Intel's X25-M 34nm vs 50nm: Not as Straight Forward As You'd Think

It took me a while to understand exactly what Intel did with its latest drive, mostly because there are no docs publicly available on either the flash used in the drives or on the controller itself. Intel is always purposefully vague about important details, leaving everything up to clever phrasing of questions and guesswork with tests and numbers before you truly uncover what's going on. But after weeks with the drive, I think I've got it.

  X25-M Gen 1 X25-M Gen 2
Flash Manufacturing Process 50nm 34nm
Flash Read Latency 85 µs 65 µs
Flash Write Latency 115 µs 85 µs
Random 4KB Reads Up to 35K IOPS Up to 35K IOPS
Random 4KB Writes Up to 3.3K IOPS Up to 6.6K IOPS (80GB)
Up to 8.6K IOPS (160GB)
Sequential Read Up to 250MB/s Up to 250MB/s
Sequential Write Up to 70MB/s Up to 70MB/s
Halogen-free No Yes
Introductory Price $345 (80GB)
$600 - $700 (160GB)
$225 (80GB)
$440 (160GB)

 


The old X25-M G1


The new X25-M G2

Moving to 34nm flash let Intel drive the price of the X25-M to ultra competitive levels. It also gave Intel the opportunity to tune controller performance a bit. The architecture of the controller hasn't changed, but it is technically a different piece of silicon (that happens to be Halogen-free). What has changed is the firmware itself.


The old controller


The new controller

The new X25-M G2 has twice as much DRAM on-board as the previous drive. The old 160GB drive used a 16MB Samsung 166MHz SDRAM (CAS3):


Goodbye Samsung

The new 160GB G2 drive uses a 32MB Micron 133MHz SDRAM (CAS3):


Hello Micron

More memory means that the drive can track more data and do a better job of keeping itself defragmented and well organized. We see this reflected in the "used" 4KB random write performance, which is around 50% higher than the previous drive.

Intel is now using 16GB flash packages instead of 8GB packages from the original drive. Once 34nm production really ramps up, Intel could outfit the back of the PCB with 10 more chips and deliver a 320GB drive. I wouldn't expect that anytime soon though.


The old X25-M G1


The new X25-M G2

Low level performance of the new drive ranges from no improvement to significant depending on the test:

Note that these results are a bit different than my initial preview. I'm using the latest build of Iometer this time around, instead of the latest version from iometer.org. It does a better job filling the drives and produces more reliable test data in general.

The trend however is clear: the new G2 drive isn't that much faster. In fact, the G2 is slower than the G1 in my 4KB random write test when the drive is brand new. The benefit however is that the G2 doesn't drop in performance when used...at all. Yep, you read that right. In the most strenuous case for any SSD, the new G2 doesn't even break a sweat. That's...just...awesome.

The rest of the numbers are pretty much even, with the exception of 4KB random reads where the G2 is roughly 11% faster.

I continue to turn to PCMark Vantage as the closest indication to real world performance I can get for these SSDs, and it echoes my earlier sentiments:

When brand new, the G1 and the G2 are very close in performance. There are some tests where the G2 is faster, others where the G1 is faster. The HDD suite shows the true potential of the G2 and even there we're only looking at a 5.6% performance gain.

It's in the used state that we see the G2 pull ahead a bit more, but still not drastic. The advantage in the HDD suite is around 7.5%, but the rest of the tests are very close. Obviously the major draw to the 34nm drives is their price, but that can't be all there is to it...can it?

The new drives come with TRIM support, albeit not out of the box. Sometime in Q4 of this year, Intel will offer a downloadable firmware that enables TRIM on only the 34nm drives. TRIM on these drives will perform much like TRIM does on the OCZ drives using Indilinx' manual TRIM tool - in other words, restoring performance to almost new.

Because it can more or less rely on being able to TRIM invalid data, the G2 firmware is noticeably different from what's used in the G1. In fact, if we slightly modify the way I tested in the Anthology I can actually get the G1 to outperform the G2 even in PCMark Vantage. In the Anthology, to test the used state of a drive I would first fill the drive then restore my test image onto it. The restore process helped to fragment the drive and make sure the spare-area got some use as well. If we take the same approach but instead of imaging the drive we perform a clean Windows install on it, we end up with a much more fragmented state; it's not a situation you should ever encounter since a fresh install of Windows should be performed on a clean, secure erased drive, but it does give me an excellent way to show exactly what I'm talking about with the G2:

  PCMark Vantage (New) PCMark Vantage HDD (New) PCMark Vantage (Fragmented + Used) PCMark Vantage HDD (Fragmented + Used)
Intel X25-M G1 15496 32365 14921 26271
Intel X25-M G2 15925 33166 14622 24567
G2 Advantage 2.8% 2.5% -2.0% -6.5%

 

Something definitely changed with the way the G2 handles fragmentation, it doesn't deal with it as elegantly as the G1 did. I don't believe this is a step backwards though, Intel is clearly counting on TRIM to keep the drive from ever getting to the point that the G1 could get to. The tradeoff is most definitely performance and probably responsible for the G2's ability to maintain very high random write speeds even while used. I should mention that even without TRIM it's unlikely that the G2 will get to this performance state where it's actually slower than the G1; the test just helps to highlight that there are significant differences between the drives.

Overall the G2 is the better drive but it's support for TRIM that will ultimately ensure that. The G1 will degrade in performance over time, the G2 will only lose performance as you fill it with real data. I wonder what else Intel has decided to add to the new firmware...

I hate to say it but this is another example of Intel only delivering what it needs to in order to succeed. There's nothing that keeps the G1 from also having TRIM other than Intel being unwilling to invest the development time to make it happen. I'd be willing to assume that Intel already has TRIM working on the G1 internally and it simply chose not to validate the firmware for public release (an admittedly long process). But from Intel's perspective, why bother?

Even the G1, in its used state, is faster than the fastest Indilinx drive. In 4KB random writes the G1 is even faster than an SLC Indilinx drive. Intel doesn't need to touch the G1, the only thing faster than it is the G2. Still, I do wish that Intel would be generous to its loyal customers that shelled out $600 for the first X25-M. It just seems like the right thing to do. Sigh.

Used vs. New Performance: Revisited All Indilinx Drives Are Built Alike
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  • tachi1247 - Friday, September 18, 2009 - link

    Does anyone know what the difference is between the 7mm thick and 9.5mm thick drives?

    http://download.intel.com/design/flash/nand/mainst...">http://download.intel.com/design/flash/nand/mainst...

    They seem to be identical except for the drive thickness.
    Reply
  • dszc - Saturday, September 12, 2009 - link

    FANTASTIC series of articles. Kudos! They go a long way toward satisfying my intellectual curiosity.

    But now it is time to reap the rewards of this technology and earn a living.
    So I need some real-world HELP.

    How do I clone my 320GB (80GB used) Hitachi OS drive (Vista 32 SP2) over to a 128GB Indilinx Torqx?

    All I really care about is Photoshop and Bridge CS4 performance. I am a pro and work 4-16 hours per day in Bridge and Photoshop, with tens of thousands of images, including 500MB - 2GB layered TIFFs. The Photoshop Scratch Disk and Bridge and CameraRaw Cache performance are killing me. Solid State Storage seems to be the perfect solution to my problem

    I really want to simply clone my 320 over to the Torqx, because it would take me a week to re-install and configure all of my software and settings that are now on the 320GB Hitachi.

    Do I just bring the Torqx up in the Vista Storage Disk Management, initialize it with one big partition, and then format it?
    What size allocation unit should I use? :
    Default? 4096? 64k? ???
    Will these settings be wiped out when I clone over the stuff from the old hard drive?
    What about "alignment"?
    What is the best software for a SIMPLE & painless clone procedure?

    I'm not a techie or geek, but have a fair working knowledge of computers.

    Any help would be hugely appreciated. Thanks.
    Reply
  • userwhat - Thursday, September 17, 2009 - link

    I use Drive Snapshot for all these purposes. It works 100%, it´s a very small and fast program. After having issues with Norton Ghost and some other similar programs which were absolutely unable to restore an imaged partition stored on a DVD this is THE one to use.

    Get it here: http://www.drivesnapshot.de/en/">http://www.drivesnapshot.de/en/
    Reply
  • dszc - Saturday, September 26, 2009 - link

    Thank you very much for your help and recommendations.
    To get my Patriot (SolidStateStorage) up and running, I used Seagate DiskWizard (an Acronis subset), as I have lots of Seagate drives already on my system and this free software seems to work.
    When I get a window of time in my schedule, I'll try DriveSnapShot and/or DriveImage to see if they do a better job in helping my Torqx SSS run at its full potential.
    Thanks again for your help.
    Dave
    Reply
  • JakFrost - Tuesday, September 15, 2009 - link

    If you want to image out your current drive and migrate over to an SSD you can use the free software below that works with Windows Volume Shadow Copies to do a online live migration to another drive without losing or corrupting your data. This means that you can do this from the same OS that you are running.

    This software will allow you to image out to an already created partition that is already aligned at the 1MB boundry that is standard for Microsoft Vista/7 operating systems.

    DriveImage XML V2.11
    English (1.78MB)

    Image and Backup logical Drives and Partitions

    Price: Private Edition Free - Commercial Edition - Buy Now Go!
    System Requirements: Pentium Processor - 256 MB RAM
    Windows XP, 2003, Vista, or Windows 7

    An alternative is to use an offline migration system such as Acronis TrueImage, Norton Ghost, etc. to do the migration offline from a bootable CD or USB drive. Search around for Hiren's BootCD to check out these and other tools to do the migration.
    Reply
  • dszc - Saturday, September 26, 2009 - link

    Thank you very much for your help and recommendations.
    To get my Patriot (SolidStateStorage) up and running, I used Seagate DiskWizard (an Acronis subset), as I have lots of Seagate drives already on my system and this free software seems to work.
    When I get a window of time in my schedule, I'll try DriveImage and/or DriveSnapShot to see if they do a better job in helping my Torqx SSS run at its full potential.
    Thanks again for your help.
    Dave
    Reply
  • jgehrcke - Friday, September 11, 2009 - link

    Be careful when buying a Super Talent UltraDrive GX 128 GB with "XXXX" in serial number (unfortunately you cannot check this before ordering the drive). These drives are much slower than measured in the benchmark here and in other benchmarks.

    For more information and related links see

    http://gehrcke.de/2009/09/performance-issue-with-n...">http://gehrcke.de/2009/09/performance-i...est-supe...
    Reply
  • Kitohru - Thursday, September 10, 2009 - link

    Does OS X Snow Leopard have trim support, and if not any word from apple about that or the like? Reply
  • Zool - Thursday, September 10, 2009 - link

    I still dont think that with this price ssd-s will be more mainstream in the next years. And honestly the performance is not even that extra if everything would work like it should. The mechanical drives can reach now 100 MB reads when things are optimal. The small files performance is still only software problem. U should never ever reach point when u need to randomly find 4 KB files in a long row. With todays ram capacity and cpus-s programs should never read such small files or group things in larger files and read whole to memmory. A solid today programed aplication (let it be game or programs) should never let your disk spam with 30k files (like catia or other plenty of aged so called "profesional" programs). With today ram and disk capacity it should read things to memmory and let only grouped larger files on disk and never ever touch the hdd again until users isnt comunicating with the software (u can tell it to windows).Saves can be made to memmory and than write to disk without even seeing a fps drop in games(not just games) becouse of disk comunication latenci
    I dont even think the IO performance would be a problem with the RIGHT software and OS. With 100MB reads it could run perfectly fine with few seconds loading times. Even the latencies of ssd-s are no match to ram latencies so everithing that should activly comunicate with disks (which is just stupid with curent ram prices and 64bit) would just level your latencies down to disks.
    Why should worry about latencies and read speeds when u could copy it to ram and keep the files on disk in shape where the mechanical drive
    should never find itself to read files smaller than few MB.(even your
    small txt documents u can hide in archive).
    Just my toughs. (sorry for my english)
    Reply
  • AlExAkE - Wednesday, September 09, 2009 - link

    Hey, I'm a web & multimedia designer. I spend lots of my time using most of the Adobe CS4 products including Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, After Effects & Premiere Pro.

    The Intel 80GB G2 looks amazing, but the Photoshop test is awful because of his write speed. The Intel 25-Extreme series seem to be the best but is to pricey. The OCZ Vertex has good write speed but is slower than Intel G2 in most of the test. What would be the recommended SSD for my purpose. Thanks
    Reply

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