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Intel 730 in Detail

We can’t just reference our Intel DC S3500 review here because, even though a direct descendant of that server-class model, the Intel 730 is different. The difference is in its firmware and can be briefly described by a single word that rings so many bells in an enthusiast’s ears: overclocking.

In September 2013 Intel showcased its SSD overclocking, particularly a DC S3500 with modified firmware, at the IDF and PAX Prime events. Using a special utility, they increased the clock rate of the controller and flash memory bus. The effect was obvious as the drive’s performance improved considerably. The overclockers’ community got interested.

Although Intel had planned to start selling overclocker-friendly SSDs in early 2014, this topic got somehow forgotten until now. It hasn’t been abandoned altogether. Right now, the SSD overclocking technology is ready for use and implemented in the new Intel 730.

Well, the implementation differs significantly from the original concept. Giving ordinary users tools to control an SSD's internal clock rates might be unsafe. Not willing to provoke data losses as the consequence of reckless experiments, Intel decided to take overclocking in their own hands, making not the overclocking tool but only its end result available to the public.

In other words, the Intel 730 is a pre-overclocked SSD with Intel DC S3500 architecture. Its controller's frequency is increased from 400 to 600 MHz while the flash memory bus is clocked at 100 rather than 83 MHz. Intel guarantees that such overclocking doesn’t compromise the drive's stability and data integrity. Each of the drive's components and the whole drive too are rigorously tested, so Intel provides a 5-year warranty as is typical of top-class SSD products.

Besides this overclocking, the developers have introduced some desktop-oriented optimizations into the Intel 730, yet the new SSD still shares a lot of features with its server cousin. Particularly, the Intel 730 has high endurance: you can write up to 50 GB daily to the 240GB version (and up to 70 GB to the 480GB one) throughout the entire 5-year warranty period. This makes the Intel 730 highly interesting for enthusiasts.

The drive lacks charm when it comes to the appearances. It looks exactly like the server-oriented DC S3500: a lifeless 2.5-inch aluminum brick without any painting.

The off-the-shelf Intel 730 is expected to be embellished with a gray sticker with a picture of a skull. It might be somewhat more interesting visually in that case.

All Intel SSDs with SATA 6 Gbit/s interface currently have a height of 7 millimeters, which makes them compatible with slim notebooks. However, we wouldn’t recommend the Intel 730 for portable computers. Because of its server origin, it lacks power-saving technologies and consumes too much power in idle mode.

Now let’s take a look inside. The Intel 730 has the same components as the Intel DC S3500, actually. And that's good because the high reliability of Intel's server-class SSDs is based on certain hardware optimizations, too. All of them are available in the consumer-class Intel 730.

Intel 730 240GB

So we can see a couple of large 47µF capacitors which ensure data integrity in case of power failures. Interestingly, the total amount of flash memory in the 240GB and 480GB versions of the new SSD is 272 and 544 gigabytes, respectively, although usually they install 256 and 512 gigabytes. Using this extra memory, the Intel 730 can store checksums and restore all data even if one of its MLC NAND flash devices fails completely. 16 and 32 gigabytes are allotted for that purpose in the 240 and 480GB models, respectively. The rest of the user-inaccessible storage is needed for the reserve pool and servicing technologies (background garbage collection and wear leveling).

Not surprisingly, the Intel 730 has a rather unusual selection of flash memory chips. The 240GB version has eight 32GB and one 16GB chip whereas its senior cousin has fifteen 32GB chips and one 64GB chip. You shouldn’t be surprised that the seemingly identical chips of NAND flash memory have different markings in the Intel 730.

Intel 730 480GB

The flash memory chips contain Intel's very own and advanced 20nm MLC NAND devices. Intel's traditional ONFI 2.1 interface is overclocked from 83 to 100 MHz, increasing the bandwidth on each channel from 166 to 200 MB/s. The key feature of these MLC NAND devices is that their capacity is 128 gigabits, just like in the Crucial M500 and Samsung 840 EVO, instead of the traditional capacity of 64 gigabits. And it means that it is the 480GB version that delivers the highest performance in the Intel 730 series as Intel's 8-channel controller can use 4-way interleaving on each channel. The 240GB version uses 2-way interleaving, which affects its speed considerably according to the specs.

Overclocked to 600 MHz, the Intel Tisdale controller is marked as PC29AS21CA0. We've seen this chip in Intel’s DC S3500 and DC S3700. With its classic 8-channel architecture and SATA 3 support, it is suitable for both server and consumer-class SSDs. The controller uses DDR3-1600 SDRAM to store the address translation table. The 240GB version has 512 megabytes of such memory whereas the 480GB model, 1 gigabyte. By the way, the DDR3 buffer has got faster compared to the server SSDs: the DC S3500 used DDR3-1333 SDRAM.

Now let’s check out the official specs of the Intel 730 series:

For all the advanced technologies and overclocking, even the fastest 480GB version doesn't impress with its specs. Intel doesn't seem to claim record-breaking performance with this SSD. It is just an attempt to get back to one of the leading positions after the company has been lagging behind with its SandForce-based products.

It is interesting to compare the 730 model with Intel’s other solutions, namely the consumer-class Intel 530 (with SF-2281 controller) and the server-class Intel DC S3500.

The Intel 730 will deservedly take the flagship position in Intel’s product line-up. Thanks to overclocking, it is much faster than the Intel DC S3500 and offers higher performance than the SandForce-based Intel 530. Compared to the latter, the new SSD has some downsides. The Intel 730 doesn't support encryption which is available on the DC S3500 and 530 models, Intel claiming that encryption is required for mobile applications whereas the new SSD is positioned as a solution for top-performance desktop PCs.

Intel thinks that the key advantage of the Intel 730 is its endurance. With its server architecture, the drive is expected to last more than regular consumer-class products. As for the price factor, the 240GB version comes at a recommended $249 while the 480GB version, at $489. At over $1 per gigabyte of storage, the Intel 730 seems to be the most expensive SATA drive for desktop PCs right now.

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