package.


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.

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While the difference is not overly large, the 180GB is once again slightly faster than its smaller 120GB sibling. However, both post very respectable numbers.
 
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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.

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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.

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Once again some of the performance numbers are a bit lower than you would find from a mainstream 2.5” form factor SSD. The very fact that the overall performance of the 525 Series is so close to Intel's own 520 Series speaks volumes about its capabilities.

Of course, the 180GB 525 is a consistently better performer. It may use 25% less NAND ICs but its greater interleaving makes is a higher performing drive.
 
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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.

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While we doubt no 525 will ever find itself in such a workstation-focused scenario, it never ceases to amaze how such diminutive drives can easily outperform even a 10,000 RPM hard drive.
 
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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.

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Adobe CS5 Load Times


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!

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It appears that the synthetic test results just don't do these drives justice. Not only can the 525 Series compete against larger 2.5” SSDs, but they can actually outperform some.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Portable Performance / 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.


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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.


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Usually we would not be overly impressed with this level of performance from a new SSD series. However, these are not typical drives meant for a high end desktop environment. They may not be able to compete against higher end 2.5” drives, but they don’t have to.
 
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AkG

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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.

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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.

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While the full drive performance drop off is a bit worse than it is for their ‘full sized’ counterparts, the fact that the 525 Series is able to hold its own against 2.5” drives really does underscore how impressive these new drives really are. Intel has obviously tweaked and refined the design to help negate a lot of the potential downside to using so few NAND ICs.

As for the specifics of each of these drives, the 180GB –unsurprisingly – fares a touch worse in these tests than its 120GB counterpart. The larger model may have better interleaving but the loss of two channels is significant here. This does fly in the face of what the rest of the empty drive test results show, but the difference is not all that great between these two drives. To get the best of both worlds (four way interleaving on all eight channels) consumers will need to step up to the more expensive 240GB version.
 
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