At last year’s Computex trade show in Taiwan there seemed to be dozens of vendors showing off Solid State Drives. However in the aftermath of the show little in the market has changed, which highlights one of the big problems with getting into the SSD space. Namely that there is very little one can do to differentiate SSDs from the myriad of other manufacturers’ products in the market.
The issue is that SSDs are assembled from a fairly standard array of chips. Controllers are made by a handful of companies and then paired with flash memory from other companies. Unless you control the manufacture of one or other of these components, then you are essentially at the whim of your suppliers.
At the moment if you want your SSDs to be competitive speed-wise, you need a Sandforce controller. Other controllers are cheaper, which allow more price competitive behavior, but then you have the situation like the recent one in which SSD maker OCZ purchased Indilinx. This effectively removed one of the controller options from the market, further reducing the variation between products.
Intel is one of the few companies that has relatively complete control of its supply chain. It makes its own SSD controllers and also has a joint operation with Micron for manufacturing Flash. This has enabled it to do something rarely seen, announcing overnight that it was finally shipping its new SSD 320 product line, a line unique to Intel's products.
These new drives come with Intel and Micron’s new generation 25nm Flash memory (the previous generation X-25M G2 SSDs used 34nm flash). 25nm refers to the size of structures on the Silicon itself, which are 25 nanometres across. By reducing the size of each structure more memory can be fit onto a single chip. This higher density has a flow-on effect of reducing the cost per gigabyte of the SSDs made with these chips – in this case each chip can hold 8GB of data, whereas the previous generation could only hold 4GB per chip.
Intel has paired the 25nm flash with new firmware for its in-house controller chip. Notably, this finally adds support for NAND redundancy (where ‘spare’ flash memory is built into the drive and is used when flash cells begin to wear) and drive encryption. Anandtech, which has already tested a sample drive, reports that these advancements are purely firmware based, and this is indeed the same controller chip used in the previous generation drive.
In Anandtech’s initial testing the drives are appearing to outperform drives using the Sandforce 1200 controller that we fell in love with last year. Unfortunately it comes just as we are starting to see drives using the next generation Sandforce 2200 controller, which natively supports SATA 6Gbps. The sort of numbers being seen with the SSD 320 are still incredibly impressive, but enthusiasts will likely be looking to the Sandforce 2200 to drive their next SSD purchase thanks to noticeably higher transfer speeds.
This is but a minor hiccup though. Intel is renowned for making excellent quality SSDs, and we have no doubt that the SSD 320 will continue this trend. Not only does the product range pair Intel’s excellent SSD controller chip with SATA 3Gbps connectivity, it does so with significant price reductions thanks to the use of 25nm flash chips.
Or at least, there are significant reductions in the US pricing. We have contacted Intel but they haven’t announced Australian pricing, instead directing us to retailers. Considering no retailers have stock of the new drives, there aren’t any prices (we are chasing this up with Intel). So that final part of the puzzle will take a few weeks to emerge.
We do plan on getting one of the SSD 320 drives into our testbench as soon as possible so we can see for ourselves how the new hardware performs.