SSDs are getting better, still not there yet

SSDs are getting better, still not there yet

Summary: To date, the solid-state disk has been a tech mirage. The vision is great, but it always seems to be just over the horizon.

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To date, the solid-state disk has been a tech mirage. The vision is great, but it always seems to be just over the horizon. SSDs have struggled to live up the performance promises, and they remain too expensive to provide any real competition to hard drives.

But that hasn't stopped companies from trying. A new generation of drives is getting us closer by improving the performance, and more important, using more advanced NAND flash memory to cut costs. In addition, Windows 7, which has now been released to manufacturing, includes features that should enhance the performance of SSDs.

Most reviewers agree that Intel's SSDs, the X25-M and X18-M, have come closest to delivering on the performance claims (not counting SSDs designed for servers from companies such as STEC and Fusio-io). This week, Intel announced its second-generation consumer SSDs, and several sites have already posted reviews with test results.

Like its predecessor, the X25-M G2 is a 2.5-inch drive available in 80- and 160GB capacities. Intel will release the 1.8-inch version, the Intel X18-M G2, later in the third quarter. The primary advantage of the new drive is that it uses the most advanced 34nm MLC NAND chips, rather than the 50nm MLC found in the first-generation drives. (MLC, or multi-level cell, NAND has two bits per cell, which doubles the storage density but also presents some performance and reliability challenges that require sophisticated controllers. Nearly all consumer SSDs use this type of NAND.) The 34nm process packs more bits on a chip, which translates to less-expensive SSDs. The old X25-M used twenty individual 8GB packages for 160GB total; the new X25-M G2 uses ten 16GB devices.

The new X25-M G2 80GB and 160GB will cost $225 and $440, respectively, in quantities of 1,000, and obviously a bit more at retail. Intel says that is 60 percent less than the original version at the same capacity, but this is a bit misleading since they are comparing prices at introduction. You can now pick up the original X25-M for $314 (80GB) or $599 (160GB). The new drives are still a long way from the industry's $1 per GB goal, never mind laptop hard drives, which are more like $0.37 per GB for 160GB (larger-capacity drives are even cheaper bit-for-bit). There were rumors that Intel would offer a 320GB version--which it could easily do by putting 10 NAND packages on each side of the circuit board as in the old design--but it didn't happen, most likely because the cost is simply too high. Still SSD prices have been coming down fast, thanks to a NAND industry that cuts manufacturing costs by roughly 40 percent each year.

The performance hasn't changed much, but it remains very good, according to the reviews. The sequential read performance was already at the limits of the SATA bus (300MB per second), so there's no real improvement there. And the sequential write continues to lag behind competitors, though PC Perspective notes that when Intel releases the planned firmware update for Windows 7, it should reach a consistent 80MB per second, still short of the fastest hard drives and SSDs. But the Intel drives shine on random reads and writes of small files. Compared with the first-generation drives Anandtech finds the new SSDs are 15% faster at random reads and 40% faster at random writes--and blow the doors off competing SSDs and, of course, hard drives.

Lexar Media also announced this week its second-generation SSDs. The 2.5-inch Crucial M225 series is available in capacities of 64-, 128- and 256GB for $170, $330 and $600, respectively. Lexar is claiming sequential read speeds of 250MB per second and write speeds of 200MB per second, but I haven't seen reviews of these models yet. Lexar is owned by Micron, which develops and manufactures NAND flash in a joint venture with Intel, but apparently these Crucial MLC drives aren't using 34nm chips since Intel claims to be the first.

Last week, Corsair introduced its Extreme series 2.5-inch performance SSDs at 32GB (X32), 64GB (X64) and 128GB (X128). These use Samsung's MLC NAND flash and an Indilinx Barefoot controller. Corsair claims these have the highest sequential read and write speeds currently available: 240MB per second and 170MB per second, respectively. The X128 is also sold as the Patriot Torqx, which Anandtech tested against Intel's new drive. He got a sequential read score of 256MB per second (almost exactly the same as the Intel X25-M G2) and an impressive sequential write speed of 140MB per second--nearly twice as fast as the 160GB X25-M G2. Corsair hasn't announced pricing for this series.

Though the NAND flash industry is hanging most of its hopes on SSDs, it continues to look for other applications to use up all those bits (aside from the iPhone 3G S). SanDisk mentioned on its quarterly call last night that it is now selling music on microSD cards for its slotRadio player at Radio Shack. And Disney Japan just announced plans to sell movies on Panasonic microSD cards bundled with regular DVDs, starting with Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure sometime in November.

Topics: Hardware, CXO, Intel, Storage, IT Employment

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26 comments
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  • Will never be there!

    SSD will never replace hard disk. It has the limitation that the number of times you can write to the same memory slots! Just copy 10,000 file directories to flash disks. How many times you can do before you get hardware fault!
    privacy matters
    • I wouldnt say never..

      They are only in their 1st and 2nd generations, give it time, when harddrives first came out they were not much better, my 1st harddrive was a 20MB drive that took up two 5.25 drive bays. The design and failure rate will get better.

      I am not going out and buying one right now though because of the price but I would love to have one for the speed, going as fast as the SATA bus, man I could render a movie in no time at all.
      NoThomas
      • Thanks for the throwback

        Wow, 20MB was my first too! That was when I changed from an old failed MFM hard drive to IDE. 20MB+IDE was revolutionary back then, and cost me too!

        Thanks for the throwback bud. I feel old.
        djmik
        • yea I know what you mean..

          If I remember right my 20MB was MFM, when it died I got a 30-40MB IDE, I thought I had it made. Especially when I got it to boot from the harddrive instead of the 5.25 floppies. One of my friends saw an old picture of my computer and was wondering why they had two floppies, 1 was for the OS, the other was for your software. Think how far we have come in 25 years, I think 10 years from now traditional harddrives will be a thing of the past and everyone will have SSD drives. Unless something better comes along between now and then.
          NoThomas
        • Wow you guys must be young

          guess I'm gettin old but I remember the old Diablo disk drives they were 10 mb and looked more like a Toro lawnmower than a disk drive.

          NAB :-)
          nabisho
      • Must've been second generation

        When I got HD upgrade to my Columbia, the only drives available were 10MB. It was good dropping the a: drive boot from floppy, but 10MB was definitely overkill - don't think I filled it more than 10%, about the same as today with the GB drives.

        Hey, and how about those 5" drives! Much handier than the 8-inchers on my S-100 CP/M machine.
        IT_User
        • 8" were before my time

          I did see them every now and then, my first computer was a amstrad that had 2 5.25 floppies in it. A few years later my cousin got a Tandy with a 3 1/2 floppies and I thought that was the coolest thing. My sister had a Vic20 that was the first computer i ever saw, late one night I took it apart examined it and put it back together. Thank god it worked.
          NoThomas
          • First computer I saw

            Hmmm...probably the IBM 7090 on the computer floor at NAVCOSSACT (quite a mouthful!) where I was assigned as a LTJG. And it didn't just have tape drives like all other 7090s, it actually shared a 4-foot-or-so tall disk drive with the 1410 that did its i/o. Very advanced for the pre-360 world.

            I'm thinking the first thing called a computer that fit on a desk was a Commodore PET - one of the guys in my office had it. Up until that time all the excitement was the back-and-forth between HP and Texas Instruments calculators, as HP brought out successive versions 35->45 etc, and TI consistently trumped with models costing about 1/2 as much.

            Ah, those were the days.
            IT_User
          • Hp/Gerber machines in the late 1980s had memory you could see

            Crossed wires with little magnetic beads - all 4kB in the space of one of today's PC power supplies. And they designed circuit boards on them! Makes you wonder how far have we really come with our GHz and GBs?

            I also had a dual 8" floppy CP/M system with an 8085 processor, and used dBase III and WordStar with an NEC SpinWriter thimble printer - $13,000 all up.
            Patanjali
      • What sped?

        Writting speed is slow than HD and it generates lots of heats. If you use for applications that keep writing continuously such as database systems, your drive will be gone very soon, since the write limit will be reached very soon. If you want to have see, copy 10,000 file directory to SSD. You coulr hit the problem at less than 10 times.
        privacy matters
        • You're right

          Then add onto the fact that the current file systems aren't designed for
          flash based storage - things start to get dicy when it comes to long term
          reliability.

          Oh, and atleast when a hard disk goes belly up, it is possible to rescue at
          least some of the data.
          Macintoshtoffy
        • Srill peddling FUD based upon irrelevant experience

          For anybody who reads the above poster's words. they have NOT used SSDs (that is 2.5" drives intended as HDD replacements).

          Their opinion is based solely upon their experience with a USB flash drive of unknown make and unknown reliability (due to it getting hot, which does not seem to happen to others).

          Do not be fooled, The person is peddlng their own ignorance.
          Patanjali
    • Opinion based upon ignorance

      Go read what that 10,000 actually means in practice with the technology they actually use to ensure EVERY block has had a similar number of writes (reads do NOT wear out SSDs).

      Given that most computer users only have high turnover on very small parts of their drives, such technologies make SSDs life much longer.

      SSD are FAST, SILENT and COOL. Yes, they need some optimisation in the OS, but OSs have been tweaked to work well with HDDs.

      Most optimisations for HDDs have had to do with making sure related blocks of information are close to each other to minimise head travel to lower latencies. For time critical purposes, separate HDDs have been used to ensure that OS use will not hijack the heads away from data access.

      SSDs have NONE of these limitaions. Random access has NO time penalties, and access times are almost 100 times faster.

      If you want make ignorant remarks, that is your perogative, but don't pretend you know what you are talking obout.
      Patanjali
  • RE: SSDs are getting better, still not there yet

    A "tech mirage"? You're kidding, right? Please, please go out and actually use an SSD before making the assumptions you do in this article. I use SSDs every day and believe they will soon replace HDDs in many applications. The increase in perform easily makes up for the price premium. See: http://solidstatedrivehome.com/forums/index.php?topic=18.0

    Regarding the post by "privacy matters": The write limitation has supposedly been overcome. I only say supposedly because I haven't owned my (4) SSDs long enough to confirm it myself. Please do some reading up on "wear leveling". This is also why the higher-priced SSDs use SLC flash instead of MLC.

    Mike
    mikeB4
    • Will never replace HD

      This is from my experience. I used to copy 5,000 file directories to flash drive, and found out that it's getting heated and soon reach hardware fault at about 10 times! SSD should not be far different from flash drives since they are the same but bigger bundled capacity. Slow writing speed, heating drives also problem with such devices. So I have to create big ZIP files and copy so that I don't hit the write limitations for my backups.


      privacy matters
      • Not relacing but complimenting

        I don't see SSD replacing HD but complimenting them. Use an SDD for you OS and Applications, stuff that doesn't change much. For you data you use a hard drive. Works slick, I've seen it and used it in action. Very nice.
        voska1
        • Only holdback IS price

          If SSDs were now the price of current HDDs, HDDs would almost die out IMMEDIATELY.

          For 99% of HDD usage, SSD are much faster, quiet, have no vibration and generate little heat.

          There are already many 250GB SSDs and since four would fit in the space of one 3.5" HDD, if they were the same $/GB, SSDs would be king.
          Patanjali
      • Flash drives are NOT in same ballpark as SSD

        Flash drives are NEVER expected to have any block written to 10,000 times, so they do NOT use wear levelling. Also, you obviously have faullty or cheap flash drives.

        Copying 5000 files does not copy them to one location 5000 times.

        Research before you make inappropriate extrapolations.
        Patanjali
  • RE: SSDs are getting better, still not there yet

    John, you sound like a fashionista, afraid to buy red when blue is fashion, until next year when red is fashion. Please evaluate the drive for its utility to what you need to do.
    richalt2
  • SSD are a rip off and waste of time

    SSD are simply a rip off and a waste of time - getting told
    that SSD are the future but every time we see scumbags at
    scandisk and samsung have co-ordinated factory 'shut
    downs' to apparently do 'maintenance and upgrading'
    which is more like, "producing less so we can screw over
    the consumer".

    Until I can pick up a 320GB SSD for the same or cheaper
    price as a hard disk for a laptop without the reliability,
    fragmentation or speed issues relating to random writing,
    I'll be sticking to traditional hard disk.

    It is the SSD producing scum that cause the lack of
    movement to flash - nothing to do with a lack of interest
    by people. People aren't going to spend thousands on an
    SSD drive simple to get something that holds less than
    their current hard disks do.

    Wake up Sandisk and Samsung; you are screwing over
    future business opportunities for the sake of short term
    profits.
    Macintoshtoffy