When Intel first launched its X25-M SSD in 2008, the chip-maker helped start a new era of high-performance solid state drives with reasonable prices. However, in the last three years, Intel has only updated its mainstream SSD once, while facing stiff competition from over a dozen other players. In fact, in our most recent SSD round-up, Intel's 120GB X25-M drive trailed drives from Samsung, OCZ, and Crucial by a wide margin. Now here comes the new Intel SSD 320 ($529 for 300GB, starting at $89 for 40GB), which promises not only blazing performance but offers strong encryption. Can Intel reclaim its leadership position?
Technology and Features
With the launch of the SSD 320, Intel has updated its controller, with the goal of dramatically improving performance, particularly write speeds. However, the drive does not take advantage of the new SATA 6Gb/s interface that just become available on notebooks for the first time with the release of Intel's 2nd Generation Core Series processors and chipsets in January 2011. This means that the SSD 320 will work with these newer notebooks, but it won't achieve the groundbreaking speeds of Intel's new SSD 510 (starting at $369 for 120GB). That drive is designed specifically for SATA 6Gb/s and promises speeds nearly twice those of the SSD 310.
In addition to faster performance, the SSD 310 offers improved security and reliability. Out of the box, the drive supports 128-bit AES encryption, allowing you to set a password for the drive that will prevent its data from being accessed if its ever stolen. It also keeps your data saved, even in the event that your computer loses power before it has a chance to shut down and clear the drive's cache.
NAND Flash and Value
The SSD 320 is the first Intel drive to use 25-nanometer NAND Flash, a significant die shrink over the 34nm memory used in the X25-M. With the smaller dies, Intel saves money on production costs, savings the company says it is passing along to consumers and OEMs.
The drive comes in capacities of 40, 80, 120, 160, 300, and 600GB with Intel prices of $89, $159, $209, $289, $529, and $1,069, respectively. Those prices are roughly in line with the street prices of competitors such as the OCZ Vertex 2 ($209 for the 120GB) and the Samsung 470 Series ($249 for 128GB, $499 for 256GB). However, if retailers offer any discounts off of Intel's prices, the SSD 320 could be a huge bargain.
How We Tested
To see how the Intel SSD 320 compares to other leading SSDs, we put the 300GB drive in our test bed, a Toshiba Qosmio X505-Q890, and ran it through a series of tests. We then compared the results to those we got with the Samsung 470 Series, OCZ Vertex 2, Crucial RealSSD C300, and the older-gen Intel X25-M.
To get a baseline idea of what to expect we ran the SSD 310 through CrystalDiskMark 3.1, a synthetic benchmark that measures theoretical read and write performance. However, before testing, Intel warned us that a theoretical test such as CrystalDiskMark might not show off the drive's best write performance because it doesn't "exercise the device long enough to reach its steady state."
|Drive||Seq Read (MBps)||Seq Write (MBps)||Average|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||244.8||220.0||232.4|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||255.3||205.7||230.5|
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||256.9||197.8||227.4|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||247.3||110.3||178.8|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||197.2||134.3||165.8|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||103.3||102.6||103.0|
On both sequential reads and writes, the Intel SSD 320 finished near the top of the pack, returning rates of 255.3 and 205.7 MBps (megabytes per second) respectively. This put the drive just slightly behind the Samsung 470 series.
|Drive||512K Read (MBps)||512K Write (MBps)||Average|
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||231.9||158.6||195.3|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||180.3||208.0||194.2|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||165.6||191.7||178.7|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||179.8||130.3||155.1|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||180.5||111.2||145.9|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||41.7||48.9||45.3|
As the block size of reads and writes drops, so do performance numbers on any drive, so it's no surprise that the Intel SSD 320 was a bit slower in 512K block tests than in sequential tests. Here it fell comfortably into the middle of the pack, both in terms of read and write speeds.
|Drive||4K Read (MBps)||4K Write (MBps)||4K NCQ Read (MBps)||4K NCQ Write (MBps)||Average|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||13.7||21.2||150.1||94.6||69.9|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||12.0||23.9||114.4||125.9||69.1|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||12.61||19.65||141.2||67.89||60.3|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||10.7||21.5||113.8||58.7||51.2|
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||14.7||4.8||136.1||33.8||47.3|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||0.5||0.8||1.2||0.8||0.8|
Every drive's numbers drop significantly when you go all the way down from 512K to 4K blocks. CrystalDiskMark measures 4K block performance in two ways: standard 4K read/write and with command 32-command Native Command Queing (NCQ), a feature that allows the drive to group and prioritize requests.
On the tests that involve Native Command Queing, the SSD 320 came out ahead of competitors like the Samsung 470 series and Crucial RealSSD, though it trailed the original X25-M and OCZ Vertex 2.
File Copy and Zip Tests
To see how quickly the Intel SSD 320 could copy files, we timed two different file operations. In the single file operation, we copied one 3GB file from one folder to another. In the multiple file operation we copied 4.97GB worth of mixed media files.
File Copy Tests
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||0:50||0:25|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||0:54||0:25|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||0:53||0:26|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||1:08||0:34|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||1:14||0:36|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||2:23||0:59|
The Intel SSD 320 tied the Crucial RealSSD C300 in single file copy speed and was neck and neck with the Samsung 470 series in the multi-file copy test.
Nothing taxes a storage drive quite like compressing multiple files into a single ZIP archive or extracting those files later on. We tested our drives by zipping 4.97GB of media files and then unzipping the same archive.
|Drive||Zip Time||Unzip Time|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||3:43||2:31|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||3:42||2:39|
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||3:46||2:41|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||3:42||2:50|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||3:42||2:59|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||4:14||3:40|
The SSD 320 showed off its ability to complete lots of small reads and writes by finishing with the fastest zip time and second fastest unzip mark.
Perhaps the most noticeable performance boost any SSD can provide is lightning fast application and file open times. To see how the SSD 320 performed this important function, we tested open times of five Windows applications:
- Adobe Reader 9 opening to a 500-page document
- Excel 2010 opening to a 6.5MB spreadsheet filled with 65,000 names and addresses
- Firefox 3.63 opening to a blank page
- Photoshop CS5 (64-bit) opening to a 400MB TIF file
- Word 2010 opening to a blank document
To get the most consistent results, we disabled the Windows 7 SuperFetch service, which caches frequently opened programs in memory, and we rebooted the computer between runs so no trace of the applications was left in RAM. We opened each program three times and took the average.
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||5.3||3.2||1.1||7.9||0.6||3.6|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||5.4||3.3||1.0||8.3||0.6||3.7|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||5.5||3.4||1.0||8.3||1.0||3.9|
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||5.7||3.5||1.4||9.1||0.7||4.1|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||5.6||3.5||1.2||9.6||0.9||4.2|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||8.5||7.6||5.1||24.4||2.0||9.5|
The Intel SSD 320's numbers were solid, but a few milliseconds behind most of its competitors in app opens. The delta was greatest on Photoshop CS5, the slowest-loading app, but even then it was only 1.7 seconds behind the Crucial RealSSD C300.
Multitasking: App Opens Under Stress
To measure how well the Intel SSD 320 handles multitasking situations, we tried opening the same applications while zipping 4.97GB of files in the background. Performing these two tasks at once is sure to slow any drive down. The best drives open the apps with the least delay.
|Samsung 470 Series (256GB)||6.5||5.9||2.0||15.3||1.0||6.1|
|OCZ Vertex 2 (120GB)||7.0||6.1||1.8||15.5||0.8||6.2|
|Crucial RealSSD C300 (256GB)||6.2||5.7||1.9||16.9||0.9||6.3|
|Intel SSD 320 (300GB)||6.4||6.0||2.0||16.4||1.0||6.4|
|Intel X25-M (120GB)||8.2||6.4||6.4||16.1||1.5||7.7|
|Hitachi 7,200 rpm||45.8||16.6||33.1||52.3||10.4||31.6|
The SSD 320 was clearly a lot better than its predecessor, the X25-M, and was competitive with other modern drives, averaging only 0.3 seconds less than the Samsung 470 Series.
The Intel SSD 320 returns Intel to its rightful place amongst the performance leaders in the mainstream SSD category. Though the drive trailed competitors from Samsung, OCZ, and Crucial on many of our tests, it was usually within just a few milliseconds of the leader. Whether you're buying the drive as an upgrade or getting a brand new notebook with an Intel SSD 320 inside, you can buy with the confidence that that you're getting a fast performer that's comparable to the best SATA 3Gb/s drives on the market.
If your notebook is one of the new systems that has SATA 6Gb/s ports, you should definitely choose a drive like the Intel SSD 510 or OCZ Vertex 3 that takes full advanage of that interface. If you are shopping for a mainstream SSD upgrade, the Samsung 470 series offers slightly better overall performance, but the Intel SSD 320 should be near the top of your list because of its strong combination of security, reliability, and performance.