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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“We are taking back the enthusiast marketplace”.

With those seven words, SSD product manager Kevin Crow boldly staked Intel’s claim in the high end storage market. It may sound like an overly ambitious goal considering the wealth of high end drives available these days but we can’t forget that Intel used to be the last word in SSD performance. The new 520 “Cherryville” series is the first step towards what they hope will be market domination.

Ever since SandForce’s introduction of the SF1200 series controller, Intel seemed to have fallen further and further behind the technology curve. While the Marvell-based 510 was indeed a good first step towards regaining market share lost to the SandForce juggernaut, it never could compete on a level playing field in categories like price, performance and flexibility. It may have outperformed the SandForce-based Vertex 3s of this world in some scenarios but the benchmark numbers normally associated with flagship drives remained elusive. Things are about to change since Intel is phasing out the 510 and replacing it with the 520 series of high performance SSDs. Not surprisingly, after a full year and a half in the making, they have chosen SandForce’s SF2281 controller for their newest SSD iteration and have added some unique features for good measure.

So why did Intel wait for over a year before releasing this model? Simply put they did not feel the controller and their firmware was ready for primetime until now; or as Intel put it the “(controller was) not good enough” until now. Intel puts every third party controller through the same extensive testing and validation process as their own controllers – yes this does mean new Intel-branded controllers are in the works for release later this year – and testing of that nature takes a lot of time. This ultra conservatism is why they can have such an ultra low return rate and why they can offer 5 year warranties while other companies can only offer three years of protection and have to live with much higher failure rates.

As you can see above, the 520 series will come in a number of capacities and performance levels. They will range in size from 60GB boot drives all the way up to ultra expensive 480GB model which boasts a massive amount of space but slightly lower theoretical IOPS numbers. Essentially, there should be something here for everyone with prices ranging from $150 to $1000 and possibly higher.

Unlike some past Intel SSDs which tended to sell for a significant premium over the competition, the 510 240GB is priced right in line with other SF2281 drives. Now $509 for volume purchases and likely $519 at retailers isn’t inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination but it isn’t too far above what other companies’ enthusiast grade products go for. This is coupled with an unheard of – for SF2281 drives – five year warranty which should certainly make the projected MSRP more palatable.

On the surface of things the 520 appears to be nothing more than a just another SandForce drive. It uses a 2.5” form factor exterior which is a touch flashier than some with its black plastic fascia and all matte silver body. However, nothing screams “different” like the black topper that can easily be removed to turn it from a standard 9.5mm height drive to a 7mm height one, making the 520 infinitely adaptable for notebooks and desktops alike.

By opening up the 520 we can see that the internals look very similar to just about every other SandForce 2281-based drive on the market. Some of the populated NAND slots may be in a different orientation than usual but there are still 16 ICs in total. The same can be said of the small heat pad which connects the SF2281 controller to the exterior case and turns the chassis into a heat sink, as some other manufacturers use an almost identical layout.

On first glance the NAND modules don’t appear to be special as they are the “same” 25nm Intel branded Compute NAND, 5K erase cycle chips which are found in drives like the Kingston HyperX. However, the real secret to making this drive stand out in a cluttered market can’t actually be seen by the naked eye: there’s a custom firmware lurking behind the scenes which has been developed from the ground up by Intel.

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