Intel 250GB 510 Series SSD review

New family of SSD drives from Intel
Photo of Intel 250GB 510 Series SSD
£446.80 (inc VAT)

You might be forgiven for forgetting that Intel makes SSD storage – company doesn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. But in the X25-M series, it has one of the world’s best-selling drives. So when Intel launches a new range, it pays to sit up and take notice. But the new 510 series – codenamed ‘ElmCrest’ – isn’t quite what it seems, and for that matter isn’t quite what Intel had originally in mind. The 510 series comes in two flavours: the smaller-capacity 120GB; and the larger 250GB, the subject of this review.

Introducing the 510
Intel’s original plan was to bring out the third generation of its X-25M drive – which may or may not have been called the X25M-G3 – with improved performance, thanks to the use of 25nm NAND RAM and a new controller, offering a lower price per gigabyte than the X25M-G2.

Unfortunately, Intel got hit by a double whammy. The controller was late, and by concentrating its efforts in the mainstream segment, the company managed to take its eye off the ball at the high end – a gap that has been very successfully taken over by Sandforce with its range of controllers.

To cover for both of these hits, and the gap in its high-end range in particular, Intel has brought out the 510 series of SSDs. The most surprising thing about the 510 is that it doesn’t feature an Intel controller. Instead, it uses the commonly available third-party Marvell 88SS9174-BKK2 6Gbit/s controller, as used by Crucial and Corsair to name but two. That said, Intel has tweaked the firmware to achieve better sequential read and write performance.

What’s inside?
To get to its 250GB capacity, the Marvell controller is joined on the PCB by sixteen (eight per side) 16GB 34nm NAND memory chips. This gives a total of 256GB, but once the space for over-provisioning, redundancy in the event of NAND failure and various other firmware utilities is taken, and after the drive has been formatted, you’re left with just 232GB of usable space. Also on the PCB is a Hynix DDR3 cache chip toting 128MB of memory to help with drive’s performance when it comes to handling small, bitty files.

Performance
The 250GB version of the Intel 510 Series comes with quoted sequential write/read speeds of up to 315MB/s and 500MB/s respectively, when hitched up to a SATA 6Gbit/s port. The spec promises up to 20K IOPs for a 4K read, and 8K IOPs for a 4K write – pretty poor, compared to the first generation of SandForce controller-equipped drives.

In benchmarks, though, the 510 250GB actually did slightly better than the quoted spec, scoring 505MB/s sequential read and 325MB/s write speeds when tested with the ATTO benchmark, and 472MB/s reads and 309MB/s writes in the more demanding AS SSD benchmark. This underlines Intel’s tweaking of the controller firmware to get better sequential read/write performance. Under real-world testing, though, the poor 4K performance was confirmed. The drive took 31seconds to copy a 4.5GB file from another SSD (a 3Gbit/s drive) and 42 seconds to unzip a 1GB file made up of very small files. Cold booting into Window 7 took around 47 seconds.

Overall conclusions
An eagerly awaited drive, the 510 series leaves an overall good impression, apart from the 4K performance – but there’s a nagging feeling that somehow it should have been a more impressive drive. It may lack in performance against some of the first-generation SandForce drives, but it does come with Intel’s bullet-proof reputation for reliability, which for many people may more important than out-and-out performance.

Company: Intel

Positives
  • Sequential read/write performance, 6Gbit/s interface, Intel SSD Toolbox utility.
Negative
  • 4K performance, pricey.

Verdict

Intel's 250GB 510 Series drive is a sterling performer especially if you want to move large files around - but with the new SandForce SF-2000 controller-equipped drives already appearing on the shelves, the timing of its release is unfortunate, to say the least.