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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  • jtleon - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    Yes I fell asleep atleast 3 times reading this article (it IS Monday afterall)

    Yes, Indilinx clearly rocks the SSD world - Now I know thanks to Anand!

    Stories like this set the standard for all review sites - I don't come away with the feeling I was just sold a bill of goods by some schiester in Intel's pocket, or otherwise.

    Great Job Anand! Keep them coming!
    Reply
  • SSDdaydreamer - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    I too am wondering whether TRIM will be available on the Intel Drives for Windows XP or Vista. I seriously doubt it, as the OCZ Wiper Tool appears to only be available for Indilinx controllers. Perhaps Intel will introduce their own wiper utility. I am leaning towards the OCZ Vertex or Patriot Torqx drives, as I am quite content with Windows XP and Windows Vista.
    I have an itchy trigger finger on these SSDs, but I want to hold back for the following unknowns.

    1. I would like to use the NTFS file system for my drive, but I am unsure of the proper/ideal block size.

    2. I would merely like to image my existing Windows Installation, but I am worried that performance or stability problems will arise from the NTFS file system. A fresh install could be in order, but it is preferred to image.

    3. Is there a way to change the size of the spare area? Maybe I have the wrong idea (perhaps only format part of the drive, unformatted space goes appends to the spare area?) I am willing to sacrifice some of the usable partition space for an increased spare area for improved performance.

    4. Are there complications with multiple partitions? If there are multiple partitions on the drive (for multi-boot) do they all share the same spare area? Is it possible to allow their own respective spare areas?


    Is there anybody out there that could enlighten me? I'm sure others would do well to have the answers as well. If I make any discoveries, I will be sure to post them.
    Thanks in advance.
    Reply
  • bradhs - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    IS there a "Wiper" app for Intel X-25m G2 drives? For people who don't have Windows 7 (TRIM) and want to keep the Intel X-25m G2 running smooth. Reply
  • smjohns - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    No there is no wiper tool for Intel drives at the mo. In addition to this the current firmware on the Intel drives do not have TRIM enabled. I guess this will be released soon after Windows7 is released. I think I have read somewhere that Intel are working on a TRIM version of it's Matrix Storage Manager software that will provide this functionality to the other operating systems. Reply
  • Burny - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    As many before me: great article! I learned a lot about SSD's. Even up to the point i'm ready to buy one.
    I still have 2 questions tough:

    2. Will TRIM be available on the G2 Intel drives for sure? Some sources doubt this: http://www.microsoft.com/communities/newsgroups/en...">http://www.microsoft.com/communities/ne...t=&l...


    3. As I understand, TRIM will work on a firmware level. That implies that TRIM will also function under Windows XP or any OS for that matter? Then why the need to build another TRIM into Windows 7? Or does a TRIM firmware enabled SSD simply allows the OS to use TRIM?

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • smegforbrain - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    While I consider myself handy with computers, I'm not the best technical mind when it comes to the details. You do an excellent job of presenting everything in a manner that it can be understood with little difficulty. I look forward to future articles about SSDs.

    I do have a question I'm hoping somebody can answer. I'm as interested in the long-term storage outlook of SSD drives as I am every day use. I've seen it said that an SSD drive should hold its charge for 10 years if not used, and it was discussed a bit earlier in this thread.

    Yet, none of my current mechanical hard drives are more than 3 years old; none of my burned DVDs/CDs are older than 5 years. It seems far more likely that I would replace an SSD for one with a greater storage capacity after 5 years tops than to expect one to be in use, even as archival storage, for as long as 10 years.

    So, is the 10 year 'lifespan' even going to be an issue with archival storage for most people?

    Will this worry over the life span of an SSD become even less of an issue as the technology matures over the next couple of years?
    Reply
  • Starcub - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    "So, is the 10 year 'lifespan' even going to be an issue with archival storage for most people?"

    No, but who takes wads of money out of their wallet to store it on their shelf?
    Reply
  • smegforbrain - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    "No, but who takes wads of money out of their wallet to store it on their shelf?"

    That is simply assuming that they will remain as expensive as they are now. They won't.
    Reply
  • BlackSphinx - Sunday, September 06, 2009 - link

    Hello! I'm taking the time to comment on this article, because I am very thankful for all of these awesome write-ups on SSD.

    I'm in the process of building an heavily overclocked i7 rig for gaming and video edition, and I was going to jam 2 Velociraptors in Raid0 in there. Why? I had only heard bad things about SSDs in the past.

    Reading your aticles, who are, while in depth, very clear and easy to understand, I understand much better what happened in early SSDs, what's so good about recent Indilinx and Intel SSD, and, truly, why I should forgo mechanical drives and instead go the SSD route (which, frankly, isn't more costly than a Raid0 raptor setup). In short, these articles are a great service to the end users just like myself, and if they were intended as such, you have passed with flying colors. Congratulations and thanks.
    Reply
  • Transisto - Sunday, September 06, 2009 - link

    Could someone reset my brain as to why there is no way to get a (very noticeable) improvement from USB thumb-drives. I mean these thing also get 0.1 ms latency.

    It's a bit extreme but for the same price I could get 9 cheap 8gb SLC usb drive for around 20$ each and put them in three separate PCI-USB add-on card (5$)

    They would saturate the USB controler with 3 drive in it so I Could get around 140mb/s read and 60mb/s write.

    Say you manage to merge that into a raid or ... ? Is eboost or Readyboost any good at scaling up ?

    Reply

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