Closer Look at Intel SSD 520 Series
Whatever Intel has to say about how new and exclusive the SSD 520 is, it is just yet another SF-2281 based drive in the first place. We’ve seen a lot of such products already and do not believe that Intel has got something extraordinary up the sleeve. There are a dozen SSD models that have the same controller and flash memory.
Of course, this one differs visually. Intel traditionally designs its SSDs in a metallic case that has a reduced height of 7 millimeters. To make the drive compatible with the standard form-factor (that has a height of 9.5 millimeters), there is a plastic frame around its perimeter.
We didn’t find anything special inside the Intel SSD.
The black pad on the inside of the case (it is pressed against the controller chip when the SSD is assembled) is not some thermal interface but just a piece of rubber that helps to firmly hold the PCB in place inside the drive. The PCB doesn’t follow the reference design but all of its components are standard for high-performance second-generation SandForce-based products.
You can see the internals of the 240-gigabyte Intel SSD in the photo. There is an SF-2281 controller and 16 flash memory chips there. The flash memory is manufactured by Intel, of course. Each chip is 128 Gb in capacity, contains two 25nm dies and has synchronous ONFI 2.2 interface. By the way, this is not the latest generation of such chips. Intel has already started to produce 20nm dies of fourth-generation flash memory but they are going to be used no sooner than the next wave of SSDs which is expected in the second half of this year.
That said, Intel has managed to make the most of the time it took the SSD 520 drive to reach the market, so the resulting product is indeed special. This is indicated by its specs as compared, for example, with the specs of the OCZ Vertex 3 which has the same hardware (we compare 240 GB models).
Oddly enough, the Intel SSD 520 does not win the comparison since its specified speed of processing small data blocks is lower. Well, we know that makers of SandForce-based SSDs are not very accurate when it comes to their product specifications, but the point is that the Intel SSD 520 drive has exclusive firmware which is different from the reference firmware that SandForce provides to the rest of its partners. The key firmware feature – compression of data written to flash memory – has of course remained intact but some algorithms (for example, for error correction) have been revised especially for the Intel solution.
We will see shortly what it means from the performance aspect. Right now let’s check out the box contents. The Intel SSD 520 drive comes to shops in a colorful cardboard box designed alike to Intel’s earlier SSD products.
There is a minimum of technical information on the box but the 5-year warranty is mentioned. Besides the SSD proper, we can see a user manual, a disc with software, an adapter for installing a 2.5-inch SSD into a 3.5-inch bay, SATA and power cables, and mounting screws.
Besides the exclusive firmware, Intel provides its very own SSD Toolbox utility which is perhaps the most user-friendly and practical tool of its kind.
Besides viewing diverse diagnostic information and providing firmware update functionality, SSD Toolbox can perform TRIM and Secure Erase commands and optimize your OS for the SSD. It can even show you S.M.A.R.T. information for SSDs combined into RAIDs.
The Intel SSD 520 series is comprised of five models that range in capacity from 60 to 480 gigabytes.
As for the price factor, Intel wasn't ashamed to make its SSDs more expensive than competitors, relying on its recognized brand, longer warranty and overall positive karma. The average price per gigabyte of storage is about $2.1 with the Intel SSD 520 series but only $1.6-1.7 with competitor products.
Is it really worth the extra money? Let's check this out by benchmarking the 240 GB model Intel provided us to test. By the way, it is specified to be the fastest model in the series along with its 180 GB cousin.