Crucial M4 256GB SSD Review

Author: AkG
Date: August 25, 2011
Product Name: Crucial M4 256GB
Part Number: CT256M4SSD2
Warranty: 3 Years
Purchase at NCIX: | UK
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Crucial may be a newcomer to Hardware Canucks but their SSDs just happen to be some of the most popular around right now due to their excellent pricing and wide availability. Their newest line of M4-series drives continues down the same path as previous generations but now uses the same Marvel 9174 controller we saw in the Corsair Performance 3. With this kind of pedigree, these SSDs should have performance which is similar to the Corsair drive while retaining some impressive abilities to recover from a degraded state when used outside of a TRIM environment.

This is the direct successor to the iconic, wildly successful C300 which was the first ever high performance SATA 6GB/s solid state drive for consumers. Meanwhile, the M4 is basically the OEM version of the C300’s successor: the OEM-only C400. But what really makes this drive pop up on our radar is Crucial being a subsidiary of Micron who fabricates the 25nm NAND housed within many of this generation’s enthusiast level SSDs. Like Intel, Micron gets first pick from any batch of NAND for their own drives, so it will be interesting to see if this translates into a performance boost for the M4 over other, similar drives.

Another interesting wrinkle in the fabric of this drive is the fact that Crucial produces an in-house custom firmware for the M4. Since they also make the NAND housed within it, they can refine the firmware more precisely to get the absolute best performance out of the Marvell 88SS9174 controller. Not many other companies have this luxury and have to create firmware that is less refined for a given NAND, but able to work very well across a broader spectrum of designs.

With an average online asking price of $430, the M4 256GB drive actually hits a point below the similar $450 to $500 Corsair Performance 3 256GB while retaining the same warranty length of three years. This may make it the go-to drive for consumers who haven’t quite yet jumped onto the TRIM-supporting OS bandwagon.

The Crucial M4 certainly is an interesting looking drive. With its metallic silver case with black center stripe running the entire circumference of the case it certainly is aesthetically pleasing even though it is small enough to be completely overlooked within a windowed case. It is interesting to note that the label lists this as a “RealSSD C400”, but as mentioned previously the M4 and C400 are the same drive, just different brand names for different environments.

One thing that should be mentioned is that the maximum wattage rating is simply off the charts at a full 2 amps off the 5 volt line, or 10 watts of power. This of course is the absolute worst case scenario for the SSD but it is still up there with some high performance hard drives.

The internal architecture of the Crucial M4 is radically different from that of the Performance 3. Unlike the Performance 3 with its 1.8” form factor PCB, the M4 uses a more standard 2.5” form factor PCB. On the printed circuit board, there are sixteen Micron branded 25nm chips nestled into all 16 ICs, a Marvell 88SS9174-BLD2 controller chip and an external ram chip. Based on previous experience this cache chip should help buffer any weakness prevalent with the Marvel controller and also help negate any visible performance issues when running in a potentially degraded state (i.e. a non-Trim environment).

The cache chip is of course made by none other than Micron. “D9LGQ” tells us that this is a lead free, 96-ball (9 x 14mm) FBGA packaged IC with a capacity of a 128 Megabytes. More importantly it is a DDR3-1333 SDRAM chip with CAS Latency of 9.

Much like the PCB and NAND configuration is a departure from the design we saw in the Performance 3, so too is the controller. The Corsair drive uses the slightly older, first revision of the second generation Marvell 9174 controller (i.e. the 88SS9174-BKK2) while this Crucial drive has the second revision “BLD2” designation. The differences between these two revisions should be minor at best as they are a result of a continuous refinement process all Marvell products undergo.

The M4 uses the same Micron 25nm ONFi 2 NAND found in many of today’s 240/256GB drives such as the Vertex 3 240GB we reviewed awhile back. This is a departure from the Performance 3’s use of Toggle Mode modules.

Sicne we received the reviewers version of the Crucial M4 256GB drive, we can’t comment too much about the packaging or accessories. What we can say, is that the accessories which accompanie a retail M4 can vary greatly as there is three basic packages to chose from. The basic version comes with only the M4 SSD itself (sku CT256M4SSD2). The typical retail package comes with 2.5” to 3.5” adapter bracket (sku CT256M4SSD2BAA) and a third variation comes with a USB to SATA adapter, allowing you to back up / clone your existing drive to the M4 without first removing the older drive (sku CT256M4SSD2CCA).

For price comparison purposes against the Performance 3, we have chosen the mid-grade option with adapter plate since the Corsair drive comes with a similar set of accessories.

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