|Intel 525 SSD mSATA Solid State Drive|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Storage|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Tuesday, 12 February 2013|
Intel 525 SSD mSATA Solid State Drive Review
Ideal high-performance storage for Ultrabook, notebook, embedded systems, and workstation upgrades
Full Disclosure: The product sample used in this article has been provided by Intel.
Built from the same technology that made the Intel SSD 335 Series possible, the Intel Solid State Drive 525 Series packages a LSI/SandForce SF-2281VB1-SDC processor optimized for the mSATA interface with 6Gb/s bandwidth and available in capacities up to 240GB utilizing 25nm INFT NAND Flash components. Ideal for high-performance storage in notebook computers, tablet devices, and enthusiast motherboard, the Intel 525 SSD is a simple upgrade that instantly boosts speed and responsiveness. In this article, Benchmark Reviews tests the Intel SSD 525 Series mSATA Solid State Drive (SSDMCEAC240B301) against SATA 6GB/s storage solutions.
Specifications for the Intel SSD 525 Series mSATA solid state drive indicate sustained sequential read speeds up to 550 MB/s and writes reaching 520 MB/s. Performance for 4 KB random reads reaches 50,000, while writes climb to 80,000 IOPS. Intel's SSD 525 series uses a second-generation LSI/SandForce SF-2281VB1-SDC processor with enhanced BCH ECC capability that supports for ATA-7 Security Erase. Like all SF-2281 SSDs, the Intel SSD 525 series also offers standard features such as idle garbage collection, TRIM, and AES 128-bit encryption. Intel's SSD 525-series is available in 30/60/120/180/240GB capacities, and features 25nm 64GB IMFT NAND Flash components. Intel offers consumers the industry's best customer service backed by a five-year warranty on all 525-series mSATA solid state drives.
Users have several free tools available to them for managing their Intel solid state drive: Intel SSD Toolbox with Intel SSD Optimizer, and Intel Data Migration Software. Intel SSD Toolbox/SSD Optimizer delivers management, information, and diagnostic tools to maintain health on Intel SSD 525 and optimize performance to original clean-NAND levels. SSD Toolbox includes a System Configuration Tuner that assists users in configuring their computer system to take advantage of 525-series performance features. Data Migration Software helps users upgrade their PC with an Intel SSD 525 Series mSATA solid state drive. This tool clones the entire operating system and user files from an existing drive to compatible Intel SSD 525-series solid state drives.
Intel SSD 525 Specifications
Closer Look: Intel SSD 525
The Intel SSD 525-series is compact 6GB/s mSATA high-performance solid state drive storage product. Intel's Solid-State Drive 525 Series comes in an OEM brown box, available in capacities from 30-240GB. The 240GB model (SSDMCEAC240B301) we're testing in this article sells for $299.99 (Newegg / Amazon). Ideal for users wanting to upgrade a notebook computer, tablet device, or compatible desktop motherboard.
The list of mSATA-compatible computing devices is growing fast, nearly as quickly as SSDs are gaining popularity among PC, Linux, and Apple computer users. Since introduced in 2010, the mSATA interface has offered an alternative storage interface for performance-oriented power users wanting to speed-up their notebook or tablet device. Warrantied five-years of product protection, the Intel SSD 525 solid state drive could out-last the device it's installed into.
Measuring 2.0" (51mm) long, 1.18" (30mm) wide, and only 3.7mm thick, the Intel 525 packs plenty of performance and capacity into a small product that weighs a mere 6 grams (0.2 ounces). Each Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive is comprised of a full-size mSATA printed circuit board, with a SandForce controller and NAND Flash modules attached to each side.
Similar to other second-generation LSI/SandForce-driven SSDs, Intel SSD 525 Series features a SF-2281VB1-SDC SATA 6Gb/s processor. Offering 8 flash channels with 8 Byte lanes configured (one lane per channel), the SF-2281 maintains a BGA-256 package. The SF-2281 controller offers advanced ECC engine correcting up to 55 bits per 512-byte sector to assure high data integrity and support for future generations of flash memory. More detail is available in our LSI/SandForce SF-2000 Series SSD Processor Overview article.
All Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drives utilize 25nm multi-layer cell Intel/Micron Flash Technology (IMFT) NAND Flash components. Depending on SSD capacity, different Intel NAND Flash parts are used: 29F64G08LCME2 (30GB), 29F16B08MCME2 (60GB), 29F32B08NCME2 (120GB), and 29F64B08PCME1 (180/240GB).
Intel included mSATA to SATA adapter board with the solid state drive sample, which allowed Benchmark Reviews to directly compare Intel SSD 525 Series performance to our library of previously tested SATA-based products. Pictured below is the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive installed into the adapter board.
All LSI/SandForce SSD controllers offer native TRIM garbage collection in supporting Operating System (such as Microsoft Windows-7), Native Command Queuing (NCQ) with 32 command slots, and basic Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) command set. LSI/SandForce built the SF-2200 series to produce 500 MB/s sequential read and write bandwidth with 60K (burst)/20K (sustained) IOPS random write (4K transfers). The firmware controls the performance variables on LSI/SandForce SSDs, and some manufacturers have licensed custom firmware to unlock additional performance for their products.
The SF-2281 SSD processor provides enhanced ECC with BCH data protection, and also includes LSI/SandForce's unique RAISE (Redundant Array of Independent Silicon Elements) technology. RAISE provides the protection and reliability of RAID on a single SSD drive, thanks to flash architecture, without the significant write overhead of parity. The LSI/SandForce DuraClass technology automatically stores data using Trusted Computing Group (TCG) OPAL security with 256-bit AES encryption and automatic, line-rate double encryption with a drive-level password, preventing data extraction directly from the physical flash memory modules.
SSD Testing Methodology
Solid State Drives have traveled a long winding course to finally get where they are today. Up to this point in technology, there have been several key differences separating Solid State Drives from magnetic rotational Hard Disk Drives. While the DRAM-based buffer size on desktop HDDs has recently reached 64 MB and is ever-increasing, there is still a hefty delay in the initial response time. This is one key area in which flash-based Solid State Drives continually dominates because they lack moving parts to "get up to speed".
However the benefits inherent to SSDs have traditionally fallen off once the throughput begins, even though data reads or writes are executed at a high constant rate whereas the HDD tapers off in performance. This makes the average transaction speed of a SSD comparable to the data burst rate mentioned in HDD tests, albeit usually lower than the HDD's speed.
Comparing a Solid State Disk to a standard Hard Disk Drives is always relative; even if you're comparing the fastest rotational spindle speeds. One is going to be many times faster in response (SSDs), while the other is usually going to have higher throughput bandwidth (HDDs). Additionally, there are certain factors which can affect the results of a test which we do our best to avoid.
SSD Testing Disclaimer
Early on in our SSD coverage, Benchmark Reviews published an article which detailed Solid State Drive Benchmark Performance Testing. The research and discussion that went into producing that article changed the way we now test SSD products. Our previous perceptions of this technology were lost on one particular difference: the wear leveling algorithm that makes data a moving target. Without conclusive linear bandwidth testing or some other method of total-capacity testing, our previous performance results were rough estimates at best.
Our test results were obtained after each SSD had been prepared using DISKPART or Sanitary Erase tools. As a word of caution, applications such as these offer immediate but temporary restoration of original 'pristine' performance levels. In our tests, we discovered that the maximum performance results (charted) would decay as subsequent tests were performed. SSDs attached to TRIM enabled Operating Systems will benefit from continuously refreshed performance, whereas older O/S's will require a garbage collection (GC) tool to avoid 'dirty NAND' performance degradation.
It's critically important to understand that no software for the Microsoft Windows platform can accurately measure SSD performance in a comparable fashion. Synthetic benchmark tools such as ATTO Disk Benchmark and Iometer are helpful indicators, but should not be considered the ultimate determining factor. That factor should be measured in actual user experience of real-world applications. Benchmark Reviews includes both bandwidth benchmarks and application speed tests to present a conclusive measurement of product performance.
Storage Hardware Tested
The following storage hardware has been used in our benchmark performance testing, and may be included in portions of this article:
Test Results Disclaimer
This article utilizes benchmark software tools to produce operational IOPS performance and bandwidth speed results. Each test was conducted in a specific fashion, and repeated for all products. These test results are not comparable to any other benchmark application, neither on this website or another, regardless of similar IOPS or MB/s terminology in the scores. The test results in this project are only intended to be compared to the other test results conducted in identical fashion for this article.
Alex Schepeljanski of Alex Intelligent Software develops the free AS SSD Benchmark utility for testing storage devices. The AS SSD Benchmark tests sequential read and write speeds, input/output operational performance, and response times. Because this software receives frequent updates, Benchmark Reviews recommends that you compare results only within the same version family.
Beginning with sequential transfer performance, the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive produced speeds up to 494.61 MB/s reads and 299.79 MB/s writes. Because this benchmark uses compressed data, sequential file transfer speeds are reported lower than with other tools using uncompressed data. For this reason, we will concentrate on the operational IOPS performance for this section. Single-threaded 4K IOPS performance tests deliver 22.00 MB/s read and 58.37 MB/s write, while the 64-thread 4K reads recorded 232.99 MB/s and write performance was 236.32 MB/s.
AS-SSD 64-thread 4KB IOPS performance results are displayed in the chart below, which compares several enthusiast-level storage products currently on the market. In these 64-thread 4KB IOPS performance tests the Intel SSD 525 Series-series outperformed many other SSDs, virtually identical to the Intel SSD 335 SEries yet nearly matching the premium-level Intel SSD 520 Series. The chart below is sorted by total combined performance, which helps illustrate which products offer the best operational input/output under load:
In the next section, Benchmark Reviews tests transfer rates using ATTO Disk Benchmark.
ATTO Disk Benchmark
The ATTO Disk Benchmark program is free, and offers a comprehensive set of test variables to work with. In terms of disk performance, it measures interface transfer rates at various intervals for a user-specified length and then reports read and write speeds for these spot-tests. There are some minor improvements made to the 2.46 version of the program that allow for test lengths up to 2GB, but all of our benchmarks are conducted with 256MB total length. ATTO Disk Benchmark requires that an active partition be set on the drive being tested. Please consider the results displayed by this benchmark to be basic bandwidth speed performance indicators.
ATTO Disk Benchmark: Queue Depth 4 (Default)
Our bandwidth speed tests begin with the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive attached to the Intel P67-Express SATA 6Gb/s controller operating in AHCI mode. Using the ATTO Disk Benchmark tool, the test drive performs basic file transfers ranging from 0.5 KB to 8192 KB. This 240GB model reports 557 MBps maximum read speeds that plateau from about 1024-8192 KB file chunks, and 534 MBps peak write bandwidth plateaus from 128-8192 KB. These results exceed Intel's performance specifications of 550/520 MBps for the SSD 525 Series, and compared very well against the fastest SATA-based solid state drive products.
In the next section, Benchmark Reviews tests sequential performance using the CrystalDiskMark 3.0 software tool...
CrystalDiskMark 3.0 Tests
CrystalDiskMark 3.0 is a file transfer and operational bandwidth benchmark tool from Crystal Dew World that offers performance transfer speed results using sequential, 512KB random, and 4KB random samples. For our test results chart below, the 4KB 32-Queue Depth read and write performance was measured using a 1000MB space. CrystalDiskMark requires that an active partition be set on the drive being tested, and all drives are formatted with NTFS on the Intel P67 chipset configured to use AHCI-mode. Benchmark Reviews uses CrystalDiskMark to illustrate operational IOPS performance with multiple threads. In addition to our other tests, this benchmark allows us to determine operational bandwidth under heavy load.
CrystalDiskMark uses compressed data in its benchmark tests, so sequential file transfer speeds appear lower compared to those tested with other tools using uncompressed data. This section concentrates on operational IOPS performance using compressed data.
CrystalDiskMark 3.0 reports sequential speeds reaching 481.7 MB/s reads and 314.1 MB/s writes on the Intel SSD 525 Series. 512K test results reached 415.9 MB/s read and 296.1 MB/s write performance. 4K tests produced 26.09 read and 73.96 write performance. All of these results are significantly better than many previous generation solid state drive storage products.
Maximum 4KB IOPS performance results at queue depth 32 are reported in the chart below. These values represent the performance levels for several enthusiast-level storage solutions, and illustrates which products offer the best operational performance under load:
In the next section, we continue our testing using Iometer to measure input/output performance...
Iometer IOPS Performance
Iometer is an I/O subsystem measurement and characterization tool for single and clustered systems. Iometer does for a computer's I/O subsystem what a dynamometer does for an engine: it measures performance under a controlled load. Iometer was originally developed by the Intel Corporation and formerly known as "Galileo". Intel has discontinued work on Iometer, and has gifted it to the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL). There is currently a new version of Iometer in beta form, which adds several new test dimensions for SSDs.
Iometer is both a workload generator (that is, it performs I/O operations in order to stress the system) and a measurement tool (that is, it examines and records the performance of its I/O operations and their impact on the system). It can be configured to emulate the disk or network I/O load of any program or benchmark, or can be used to generate entirely synthetic I/O loads. It can generate and measure loads on single or multiple (networked) systems.
To measure random I/O response time as well as total I/O's per second, Iometer is set to use 4KB file size chunks over a 100% random sequential distribution at a queue depth of 32 outstanding I/O's per target. The tests are given a 50% read and 50% write distribution. While this pattern may not match traditional 'server' or 'workstation' profiles, it illustrates a single point of reference relative to our product field.
All of our SSD tests used Iometer 1.1.0 (build 08-Nov-2010) by Intel Corporation to measure IOPS performance, using a SandForce-created QD30 configuration: 4KB 100 Random 50-50 Read and Write.icf. The chart below illustrates combined random read and write IOPS over a 120-second Iometer test phase, where highest I/O total is preferred:
In our Iometer tests, which are configured to use 32 outstanding I/O's per target and random 50/50 read/write distribution, SandForce SSDs generally outperform the competition when tested with this large queue depth. The OCZ Vertex 4 SSD delivered the best combined IOPS performance we've seen from any SATA-based SSD with 83,494, followed by the Intel SSD 520 Series at 80,433 peak combined IOPS, then the Intel SSD 335 Series with 80,015. This 240GB Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive kept pace with all the leaders, delivering top-end IOPS performance with 75,980 combined IOPS.
It should be noted that nearly all modern SSDs deliver I/O far beyond the needs of multi-tasking power users and hardcore gamers, and would be ideal for systems running several virtual machines.
In our next section, we test linear read and write bandwidth performance and compare its speed against several other top storage products using EVEREST Disk Benchmark. Benchmark Reviews feels that linear tests are excellent for rating SSDs, however HDDs are put at a disadvantage with these tests whenever capacity is high.
EVEREST Disk Benchmark
Many enthusiasts are familiar with the Lavalys EVEREST benchmark suite, but very few are aware of the Disk Benchmark tool available inside the program. The EVEREST Disk Benchmark performs linear read and write bandwidth tests on each drive, and can be configured to use file chunk sizes up to 1MB (which speeds up testing and minimizes jitter in the waveform). Because of the full sector-by-sector nature of linear testing, Benchmark Reviews endorses this method for testing SSD products, as detailed in our Solid State Drive Benchmark Performance Testing article. However, Hard Disk Drive products suffer a lower average bandwidth as the capacity draws linear read/write speed down into the inner-portion of the disk platter. EVEREST Disk Benchmark does not require a partition to be present for testing, so all of our benchmarks are completed prior to drive formatting.
Linear disk benchmarks are superior bandwidth speed tools in my opinion, because they scan from the first physical sector to the last. A side affect of many linear write-performance test tools is that the data is erased as it writes to every sector on the drive. Normally this isn't an issue, but it has been shown that partition table alignment will occasionally play a role in overall SSD performance (HDDs don't suffer this problem).
The high-performance storage products we've tested with EVEREST Disk Benchmark are connected to the Intel P67-Express SATA 6Gb/s controller and use a 1MB block size option. Read performance on the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive measured average speeds of 470.1 MB/s, with a maximum peak speed of 470.2 MB/s. Everest linear write-to tests were next...
The waveform chart above illustrates how well the Intel SSD 525 Series managed file transfers, making linear write performance appears very consistent. Intel's SSD 525 recorded an average linear write-to speed of 476.8 MB/s, with maximum performance reaching 484.3 MB/s. The chart below shows the average linear read and write bandwidth speeds for a cross-section of storage devices tested with EVEREST:
Linear tests are an important tool for comparing bandwidth speed between storage products - although HDD products suffer performance degradation over the span of their areal storage capacity. Linear bandwidth certainly benefits the Solid State Drive, since there's very little fluctuation in transfer speed. This is because Hard Disk Drive products decline in performance as the spindle reaches the inner-most sectors on the magnetic platter, away from the fast outer edge.
In the next section we use PCMark Vantage to test real-world performance...
PCMark Vantage HDD Tests
PCMark Vantage is an objective hardware performance benchmark tool for PCs running 32- and 64-bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista or Windows 7. PCMark Vantage is well suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista/7 PC: from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops, to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Benchmark Reviews has decided to use the HDD Test Suite to demonstrate simulated real-world storage drive performance in this article.
PCMark Vantage runs eight different storage benchmarks, each with a specific purpose. Once testing is complete, results are given a PCMark score while and detailed results indicate actual transaction speeds. Intel SSDs are best known for their high levels of I/O, and the SSD 525 Series keeps the tradition alive. The 240GB Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive produced a total PCMark Vantage (secondary disk) HDD Test Suite score of 64628, with specific speeds reported below:
Our tests were conducted on an Intel P67-Express Sandy Bridge motherboard using the onboard native SATA 6Gb/s controller with 64-bit Windows 7. Because new drivers were used, this test is not comparible to past tests and may not be fairly compared to storage devices attached to other computer systems.
In the next section, I share my review conclusion and final product rating.
Intel SSD 525 Conclusion
IMPORTANT: Although the rating and final score mentioned in this conclusion are made to be as objective as possible, please be advised that every author perceives these factors differently at various points in time. While we each do our best to ensure that all aspects of the product are considered, there are often times unforeseen market conditions and manufacturer changes which occur after publication that could render our rating obsolete. Please do not base any purchase solely on our conclusion, as it represents our product rating specifically for the product tested which may differ from future versions. Benchmark Reviews begins our conclusion with a short summary for each of the areas that we rate.
SandForce has made an enormous impact on the storage market, and as a result Benchmark Reviews has tested plenty of products based on their technology over the past few years. 2012 was filled with countless reviews of SF2281-based SSDs; most sharing performance results nearly identical to one another. It was surprising to find a SandForce SF-2281VB1-SDC inside the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive, but it makes perfect sense because this wildly popular SATA 6 GB/s controller has a track record of solid performance and reliability.
Our performance rating considers how effective the Intel SSD 525 Series mSATA solid state drive performs in operations against directly competing SATA-based storage solutions. For reference, SandForce specifies the SF-2281 controller capable of 500 MB/s maximum read/write speeds, which Intel tweaks to 550/520 MB/s sequential read/write. In our storage benchmark tests, the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive (model SSDMCEAC240B301) performed at or above this speed, and competed with the fastest SATA-based products previously tested. Our test results proved the Intel SSD 525 Series was good for delivering 557/534 MBps peak read/writes speeds using ATTO Disk Benchmark, which matches performance with the Intel SSD 335 Series as well as the fastest SandForce-based SSDs we've tested. Linear testing with Everest Disk Benchmark produced 470/477 MB/s, placing the Intel SSD 525 Series among the very top results.
The 240GB OEM kit sent us for testing advertises 4 KB random I/O reads reaching 50,000, and up to 80,000 write IOPS for 130,000 combined IOPS. Using a SandForce-provided configuration for our own Iometer operational performance tests, we used a queue depth of 32 outstanding I/O's per target that measured 75,980 combined IOPS performance. In this test, the Intel SSD 525 Series performed well and positioned itself among the highest-I/O products, and measured better than nearly all other SandForce SF-2281 SSDs. In the 4K 32QD tests with AS-SSD and CrystalDiskMark, the Intel SSD 525 Series outperformed enthusiast storage solutions like the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS Edition.
Solid State Drives are low-visibility products: you see them just long enough to install and then they're forgotten. Like their Hard Disk Drive counterparts, Solid State Drives are meant to place function before fashion. Since the Intel 525 SSD is a mSATA-based solid state drive, there's not much room to build up appearances. To this extent, the product fulfills its purpose while maintaining some visual appeal.
Construction is probably the strongest feature credited to the entire SSD product segment, and Intel products have never offered any exception. Solid State Drives are immune to most abuses by nature of their durable technology, but if any Intel SSD 525 Series product fails during the limited 5-year warranty period end-users may contact Intel's customer support. I've personally used Intel's warranty service, and found their customer support to be among the very best on the Planet.
As of February 2013 the Intel SSD 525 Series mSATA solid state drive was available in several capacities from online retailers:
The second-generation SandForce SF-2281 controller included on Intel's SSD 525 Series mSATA solid state drive achieved performance levels eclipsing the fastest SATA-based storage solutions we've tested, while matching performance with the 6 GB/s Intel SSD 335. It's clear by Intel's specifications that SSD 525 is designed to deliver exceptional transfer speeds with emphasis on improved I/O performance. 25nm IMFT NAND Flash components ensure the Intel SSD 525 Series delivers top-end performance for a decade or longer of continuous use, while Intel's five-year product warranty delivers industry-leading protection, Intel's high level of after-sales customer support is far and beyond anything the competition can offer. In consideration of its compact mSATA form factor, top-level performance, and reasonable price, the Intel SSD 525 Series solid state drive series earns our Golden Tachometer Award for excellence.
+ Outstanding 557/534 MBps read/write speed with ATTO
- Expensive enthusiast-level product
Final Score: 9.0 out of 10.
Excellence Achievement: Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award.
COMMENT QUESTION: Which of your devices offer the mSATA interface?