Intel 330 SSD; A New Budget Friendly Drive
To many, Intel's SSD lineup has always been appealing but unfortunately, many of their drives have always been on the expensive side. Their new 330 series (available in 60GB, 120GB and 180GB capacities) on the other hand is looking to continue the 300-series' award winning combination of great performance coupled with a relatively modest asking price.
The reasoning behind what some may consider to be a "dumbing down" of an elite lineup is quite straightforward. While solid state storage technology is maturing at a blistering pace, the fact still remains that SSD are still quite expensive and cater more to enthusiasts than budget conscious consumers. However, enthusiasts only make up a minuscule part of the storage marketplace and it is the everyday buyers with less disposable income who are the key to the long term success of SSDs. Intel has always been cognizant of this and have done their level best to cater to as wide a consumer base as possible by offering multiple models, each of which is designed, marketed and priced to meet the needs of very different market niches.
To help ease potential consumer confusion over which model would be the best fit for them, Intel has implemented a very simple to understand nomenclature. Much like with their CPUs a 3 series Solid State Drive is an entry level model while the 5, 7 and 9 series are for consumers who demand more and are willing to pay a premium for the accompanying increase in performance. This instantaneous understanding of where a given model is in a manufacture’s SSD lineup is indeed unique with most companies preferring to muddy the(Octane) waters(Vertex 4) as(Vertex 3 MaxIOPS) much(Vertex 3) as(Synapse) possible(Agility3).
In the past, Intel’s 3 series were Intel controller based SATA 2 devices whereas the 5 series were powered first by Marvell and now by SandForce high performance controllers. With this 3 series product refresh Intel has opted out of using another Intel controller – rumor has it their new controller is slated for release later this year in a yet to be named drive – and instead uses the same SandForce SF2281 controller as their latest Intel 520 "Cherryville" series. Like all Intel drives, the 330 will have full access to the Intel Toolbox, making it the first entry level SandForce drive that supports superior non-Trim performance potential.
Equally important is the inclusion of high end NAND modules on the 330 series which nearly mirror the capabilities of those included on Intel's higher end drives. Many companies’ entry level drives may share the same controller as their enthusiast model, but none – that we are aware of - share the same NAND. Simply put, most companies only use ONFi 2 NAND for their higher end models and prefer to use much less expensive – and lower performing – ONFi 1 NAND for their budget friendly products. With the Intel 330 model, Intel has charted a different course. Instead of simply opting for “cheap” they are using a lower binned ONFi 2 NAND which can't meet their 520 model’s higher standards.
To ensure that this slightly lower binned NAND doen't die an early death, Intel has implemented firmware optimization and performance limiters. Unfortunately, these rather heavy handed firmware limitations imposed upon the 330 reduce the controller’s performance envelope down to 42,000 read and 52,000 write IOPS (for the 180GB model) from the 520’s 50,000 / 80,000. This is still greater than the 320’s maximum 23K / 39.5K IOPS so from one generation to another, Intel has still realized a significant synthetic performance advance.
It is worth noting that this drive may in fact be firmware optimized to maximize NAND lifespan but it isn't designed to have the 520 model's long life cycle. To be precise, the NAND housed within an Intel 520 is rated for a minimum of 5,000 erase cycles and as such the 520 comes with an industry leading five year warranty. By contrast the 330 comes with NAND only rated for 3,000 erase cycles and comes with the same length warranty as most competitors: three years. In talks with Intel, they were quick to point out that their firmware optimizations mean that you can still write to the full capacity of the drive numerous times a day –every day – without having to worry about the drive dying while it is still under warranty. Sadly, there is less margin above this minimum erase cycle specification than you would find in Intel’s higher tiered models.
While the 330 will boast higher benchmark numbers than its predecessor, raw performance isn't this drive's main selling feature. Rather than just competing on performance, Intel intends to help push the price of entry level drives lower than ever before. For as little as $89 you will be able to obtain a 60GB SSD ($1.48 per GB) or for $189 get a 120GB drive (1.24 per GB). Even the 180GB model will go for just $234 ($1.30per GB) which is a phenomenal value considering Intel's tradition of drive longevity.
With such a low asking price and highly reasonable capacities backed up with very good performance specifications, the Intel 330 may just help usher in a new era of truly great drives which don't cost an arm and a leg. This should help get even more consumers interested in SSD technology which will in turn help reduce prices even more. The Intel 330 really does seem like a win-win for budget and enthusiast consumers alike.
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