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Missing software and secretive SMART attributes
Most of the big-name SSD makers offer utility software that optimizes system settings, monitors drive health, and handles firmware updates. Crucial continues to be conspicuously absent from that club, but it sounds like software is in development. For now, M550 owners will have to resort to third-party utilities. These applications typically don't perform optimization or firmware updates, but they can monitor the drive via its SMART attributes.

Crucial doesn't make monitoring with third-party tools particularly easy, though. The screenshot below displays the SMART attributes accessible to HD Sentinel. Note the numerous "Vendor-specific" attributes with no additional explanation.

Similarly obfuscated attributes populate the M500's SMART data. Fortunately, the vendor-specific entries are described in an attribute decoder ring (PDF) available on Crucial's site. The M550's attributes are the same as those for the M500's latest MU03 firmware. They provide information on reallocated sectors, program and erase failures, error correction and RAIN recovery events, and total host writes. That's important data, so I'm puzzled why much of it is hidden behind meaningless labels. Users shouldn't need a separate document to analyze basic drive statistics.

SMART attributes are most useful for wear monitoring, but most users probably don't have to worry about burning through the M550's available flash cycles. The drive is rated for 72TB of total writes, which works out to 40GB per day for five years. This endurance specification is fairly generous for a consumer-grade drive. It also matches the rating attached to the M500.

Crucial expects both drives to continue working after they've surpassed 72TB of writes. However, the warranty expires after the endurance limit is reached or three years have passed, whichever comes first.

The results of our ongoing endurance experiment suggest that the M550 should be able to write a lot more than 72TB. Thus far, we've written hundreds of terabytes to a stack of MLC-based SSDs. We've exceeded all their endurance ratings several times over, and the drives have reported barely any bad blocks, let alone more serious failures.

Premium SSDs usually have higher write endurance ratings and longer warranty coverage than cheaper models, so it's a little surprising that the M550 matches its predecessor on both fronts. To be fair, though, the M550 is priced more like a mid-range drive than a high-end offering. The 256GB version is set to sell for $169, which is a lot cheaper than the $200+ stickers typically attached to premium SSDs. The old M500 effectively resides in budget territory; the 240GB version rings in at only $120 right now, which is the lowest price I see for a drive of that size.

At the top of the range, the M550 1TB is priced at $531, or $0.51/GB. That's cheaper than the $556 street price of the Samsung 840 EVO 1TB, but only just. The old M500 is cheaper still, with the 960GB version priced at only $440, or $0.46/GB.

Test notes and methods
All three terabyte-class SSDs are included in our performance results, so that will be a fun battle to watch. We've run the M550 256GB through the gauntlet, as well. Pay attention to how that drive fares against not only its counterpart in the M500 family, but also other contenders in the sweet spot of the market.

Here's a full rundown of the SSDs we tested, along with their essential characteristics.

  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
Crucial M550 256GB 256MB Marvell 88SS9189 20nm Micron sync MLC
Crucial M550 1TB 1GB Marvell 88SS9189 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

Crucial sent us the 128GB and 512GB versions of the M550, too, but I was out of the lab traveling for a chunk of last week, so there wasn't enough time to test those drives fully. Fortunately, there was just enough time to run them through DriveBench 2.0, our long-term test of real-world I/O performance.

Our main body of results contains some of the most popular SSDs around. The bulk of the field is in the 240-256GB range, and 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 drives. WD's Caviar Black 1TB represents the old-school hard drive camp. Seagate's Desktop SSHD 2TB is along for the ride, 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.

The rest of this page is filled with nerdy details about system and test configurations. If you're familiar with how we do things around here, feel free to skip ahead to the benchmark results.

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
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
Crucial M550 256GB with MU01 firmware
Crucial M550 1TB with MU01 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 1280x1024 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.