Crucial M500 480GB SSD Review
At CES 2013 Crucial announced the release of their new M500 series SSDs. This new model was meant to replace the aging M4 series and push the SSD industry towards a more budget friendly direction. This is what the M500 promised to deliver and on paper it appears to live up to these highly laudable goals.
For the most part, a Solid State Drive lives and dies by the controller it uses and while this is still the case with the M500, it is actually not the most impressive feature it boasts. Using the latest Marvell 9187 controller is certainly noteworthy, but the M500 is not the only drive on the market to make use of this flexible, high performance controller. What makes the M500 truly unique is the NAND it uses. Unlike any other drive available today the Crucial has used massive 20nm 128 Gigabit MLC ONFi 3 ICs and does so across its entire model line-up.
IMFT 20nm NAND made its first appearance in Intel’s 335 series and for the most part it represents an excellent blend of frugality and performance. However, Intel’s 20nm NAND is slightly different than Crucial’s. Crucial – via Micron – have taken the 20nm NAND design and given the performance vs. price ratio a huge boost by the simplest means possible: making the NAND ‘chip’ larger.
Using these enormous 128GBit ONFi 3.0 MLC NAND IC’s for their entire line allows for not only the inclusion of gigantic 960GB versions, but also for some impressively reasonable price tags. In the 480GB instance this new drive retails online for an average price of only $360 – or 75 cents per GB. For a newly released drive this is extremely low and if history is any indication, it should only get cheaper.
Of course a great price per gigabyte ratio is great but Crucial has backed it up with what promises to be a very good price to performance ratio as well. A very good argument can be made that this second ratio is just as important as the first. Along with using a larger footprint NAND IC, Crucial has also taken the opportunity presented to make this new 20nm technology meet the stricter ONFi 3 specification.
On paper the M500 may not have the raw performance of some of the latest generation controllers to hit the market but the Marvell 9187 controller utilizes proven technology. Crucial has years of experience in creating custom firmware for Marvel controllers so the M500 should come with customizations specifically tailored for its new NAND.
The silver exterior of the M500 may look very similar to the previous M4, but the decrease from a 9.5mm to a 7mm height does hint at improvements and refinements which can’t be seen by the naked eye. To help with compatibility Crucial also includes a black plastic adapter to convert the M500 into a more typical 9.5mm form factor.
At first glance the interior architecture also appears to follow the M4 line. There is a single Marvell controller, 16 NAND ICs and a single DDR3-1600 external ram cache IC. While the speed of the ram cache hasn’t changed much from the previous generation’s DDR3-1333, the size has doubled from 128MB to 256MB.
Also unlike the M4, the M500’s PCB comes equipped with onboard capacitors which allow for FlushIn Flight abilities. Seeing a consumer grade drive with FiF is very rare as this ability mitigates data corruption from unexpected power loss, but is costly to implement and such is a feature usually reserved for more expensive Enterprise models.
While this drive only comes with a 3 year warranty, the 20nm NAND is rated for twice the usage of the modules found within Intel’s 335. Instead of being rated for a mere 20GB a day for 3 years or 22TB, the entire M500 line-up is rated for 40GB of writes per for five years, or over three times the endurance at 72TB.
Some of this increased endurance comes from sophisticated thermal management which drops performance to ~40% of nominal speeds if the NAND reaches its limit of 70° C. This performance reduction will be in place until temperatures cool down but it certainly won’t happen all that often. This is one of the few consumer grade devices to include such features and the increased endurance rating reflects Crucial’s confidence in their M500’s thermal management abilities.
Taken as whole the new M500 appears to be a blend of consumer and enterprise technologies which make it as unique as the NAND it uses. This does give this relatively inexpensive drive the potential a high performance, highly durable SSD which won’t break the bank.
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