The Intel Solid-State Drive 310 Series is a new generation of SSD that reduces the physical size of internal storage for portable computing
While we've reviewed many solid-state drives (SSD) in the past, we've never come across a mini-SATA (mSATA) SSD. So when Intel sent Computerworld one of its first such drives, the Intel Solid-State 310, we hoped it would perform like the big boys.
The first thing to note is that several drive manufacturers believe mSATA will become the industry standard for mobile computing platforms. And Intel is not alone in the mSATA market. Last month, Samsung began shipping its own mSATA SSDs to system manufacturers. Samsung's PM800 line of mSATA drives offers capacities of 32GB, 64GB and 128GB.
Mini-SSDs close a technology gap created when SSDs were first introduced several years ago. To date, SSDs have been designed using traditional 2.5in hard drive form factors, to offer an easy upgrade path for users and to give computer equipment manufacturers flexibility in their choice of storage devices.
But the 2.5in form factor approach doesn't take advantage of one of the key attributes of SSD,: its form is flexible because it's essentially made up of chips on a circuit board. Mini-SATA SSDs let vendors and system manufacturers design and develop drives with small sizes and different shapes depending on what buyers want.
"As a result, I expect [computer manufacturers] to increasingly leverage non-traditional, flexible form factors, like Intel's 310 mSATA modules, to meet the device's... requirements," says Jeff Janukowicz, an analyst at research firm IDC.
Overall, IDC expects the use of SSDs to increase at a 67% compound annual growth rate from 2009 to 2014. "I expect the use of flexible form factors, like mSATA modules, to grow to almost 60% of shipments by 2014," Janukowicz says.
Mini-SATA drives are about one quarter the size of a standard 2.5in laptop SSD, and one-third the thickness. Each one weighs just a third of an ounce. They are mainly being marketed to equipment manufacturers planning to incorporate small form-factor SSDs, about the size of a business card, in portable devices such as tablets.
It is also ideal for dual-drive systems.
The Serial ATA (SATA) data transfer protocol (which is supported by the SSD 310) allows data to be moved seamlessly between a hard-disk drive and the smaller SSD over a PCI Express (PCIe) mini-connector.
Lenovo and DRS Tactical Systems, a military PC manufacturer, plan to use mSATA drives in their upcoming dual-drive machines. In a dual-drive machine, the mSATA device acts as an OS and application drive, increasing overall system performance by about 60%, while a hard drive or higher capacity SSD remains the mass storage device.
Testing the SSD 310
In the Computerworld tests, the SSD 310 didn't meet the performance levels of an SSD using the full SATA 3Gb/s interface, but it handily beat the industry's fastest hard disk drives and cut our Windows laptop's boot time almost in half.
Our test bed consisted of a Fujitsu Lifebook A1220 15in laptop with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T6600, with 2GB of RAM, running Windows 7 Home Premium.
If you're interested in using an mSATA drive in your current laptop, you'll need a SATA adaptor card, which we used via our computer's native internal SATA port.
Even on top of an adaptor card, this product remains an extremely thin piece of hardware capable of being used in today's slimmest netbooks.
The Intel SSD 310 drive is built using Intel's 34-nanometer (nm) NAND flash technology, and sips power. It only uses 150 milliwatt when active and 75 milliwatt while in idle mode (manufacturer’s figures; active spec based on running MobileMark 2007).
Compare that with our machine's native Western Digital Scorpio Blue hard-disk drive, a 320GB, 5400rpm sample, which consumes power at 2.5 watt active, 2.0 watt idle.
The SSD 310 comes in 40GB and 80GB capacities. We tested the 80GB model, which is rated by Intel to have a sustained read/write rate of 200MB/s and 70MB/s, respectively.
The 40GB model lists sustained read/write rates of 170MB/s and 35MB/s, respectively.
With regard to random read/write, using 4kB blocks, the Intel mSSDs are cited with up to 35,000 and 6,600 input/output operations per second (IOPS), respectively.
With regard to random read/write, using 4kB blocks, the SSD boasts up to 35,000 and 6,600 IOPS, respectively.
The benchmark tests
First we booted our laptop using the machine's native 3Gbit/s SATA hard drive. It booted in 45 seconds; a restart took 57 seconds. The Intel SSD 310 booted in 25 seconds and restarted in 35 seconds.
mSATA supports 1.5 Gbit/se and 3.0 Gbit/s transfer rates (the latter still half the speed of the latest SATA 6Gb/s standard).
Intel's SSD 310 is wafer thin, measuring just 2.0 x 1.2 inch, it's 0.19 inch thick.
We used ATTO Technology's Disk Benchmark v2.3.4 utility, followed by EFD Software's HD Tune Pro v4.6, to test the drive's read/write performance.
Using 8MB transfer sizes, ATTO's benchmark indicated the drive had a 80.6MB/s write and 201MB/sec read rate, quite a disparity when compared to other SSDs that Computerworld has tested. Typically, read/write rates, while not the same, haven’t been separated by more than 100MB/s.
HD Tune's software offered similar read rate results. The drive showed a maximum read rate of 203.7MB/sec, a minimum read rate of 178MB/s and an average read rate of 194.8MB/s. The average access time was .087 millisecond and CPU usage was 8.2%.
Unfortunately, HD Tune requires you delete all partitions on a drive before you can test write speeds, so we didn't perform that test.
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