Intel says its new SSDs are faster, cheaper

Intel's X25-M SSDs use a new manufacturing process to keep prices down

Intel has launched new solid-state drives that are cheaper and have faster write speeds than their predecessors, the company said Tuesday.

Intel's X25-M SSDs, for laptop and desktop PCs, deliver close to double the write performance of their predecessors, according to Intel.

A new manufacturing process helped keep prices down, while better software was used to speed up the SSDs, said Troy Winslow, director of marketing for Intel's NAND products. The flash chips used in the drives were manufactured using a 34-nanometer process, compared to 50 nanometers for Intel's earlier SSDs.

"The 34-nm move specifically benefitted our SSDs by shrinking the die of the flash memory and therefore reduc[ing] the cost," Winslow said. This allows us to reduce the price of our SSDs by 60% from their introductory price three quarters ago."

The 80GB drive has double the write speed of its predecessor, with 6,600 I/O operations per second (IOPS). The 160GB version gets a greater performance boost, to 8,600 IOPS, Intel said. The read speeds are roughly similar to the earlier versions, however, at 35,000.

Another way to measure drive performance is by sequential transfers, which occur when systems perform a fixed task in a sequential manner, like booting a PC or transferring a large file. By that metric, the performance of the drives remains unchanged.

But Gregory Wong, principal analyst at memory research firm Forward Insights, said random performance is a better measure for normal PC activities like retrieving user data and making changes to applications and documents.

"If you look at the spectrum of activities you are doing, most of the writes and reads are random in nature as opposed to sequential," he said.

The new drives are MLC (multilevel cell) SSDs. Intel also offers the X25-E line of SLC (single-level cell) SSDs, which offer better endurance but are very expensive. The write performance of the new MLC SSDs is twice that of Intel's current SLC SSDs.

"It's much harder to improve the random writes on MLC versus SLC," Wong said.

The manufacturing advances could allow Intel to further drive down its SSD prices, Wong said. "In a certain respect they should have a better cost position vis-à-vis the other [vendors], which has allowed them to reduce pricing," he said.

Competitors such as Toshiba and Samsung offer SSDs with capacities up to 512GB. Intel plans to double the capacity of its drives by next year, and new drives may appear in the first quarter of 2010, Winslow said.

As Intel shrinks its flash memory process it could run into some fundamental physics challenges, however. With each new manufacturing process, fewer electrons are stored in each memory cell, leading to greater susceptibility to data loss, Wong said.

The drives released Tuesday may be the first available manufactured using the advanced 34-nanometer process, Wong said.

The X25-M SSDs come in 2.5-inch or 1.8-inch sizes. The X25-M 80GB SSD is priced at US$225 for quantities up to 1,000 units, while the 160GB version is $440.

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