Intel 730 240GB SSD Review
After last year's release of the DC S3700 series SSDís, it was only a matter of time before Intel allowed their LSI built, in house designed X25 generation 3 controller to trickle down into the consumer marketplace. With the release of the new "Jacksonville" 730 series of enthusiast grade drives, that wait is finally over. The 730ís launch not only marks the formal introduction of the X25 Gen3 into the consumer marketplace but also happens to be the first 7 series SSD that isnít intended for the enterprise or workstation segments. This direction actually makes perfect sense since Intel has the DC S-series to cover what was once the 7 seriesí primary areas of responsibility.
As the name suggest the 730 is intended to supersede Intelís 5 series as their premier line of consumer grade solid state drives. What it doesnít do is replace the 520, nor does its availability herald the end of the 5 series of drives. Rather, the 730 completes Intel's lineup and fills a conspicuous hole at the top. While very potent for its day, the Intel 520 was starting to show its age, especially since Intel's custom firmware enhancements eventually trickled down to other SandForce SF2281-based drives.
With newer controllers and faster SSDs coming to market on a nearly bi-weekly basis, the 5 series was simply no longer able to compete in the enthusiast marketplace. Now Intel is able to offers drives at various price and performance levels starting with the 3 series (entry/budget), 5 series (mainstream), and 7 series (enthusiast), just like they do with CPUs. This top to bottom approach mirrors what the competition has been doing for some time now without moving into the grey area of market saturation.
Like any serious enthusiast grade model the Intel 730 series comes in various sizes and at varying price points. This further allows consumers to opt for a higher performance model while staying within a given budget. At this time options may only be limited to a 'small' 240GB version and a 'large' 480GB iteration, but as time goes by we expect Intel to further flesh out the 730 series with other capacities.
With an asking price of $249 or $1.09 per gigabyte the 240GB model is quite affordable by high end SSD standards and seems to be aiming for competitors like Corsairís Force GT, Plextorís M5P and Samsungís 840 Pro while also retailing for about 50% more than a comparably equipped Intel 530. This causes a bit of an issue since most 240 or 256GB drives retail for substantially less than the 730, namely the OCZ Vector 150 / Vertex 460 and even Samsungís 840 series.
In the past, Intel branded drives were known for many things: cutting edge NAND, excellent firmware, and above all else poorly finished cases with bland labels. Intel has seemingly made it a point of pride of having some of the most roughly finished metal cases ever released on to the consumer marketplace. Thankfully the Intel 730 series doesnít follow in its predecessors footsteps and boasts excellent finishing alongside their coveted SkullTrail logo. Obviously Intel there are some very high hopes for this new series.
Like modern enthusiast grade solid state drives, the Intel 730 series utilizes a 7mm form factor which allows it to fit into confined spaces like UltraBooks. Unfortunately, Intel has not included the typical 7mm to 9.5mm black plastic adapter covering, nor have they included a 2.5" to 3.5" adapter plate. The later omission may be due to our samples being a pre-release models and not retail samples so this may not be case when consumers purchases a 730 form the main supply channel. We are told that most drives will be available in typical ďOEMĒ brown box packaging though so donít expect any noteworthy accessories.
The internal architecture of the 240GB drive is what we had hoped to see and yet slightly disappointing as well. The side which houses the Intel X25 generation 3 controller is a literal clone of the DC S3x series, housing two 256MB Micron branded DDR3-1600 ICs and two large capacitors along the PCBís leading edge.
The capacitors allow for Flush In 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 workstation and enterprise-class models.
Unfortunately, it appears that the smaller 240GB capacity has been purposely handicapped, reminding us of the ancient Intel V-40 series. Like the "V" series Intel hasnít fully populated all 16 slots on the PCB and as such the controller will not be fully interleaved, and may never be able to reach its full potential. By the same token, the X25 Gen3 is extremely powerful and at lower queue depths it should be more than capable of balancing the loads across the included ICs.
We do like to see that all eight channels of the controller do have at least one NAND IC which will further help the controller keep performance at optimum levels. Interestingly enough, Intel didnít go for eight NAND ICs (or one per channel) and rather has included nine cutting edge IMFT 20nm ONFi 2 modules. Thus, one channel will be fully interleaved and this too may help keep performance from noticeably suffering.
On paper at least, the 730 series may not be the slam dunk that enthusiast were hoping for, but its combination of an extremely potent controller, massive amounts of onboard cache and intelligent firmware is what Intel are counting on to make it a success in the enthusiast marketplace. However, with a price well north of dollar per gigabyte Intel may have just the left the door open for the competition.
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