Crucial MX500 500GB Review – The Evolution Begins
Crucial, the company who many believe is the juggernaut of the SSD industry, has been on a roll as of late. Last year saw Crucial release the first ever TLC 3D NAND drive (the MX300) and then the BX300 which happened to be the first ever MLC 3D NAND SSD from IMFT the company founded by Micron and Intel. These two series proved to be an extremely potent one-two combination that left the competition staggering since they covered the mainstream and value ends of the market perfectly.
Unfortunately, there was one small hiccup. Both SSD series ended up competing against one another rather than targeting offerings from other companies. This reversal of fortune for the BX and MX series’ relationship can all be traced back to the first-generation 3D NAND used in each of those lines’ refresh. Basically the more value-oriented brand ended up benefiting from better technology. The BX300 received the seemingly superior MLC NAND option and the MX300 was the first M series to use TLC-based NAND.
Soon after its release, many people in the industry started wondering aloud about the MX300 successor and if Crucial was either going to stay the course with TLC for their mainstream series, or revert back to the way ‘things used to be’ before the MX300 landed and shook things up. That answer came a little while ago. Crucial ended up sticking to their guns as the all new MX500 is indeed TLC based. But there are many things going on behind the scenes which make this new series infinitely superior to its predecessors.
This move may be controversial since quite a few vendors have moved away from TLC-based NAND for their latest SSDs. However Crucial does have a pair of aces up its sleeve in the form of much improved 3D NAND and a controller that could be deemed revolutionary.
The first ace takes the form of the NAND being used. Much like the MX300 introduced Micron’s first-generation 3D NAND production, the MX500 is the showcase model for the all new second generation 3D TLC NAND. While details are sparse even now after its official launch, what is known is Micron – the ‘M’ in IMFT and Crucial’s parent company – did indeed take all the lessons learned from their first foray into 3D NAND and distilled this knowledge into their second iteration.
These lessons all boil down to one thing: making SATA-based solid state drives more affordable while also making them more robust in the long term. The first major difference is that unlike the first-generation 3D NAND Crucial has aimed higher and is now using a 64 layer process which translates into a claimed 30% reduction in production costs. This helps explain why a large 500GB model has an MSRP of only $139.99 – or 28 cents per GB. Though this may not be the massive reduction in cost per gigabyte of capacity one would expect, it will certainly be good news for consumers.
On the surface combining lower costs of manufacture with more layers may not impress die hard “MLC only” type buyers but this NAND is radically different than its 32-layer predecessor. The last generation used 32 layers to hit 384Gb (48GB) of capacity per ‘block’ whereas this new 2nd generation model uses 64-layers to hit 256Gb (32GB). What this means is the cells are larger, more robust, and a lot less likely to thermally limit – all critical to real world performance.
This reduction in capacity also explains why the odd-ball sizes of the MX300 have been frog marched out the nearest air-lock. Instead of confusing 275/525/750/1050/2050MB capacity options the new MX500 will come in much more typical 250/500/1000/2000MB options. This is more of a fringe benefit as this change in NAND density also means that the over-provisioning and NAND-interleaving will be much, much more sensible.
For instance, the $140 (USD) 500GB capacity version being reviewed today has a raw capacity of ~512GB spread over 8 dual die NAND ICs. This gives the 500GB a comfortable 12GB of over-provisioning and very well thought out NAND interleaving of 4/4/4/4 – both of which are noticeable improvements over the 525GB MX300.
This new NAND would have been unlikely to sway many potential buyers one way or the other, as the second-generation MLC 3D NAND is on the horizon – just Gen 1 MLC 3D NAND was when the MX300 released.
Further making the MX500 an entirely different beast is for the first time ever Crucial has not tapped Marvell and their latest and greatest controller to power an M-series drive. Instead Crucial has moved on to the potent SMI SM2258H controller. This is the exact same controller which powers the BX300 and has proven its mettle within many past SSDs. More importantly, Crucial’s firmware team now has a lot of experience with the unique quirks of this particular controller and have created razor sharp firmware for the new MX500.
On the negative side of the equation the SMI controller does lack some of the hardware-based data loss protection which helped make the MX series so special. Instead of rows upon rows of super-capacitors that allowed previous drives to protect data in the case of a sudden loss of power there are only a few.
On first glance this is a major downgrade. However, the reality is that this new 2nd generation NAND is much more power efficient and requires less power to save data in case of emergency. Basically that means less capacitors are actually needed in the first place.
The SMI 2258H controller also has built in firmware-based data loss protection and this combination provides home users with the best of both worlds; less chances of data needing to be saved and more than enough power to just that in the unlikely event that the firmware solution fails.
Falling in between these extremes are also a few noteworthy points that we need to cover. For example, on the surface having the exact same total drive write specifications as its predecessor won’t win any converts.
However, Crucial is now so confident in their 3D NAND’s durability – TLC NAND technology be damned – that instead of the three year warranty that all B and M models before it were given, the MX500 comes with an industry leading five year warranty. Yes this does mean the drive write per day has gone down compared to the MX300, but few will ever hit the 87GB+ per day needed to max out their drive write warranty, but everyone will hit the three, four and five year mark without worries over a RMA denial due to it being OOW (Out of Warranty). Needless to say, we suggest all readers of this review keep an open mind as the MX500 is indeed worthy of your time – even if you have sworn off TLC drives in the past.
Test System & Testing Methodology
Properly testing a modern Solid State Drive to fully understand its abilities is not a simple undertaking. It takes time and it takes experience as relying upon tried and true applications is no longer good enough. Modern solid state drives come with a whole arsenal of tricks to ensure that the end-user never sees the true capabilities of a drive long enough to form a negative opinion. They have gotten so good at coming up with workarounds that minimize any underlying issues that even less experienced reviewers can be fooled.
This certainly is a laudable goal as at the end of the day a SSD is not meant for reviewers it is meant for users. As such anything that can make the overall experience a more positive one has to be considered a good thing. It does however make it difficult to make an informed decision a drive is never truly pushed past its performance envelope – as only then can you the potential buyer know if a given model is right for you.
This new testing methodology is the distillation of a decade’s worth of Solid State Drive reviewing. In these years we have seen all the tricks, all the workarounds and have spent a lot of time and effort on creating an improved methodology that is designed to strip away them all. Only then can we show you our readers exactly what a drive is made of. To do this we have blended in new with the old. Long term readers will notice that many of our tests are similar to the way we used to do things, but even here things have changed greatly. The size, the scope, and even the underlying methodology has been improved.
In the past we, like other review sites, would test a drive when empty of all other data. This is unrealistic and while we did do some limited partial and full drive performance it was based on an unrealistically optimistic scenario. As such from now on all solid state drives will be tested only when they are first filled to 50% capacity. The only exceptions are testing applications that require an empty drive to work. For example, HD Tune requires not only an empty drive but a drive that is also unpartitioned in order to run. These are now the exceptions not the rule.
Long term readers will also notice a few new additions to our testing suite. These custom tests are worst case scenarios that we have come up with that are still in the realm of possibility – as all tests are focused in on showing overall performance in as realistic a manner as possible.
For all of the benchmarks, appropriate lengths are taken to ensure an equal comparison through methodical setup, installation, and testing. The following outlines our testing methodology setup:
A) Windows is installed using a full format.
B) Chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) are installed.
C) To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks are applied to Windows 10 Pro and the NVIDIA control panel:
• UAC – Disabled
• Indexing – Disabled
• Superfetch – Disabled
• System Protection/Restore – Disabled
• Problem & Error Reporting – Disabled
• Remote Desktop/Assistance – Disabled
• Windows Security Center Alerts – Disabled
• Windows Defender – Disabled
• Screensaver – Disabled
• Power Plan – High Performance
• V-Sync – Off
D) All available Windows updates are then installed.
E) All programs are installed and then updated, followed by a defragment.
F) All networking is disabled so as to eliminate this variability in overhead
G) Benchmarks are each run four to ten times, and unless otherwise stated the results are then averaged.
The full system specs are as follows:
Case: Lian-Li PC-T70W
Motherboard Chipset: Intel X299
CPU: Intel 7940x
RAM: DDR4-3200 16-16-16-18
OS: 64-Bit Windows 10 RS2 Pro
OS Drive: 1x 1TB Corsair MX300 SSD
Graphics card: EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 SC Gaming
Power Supply: Seasonic Focus Gold 850FX
For this benchmark, HDTune was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. While this application will provide numerous results 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.
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.
Due to the fact that any modern solid-state drive is bottlenecked by the SATA interface and AHCI protocols, buyers should not expect to see any major difference from one drive to another. The only noteworthy point is that the MX500 still exhibits two-tiers of performance. This is because once the pseudo-SLC write buffer – aka ‘Drive Write Acceleration – is exhaust performance will plummet to TLC levels.
However, the difference in these two tiers is not as significant as it was in the last MX300 generation, and compared to others like OCZ’s TR200 series it is actually fairly peppy when in this ‘degraded’ state. This is all thanks to the way the SMI 2258 controller handles internal house cleaning and while the end result will never be accused of MLC levels of performance its really not that bad.
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 with a queue depth left at its default of 4. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second. Of all the results there are four that we consider the most important. 0.5KB, 2KB, 4KB, and 8192KB. The first three show how a given drive can handle those critical small files, while the largest shows what the drive can do under optimal scenarios.
Now that we are dealing with as slightly more realistic testing suite the end results are rather surprising. The combination of SMI with second generation CuA TLC NAND is indeed a winning one. As you can see this drive is almost as good as last generations drive with twice the capacity.
Obviously, this due to the Marvell controller used in the MX300 is showing its age rather than this new combination being an amazing performance leap forward for TLC. TLC is always going to be slower than MLC, but Crucial has narrowed the gap. It does still exist though and this is why the MX500’s performance is slightly worse than a similarly sized BX300 – as the BX300 uses the same controller but with MLC 3D CuA NAND.
Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your 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.
While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark 8, only one is pertinent: the Storage 2.0 test. The Storage 2.0 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 even more realistic synthetic benchmark results the MX500 500GB is indeed noticeably superior to the last generation MX300. So much so that the whole TLC question is quickly becoming a non-issue as this performance level is sure to satisfy the typical mainstream consumer nicely. This new second generation TLC 3D CuA is indeed potent technology as even Toshiba’s BiCS TLC NAND with Toshiba controller is no match for this new Crucial combination of SMI + 2nd gen Micron TLC 3D CuA NAND.
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.
Once again the BX300 may post slightly better performance results than the MX500 but the 500GB capacity version of the MX500 series is one of the smallest available. We expect larger capacity models to do even better. Put another way, when compared to the best BX300 the MX500 500GB may not be able to keep up but, TLC or not, the MX500 series is indeed going to be a better choice for mainstream consumers.
IOMeter Latency Torture Test
In a perfect world the response time of a storage device should be as close as instantaneous as possible. This of course is impossible, instead any delay that is under 0.100 of a second (100miliseconds) is considered the gold standard of storage responsiveness. This is because 100ms is generally considered the smallest perceptible interval of time humans can perceive. Anything above this will result in the occasional perceptible ‘stutter’. However, a single solitary 200ms pause is better than a significant cluster of 150ms pauses. As such any and all results must be considered in their totality and not just based on a single data point. This is why we have included four charts instead of just two. The first two charts represent the total results of an IOMeter 10 minute read test and a 10 minute write test. The last two just show the average read/write results as well as the maximum read/write response rate that occurred during these tests.
To obtain these results we configured IOMeter to use a 10 second ramp up followed by a 10 minute run for each test using the entire drive’s capacity. We also configured IOMeter to record the results in one second increments (the smallest time slice allowable). The first test was using 4K aligned data chunks that were 100% random, 100% write only using its Full Random pattern. The second used 4K aligned data chunks that were 100% random, 100% read. This is done to show how the controller handles emergency housecleaning even when inundated with read I/O request.
In this test we are not focusing in on steady-state results or other Enterprise orientated determining factors. We are simply looking for overall latency under what can be considered a realistic worst-case scenario for home users via a method that can still reliably strip away the various protection mechanism the controller has in its arsenal to keep up appearances. This is not the bad old days where ‘SSD Stutter’ is still truly a thing. Instead this test is designed to solely highlight how good or bad a controller and NAND combination really is.
All tests were run four times and the most common result was used.
These results just underscore how much better the SMI controller is than the older MX300’s Marvell controller and why Crucial finally had to move on to a different company. As you can see there is indeed two tiers of performance but the new MX500 series gets out of this stage faster, stays cleaner longer and is just a lot more consistent than what Marvell based models could do.
This is actually one of the very few TLC drives we would even consider for workstation use – however we would still not recommend it. Longer warranty or not, the MX500 series is not an optimal choice due to the TLC NAND used. This however is one of the few areas that the TLC vs MLC debate will rage. For average home users it still is not worth worrying about – as the results of this new MX500 series are bloody fantastic for any SATA drive in the 500GB capacity class.
Windows 10 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. We have chosen Windows 10 RS2 64bit Pro as our Operating System with all ‘fast boot’ options disabled in the BIOS. 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 Malwarebytes 2 to initiate a quick scan on Windows start-up and the completion of the quick scan will be our new finish line.
Adobe CC 2017 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 fared in the Adobe crucible!
The MX500 is indeed a nice upgrade from the MX300 series and once again the 500GB capacity version is basically punching way above its weight class. So much so that it really will take a MX300 drive with twice the capacity, and twice the NAND interleaving, to beat what this new series can do. Equally impressive is OCZ is definitely behind the eight-ball as even their twice the capacity competitor is not able to keep up. Bloody marvelous.
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 120 tabs set to reload in offline mode upon Firefox startup, but this is exactly what we have done here.
By having 120 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 worst 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.
Data Transfer Torture Test
New to our testbed suite is a simultaneous read and write test using real world data. Unlike almost all other tests in our arsenal this is a test that literally pits the controller and NAND against itself. The faster the controller reads data from the NAND the more pressure it puts on itself to write to the NAND – and vice versa. This is truly a no win scenario for the controller. Rather it has to find the optimal balance between read and writes in real-time, while also juggling house-keeping and other behind the scene tasks that allow the controller to be able to write to ready to use NAND.
By doing this we not only strip away all cache boosting performance, as well as short term performance boosting algorithms, we also see exactly how good the firmware, the controller, and even the NAND is at handling high stress environments. Further helping to show what a controller & NAND’s true abilities are we have opted for 60GB single file for the large file test and 20GB for the small file test. This way even the largest pseudo-SLC buffer will be unable to mask any underlying weakness.
On the surface the idea of the average home user running into a scenario that requires simultaneous read and write performance seems minimal at best. The reality however is it is a very common occurrence. Most PC users do not have multiple solid state drives and instead rely upon a single storage device to handle all their needs. As such when they download a steam game and then install it, this is the type of scenario they will run into. Albeit to a more limited extent.
In order to allow for consistency from run to run we have chosen RichCopy to carry out this arduous task. Also, in order to replicate as close as possible a home user environment we have limited RichCopy to a single thread / queue depth.
These results really do seal the deal on our opinion for the new MX500 series. These results are so good that we can only salivate at what the mega-capacity 2TB model would accomplish. This really is the first time in quite some time that we have been excited about a SATA based solid state drive – as the MX500 is just that good. So good that no one should care about the type of NAND being used. TLC, MLC… it does not matter. The MX500 really does right the upturned apple cart and puts the MX series back in the forefront for mainstream users and places the BX300 back in its proper place as a series meant for budget restricted buyers.
Conclusion – A Surprising Breath of Fresh Air
Obviously the MX500 is not the massive paradigm shifting, revolutionary drive like its predecessor, the well-received MX300. But it doesn’t have to be, nor should it be due to the inherent limitations of the SATA interface most mainstream SSDs use. All it has to be is verifiably better. This is what the MX500 was designed to do – and does it very well.
The MX300 was indeed a great drive that was absolutely full of technological innovation but what the MX500 lacks in wow factor it more than makes up for in tangible, real-world benefits. Few, beyond diehard MLC-only buyers, will care about the underlying technology used. All they will care about is the cost of purchase, the real-world performance, and the length of that all-important warranty. Here is where the MX500 easily outshines both its MX300 and BX300 forefathers. This is simply an awesome drive for those of you who are looking for something outside bleeding edge M.2, PCIe and U.2 SSDs.
In a perfect world Crucial would have neatly side-stepped the whole TLC fragility concern by the simplest expedient of using MLC NAND for their new MX500 series. Unfortunately, much as it was the last generation, the second-generation MLC 3D NAND is simply not ready for mass production and it is quite expensive. Instead, only the TLC production line at Micron’s shiny new Fab 10X in Singapore is ready. But don’t take this as a sign of fragility.
Given the fact that Crucial has indeed reduced the real-world consistency issues associated with TLC NAND, I’m not overly concerned about longevity in this situation. Naturally, as with any newer drives, issues are still a possibility but as proven early in this review it is nowhere close to being a significant problem for the majority of consumers. Bluntly stated, MX500’s firmware is well engineered and the latest iteration of their pseudo-SLC buffer ‘Drive Write Acceleration’ does work better than ever at protecting the cells against premature aging.
In return for compromising on the NAND type used, potential MX500 buyers can expect to see a high single to low double digit increase in performance over the last generation. This visible and quite noticeable performance boost is then combined with a lower asking price and a massive increase in warranty length so we doubt few will complain.
The only ones who really will be complaining are those who really crave to see what IMFT’s shiny new second generation 3D NAND can do when not hobbled with a SATA controller. Until such a time that Crucial decides to release a NVMe based model the wait may be a long one. I expect the next model to be a BX300 replacement and fully cement the MLC for B and TLC for MX design philosophy that Crucial has opted for. I also expect the trend of SMI being used to continue as Crucial is highly conservative and rarely changes the underlying manufacture without a very good reason.
In the meantime, the MX500 500GB certainly does everything Crucial set out to accomplish. It is fast for a SATA AHCI drive, it is large enough to satisfy most, and its warranty is sure to satisfy everyone. Mix in excellent data-loss protection and the MX500 may not send as large a shockwave though the industry as the MX300 did but it certainly has set the bar higher. Whether or not this is enough to differentiate itself from the competition remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: the price per Gigabyte for quality SSDs has once again fallen. We expect to see other manufacturers scramble to keep up with Crucial or drop out – as their profit margins just got that much thinner. Brilliant stuff indeed.