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|
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.
|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|
|Platform hub||Intel P67 Express|
|Platform drivers||INF update 220.127.116.110
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|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:
- Intel IOMeter 1.1.0 RC1
- HD Tune 4.61
- TR DriveBench 1.0
- TR DriveBench 2.0
- TR FileBench 0.2
- Qt SDK 2010.05
- MinGW GCC 4.4.0
- Duke Nukem Forever
- Portal 2
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.