Solid-state drives have come a long way over the past two years. In July 2006, $320 would get you an 8GB IDE flash drive with considerably more sluggish performance than just about anything mechanical. Today, you can pay roughly the same amount for an 80GB Intel X25-M SSD capable of producing some mouth-watering benchmark results.
Kingston’s SSDNow 80GB upgrade kit is built around that Intel drive, but with a twist. The box also contains just about everything you need to switch to an SSD as painlessly as possible—adapters, cables, software… you name it.
We’ll be looking at that kit today. While we’ve already run the X25-M through our full benchmark suite, this should also be a good opportunity to look at the drive from a more practical (and perhaps more subjective) point of view. How easy is it to make the switch in a notebook? What about a desktop PC? Will the SSD improve performance, battery life, and system responsiveness in noticeable ways? Keep reading for the answers.
What’s in the box
Beneath a gray paper sleeve and a clear plastic box embossed with the Kingston logo, you’ll find the contents of the 80GB SSDNow upgrade kit huddled together: a 2.5″ Intel X25-M SSD adorned with a Kingston sticker, a 2.5″ external drive enclosure with a matching USB cable, a pair of rails and matching screw sets (for fastening the X25-M inside a 3.5″ drive bay), a Molex-to-Serial ATA power adapter, a SATA data cable, and a bootable CD loaded with Acronis’ True Image HD software plus some instructional PDF files.
Kingston assumes you’ll be wanting to copy your operating system and applications onto the X25-M—a safe bet, since this is possibly the worst choice ever for an affordable mass-storage solution. To make the switch, you’re supposed to slap the drive into the USB enclosure or mount it inside your desktop PC using the provided rails, then boot from the software CD and clone contents of your system drive. Once that’s over, just swap out your old drive for the X25-M and go back to doing whatever it is you were doing. Couldn’t be simpler. And if you just replaced a laptop drive, you should even be able to keep it in the external enclosure for external backups.
Naturally, Kingston charges a premium for these little extras. The 80GB upgrade kit costs $345 at Newegg, $31 pricier than the bare, Intel-branded 80GB X25-M. Kingston also offers a similar SSDNow upgrade kit based on the 160GB version of the X25-M, which will set you back $41 more than the bare 160GB drive, or $660.
Depending on your needs, $31 may not be an unreasonable premium for the convenience, especially if you’re trading three Franklins for a high-end SSD to begin with. The value of the accessories hinges greatly upon their effectiveness, of course. That effectiveness is, in part, what we’re going to gauge over the next few pages.
Our testing methods
We tested Kingston’s 80GB SSDNow upgrade kit on two systems: a late 2008 aluminum Apple MacBook and our editor’s own Core 2 Duo-powered desktop PC.
We’re not going to benchmark the X25-M all over again, but this article would be a little empty without at least some performance numbers and, just as importantly, battery life tests. As always, we did our best to deliver clean numbers. All except the battery life tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.
To simulate the performance of a used SSD, we filled up the X25-M and subsequently formatted it without a full zero-out before running our tests. Oh, and of course, we updated the X25-M with the latest firmware from Intel (version 8820).
Our systems were configured like so:
|Processor||Intel Mobile Core 2 Duo P7350 2.0GHz||Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 2.13GHz|
|System bus||1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)||1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)|
|Motherboard||Apple Mac-F42D89C8||MSI P965 Platinum|
|Chipset||Nvidia GeForce 9400M||P965 MCH|
|Chipset drivers||N/A||INF update 126.96.36.1999, Intel Matrix Storage Manager 8.7|
|Memory size||2GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (4 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||2x 1GB Hyundai DDR3-1066 SDRAM||4x 1GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR2-667 SDRAM|
|CAS latency (CL)||7||5|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||7||5|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||7||5|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||20||15|
|Audio||Realtek ALC885||Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 9400M||
Zotac GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition
with ForceWare 186.18 drivers
|Hard drive||Toshiba MK1653GSX (160GB 5,400 RPM SATA)||2x Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB SATA in RAID 1 mode|
|OS||Mac OS X 10.5.7||Windows Vista Home Premium x64|
|OS updates||Latest updates at time of writing||Service Pack 2, latest updates at time of writing|
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
The laptop: making the switch
Most notebooks make storage upgrades particularly tricky by virtue of having only a single 2.5″ drive bay. The 2.5″ enclosure in Kingston’s kit lets you hook up the X25-M externally via USB, so you can image your old hard drive before physically replacing it.
The enclosure doesn’t actually come with the X25-M pre-mounted, so you’ll need to take it apart and do that yourself. Just push the little recessed button on the bottom (red) panel, then slide the top (black) panel away in a horizontal motion. After that, simply push the X25-M label-down into the black half. You’ll need to introduce the drive in at a slight angle, which may produce ominous creaking sounds as it meets the Serial ATA connectors. That’s normal, apparently; I inserted the drive and removed it multiple times without causing any damage.
This enclosure doesn’t need an AC adapter, so you’re good to go as soon as you hook up the USB cable. Just connect the other end to your laptop and, if you’re like me, pretend for a minute that you’re using the world’s most expensive USB thumb drive. Then get down to business.
We used one of Apple’s late-2008 MacBooks for our mobile test. The MacBook is a great candidate, because it’s designed to be both reasonably powerful and portable. In theory, it should benefit both from the X25-M’s higher performance and from its low power consumption, which could potentially improve battery life. The fact that the 2.5″ hard drive bay is easily accessible right under the battery cover doesn’t hurt, either, although you’ll need to transfer little studs from the default hard drive to the X25-M using a Torx screwdriver for a secure installation.
When the time came to copy the contents of our MacBook’s hard drive, we ran into a little snag: Acronis’ cloning tool doesn’t seem to like Macs. It kept crashing immediately after bootup, perhaps in defiance to Steve Jobs’ smug sense of style. Luckily for Jobs fans, Mac OS X offers much of the same functionality in the form of the built-in Disk Utility, which lets you image, format, and clone hard drives (among many other things) within the operating system via a simple drag-and-drop interface.
Apple even lets you keep using your Mac while you clone the system drive. In order to speed things up and sidestep any potential snags, though, we booted from the OS X installation disc and did the cloning through Disk Utility from there.
The contents of our system drive happily (albeit sluggishly) made their way across the USB interface to the X25-M. With that step complete, we removed the X25-M from the enclosure and mounted it in the place of the MacBook’s built-in mechanical drive. The system subsequently booted up as if nothing had happened. Smooth.
Is it worth it?
At the risk of sounding a tad hyperbolic, I’ll relate my first impression immediately after first booting up from the X25-M: “This feels like night and day.” And it pretty much does. 5,400-RPM mobile hard drives may be great at keeping power consumption and noise levels in check, but they can present rather tight performance bottlenecks. Just look at how the Intel SSD improves boot-up time, from the moment we hit the power button until the arrival of the OS X log-in screen:
The X25-M speeds up not just boot times, but also application load times and day-to-day operations. The whole system just feels noticeably snappier. Here’s what happened when we tried copying a 914MB directory filled with 107 items, most of them being 15-20MB RAW shots from a digital SLR camera:
Again, night and day. Best of all, Intel claims those performance gains come hand-in-hand with battery life improvements. Let’s put that claim to the test now, shall we?
We set out to test battery life in the same way we often do: we opened two browser windows, one for TR and one for Shacknews, and set them to refresh automatically every 30 seconds until the battery ran out. The system was connected to the Internet over 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth was disabled. Display brightness was set to around 63%, or 10/16 squares on the OSD’s brightness bar, and we disabled the screen saver, as well as automatic display sleep and dimming. To record battery life in a precise fashion, I wrote a little shell script that appended the system’s uptime to a text file every 30 seconds.
With the X25-M filling in for the mechanical hard drive, battery life climbed from three hours and 24 minutes to three hours and 37 minutes—a 6% improvement. Nobody’s going to turn down an extra 13 minutes of battery life, but clearly, you shouldn’t expect a new SSD to give netbook-class mobility to a bulky desktop-replacement system. That ain’t gonna happen. We should, however, note that our battery life test wasn’t particularly storage-intensive. The SSD may well make a greater difference in cases involving, say, active multitasking and frequent file operations.
What have we learned so far? Subjectively speaking, if you need to use your notebook for actual work rather than simply browsing the web and checking e-mails, the X25-M—and, indeed, any similarly speedy SSD—will help it feel much more like a full-blown desktop PC. Objectively, the SSD will deliver higher performance hand-in-hand with slightly better battery life and silence. A mechanical hard drive couldn’t do that.
By now, some of you might be wondering how 7,200-RPM mobile drives fit into the picture. We didn’t have time to test one here, but we did benchmark the X25-M together with Seagate’s Momentus 7200.4 and a handful of 5,400-RPM drives in our 2.5″ hard drive comparo last month. We found that the 7,200-RPM Momentus didn’t differ very much from its 5,400-RPM counterparts in terms of performance, noise levels, or power consumption.
The desktop: making the switch
Since Intel presumably designed the X25-M with mobile use in mind, putting this drive inside a desktop PC isn’t entirely straightforward. Part of that has to do with the form factor: most desktops have 3.5″ and 5.25″ drive bays, while this SSD, like many others, has a 2.5″ enclosure. With no moving parts inside the drive, you could just as well duct-tape the thing inside your case and forget about it. Mounting it properly with the help of Kingston’s adapter rails is probably a cleaner solution, though.
Kingston provides the necessary screws, so all you need to set up the rails are a Philips screwdriver and a minimal amount of dexterity. The photo above should be helpful if you’re at all confused about which way to screw on the rails, by the way. I know I was.
And here’s the rail-fitted X25-M strapped on to a hard drive tray from an Antec P180 case. This tray requires one to screw the device in from the bottom, but Kingston’s adapter has screw holes on the sides, too.
Unless you keep your desktop hard drive amazingly clean, the X25-M’s capacity is also almost certain to pose problems. 80GB may not be a big step down from the MacBook’s 160GB HDD, but it’s an order of magnitude smaller than those sub-$100 1TB desktop drives we’re seeing all over the market these days. At best, you’ll want to do some spring cleaning to make sure everything fits. At worst, you’ll have to spend a while reorganizing your data so that voluminous non-system files reside on an auxiliary drive. Kingston’s kit doesn’t include anything to help with that, either.
Once you’ve deleted all of your wedding videos and photos of your honeymoon in Morocco to make room, just put in the Acronis DVD and boot from it. You’ll be greeted by an interface that looks almost, but not quite, like a Windows XP Explorer window. You can navigate the software using the mouse with the help of a golden-yellow cursor.
(Pay no mind to the small capacities in the image above—we booted off the CD within Microsoft’s Virtual PC 2007 to take clean screenshots.)
Despite the corny interface, Acronis True Image HD struck us as a relatively well-designed piece of software. It offers automatic and manual cloning modes, not to mention a healthy dose of online help and helpful descriptions for each step. If you’ve never cloned a hard drive before, True Image HD should happily hold your hand throughout the process, resizing and transferring partitions as needed. And if you’re familiar with the concept, you should also have no trouble navigating the interface to customize the process a little bit.
Once cloning was over, we set the X25-M as the primary boot device, and Windows started up as if nothing had happened. We did make one little configuration change right after the switch, though: heading to the Control Panel and disabling automated defragmentation. Defragging is great for mechanical hard drives, but not so much with SSDs. Flash media typically has both short access times and the ability to withstand only a limited number of writes. In theory, that means defragging will make your SSD die sooner without impacting performance in a particularly meaningful way—not quite the best use of system resources.
Is it worth it?
We decided to compare the X25-M to two different desktop HDD configurations: a single 320GB Western Digital Caviar SE16 and two of those drives running as a mirrored RAID 1 array. We measured boot times from when the power button was hit to when the Vista log-in screen appeared. To get numbers for the single drive, we simply unplugged one of the drives from the array. That had the side-effect of making the Intel RAID information screen stay up for roughly eight seconds longer than usual, so we subtracted that time from the final number. As for the directory copy test, we used the exact same 914MB directory as with our laptop.
Surprised? As great as the X25-M looks next to the mobile drive, the difference isn’t so big here. Boot times were actually quickest with our inexpensive RAID 1 config, and the X25-M was neck-and-neck with the single Caviar SE16 in the directory copy test.
I should supplement these numbers with my personal, seat-of-the-pants impressions following two days of use. The X25-M did make the system feel noticeably speedier shortly after startup, during file searches, and when I needed to install applications. However, the initial feeling of speed petered out pretty rapidly. After a while, I forgot I was even using the X25-M—day-to-day file operations, application launches, game level loads, and using apps like Photoshop just didn’t feel noticeably different. Switching back to the hard drives didn’t make those tasks feel any slower, either.
The SSD did make its presence known in a more negative way: while experimenting with copy times, I once let several copies of a big folder pile up in the Recycle Bin. It didn’t take long for Windows to complain that I’d run out of space. Mind you, that was after I had cleaned up my system drive and uninstalled several games so that everything would fit on the 80GB SSD with several gigabytes to spare.
Unless you’ve just skipped ahead to the conclusion, you probably have an idea of what I’m about to say next. If you have a little cash to spare and want to speed up your notebook, then Kingston’s 80GB SSDNow kit may well be a wise upgrade. The Intel X25-M solid-state drive improves performance considerably over a plain 5,400-RPM mobile hard drive, and it does so while improving battery life and reducing noise levels. Meanwhile, Kingston’s upgrade kit gives you all the right ingredients to make a mobile upgrade relatively painless, including the all-important external enclosure and software.
On a desktop, though? We would honestly think twice about the upgrade. Not only did the 80GB X25-M fail to stand out from our 7,200-RPM desktop hard drive in a consistently noticeable way during everyday use, but its limited capacity can prove frustrating, especially if you like having many games and applications installed. Sure, you could relegate some of those apps to a spare hard drive, but that would defeat part of the SSD’s purpose. The same thing goes for typical storage-intensive tasks like video editing—80 gigs just ain’t enough if you put your OS on there.
If the potential reliability of an SSD interests you, then a mechanical RAID 1 configuration might be worth looking into. If performance is a greater concern, then Western Digital’s 300GB VelociRaptor can also reduce boot and access times a little, but without limiting capacity too much or leaving too big a dent in your credit card balance. You could always spring for the 160GB X25-M if money is no object, of course, but most folks probably won’t wish to spend over $600 on a storage device.
What about Kingston’s upgrade kit in particular? Is it worth the premium over a bare Intel drive? That depends. Some folks, like enthusiasts who frequently reinstall OS’s and already have their favorite cloning app loaded onto a CD-R, probably won’t have much use for the extras. However, if you use a laptop for work (or other important activities) and want to switch to an SSD quickly, easily, and with as little downtime as possible, you’ll likely find the $31 premium well worth it.