Intel 525 Series 120GB & 180GB mSATA SSD Review

Author: AkG
Date: May 6, 2013
Product Name: 525 Series 120GB / 180GB SSD
Part Number: SSDMCEAC120A301 / SSDMCEAC180A301
Warranty: 3 Years
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With the mSATA standard gaining popularity at a quick pace, many SSD manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon. Intel’s latest 525-series is looking to capitalize on this upsurge of interest by offering a high performance alternative to competing solutions. With that in mind, the 525 not only represents a rather significant upgrade over previous Intel mSATA drives but it also provides Ultrabook manufacturers with a viable high end yet compact storage device.

Historically, mSATA SSDs have had one primary focus: meeting the rather tiny mSATA form factor specifications. Capacity, performance and even price typically took a back seat to miniaturization and efficiency. While there have been aberrations to this rule, the marketplace is filled with rather lackluster options at ridiculously high prices. With Intel’s focus on the Ultrabook market, it comes as no surprise that increasing throughput would be at the top of their “to do” list. Intel needed a serious mSATA lineup which combined good performance, relatively high capacity and a reasonable asking price while still meeting the rather strict mSATA form factor specifications.

Considering many manufactures have tried this route and failed, Intel entrusted this endeavor to their own in-house and well accomplished storage division. To create the 525 series, they took a standard mSATA storage device’s PCB, installed an LSI SF2281 controller and used up to four dual die NAND 25nm IMFT MLC NAND ICs.

It may seem a controversial move to use older 25nm NAND instead of newer 20nm modules (the 335 Series did) but Intel needed NAND that left zero doubts about performance while still allowing for a reasonable MSRP. This also explains the inclusion of an LSI SandForce SF2281 controller instead of third generation Intel unit. Costs had to be maintained in order to offer a good mSATA drive at a price point most consumers, OEMs and system integrators would feel more comfortable with.

While the 525 series does come in a variety of sizes – with everything from 30GB to 240GB- we will be focusing in on two of the more mainstream sizes: the 120GB and 180GB models. These two capacities should be the most popular as notebook upgrade solutions and their designs are interesting as well.

As you can see in the chart above, the 120GB uses four lower capacity NAND ICs and populates all eight channels of SF2281 controller, whereas the 180GB only populates six of the eight channels but uses denser NAND. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses but the 180GB should actually be faster thanks to its increased interleaving even if it only makes use of three NAND ICs and populates less of the controller’s channels.

With online average asking prices of $147 and $210 for the 120GB and 180GB models respectively, the 525-series may seem a tad expensive, but in the mSATA marketplace this is actually quite reasonable. Unlike the standard 2.5” SSD marketplace, the mSATA segment was in desperate need of shakeup. If the 525 series is indeed able to offer relatively good performance along with such a low asking price, this may just be the model UltraBook consumers have been waiting for. However this is a very big ‘if’ as many other companies have tried –and failed – to offer such a blend in the past.

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