Intel 520 240GB Cherryville SSD Review

Author: Anthony "AkG" Garland
Date: February 4, 2012
Product Name: 520 240GB
Part Number: SSDSC2CW240A3K5
Warranty: 5 Years
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The Intel 520: Not Just Another SandForce Drive

“Working through Intel’s extensive validation process ensures the Intel 520 SSD will raise the bar in delivering top-tier performance and superior quality and reliability over the life of the drive.”
- Michael Raam, vice president and general manager of LSI’s Flash Components Division (formerly SandForce)

If you hang around the storage enthusiast community long enough one acronym – usually used in a very derogatory way – will crop up again and again whenever a “new” drive is released: JASFD, otherwise termed as Just Another SandForce Drive. As the name suggests, SandForce’s SD2281 controller has a lot of market penetration and as such literally every high end drive uses it with only a few things to help distinguish one from another. In no particular order these “distinguishing features” are the type of NAND housed within, the label on the outside, warranty and price tag. Up until now all of these drives have used what is basically the same firmware provided by SandForce themselves. Certain companies may do a few minor tweaks, or have access to the firmware revisions faster, but to the storage enthusiast community they are all pretty much the same. Naturally, this made for a very, very boring market without much variation or excitement.

Considering SF2281 drives are now a “dime a dozen” but have been widely available for a long, long time now and its predecessor relied on the Marvell controller, our enthusiasm for the Intel 520 was a bit tempered. In addition, the outgoing 510 was a great alternative to the SF2281 blitzkrieg for non-TRIM capable systems.

So why is this late comer not just another SandForce drive? Simply put it is an entirely different beast with a number of interesting features. The 520 uses Intel Compute NAND rated for 5,000 erase cycles and while this is identical to what’s used in the Kingston HyperX line, as Intel so bluntly put it in a recent conference call: “all other companies get a lower grade NAND”. Intel supposedly reserves absolute best modules from any batch of 25nm NAND made to use in their own drives.

These claims aren’t idle boasts either since they are backed up by cold hard facts. Intel stated that their target for reliability is a failure rate of less than 0.75% per year. Based on market data that places total returns for previous drives at 1% (which includes drives returned under their no hassle return policy), this is certainly an attainable goal. Intel is also putting their money where their mouth is by offering a 5 year warranty on all 520-series drives.

There is also a firm commitment to –as Intel bluntly put it – never “bait and switch”. When the 20nm generation of NAND lands later this year, the 520 will not be moved over to it. The 520 will always use 25nm NAND and when a new variation of this drive comes out it will get a unique model number. So you will never need worry about getting a repeat performance of the controversy that followed (and still doggedly sticks to) a certain company that arbitrarily switched their SF1200 based drives to 25nm NAND without telling customers.

Intel’s Firmware Customization

While everything we talked about above may sound great, nothing really stands out as enough to make the 520 series really stand out. But then there’s the firmware. SandForce has actually done the unthinkable and opened up their code base to Intel, allowing for a complete top to bottom customization to take place. In fact, while any SandForce-created improvements will be quickly available on the 520’s firmware, any advances from Intel’s side of the fence won’t be cascaded down to other SF2281 clients. This firmware is so different that LSI – the new owners of SandForce – have publicly stated the Intel 520 will raise the bar for SSD performance.

The list of changes runs the gamut from more refined background garbage collection routines to faster performance when dealing with compressible and incompressible data types. This last bit is crucial as SF2281 drives aren’t all that great when dealing with already highly compressed data such as .mp3, .mkv, .avi, .mkv and other audio / visual formats.

Alongside the new firmware, Intel has accomplished something that no one else – including OCZ – has been able to do: provide a fully featured toolbox that is actually useful for tasks other than firmware updating. As we already know – and have proven time and time again – SandForce drives aren’t optimal solutions for non-TRIM environments due to their reliance on TRIM commands to maintain performance over time. This is in fact one of the main selling features of the Intel 510 and other Marvel-based drives such as the Crucial M4: they can keep themselves in tip top shape without TRIM.

These preconceptions go out the air lock with the introduction of the 520. It has full access to the Intel Toolbox including manual optimization options so cleaning can be run manually or during a prescheduled maintenance period. Even if you are using the drive in non-TRIM environments this SandForce drive will never, ever get slow no matter how little you let the system idle. To Intel’s credit, the toolbox program doesn’t work with any other SandForce drive – we tried- and thus only the Intel 520 will get this competition killing feature.

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