Crucial MX500 500GB Review - The Evolution Begins
Crucial, the company who many believe is the juggernaut of the SSD industry, has been on a roll as of late. Last year saw Crucial release the first ever TLC 3D NAND drive (the MX300) and then the BX300 which happened to be the first ever MLC 3D NAND SSD from IMFT the company founded by Micron and Intel. These two series proved to be an extremely potent one-two combination that left the competition staggering since they covered the mainstream and value ends of the market perfectly.
Unfortunately, there was one small hiccup. Both SSD series ended up competing against one another rather than targeting offerings from other companies. This reversal of fortune for the BX and MX series' relationship can all be traced back to the first-generation 3D NAND used in each of those lines’ refresh. Basically the more value-oriented brand ended up benefiting from better technology. The BX300 received the seemingly superior MLC NAND option and the MX300 was the first M series to use TLC-based NAND.
Soon after its release, many people in the industry started wondering aloud about the MX300 successor and if Crucial was either going to stay the course with TLC for their mainstream series, or revert back to the way 'things used to be' before the MX300 landed and shook things up. That answer came a little while ago. Crucial ended up sticking to their guns as the all new MX500 is indeed TLC based. But there are many things going on behind the scenes which make this new series infinitely superior to its predecessors.
This move may be controversial since quite a few vendors have moved away from TLC-based NAND for their latest SSDs. However Crucial does have a pair of aces up its sleeve in the form of much improved 3D NAND and a controller that could be deemed revolutionary.
The first ace takes the form of the NAND being used. Much like the MX300 introduced Micron's first-generation 3D NAND production, the MX500 is the showcase model for the all new second generation 3D TLC NAND. While details are sparse even now after its official launch, what is known is Micron – the 'M' in IMFT and Crucial's parent company – did indeed take all the lessons learned from their first foray into 3D NAND and distilled this knowledge into their second iteration.
These lessons all boil down to one thing: making SATA-based solid state drives more affordable while also making them more robust in the long term. The first major difference is that unlike the first-generation 3D NAND Crucial has aimed higher and is now using a 64 layer process which translates into a claimed 30% reduction in production costs. This helps explain why a large 500GB model has an MSRP of only $139.99 – or 28 cents per GB. Though this may not be the massive reduction in cost per gigabyte of capacity one would expect, it will certainly be good news for consumers.
On the surface combining lower costs of manufacture with more layers may not impress die hard "MLC only” type buyers but this NAND is radically different than its 32-layer predecessor. The last generation used 32 layers to hit 384Gb (48GB) of capacity per 'block' whereas this new 2nd generation model uses 64-layers to hit 256Gb (32GB). What this means is the cells are larger, more robust, and a lot less likely to thermally limit – all critical to real world performance.
This reduction in capacity also explains why the odd-ball sizes of the MX300 have been frog marched out the nearest air-lock. Instead of confusing 275/525/750/1050/2050MB capacity options the new MX500 will come in much more typical 250/500/1000/2000MB options. This is more of a fringe benefit as this change in NAND density also means that the over-provisioning and NAND-interleaving will be much, much more sensible.
For instance, the $140 (USD) 500GB capacity version being reviewed today has a raw capacity of ~512GB spread over 8 dual die NAND ICs. This gives the 500GB a comfortable 12GB of over-provisioning and very well thought out NAND interleaving of 4/4/4/4 – both of which are noticeable improvements over the 525GB MX300.
This new NAND would have been unlikely to sway many potential buyers one way or the other, as the second-generation MLC 3D NAND is on the horizon – just Gen 1 MLC 3D NAND was when the MX300 released.
Further making the MX500 an entirely different beast is for the first time ever Crucial has not tapped Marvell and their latest and greatest controller to power an M-series drive. Instead Crucial has moved on to the potent SMI SM2258H controller. This is the exact same controller which powers the BX300 and has proven its mettle within many past SSDs. More importantly, Crucial's firmware team now has a lot of experience with the unique quirks of this particular controller and have created razor sharp firmware for the new MX500.
On the negative side of the equation the SMI controller does lack some of the hardware-based data loss protection which helped make the MX series so special. Instead of rows upon rows of super-capacitors that allowed previous drives to protect data in the case of a sudden loss of power there are only a few.
On first glance this is a major downgrade. However, the reality is that this new 2nd generation NAND is much more power efficient and requires less power to save data in case of emergency. Basically that means less capacitors are actually needed in the first place.
The SMI 2258H controller also has built in firmware-based data loss protection and this combination provides home users with the best of both worlds; less chances of data needing to be saved and more than enough power to just that in the unlikely event that the firmware solution fails.
Falling in between these extremes are also a few noteworthy points that we need to cover. For example, on the surface having the exact same total drive write specifications as its predecessor won’t win any converts.
However, Crucial is now so confident in their 3D NAND's durability – TLC NAND technology be damned – that instead of the three year warranty that all B and M models before it were given, the MX500 comes with an industry leading five year warranty. Yes this does mean the drive write per day has gone down compared to the MX300, but few will ever hit the 87GB+ per day needed to max out their drive write warranty, but everyone will hit the three, four and five year mark without worries over a RMA denial due to it being OOW (Out of Warranty). Needless to say, we suggest all readers of this review keep an open mind as the MX500 is indeed worthy of your time – even if you have sworn off TLC drives in the past.
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