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Tested: Intel's 730 Series SSD

By Will Smith

Intel's newest consumer-level SSD is still gated by the SATA bus's performance, but does the company have an ace up its sleeve?

This morning, Intel announced it's latest line of solid state drives designed for use in normal computers and workstations. They sent over a couple for us to test, which I've been doing this week. Unlike Intel's last-generation 530 series SSD, which used a Sandforce controller, the new 730 series drives use a controller that Intel developed in house for use in their datacenter drives. By combining that knowledge with cherry picked controller and flash chips, the 730 series drives run at higher clock speeds than their datacenter equivalents and are effectively able to saturate the SATA 6Gbps bus.The big problem hasn't been performance--even cheap SSDs will blow the doors off of traditional hard drives--it's reliability. But while hard drives are well established technology at this point, some early SSDs suffered serious reliability problems. Drives using the Sandforce controller, in particular, suffered serious problems that lead to blue screens and even data loss. Intel's Sandforce-powered drives managed to avoid most of the problems that plagued other vendors using the same Sandforce controller.

Even without controller problems, the flash memory used in SSDs has a finite life cycle--the number of times you can write to an individual cell of memory is limited. While drives ship with some cells reserved to replace the cells that die, once enough cells stop working, the drive will be unusable. That's not necessarily a reason to avoid SSDs though. Even with the minimum average daily write ratings of 20GB, the flash memory in most SSDs will last more than five years. And because the price per gigabyte of SSD storage is still dropping quickly, it's unlikely that you'll be using the same SSD five years from now.

Where does the Intel 730 series of SSDs fit in? The drive comes in capacities of 240GB and 480GB, although Intel hasn't ruled out larger capacities if people want them. I was told to expect MSRP pricing around $1/GB. Both drives use 20nm MLC NAND flash. I was a little disappointed that these are standard 2.5-inch SATA 6Gbps drives. With pretty much every consumer-level SSD able to saturate the SATA 6gbps bus, there just isn't much room to improve performance. We won't see another big leap in SSD performance until you can plug drives directly into the PCI-Express bus, hopefully sometime later this year.

On paper, it seems like the biggest improvement to this drive is reliability. Both drives come with a 5 year warranty, and both are rated for a very large number of daily writes--the 480GB drive is rated for 70GB of writes a day and the 240GB drive is rated for 50GB of writes a day. That means the 480GB drive is rated for almost 130TB of writes over its lifetime.

To test the Intel 730 Series SSD, I did a mixture of real-world tests and synthetic benchmarks. First, I fired up IOMeter to get an idea of how the new drive faired in synthetic workloads. Here's a chart with numbers from the IOMeter tests. To get a decent point of reference, I ran IOMeter on a standalone 480GB Intel 730, as well as a 120GB Samsung EVO 840, a 180GB Intel 530, a Corsair Force GT, and two of the 480GB 730 SSDs in RAID 0. All of the drives were running the latest firmware as of 2/26/2014). Here are the IOMeter results:

SSDIOMeter 128KB Sequential Reads (MB/s)IOMeter 4kB Pseudorandom Reads (MB/s)IOMeter 4kB Pseudorandom Writes (MB/s)
Intel 730 - 480GB564292107
Intel 730 - RAID0107755568
Intel 530 - 180GB49418353
Samsung 840 EVO - 120GB56330062
Corsair Force GT - 240GB32912776

To test real-world performance, I ran several tests that Intel recommended for the drive and a few of my own making. Using Premiere and some 1080p footage, I cobbled together a 4k video stream, converted it to a high-bitrate format suitable for use in live edits, and then tried to do some basic editing of that video in Premiere CC. I noticed some minor stuttering using the two Sandforce drives (the Corsair Force GT and Intel 530). Once I blew it out to a single high-bitrate 4k H.264 file, the results were less impressive. Most of the drives dropped frames during playback and and had obvious problems, although that could have been due to a mistake on my part or the underpowered CPU (relatively speaking) in our test machine as much as performance limitations of the drives.

To test the drives ability to do simultaneous reads and writes, I copied Borderlands 2 to each SSD, then used Nvidia's built in video capture solution to capture 1080p footage of the game at the highest bitrate and save it to the same drive. I looked for stuttering while playing the game and dropped frames and texture pop in in the resulting videos. None of the drives tested exhibited problems with this task.

Intel's new 730 series SSDs seem more than competent. I generally recommend shying away from drives that use new controllers. It's better to let someone else discover the defect that wipes your hard drive, isn't it? However, given that this drive is based on proven datacenter designs and given Intel's track record with SSD reliability, these drives are probably a safe bet. As expected, they outperformed the competition in a handful of benchmarks and matched our current favorite SSD, the Samsung 840 EVO in all of the tests that are bottlenecked by the SATA connection. Unfortunately, I can't really test what I feel are the most important differentiators for this SSD today--the warranty and longevity of the drive. A five year warranty on a SSD in this price range is unusual--Samsung and Corsair both offer 3 years on their consumer drives. More interesting is the write cycle spec for the drive. If these drives can really take 70GB of writes a day and still last five years, the cost of adding an array of SSDs to your video editing workstation just dropped.

If you're in the market for a SSD for day-to-day desktop use and the biggest write you do is the occasional game install, it probably isn't worth spending the additional cash for the additional longevity of the 730 Series over a Samsung EVO 840 drive. Performance was neck in neck between the two drives, and if you're just using the SSD for light desktop use, you'll likely replace it for a larger, faster model long before its flash memory wears out. And if you're still on the fence about SSDs, you shouldn't be. Adding a SSD is one of the most impactful upgrade I've ever done. Windows boots faster, your applicaitons launch faster, and the entire operating system will feel snappier. If you get a drive from a reputable manufacturer and have a good backup strategy, there's a very small chance you'll suffer actual data loss.