Earlier this year Intel introduced its second SandForce based SSD: the Intel SSD 330. While Intel had previously reserved the 5xx line for 3rd party controllers, the 330 marks the first time Intel has used something other than its own branded controller in a mainstream or 3-series drive.

I don't doubt that I'll eventually get the story of how we got here. Apparently there's a good one behind why Intel's sequential write speed was capped at 100MB/s in the early days of the X25-M's controller. Regardless of how, this is where we are today: every new Intel SSD, with the exception of the high-end PCIe solution, is now powered by SandForce's SF-2281 controller and not Intel's own silicon.

The firmware is of course a collaboration between Intel and SandForce, although it's not clear if Intel ever had access to the firmware's source code or not. The result is a solution that performs a little differently than a standard SandForce drive, but should be less prone to compatibility/stability/reliability issues that have plagued SandForce drives for the past year. The latter is difficult to quantify.

We have seen examples of better behavior from Intel's SF-2281 firmware internally, and even wrote about one in our original Cherryville review. Despite Intel's best efforts, there are starting to be a small percentage of issues being reported in the wild. The number of publicly reported problems is very low, but it's impossible to say if this is a function of time or a truly superior design. I'm still comfortable in saying Intel's SandForce drives are good and likely better tested than any other SF drive, but as with any SSD, there can be issues depending on your system configuration. For what it's worth, even Intel's own controllers have had issues.

The Intel SSD 330

The 330 is available in four capacities: 60GB, 120GB, 180GB and 240GB. The limited launch capacities are a bit odd when you consider the Intel SSD 320 was available from 40GB all the way up to 600GB. Given the 330 uses the same controller as the 520, anyone who needs a larger drive can always buy the 520 instead.

Architecturally the 330 and 520 are identical. They both use the same SF-2281 6Gbps controller, and they both use Intel's 25nm MLC NAND. Actually, if you look at the 330's PCB itself you'll see the same layout as the 520 and Cherryville codename silkscreened onto the board. Despite the latter, Intel's SSD 330 is technically codenamed Maple Crest.

The similarities don't end there either. If you haven't updated to the latest Intel SSD Toolbox, the 330 is actually detected by the software as a 520:

Updating to the latest version rectifies the latter:

The 330 and 520 are very similar drives. The 330's primary differentiation comes from its use of cheaper, lower endurance MLC NAND. I'll get to the math behind why this isn't an issue at all for most users shortly. Conceptually, the 330 vs. the 520 is very similar to Kingston's HyperX 3K vs. regular HyperX drive. Just like with frequency binning for CPUs, there's endurance binning for NAND. Lower endurance parts are more plentiful (and thus cheaper) while the highest endurance parts will be sold for a premium (e.g. MLC-HET). If Intel does its job right, most of the stuff in the middle should be very good. And if it does its job really well, even the lower endurance parts should be more than good enough.

Intel's SSD 330 also carries a different firmware version from the 520: 300i vs. 400i. The firmware changes are likely minor in nature, however one major change is the loss of Intel's E2/E3/E4 SMART attributes for quick endurance testing. As I mentioned in our look at Intel SSDs in the enterprise, you can use these attributes to determine write amplification and estimate NAND longevity of a given workload. Intel views these as enterprise features, and with the 330's focus exclusively as a client drive it loses the features. You still have an accurate count of total host writes vs. NAND writes, as well as Intel's media wear indicator that lets you know what percentage of p/e cycles you have exhausted. I suspect this is more of Intel's famous forced segmentation at work rather than true delineation between client and datacenter drives. Depending on the server and workload, the 330 could be just fine.

Pricing

Using cheaper NAND allows Intel to be a little more aggressive on the 330's pricing without sacrificing margins. We turn to our Newegg pricing table once more to see where this puts the 330 in the grand scheme of things:

SSD Price Comparison
Capacity 60/64GB 120/128GB 180/192GB 240/256GB 480/512GB
Crucial m4 $70 $120   $220 $400
Intel SSD 330 $70 $100 $160    
Intel SSD 520 $90 $125 $190 $255 $500
OCZ Vertex 3 $70 $95   $200 $530
OCZ Vertex 4 $75 $115   $210 $550
Plextor M3   $160   $270 $575
Plextor M3 Pro   $180   $280 $680
Samsung SSD 830 $128 $143   $282 $700

Although SSD pricing is extremely volatile, Intel's SSD 330 tends to be among the cheaper solutions. The 60GB drive is just as cheap as the competition at $70, and the 120GB model is only $5 more than the chepaest alternative here. The 180GB drive is an interesting point below $200 if you need just a little more capacity than a 120GB drive would afford you. You pay a small price per GB penalty (~6%) but if you need capacity at a specific budget, it works. The newly announced 240GB drives were either backordered or not listed at many vendors.

Internal Architecture & The Bundle
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  • antef - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    And, holy crap, Anand's chart is wrong, the m4 128 GB is now only $106 at Amazon. That's a steal! Reply
  • nextel2010 - Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - link

    At this moment, Amazon has the Samsung 830 128GB at $89.99!! If I didn't already have a 128GB and 256GB already, I'm all over that one.... Reply
  • owned66 - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    i have 2 of these in raid 0
    HD tune bench it stays at 1000 MB/s then goes up and down then stays at 700 MB/s then goes back to 1000

    im using a x77 motherboard
    and also using the 6Gb/s port (not the marvell one)
    Reply
  • Movieman420 - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    I've been following the SSD endurance thread at XS for some time. There's one 64gb M4 that hit 0 MWI at 172TB of writes and is still chugging along at 1,.250+ TBs (that's 1.25 PB!!). Ofc not every drive is the same. There is a chart of the currently running endurance tests on the last page or 2 usually. To sum it up...nand endurance is not an issue as Anand stated.

    They have a Samsung 830 that just hit 3PBs!....it's mwi said the nand was worn out at 828TB writes...lmao
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    It's disappointing to see this drive switch to 9.5 mm when actually any SSD could be 7 mm standard. And Intel were the first to offer this (although with that stupid voided warrenty). Reply
  • MarsMSJ - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    Anand should of touched on OSX and Intel's new drives even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. There some of us praying for the day Intel comes out with a new drive that works on OSX.

    Unfortunately, Samsung appears to be your best bet on OSX. I used a 320 series 160 GB drive and it just behaved poorly when I was using 150 GB of it. Not sure if it had anything to do with Repair Disk. Every other day OSX would recommend I run it because it believed my drive was corrupt. Sometimes it would even boot me right into Disk Utility. I ran Lion and Windows 7 in VMware fusion.

    Strangely enough, the 320 behaved like these 330s in their "run into a corner" scenario.
    Reply
  • kaelynthedove78 - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    I noticed that you tested with a highly non-standard configuration, with EIST disabled.
    Has the Sandforce bug that causes the performance to plummet if EIST is enabled been fixed?
    Nobody in their right mind would run a home desktop/laptop with EIST disabled..
    Reply
  • jwcalla - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    Hmmm... this is interesting. Where can I find more info about this? I haven't noticed such behavior yet but maybe I haven't been looking hard enough. Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, August 02, 2012 - link

    It's been fixed from what I know, or at least Anand told me to just leave those enabled (my setup is running normal settings as you can see in some of our recent SSD reviews). Anand has probably just left those settings to be what they were before. Reply
  • mattlach - Wednesday, August 01, 2012 - link

    I presume the Vertex 4 is not in the comparison table due to its poor read speed when reviewed by Anandtech?

    Anandtech still needs to revisit the Vertex 4. The two firmware releases since launch have completely transformed the drive, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it near the top.
    Reply

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