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Intel's 730 Series solid-state drive reviewed


An overclocked enterprise SSD for enthusiasts
— 11:00 AM on February 27, 2014

Intel's X25-M solid-state drive was a special piece of hardware back in the day. The SSD market was still in its infancy, and the X25-M represented the chip-maker's initial entry into an exciting new arena. It was a pretty good first offering, too. The drive had wicked-fast performance, and it was reasonably affordable for its day. Intel's chip-making prowess, combined with its expertise in designing storage and memory controllers, seemed perfectly suited to tackling solid-state storage.

The X25-M's flash controller anchored three generations of desktop SSDs before it was finally retired. Instead of using another in-house chip, Intel started playing the field. A brief affair with Marvell produced the 510 Series, and its long-term relationship with SandForce fueled a string of successors.

Frankly, the most recent additions to Intel's desktop SSD lineup have been a little bland. They've combined the same old SandForce controller with firmware tweaks and updated NAND. A lot of drive makers follow similar recipes, making it difficult for Intel's latest creations to stand out in the crowd. The 730 Series is different, though. There's a giant skull on the case and everything:

The differences extend beneath the skin, of course. Instead of using off-the-shelf controller silicon, the 730 Series employs the proprietary controller behind Intel's latest datacenter SSDs. It's also equipped with enterprise-grade flash memory pulled from the company's high-endurance stock. Don't mistake this drive for a buttoned-down business offering, though. The controller and NAND have both been overclocked well beyond their usual speeds, creating what amounts to Intel's first Extreme Edition SSD.

Born from the enterprise, overclocked for enthusiasts
PC enthusiasts have a history of adopting and overclocking enterprise-grade hardware to suit their needs, and the same kind of thinking spawned the 730 Series. The first prototype of this drive appeared at the PAX Prime convention last year. It was essentially a server SSD with a couple of overclocking dials, allowing users to increase the clock frequency of both the flash controller and the accompanying NAND.

The response to the prototype was positive, but there were questions about whether overclocking would reduce the endurance of the flash, resulting in shorter drive life. Attendees also asked whether overclocking would void the warranty, which is typically the case with Intel's desktop processors.

Based in part on that feedback, Intel took a slightly different approach with the final product. User control over clock frequencies was dropped in favor of so-called factory "overclocking." Intel cranks the clocks itself, and the 730 Series is validated to run at the higher frequencies. This compromise may not be ideal for hard-core tweakers who want to run their rigs on the ragged edge, but it ensures the drive's data integrity won't be compromised by overzealous clock boosting, and it allows Intel to offer a five-year warranty.

The concept behind the 730 Series may be sound, but the external packaging leaves something to be desired. The skull logo sits on a sticker instead of being etched into the drive's metal shell. And, as with so many other Intel SSDs, the bottom of the case looks like it's been finished with coarse sandpaper. There are visible scuffs all over it:

Aesthetic appeal is pretty low on our priority list for SSDs. The 730 Series is priced around $1/GB, though. A premium drive like this should probably look the part.

Fortunately, there's more going on inside the chassis.

Most SSDs rely solely on metal screws to secure the circuit board, but the 730 Series also has plastic spacers to keep everything nicely centered. There are beefy capacitors for power-loss protection, too. If the drive loses power unexpectedly, the caps provide enough juice to ensure that any in-flight data is written to the flash. The 730 Series checks the status of these capacitors at boot and periodically during operation. According to Intel, the power-loss protection is identical to that of its datacenter drives.

The 730 Series is basically a hot-clocked enthusiast version of Intel's server-focused DC S3500 SSD. Apart from the stickers on the outside, the 730 Series looks identical to its enterprise twin.

Like the DC S3500, the 730 Series combines Intel's "Tisdale" flash controller with 20-nm MLC NAND. The controller chip is clocked at 600MHz, up from only 400MHz in the S3500. The NAND runs at 100MHz, a more modest increase over the 83MHz stock frequency of the server drive.

Jacking up the controller clock by 50% and the NAND frequency by 20% is no small feat. Only some silicon is up to the task, which is why Intel cherry picks the chips that go into the 730 Series. This binning practice is common in the semiconductor industry, and we've already seen it applied to Intel's enterprise SSDs. Some of those drives use a higher grade of MLC flash memory selected for its superior endurance characteristics. The 730 Series' flash is pulled from that high-endurance stock, so it's the cream of the crop.