Last fall, Intel turned the solid state storage world upside down when it released the ground-breaking X25-M, the first drive to offer a combination of fast read and write speeds while using lower-cost multi-level cell (MLC) NAND Flash memory. Since that time, a slew of competitors from Samsung to OCZ have responded with drives that have matched or outperformed Intel on many tests while offering a lower price per gigabyte (Editor's Note: Read about 7 of those competing drives in our High-Speed SSD Roundup).
Although Intel has issued some firmware updates and cut prices a bit, it hasn’t responded with a new drive—until now. With its X25-M G2 (Generation 2), the chipmaker has upped the ante, using a new 34nm process to lower costs and a revamped controller chip to improve performance. Priced at $440, the 160GB X25-M G2 offers good value and blazing read performance, but its write speeds still fall short of some competitors.
Design and Form Factor
The Intel X25-M G2 comes in a standard 2.5-inch form factor and SATA interface. Most notebooks made in the past couple of years support SATA drives, though some ultraportable and thin-and-light systems such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T400s use 1.8-inch drives instead. A 1.8-inch version of the same drive, the X18-M G2, will be available within a few weeks, presumably at a similar price. Before you upgrade, be sure to check your manual.
You won’t spend a lot of time looking at an SSD, so its design isn’t very important. Still, when you spend hundreds of dollars on a high-performance component, you want it to be well built. The X25-M G2’s faux silver casing won’t win any beauty contests, but, unlike some drives we’ve tested that were housed in flimsy plastic, at least it’s protected by metal.
Controller and Cache MemoryClick to enlarge
Before the original X25-M came out last fall, most high-speed SSDs used pricey single-level cell (SLC) NAND Flash memory to store data. The original X25-M demonstrated that with the right controller and firmware, multi-level cell-based drives can be extremely fast. Like its game-changing predecessor and everything that has followed, the Intel X25-M G2 uses MLC memory. Also like the original drive, the X25-M G2 features an Intel controller and firmware. Both the chip itself and the firmware have been updated to provide faster random write speeds.
The X25-M G2 was placed into our standard testbed: a Gateway P-7808u FX with a mobile quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and Vista Home Premium (64-bit). We use this high-performance system to test all of our drives so we can see their full potential. The X25-M G2 was put through our standard suite of tests, which include:
Synthetic Testing - Measures read transfer rate and seek time under ideal conditions.
File Transfer Tests - Time to copy files from one folder to another.
Zip/Unzip Tests - Time to create and extract large zip files.
Application Open Tests - Time to open launch popular applications, both alone and while multitasking.
Boot Time - Time from power on to last tray icon loaded.
Synthetic Benchmark - HD Tune
To get a baseline idea of what to expect, we tested the Intel X25-M G2 using HD Tune, a program that measures both seek time (the time it takes for the drive to locate data) and read transfer rates (the average amount of sequential data read to the computer per second). While high transfer rates should help the most with loading large pieces of data, low seek times allow a disk to quickly launch an application, which is made of many small files.
Better than any other SSD we’ve tested, the X25-M G2 had a blazing 0.1 ms seek time, though that’s only 0.1 ms ahead of the crowd. Its read transfer rate of 176.5 MBps was also the fastest we’ve seen (though by a small margin) and more than three times as speedy as the fastest 7,200-rpm hard drive we’ve tested, the Fujitsu MHZ2320BJ.
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File Copy Tests
To see how well the X25-M G2 is able to read and write data in real-world situations, we conducted two file copy tests. In the first test, we copied 4.97GB of mixed media files—music, video, photos, and documents—from one folder to another. In the second test, we copied only one large file, a 3.5GB MPEG-2 video. We conducted both tests three times, and then averaged the scores.
On both file copy tests, the X25-M G2 produced strong scores that blew away slower SSDs such as the Imation M-Class and Kingston SSDNow V-Series, but it also fell just behind drives from OCZ, Patriot, Super Talent, and RunCore. Because an SSD’s controller chip and firmware play a critical role in performance, it’s important to note that all of the faster drives have controllers from either Indilinx or Samsung, and DRAM caches of either 64MB or 128MB, whereas the Intel drive has a DRAM cache of just 32MB. The OCZ Vertex, Patriot Torqx, RunCore Pro IV, and Super Talent UltraDrive ME use the Indilinx Barefoot controller and 64MB of DRAM cache, while the OCZ Summit has a Samsung controller and 128MB of DRAM cache.
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Zip / Unzip Tests
In addition to simple file copies, we tested the X25-M G2’s ability to zip and unzip large files. In our first test, where we zip 4.97GB of mixed media files, the X25-M G2 hung with the pack, finishing in 4:31. When unzipping the large zip file we’d created, the X25-M G2 trailed each of the drives with Indilinx and Samsung controllers by 20 seconds or more. However, it bested the Kingston V-Series by 1:36 and the Imation M-Class by a whopping 2:12.
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Application Open Times
Perhaps the most important benefit a high-speed SSD can provide is faster application and file open times. The less time you spend waiting for programs to launch, the more time you can spend using them. To measure this benchmark, we use custom scripts that display time stamps when apps start and finish launching. The four programs we used were Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe Reader 9, Firefox 3, and Microsoft Word 2007. Firefox and Word were timed opening to blank pages, while Adobe Reader was opened to a large PDF (the 7.2MB, 567-page 9/11 Commission Report) and Photoshop was opened to a 398MB TIF file.
To ensure the accuracy of these tests, we disabled Windows Vista’s built-in SuperFetch service, which preloads frequently used applications into memory and affects open times. We tested each application three times, rebooting between tests to clear the system memory, and then calculated the averages. The chart below shows the average open time for each drive across all four apps, while the table shows individual open times for each app on each drive.
The X25-M G2 really shined when opening applications, returning leading times of 4.9 seconds in Adobe Reader and 8.7 seconds in Photoshop CS4, and matched the leading scores for Word. It delivered a strong score in Firefox, but fell a few tenths of a second shy of the industry bests.
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Application Opens Under Stress
To measure the X25-M G2’s ability to handle multitasking situations, we ran the same application open tests while zipping 4.97GB of mixed media in the background. The stress of performing an input/output-intensive task such as zipping slows down the open times of every application on every drive we test, but the amount of slowdown really separates the contenders from the pretenders. On the fastest drives, open times are still reasonable under stress, but on the slowest the wait can be exasperating.\
When opening the PDF under stress, the X25-M G2 was barely fazed, taking only 0.9 seconds longer than it did alone, and falling 0.1 seconds short of the OCZ Vertex’s category-leading time. Firefox opened in 2.3 seconds under stress, which was between 0.2 and 0.5 seconds slower than the drives with Samsung and Indilinx controllers.
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One common belief is that SSDs speed up boot times, but our tests show that’s not always the case. Still, the X25-M G2 bested all but the OCZ Vertex and blew away the 7,200-rpm Fujitsu drive’s boot time by a couple of seconds. Perhaps if you’re loading several programs at startup you will see an even greater difference.
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Support and WarrantyClick to enlarge
Like the original X25-M, the X25-M G2 has user-upgradable firmware. Intel has been diligent about releasing firmware updates for its original drive, so we’re sure that practice will continue. A spokesman from Intel informed us that the company will be issuing an update in the fourth quarter that takes advantage of Windows 7’s built-in support of Trim, a set of commands designed to improve SSD performance. (For a detailed explanation of Trim, see Microsoft’s Q & A or this graphical representation from Anandtech.)
The X25-M G2 is covered by a three-year warranty on parts and labor, which is on a par with the warranty offered by OCZ, but pales in comparison to Patriot’s ten-year warranty for its Torqx SSD.
As of this writing, it’s hard to know for certain what the street price of the X25-M G2 will be, but it does promise increased value over other high-performance SSDs. In announcing the drive on July 21st, Intel said the wholesale cost for quantities of up to 1,000 would be $225 and $440 for the 80GB and 160GB capacities, respectively. Even if consumers get to purchase the drives at these prices, it doesn’t represent much of a bargain over other SSDs on a per-gigabyte basis. At $2.81 and $2.75 per GB for the two capacities, these prices aren’t dramatically better than $219 and $365 ($3.42 and $2.85 per GB) for 64 and 128GB capacities of the OCZ Vertex, a drive that has faster write speeds. Some users may also be willing to forgo the extra capacity offered by the 160GB X25-M and purchase a 128GB drive for nearly $100 less.
By introducing a lower cost 34nm production process and revising its controller, Intel has moved the ball forward in terms of manufacturing, but it hasn’t shaken up the market in terms of performance like it did last year. While modest write speeds drop its overall performance behind competitors such as the OCZ Vertex and Patriot Torqx, the X25-M G2 is a good choice because of its strong read speeds, higher capacity, and slightly better price per gigabyte.