Intel’s 730 Series solid-state drive reviewed

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.

An exclusive controller with extra NAND

Tisdale may be a new face on the desktop, but it’s been around for a while. This controller chip first appeared in Intel’s DC S3700 server drive in late 2012. Intel’s last SSD controller was competitive for multiple generations, though, so Tisdale’s age shouldn’t be an issue. Think of it as mature rather than old.

On the surface, the Tisdale controller looks pretty conventional. It has eight parallel NAND channels, and it can address up to eight dies per channel. A 6Gbps Serial ATA interface provides the connection to the host. 256-bit AES encryption support? Check.

Well, sort of. Enterprise implementations of the controller support full-disk encryption, but the 730 Series does not. Intel has once again trimmed a business-friendly feature from an enthusiast-oriented product. This propensity for arbitrary product segmentation is maddening, but outside of laptop use, few enthusiasts are likely to miss AES-256 support. Intel says the 730 Series’ high clock speeds make the drive unsuitable for most notebooks, anyway.

Like its enterprise counterparts, the 730 Series pairs its flash controller with a gig of RAM. These speedy DDR3-1600 chips never hold user data. Instead, they’re used for context and indirection tables.

User storage is handled by the flash memory, which is spread between physical 16 packages on the 480GB model Intel provided us for testing. Each of the underlying NAND dies stores two bits per cell and has 64Gb (16GB) of total capacity.

SSDs in the 480-512GB range typically employ 512GB of flash memory, so on a drive like this, one would expect to find 32 dies. However, the 730 Series 480GB has 33 dies for a total of 528GB. The 240GB model also has an extra flash chip, for a total of 272GB rather than the usual 256GB.

Despite the surplus flash, the 730 Series doesn’t offer any additional storage to the user. Windows reports the same 447GB of available space as with the other 480GB SSDs we’ve tested. The extra NAND is part of the drive’s overprovisioned spare area, which is reserved exclusively for the controller. This spare NAND provides a pool of empty flash pages that can be used as a landing pad for incoming writes, a working area for drive management routines, and a source of viable flash to replace bad blocks.

The spare area is also tapped by a parity-based redundancy scheme designed to preserve user data after larger-scale flash failures. Some desktop SSDs employ similar RAID-like protection, but they don’t include additional flash, which limits the amount of overprovisioned area available to other tasks.

Capacity Max sequential (MB/s) Max 4KB random (IOps) Endurance Price $/GB
Read Write Read Write
240GB 550 270 86,000 56,000 50GB/day $249 $1.04
480GB 550 470 89,000 74,000 70GB/day $489 $1.02

At first, the 730 Series will be limited to 240GB and 480GB configurations. Intel says there are no barriers to producing higher-capacity models and that customer demand will determine whether any are made. The controller should be able to support up to 1TB of flash using the same dies as the existing models.

Note that the 240GB variant has much lower write speed ratings than its 480GB sibling. The sequential rating is off by 42%, and random writes trail by 24%. The random read rating is 3% lower, as well. These specifications suggest the 730 Series requires a minimum of 32 NAND dies for optimal performance. The 240GB model simply doesn’t have enough flash to harness all of the controller’s internal parallelism.

The 240GB model also has a lower endurance rating than its big brother. The smaller drive is rated for 50GB of writes per day for five years, while the 480GB unit is supposed to be good for 70GB/day over the same period. Intel’s other desktop drives are rated for only 20GB of writes per day for three or five years, depending on the model, so the 730 Series represents a big step up.

The per-day ratings add up to 91TB and 128TB of host writes, respectively. That sounds like a lot, and in the context of a desktop drive, it definitely is. Intel’s 335 Series 240GB drive is rated for only 22TB of total writes. If you’ve been following our ongoing SSD Endurance Experiment, though, you’ll know our findings show that desktop drives can absorb vastly more use than their specs tend to claim. Most users will be hard pressed to take advantage of any additional endurance the 730 Series offers in real-world use.

Same old toolbox

The best way to monitor the health of the 730 Series’ flash is with Intel’s SSD Toolbox software. This utility provides two health indicators on the main interface, and the accompanying SMART attributes provide even more information about the state of the drive.

Users can access the SMART data with the Intel utility or via third-party monitoring tools. In addition to counting the number of sectors that have been reallocated due to flash failures, the SMART attributes track several different error types. They also display the total volume of host reads and writes.

Most of these attributes display data about the SSD’s life as a whole. The 730 Series also has three attributes related to a timed workload function that should provide details on shorter periods of activity. We’re still waiting to hear back from Intel on how to reset the workload log, but the related attributes track elapsed time, media wear, and the ratio of read and write requests.

Since the SSD Toolbox has so much SMART data at its fingertips, I’d like to see more details displayed on the main screen. Otherwise, the utility is great. It has just about everything one might need, including a firmware updater, a secure erase tool, drive diagnostics, and a system optimization feature. Slick software isn’t strictly necessary for an SSD, but it’s a nice perk that isn’t available with all drives.

Our testing methods

If you’re familiar with our testing methods and hardware, the rest of this page is filled with nerdy details you already know; feel free to skip ahead to the benchmark results. For the rest of you, we’ve summarized the essential characteristics of all the drives we’ve tested in the table below.

  Cache Flash controller NAND
Corsair Force Series GT 240GB NA SandForce SF-2281 25nm Intel sync MLC
Corsair Neutron 240GB 256MB LAMD LM87800 25nm Micron sync MLC
Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB 256MB LAMD LM87800 26nm Toshiba Toggle MLC
Crucial M500 240GB 256MB Marvell 88SS9187 20nm Micron sync MLC
Crucial M500 480GB 512MB Marvell 88SS9187 20nm Micron sync MLC
Crucial M500 960GB 1GB Marvell 88SS9187 20nm Micron sync MLC
Intel 335 Series 240GB NA SandForce SF-2281 20nm Intel sync MLC
Intel 520 Series 240GB NA SandForce SF-2281 25nm Intel sync MLC
Intel 730 Series 480GB 1GB Intel PC29AS21CA0 20nm Intel sync MLC
OCZ Vertex 4 256GB 512MB Indilinx Everest 2 25nm Micron sync MLC
OCZ Vertex 450 256GB 512MB Indilinx Barefoot 3 M10 20nm Intel sync MLC
SanDisk Extreme II 240GB 256MB Marvell 88SS9187 19nm SanDisk Toggle SLC/MLC
Samsung 840 Series 250GB 512MB Samsung MDX 21nm Samsung Toggle TLC
Samsung 840 EVO 250GB 256MB Samsung MEX 19nm Samsung Toggle TLC
Samsung 840 EVO 500GB 512MB Samsung MEX 19nm Samsung Toggle TLC
Samsung 840 EVO 1TB 1GB Samsung MEX 19nm Samsung Toggle TLC
Samsung 840 Pro 256GB 512MB Samsung MDX 21nm Samsung Toggle MLC
Seagate 600 SSD 240GB 256MB LAMD LM87800 19nm Toshiba Toggle MLC
Seagate Desktop SSHD 2TB 64MB NA 24nm Toshiba Toggle SLC/MLC
WD Caviar Black 1TB 64MB NA NA

Apart from the 730 Series, our collection contains some of the most popular SSDs around. The bulk of the field is in the 240-256GB range, but unlike the 730 Series, most of those drives have 32-die configurations with no performance handicaps. For the Crucial M500 and Samsung 840 EVO, whose lower-capacity flavors are tagged with slower specs, we have results for multiple capacities, including the fastest models. You can find full reviews of most of the drives in our storage section.

The solid-state crowd is augmented by a couple of mechanical contenders. WD’s Caviar Black 1TB represents the old-school hard drive camp. Seagate’s Desktop SSHD 2TB is along for, as well. The SSHD combines mechanical platters with 8GB of flash cache, but like the Caviar Black, it’s really not a direct competitor to the SSDs. The mechanical and hybrid drives are meant to provide additional context for our SSD results.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably the sort of detail-oriented person who appreciates naked circuit board shots. So, here are a couple of the 730 Series. Even larger versions of these and other images from the article are available in the gallery at the bottom of the page.

We used the following system configuration for testing:

Processor Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz
CPU cooler Thermaltake Frio
Motherboard Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Bios revision 1850
Platform hub Intel P67 Express
Platform drivers INF update 9.2.0.1030

RST 10.6.0.1022

Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24-1T
Audio Realtek ALC892 with 2.62 drivers
Graphics Asus EAH6670/DIS/1GD5 1GB with Catalyst 11.7 drivers
Hard drives Seagate Desktop SSHD 2TB with CC43 firmware

WD Caviar Black 1TB with 05.01D05 firmware

Corsair Force Series GT 240GB with 1.3.2 firmware

Corsair Neutron 240GB with M206 firmware

Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB with M206 firmware

Crucial M500 240GB with MU03 firmware

Crucial M500 480GB with MU03 firmware

Crucial M500 960GB with MU03 firmware

Intel 335 Series 240GB with 335s firmware

Intel 520 Series 240GB with 400i firmware

Intel 730 Series 480GB with XXX firmware

OCZ Vector 150 256GB with 1.1 firmware

OCZ Vertex 450 256GB with 1.0 firmware

SanDisk Extreme II 240GB with R1131

Samsung 830 Series 256GB with CXM03B1Q firmware

Samsung 840 Series 250GB with DXT07B0Q firmware

Samsung 840 EVO 250GB with EXT0AB0Q firmware

Samsung 840 EVO 500GB with EXT0AB0Q firmware

Samsung 840 EVO 1TB with EXT0AB0Q firmware

Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB with DXM04B0Q firmware

Seagate 600 SSD 240GB with B660 firmware

Power supply Corsair Professional Series Gold AX650W
OS Windows 7 Ultimate x64

Thanks to Asus for providing the systems’ motherboards and graphics cards, Intel for the CPUs, Corsair for the memory and PSUs, Thermaltake for the CPU coolers, and Western Digital for the Caviar Black 1TB system drives.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

Some further notes on our test methods:

  • To ensure consistent and repeatable results, the SSDs were secure-erased before almost every component of our test suite. Some of our tests then put the SSDs into a used state before the workload begins, which better exposes each drive’s long-term performance characteristics. In other tests, like DriveBench and FileBench, we induce a used state before testing. In all cases, the SSDs were in the same state before each test, ensuring an even playing field. The performance of mechanical hard drives is much more consistent between factory fresh and used states, so we skipped wiping the HDDs before each test—mechanical drives take forever to secure erase.

  • We run all our tests at least three times and report the median of the results. We’ve found IOMeter performance can fall off with SSDs after the first couple of runs, so we use five runs for solid-state drives and throw out the first two.

  • Steps have been taken to ensure that Sandy Bridge’s power-saving features don’t taint any of our results. All of the CPU’s low-power states have been disabled, effectively pegging the 2500K at 3.3GHz. Transitioning in and out of different power states can affect the performance of storage benchmarks, especially when dealing with short burst transfers.

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Most of the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

HD Tune — Transfer rates

HD Tune lets us present transfer rates in a couple of different ways. Using the benchmark’s “full test” setting gives us a good look at performance across the entire drive rather than extrapolating based on a handful of sample points. The full test gives us fodder for line graphs, which we’ve split up by drive maker. You can click the buttons below each line graph to see how the Intel 730 Series compares to its rivals.


The Intel 730 Series performs well in this sequential read speed test, but it’s not the fastest SSD in the bunch. Over half of the solid-state drives score within 30MB/s of each other. Even the slowest one is more than twice as fast as Seagate’s hybrid SSHD and three times faster than our old-school Caviar Black mechanical drive.


Wait, what? The 730 Series posts a painfully low average in HD Tune’s sequential write speed test. The line graph reveals a series of brief performance spikes between periods of slower sustained speeds, and many of the other SSDs exhibit behavior. But their peaks and valleys are higher, resulting in faster overall averages than the 730 Series’ dismal score.

HD Tune runs on unpartitioned drives, with no file system in place, which probably explains the write-rate spikes exhibited by the 730 Series and some of its peers. For another take on sequential speed, we’ll turn to CrystalDiskMark, which runs on partitioned drives. We used the benchmark’s sequential test with the default 1GB transfer size and randomized data.

That’s more like it. Intel’s hot-clocked server SSD is much more competitive in CrystalDiskMark’s sequential write speed test. The 730 Series still can’t match the fastest drives, but it’s within striking distance of the leaders.

CrystalDiskMark’s read speed test sorts the SSDs into two primary tiers. The 730 Series sits in the second, slower group, but its transfer rate is only 60MB/s shy of the fastest drive.

HD Tune — Random access times

In addition to letting us test transfer rates, HD Tune can measure random access times. We’ve tested with four transfer sizes and presented all the results in a series of line graphs. We’ve also busted out the 4KB and 1MB transfers sizes into bar graphs that should be easier to read without the presence of the mechanical drives throwing off the scale.

As before, click the buttons below the line graphs to compare the Intel 730 Series to different groups of drives.


In the line graphs, note that the SSDs have much lower random access times than mechanical storage. Thanks to its flash-based cache, the Seagate Desktop SSHD also enjoys quick access times. The gap between the hybrid and the SSDs grows as the transfer size increases, though.

The bar graphs depict a tight race between the SSDs. Although the Intel 730 Series nabs a silver medal in the 4KB test and gold in the 1MB test, it’s barely quicker than the competition. Even in the 4KB test, where the relative differences between the SSDs are the greatest, the best and worst scores are separated by only 19 microseconds.


The field spreads out a little more in HD Tune’s random write tests, but the big differences are largely confined to the 1MB transfer size. The 730 Series tumbles down in the standings in that test. It’s near the bottom of the pile in the 4KB test, too, but the gaps there are much smaller overall.

TR FileBench — Real-world copy speeds

Concocted by resident developer Bruno “morphine” Ferreira, FileBench runs through a series of file copy operations using Windows 7’s xcopy command. Using xcopy produces nearly identical copy speeds to dragging and dropping files using the Windows GUI, so our results should be representative of typical real-world performance. We tested using the following five file sets—note the differences in average file sizes and their compressibility. We evaluated the compressibility of each file set by comparing its size before and after being run through 7-Zip’s “ultra” compression scheme.

  Number of files Average file size Total size Compressibility
Movie 6 701MB 4.1GB 0.5%
RAW 101 23.6MB 2.32GB 3.2%
MP3 549 6.48MB 3.47GB 0.5%
TR 26,767 64.6KB 1.7GB 53%
Mozilla 22,696 39.4KB 923MB 91%

The names of most of the file sets are self-explanatory. The Mozilla set is made up of all the files necessary to compile the browser, while the TR set includes years worth of the images, HTML files, and spreadsheets behind my reviews. Those two sets contain much larger numbers of smaller files than the other three. They’re also the most amenable to compression.

To get a sense of how aggressively each SSD reclaims flash pages tagged by the TRIM command, we run FileBench with the solid-state drives in two states. We first test the SSDs in a fresh state after a secure erase. They’re then subjected to a 30-minute IOMeter workload, generating a tortured used state ahead of another batch of copy tests. Let’s start with the fresh-state results.

The Intel 730 Series delivers a mostly middle-of-the-pack performance in our first wave of FileBench tests. It seems to be a little more competitive when copying the larger files in our movie, RAW, and MP3 tests.

Does anything change after our 30-minute torture test?

Not really. Like most modern SSDs, the 730 Series maintains largely consistent copy speeds between our fresh- and used-state scenarios. The trouble is those copy speeds are too slow to keep up with the fastest drives in this test.

TR DriveBench 1.0 — Disk-intensive multitasking

TR DriveBench allows us to record the individual IO requests associated with a Windows session and then play those results back as fast as possible on different drives. We’ve used this app to create a set of multitasking workloads that combine common desktop tasks with disk-intensive background operations like compiling code, copying files, downloading via BitTorrent, transcoding video, and scanning for viruses. The individual workloads are explained in more detail here.

Below, you’ll find an overall average followed by scores for each of our individual workloads. The overall score is an average of the mean performance score for each multitasking workload.

We have a new king of DriveBench 1.0. The Intel 730 Series flexes its muscles in our disk-intensive multitasking tests, where it has a clear edge over its closest competitor. Let’s examine the individual test results for signs of weakness.

Well, there’s one. Despite leading the pack in four of five tests, the 730 Series is stuck in the middle of the field in the file copy test. Given the drive’s middling performance in FileBench, the file copy results aren’t surprising. They add to a string of average performances in tests that involve sequential transfers. Hmmm.

TR DriveBench 2.0 — More disk-intensive multitasking

As much as we like DriveBench 1.0’s individual workloads, the traces cover only slices of disk activity. Because we fire the recorded I/Os at the disks as fast as possible, solid-state drives also have no downtime during which to engage background garbage collection or other optimization algorithms. DriveBench 2.0 addresses both of those issues with a much larger trace that spans two weeks of typical desktop activity peppered with multitasking loads similar to those in DriveBench 1.0. We’ve also adjusted our testing methods to give solid-state drives enough idle time to tidy up after themselves. More details on DriveBench 2.0 are available on this page of our last major SSD round-up.

Instead of looking at a raw IOps rate, we’re going to switch gears and explore service times—the amount of time it takes drives to complete an I/O request. We’ll start with an overall mean service time before slicing and dicing the results.

The Intel 730 Series looks very strong in our long-term test of real-world I/O. Its overall mean service time is quick enough for third place, barely behind the leaders. Let’s separate the service times for reads and writes to see how they compare.

Most of the top SSDs have similar mean read service times. The 730 Series is technically the quickest, but its advantage is extremely slim.

There are larger gaps between the mean write service times of the SSDs. Even though the 730 Series finishes off the podium, it’s only a step behind the top dogs. Note that the 730 Series’ performance is still much better than that of a lot of SSDs, including older Intel models.

There are millions of I/O requests in this trace, so we can’t easily graph service times to look at the variance. However, our analysis tools do report the standard deviation, which gives us a sense of how much service times vary from the mean.

The 730 Series’ low standard deviation scores wouldn’t be especially meaningful without the drive’s accompanying low mean service times. Intel’s latest desktop SSD ranks among the best according to both metrics, indicating that its access times are not only quick, but also consistent.

We can’t easily graph all the service times recorded by DriveBench 2.0, but we can sort them. The graphs below plot the percentage of service times that fall below various thresholds. Once again, the buttons below each graph switch between different sets of drives.



The write distribution plots are similar for all the SSDs. The read distribution plots show larger differences at some of the lower thresholds, but considering the stakes, the drives are all pretty comparable.

Most of the distribution thresholds are below one millisecond—too little time for end users to perceive. Look at the far right side of the plots, though. DriveBench also gives us the number of service times over 100 milliseconds. These extremely long access times make up a small percentage of the total, but they’re more likely to be noticeable, so we’ve graphed the totals separately.

Impressive. The 730 Series doesn’t suffer from any extremely long write service times, and its total for reads is the second lowest overall.

Most of the SSDs do a good job of avoiding sluggish service times. However, Crucial’s M500 is a definite outlier. The lower-capacity variants are particularly prone to longer write service times.

IOMeter

Our IOMeter workloads feature a ramping number of concurrent I/O requests. Most desktop systems will only have a few requests in flight at any given time (87% of DriveBench 2.0 requests have a queue depth of four or less). We’ve extended our scaling up to 32 concurrent requests to reach the depth of the Native Command Queuing pipeline associated with the Serial ATA specification. Ramping up the number of requests also gives us a sense of how the drives might perform in more demanding enterprise environments.

We run our IOMeter tests using the fully randomized data pattern, which presents a particular challenge for SandForce’s write compression scheme. We’d rather measure SSD performance in this worst-case scenario than using easily compressible data.

There’s too much data to show clearly on a single graph for each access pattern, so we’ve once again split the results by drive maker. You can compare the performance of the Intel 730 Series to that of the competition by clicking the buttons below each graph.


The web server access pattern is comprised entirely of read requests. That biased makeup doesn’t faze the Intel 730 Series, which delivers higher I/O throughput than all but the Samsung 840 Pro. The Intel drive has only a slim lead over the rest of Samsung’s posse, but it easily distances itself from most of the other SSDs.

Our remaining IOMeter tests combine read and write requests in different proportions. Pity the mechanical and hybrid drives, which barely rise above the horizontal axis.




So, yeah, this is what happens when Intel turns up the clocks on an enterprise SSD. The 730 Series toasts the competition across all of our mixed IOMeter workloads.

The Samsung SSDs have much lower I/O rates when writes are part of the picture, so they’re not even in the running. Only the OCZ Vector 150 manages to eclipse the 730 Series’ performance, and even then, its advantage is confined to the heaviest load in each test.

Boot duration

Before timing a couple of real-world applications, we first have to load the OS. We can measure how long that takes by checking the Windows 7 boot duration using the operating system’s performance-monitoring tools. This is actually the first test in which we’re booting Windows off each drive; up until this point, our testing has been hosted by an OS housed on a separate system drive.

Level load times

Modern games lack built-in timing tests to measure level loads, so we busted out a stopwatch with a couple of reasonably recent titles.

The Intel 730 Series fails to distinguish itself in our load time tests. To be fair, all of the SSDs are within about a second of each other. The SSHD hybrid is nearly as quick, but the traditional hard drive is outclassed once again.

And yes, we know these games are old. We plan to include newer titles in an updated storage test suite, but we haven’t had the chance to flesh things out just yet.

Power consumption

We tested power consumption under load with IOMeter’s workstation access pattern chewing through 32 concurrent I/O requests. Idle power consumption was probed one minute after processing Windows 7’s idle tasks on an empty desktop.

No wonder Intel says the 730 Series isn’t meant for notebooks. The drive has higher power consumption than just about all of the SSDs we’ve tested. It only pulls a couple more watts than the most power-efficient alternatives, though. Differences that slim are of little importance in desktop systems.

Conclusions

We’ve waded through a lot of performance data, and we’ll indulge a couple more graphs before weighing in with our final verdict. The following scatter plots use an overall performance score, which we derived by comparing each drive’s performance to a common baseline. This score is based on a subset of our performance data described here, and we’ve mashed it up with per-gigabyte prices from Newegg. (The 730 Series isn’t selling online just yet, so we’ve used Intel’s suggested retail price for the 480GB model.) The best solutions are found in the upper left corner of the plot, which signifies high performance and low pricing.

Solid-state and mechanical storage have vastly different performance and pricing, and those disparities make the main plot a little busy. Click the buttons below the plot to switch between all the drives and a cropped look at just the SSDs—and keep in mind that we’ve trimmed the axes for the SSD-only plot.


Okay, I lied; there are actually four value plots. The 730 Series’ poor performance in HD Tune’s sequential write speed test really pulls down the drive’s overall score. Since other SSDs produce anomalous results in that test, I whipped up a second set of scatters that uses sequential transfer rate scores from CrystalDiskMark, instead. Those scatters should represent the 730 Series’ real-world performance more accurately, but they don’t resolve the drive’s questionable value proposition.

The first problem is the 730 Series’ uneven performance. Although the drive is an absolute beast with random I/O, it’s less competitive with sequential transfers. That’s not to say that the 730 Series’ sequential speeds are slow. They’re just not fast enough to produce a chart-topping overall score.

The second problem is the price, which is extremely high for a modern SSD. Drives like the Crucial M500 960GB and Samsung 840 EVO 1TB offer double the capacity of the Intel 730 Series 480GB for about the same amount of money—and they’re no slouches in the performance department. I suppose there’s a chance the price could drop between now and the 730 Series’ March 18 street date, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Intel has a history of maintaining premium prices for its high-end desktop SSDs.

There are other factors to consider, of course. The 730 Series pretty much aced our real-world I/O simulations, which bodes well for demanding workloads. It also has robust data protection features, including capacitors that provide power if the lights go out unexpectedly. And don’t forget Intel’s strong reliability reputation. The server SSDs on which the 730 Series is based have been around for a while, so this platform should be thoroughly vetted by now. Enterprise folks are pretty particular about such things.

Intel seems confident in the 730 Series’ long-term viability, too. The drive is covered by a five-year warranty, and it has higher endurance ratings than most consumer-grade SSDs. An especially write-heavy workload is required to take advantage of the extra write tolerance, though. Outside of 4K video editing and perhaps other forms of ultra-high-definition content creation, it’s hard to imagine desktop tasks that need more endurance than typical desktop drives provide, especially if the results of our SSD Endurance Experiment are indicative of real-world behavior on a larger scale.

In some ways, the Intel 730 Series feels like too much SSD for the desktop. But the ethos responsible for the drive resonates deeply with my enthusiast core. There’s something very cool about a hot-clocked server SSD, even if its benefits will be lost on most users—and obscured by the hefty price tag. The 730 Series may be difficult to recommend to a broad audience, but like a lot of high-end PC parts, it’s also pretty awesome.

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    • Aphasia
    • 6 years ago

    What can I say, I would trust Intel drives with my data, that is more important then the price unless it’s way more expensive, but the prices when it actually hit’s the market usually carries a bit of a premium, but usually not that bad, but that is still left to see where it stands when it actually gets here.

    11TB and 2 re-allocated sectors so far on my X25M-160GB.

    • TwoEars
    • 6 years ago

    I usually order ssd’s by the hundreds…

    No way I’m going to be ordering a hundred ssd’s with skulls on them and have to explain that to the boss and purchasing department.

      • 5150
      • 6 years ago

      What if you ordered two batches of 50?

        • TwoEars
        • 6 years ago

        I would have to explain it two times?

    • LoneWolf15
    • 6 years ago

    For half the price, I can get the Crucial M500 240GB/480GB (recent pricing had the 240GB at $129.99 and the 480GB at $259.99). Maybe the warranty is shorter, but the drives have comparable performance in almost every test, as well as having equivalent or better feature set (built in RAID engine, hardware encryption that Intel stripped from the 730, same caps for power-loss data protection, and a thermal management system for drive longevity). Features noted by Geoff here (a review that really made up my mind at the time, thanks):

    [url<]https://techreport.com/review/24666/crucial-m500-ssd-reviewed[/url<] I admit, the Samsung EVOs are competitive here (actually faster) too but (even if I don't need it) the longevity of MLC NAND is a big deal. I liked Intel SSDs, especially with Intel-built controller chips, but this just isn't a compelling offering. Add to it the recommendation that it not be used in a laptop, and that's one less reason to consider it when compared to the M500.

    • bandannaman
    • 6 years ago

    For my workloads (software development and database work, frequently inside a virtual machine), the extremely consistent, extremely fast response times are very appealing. Basically, by juicing the clock speeds they’ve made it so that I don’t have to choose between enthusiast-level performance and enterprise-grade consistency/quality.

    On the other hand, that makes the skull thing especially weird. I wonder if they actually put it on there more to dissuade their enterprise users from buying it (cannibalization avoidance) as opposed to enticing the rest of us to buy it. Skulls on your enterprise SSDs make you look like an idiot.

    BTW, I would very much love to see TR do some VM-oriented testing alongside the rest of the suite. Virtual machines are only going to become more important over time, even with the consumer/enthusiast crowd.

    • brucethemoose
    • 6 years ago

    I’m seeing that Skull plastered on tech site advertisements around the web.

    It must make the SSD go faster right? I mean, that glowing skull with DNA strands doesn’t lie…

      • Metonymy
      • 6 years ago

      I built a number of systems at work using an Intel Z68 board. The board is very stable, but it’s certainly not what one would pick to OC, and there is a skull on the board with two red LED eyes that blink on hard drive activity. I feel bad for it it looks so pathetic.

    • Alereon
    • 6 years ago

    Can you confirm that there is an extra die? Other sites seem to be reporting that the 480GB model has 32 128Gbit (16GiB) dies with parity data equal to one die equally distributed, like on Sandforce drives.

      • Dissonance
      • 6 years ago

      We asked Intel specifically about the die configurations for the 240GB and 480GB models. The information about the extra die comes directly from the company.

    • Klimax
    • 6 years ago

    Hm. Regular activities are average, but those server-like are great. This seems to fit some of mine use-cases.

    One is updating Subversion checkouts of 22 medium to large projects. (ICU, WxWidgets, Subversion, VICE and few more are very large) Each update is mix of SQLite and files access/updates and thus might be as close to some of core strengths of this SSD.

    High endurance is requirement. (That’s why I still have source code hosted on regular HDD Velociraptor)

    Now, good question is how about other SSDs from same category like PCI-E based or SATA/SAS.´

    I’ll see…

    • internetsandman
    • 6 years ago

    So it has a bit more over provisioned area than most SSD’s and capacitance to make sure drives can finish their work before shutting down…and that warrants almost a doubling in $/GB over more traditional offerings?

    • ronch
    • 6 years ago

    Glad to see my Samsung 840 EVO 250GB do well in the benches. It hopefully lasts long though.

    Edit – A downthumb? REALLY??! Because I am happy with my EVO??

      • BIF
      • 6 years ago

      LOL, it was gone by the time I saw your post.

      How does it feel to be a gladiator in the modern Colosseum?

    • shank15217
    • 6 years ago

    Lets face it, Intel has lost the SSD race in both the consumer and in the professional world. I wouldn’t touch their SSDs with a 10 foot pole. HGST or LSI are really the only choices left in the high performance SSD market, and Samsung basically rules the consumer market. Time for Intel to gracefully bow out of this race…

      • Firestarter
      • 6 years ago

      You wouldn’t touch this SSD with a 10 foot pole just because it’s a bit more expensive and/or slower than you wish it would be? If it was half as expensive you’d be all over it.

        • shank15217
        • 6 years ago

        But its not, its overpriced and under performs.

          • Firestarter
          • 6 years ago

          But you wouldn’t turn down a free one, which is more than you can say of certain .. other SSDs

      • Klimax
      • 6 years ago

      Reason?

    • Jambe
    • 6 years ago

    I guess Intel’s flash still an IMFT production? I haven’t been following things regards that Micron/Intel joint venture thingy.

    Regards the 730: hmm. I guess one pays out the wazoo for the branding, then, and the reliability and warranty.

    It’s hard to ignore that one can buy a 960 GB M500 for $454.85 right now from Amazon, which is darn-near as fast as the 480 GB 730, has power-protection caps as well, and is $33 cheaper ($40 if one considers the $495 Amazon pre-order of the 730).

    Seems like a no-brainer to me, unless one doesn’t trust Crucial/Micron.

    I’d like to see TR study how modern consumer SSDs react to power faults, actually, maybe testing with some mainstream UPS units as well (just to check). There exists a 2012 paper by Zeng et al., [i<]Understanding the Robustness of SSDs under Power Fault[/i<], but it doesn't ID the drives. There's a not a lot more in the way of vigorous study of that topic (at least, I can't find any).

    • albundy
    • 6 years ago

    that is one expensive medium-low performer!

      • ClickClick5
      • 6 years ago

      I too was honestly expecting more before getting to the graphs.

      • ronch
      • 6 years ago

      Not really. The drive itself costs just $160. The cool skull sticker is actually a $200 value but they’re including it for a mere $100 more over the drive’s price. Awesome deal!

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 6 years ago

    Meh.

    • indeego
    • 6 years ago

    The only usage scenario I can see this for is a medium to heavy use file server, and only you plan on having that in place for 3+ years. The 840 Pro beats it in almost any other measure performance wise, and the M500 on $/byte.

    • SnowboardingTobi
    • 6 years ago

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate the simplified coloring on the bar graphs.

    Love you

    • omf
    • 6 years ago

    Those same users who do 4K video editing are probably going to care more about sequential read/write times than anything else.

    This drive is obviously tuned for server workloads, and, outside of the endurance/safety features, I don’t see a benefit for most enthusiasts out there. Unless having a skull sticker on the cover is worth something, of course.

    • ClickClick5
    • 6 years ago

    I like the capacitors for power loss! As the HDD can use the spinning platters to do an emergency write!

    Also, be careful about listing compressed movies and music. Many readers here do not like that to be mentioned.

      • Sargent Duck
      • 6 years ago

      why?

        • GodsMadClown
        • 6 years ago

        I think that ClickClick5 mistakenly thinks that all compressed music or video content is of p2p traded copyrighted stuff, and therefore illegal. It’s legal for users to archive CDs or DVDs that they own and put it on a medium of their choice. In this case, the media is a new, expensive, and fast SSD.

          • ClickClick5
          • 6 years ago

          It was from a forum post I did showing compression tools. Few of the items were mp4 files, aac files and jpeg files. The review was written for the normal every day user and I noted that compressing already compressed files will gain no yield being compressed, but only about two people understood that line. The rest complained day in and out about the fact I tried to compress those media types.

            • xii
            • 6 years ago

            Step out of it. Let it go. You’re still young, you can have a life. There’s still hope.

            • Waco
            • 6 years ago

            This site is not composed of “everyday, normal users”.

    • indeego
    • 6 years ago

    Good timing!

    [url<]http://i.imgur.com/oG85Vxh.png[/url<] I just today saw my second SSD failure ever. An Intel X18-M 160GB (about 4 years old) installed in a very old system. It fails running chkdsk, and getting events in system log and taskbar. Ah well, a good run!

      • danwat1234
      • 6 years ago

      My X25-m 80GB is about 4 years old too, 21TB written, with 11 reallocated sectors, so far so good 🙂
      [url<]http://imgur.com/HaWu3na[/url<] Still can't justify buying a new SSD for my SATA 2 3.45GHZ Penryn laptop. Probably will be mSATA.

        • Vaughn
        • 6 years ago

        I have two X25-M G2 160GB’s in Raid 0

        First one I picked up on Dec 24, 2009

        4TB’s written 5 relocated sectors.

        [url<]http://postimg.org/image/im3p4uzoz/[/url<] For the first 3 years using the drive all of my temp files and browser caches were written to a ram drive which explains the low host writes 🙂

    • odizzido
    • 6 years ago

    I was expecting more considering the price.

      • ronch
      • 6 years ago

      Oh but there’s more: the Skull! You DON’T GET THAT WITH ANY OTHER SSD!!

        • Melvar
        • 6 years ago

        I’ll sell you a Skull sticker for your Evo. Just $129.95!

          • ronch
          • 6 years ago

          It’s just not the same without the Intel logo right next to it. I mean, Intel invented the Skull, man. And they probably have a dozen patents in place to protect it. /s

            • stdRaichu
            • 6 years ago

            Intel missed a trick by not combining this with Futil1ty branding. The red stripes would have been good for at least 5% extra quadhertz and they could have bumped up the USB polling rate by 20GB.

            Seeing these products always makes me think of [url=http://futurama.wikia.com/wiki/Victor<]Victor[/url<]. The luxurious flash chips are stuffed with skull and the controller inlaid with the teeth of a thousand skulls. Also, there are some skulls under the PCB.

    • wierdo
    • 6 years ago

    M500 960gb drive looks great in this review, another MLC class drive with solid performance and an impressive price tag vs the competition. Big fan.

      • Firestarter
      • 6 years ago

      And you can get the 960gb version for less than you’d pay for a 480gb Intel 730. No contest IMO.

    • dme123
    • 6 years ago

    As someone who used to pay through the nose to use 15K SCSI drives on the desktop I should be part of the target market for this, but the performance increment is so small over a more mainstream SSD that it is just impossible to justify. Maybe once we move to PCI-E storage and 6Gbps SATA is not longer the bottleneck there will be more reason for a super high end consumer drive?

    • colinstu12
    • 6 years ago

    Conclusion: Get a Samsung 840 Pro unless you do a lot of whatever IOMeter tested for? And even then, the Samsung drive costs less.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 6 years ago

      I’ve got a 120GB 840 EVO that I use for the OS X install on my Hackintosh and that thing is beastly. Boots from the boot loader menu to desktop in like 5 seconds, seriously. The little spinning wheel makes one revolution and then bam desktop. I’d love to get a 480GB one for games and stuff.

      • Diplomacy42
      • 6 years ago

      Conclusion: get basically any modern SSD you want and try to not care about the difference between 800% above baseline and 900% above baseline. It really doesn’t matter.

    • jwilliams
    • 6 years ago

    “HD Tune runs on unpartitioned drives, with no file system in place, which probably explains the write-rate spikes exhibited by the 730 Series and some of its peers.”

    Would you care to explain this comment? Why should NOT having a filesystem slow down writes to the block device? Are you implying that some SSDs are specifically optimized for certain filesystems? If so, what filesystems are they optimized for (I will not believe that it is possible to optimize an SSD for all filesystems, since there are so many differences between, for example, a conventional filesystem and a COW filesystem) ?

    Also, is HD Tune doing something other than a sequential write to the sectors (LBAs) of the block device? It is hard to believe that an SSD would not be optimized for sequential writes to the LBAs.

      • Dissonance
      • 6 years ago

      The only area where we see this sort of behavior is in a write speed test on an unpartitioned drive with no file system in place. We haven’t observed similar issues with sequential write speed tests that run on partitioned drives, which suggests that the spiking write transfer rates are related to the lack of a partition.

      That doesn’t mean that drives are optimized for specific file systems, just that some seem to have a problem running this particular benchmark without a partition in place.

        • jwilliams
        • 6 years ago

        It seems to me the first possible explanation that you should consider for such odd behavior is that HD Tune is doing something weird, and it probably is not a good choice for a benchmark (especially since you do not appear to have a good understanding of EXACTLY what HD Tune is doing).

        I have personally done sequential writes to the LBAs of several models of SSDs (just after secure erase, so no filesystem) using software that I know exactly what it is doing, and I have never seen such odd behavior as you are showing with HD Tune.

        Also, an explanation that this behavior is the result of partitioning is even less likely than it being the result of a filesystem (and that is already quite unlikely). Partitioning a drive only writes the partition table, which can be as little as one sector near the beginning, and certainly never more than a few MBs at the beginning and end.

          • Ninjitsu
          • 6 years ago

          Tom’s Hardware explored SSD performance on various file systems two years ago:
          [url<]http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ssd-file-system-ntfs,3166-2.html[/url<]

    • ronch
    • 6 years ago

    I wonder whose lame idea it is to use that skull to make some of Intel’s products look wild or something. I’d probably excuse it if a company such as Alienware or Razer did it, but Intel? Isn’t Intel too respectable for this sort of ‘trying-hard’ marketing?

    See, I shoot anybody down who I think has a lame idea. Intel, AMD, Nvidia. They’re all targets. Right, Bensam?

      • uni-mitation
      • 6 years ago

      I always buy my SSDs with a Hello [url=http://hellopony.weebly.com/<]Pony[/url<] branding! That is quality workmanship for a real man!

      • danwat1234
      • 6 years ago

      It would be cool if Seagate used the old Barracuda fish symbol on their SSHDs that they used to put on the spindle motors of their monster SCSI drives back in the 90s. [url<]http://images.cqout.com/SB/seagate_st15150n.jpg[/url<]

      • Grigory
      • 6 years ago

      Yeah, somebody needs to get his or her skull bashed in for that skull. Why must hardware have this nonsense? Not everybody is a complete retard. Only most people. Well, it all starts to make sense now. 🙁

      • Deanjo
      • 6 years ago

      Intel has a long history of cheesy marketing to the “enthusiast”.

        • UnfriendlyFire
        • 6 years ago

        Or giving the cold shoulder (CPUs).

        Because they can.

        • Klimax
        • 6 years ago

        Skulltrail

      • Melvar
      • 6 years ago

      That skull reminds me of seeing parents try to act “cool” back when I was a kid. This seems just as sad.

    • iatacs19
    • 6 years ago

    Performance is not that good considering the price. With the Samsung and Sandisk drives selling for 30% less, the intel 730 SSD is somewhat dead on arrival.

      • omf
      • 6 years ago

      Maybe that’s what the skull is for?

      • Ochadd
      • 6 years ago

      I think a great purpose for these drives are for those whitebox servers and SANS for folks who put more faith in the underlying hardware than what the target market is. These will get used in servers and SANs.
      I’d go Samsung 840 Pro over these on desktops and notebooks. RAID arrays of slightly cheaper drives like the EVO or Neutrons if the workload needs all out performance.

      • Deanjo
      • 6 years ago

      I like the new Toshiba drives myself. I’ve been picking up their 512 GB for $330 at BB.

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