Intel’s SSD 510 Powered by Marvell

At IDF 2008 Intel presented a session that discussed its SSDs and what made them better than the competition. Allow me to quote, ahem, myself:

“Intel's SSD design attempts to be different in the three key areas that determine SSD performance: Flash, Firmware and Controller.”


“The Firmware and Flash-to-SATA controller are both made by Intel, whereas most SSD makers use off the shelf components and FPGAs for their designs. Intel claims that its expertise in microprocessor and platform design allows for much higher levels of performance out of its SSDs.”

Now allow me to contrast what Intel told me at IDF 2008 with the reality of today in 2011.

The “G3” we’ve all been waiting for will still come. That’ll be Intel’s first 25nm SSD and it should carry specs similar to what we already published. However the focus of the drive will be the mainstream. To take care of the high end Intel created a new drive: the Intel SSD 510 (codename Elmcrest) and it uses a Marvell 9174 6Gbps controller.

Intel's SSD 510 based on Marvell's 88SS9174 controller

Everyone has access to the same NAND that Intel does, but in the past it was controller microarchitecture and firmware that gave Intel the edge. With the 510, the advantage has been reduced to just firmware.

The Marvell 9174 is the same controller Micron uses in its C400 and the same controller in Corsair’s Performance Series 3 SSDs. In fact, I recently received a Corsair P3. Pop off the lid and you’ll see the very same controller Intel is using in the 510:

Corsair's P3 SSD, note the controller similarity

Talk to SandForce and they’ll tell you that the controller itself doesn’t matter - it’s the firmware that matters the most. That’s definitely true to an extent, although I can’t help but feel like you need both microarchitecture and firmware to get the absolute best performance.

Although the controller is sourced from Marvell the firmware and validation are entirely Intel’s. As a result you shouldn't expect the 510 to perform identically to other Marvell based drives.

Intel is also quick to point out that despite using a 3rd party controller, the 510 has to go through Intel’s rigorous validation and testing. Reliability and quality should be no different than any other Intel SSD.

I asked Intel if this was a permanent thing - if we should always expect it to license controllers from third parties for its high performance SSDs. Intel responded by saying that the Marvell controller made sense given the hole in its roadmap, however this is not a long term strategy. While we may see more Intel SSDs based on 3rd party controllers, Marvell’s controller is not a permanent resident in Intel’s SSD roadmap - it’s just here on a student visa.

Paired with the Marvell controller is a 128MB Hynix DDR3-1333 SDRAM. This is technically the largest DRAM to appear on an Intel SSD to date. Even the old X25-M G2 only had a 32MB DRAM on board.

The 510 currently only supports 34nm Intel NAND rated at 5,000 p/e cycles. There are two capacities offered: a 120GB and a 250GB. Intel sent us the 250GB version which has 256GB of 34nm Intel NAND spread out across 16 NAND packages. That’s 16GB per package and 4GB per 34nm die.

Remember the GiB/GB conversion math that’s used to mask spare area in SSDs. With 256GiB of NAND on board and 250GB of storage area promised by the drive, there’s actually only 232.8GiB of user addressable space on the 250GB drive. This puts the percentage of spare area at 9%, an increase over the 6.8% spare area common on the X25-M.

The 120GB drive has even more spare area than the 250GB drive. With 128GB of 34nm NAND on board, the 120GB Intel SSD 510 has 111GiB of user addressable space for a total spare area of 12.7%.

Intel’s rated performance for the SSD 510 is as follows:

Intel SSD Comparison
  X25-M G2 160GB SSD 510 120GB SSD 510 250GB
NAND Capacity 160GB 128GB 256GB
User Capacity 149GB 111GB 232GB
Random Read Performance Up to 35K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS
Random Write Performance Up to 8.6K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS
Sequential Read Performance Up to 250MB/s Up to 400MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 500MB/s (6Gbps)
Sequential Write Performance Up to 100MB/s Up to 210MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 315MB/s (6Gbps)
Price $404 $284 $584

Ironically enough the SSD 510 fixes the X25-M’s poor sequential performance but trades it for lower random performance. On paper the 510’s random performance is decidedly last-generation. And honestly the rated performance of the 120GB isn’t particularly interesting. The 120GB drive will have fewer NAND die available, and SSDs achieve their high performance by striping data requests across as many NAND die as possible - hence the lower performance specs.

Pricing is set at $284 for the 120GB drive and $584 for the 250GB drive. Intel’s SSD 510 is available today and Newegg marks the two up to $315 and $615 respectively.

The Bundle

Intel sent over the desktop installation kit bundle for the 510. Included in the box is a 3.5" adapter kit, a 6Gbps SATA cable (3Gbps cables of sufficient quality should work fine though) and a 4-pin molex to SATA power adapter:

The 510 also works with Intel's SSD Toolbox, which makes tasks like secure erase super simple:

Introduction A Word on Reliability & The Test
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  • AnnihilatorX - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Anand you didn't clarify very clearly what is the difference of naming between 510 series and X-25 G3.
    The introduction leads me to believe 510 is X-25 G3, or is it not?

    Is X-25 G3 going to use 25nm flash instead, so it's another drive? If so, when is the release date of that, and how do we expect its performance compared to 510 in this review? Will the X-25 G3 uses a custom controller?
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    As the article stated, the G3 (whatever it is officially called) will be a lower-performance part whose aim is to bring lower prices and better reliability to more mainstream segments
  • MrStromberg - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    So I've been waiting for quite some time now for the new intel drives since the reviews in the past about how reliable and how long life an SSD has, promising that all of this would be better with these new generation drives. Although now I am faced with the potential "problem" of a 3Gbit bottle neck in mi macbook pro and as mentioned in the review above "these next-generation SSDs not only use 6Gbps SATA, they really need it." So where does that leave me? Should a go for a cheaper older drive which might be less reliable in the long run (but nobody really knows right?) or buy a new generation drive which might be suffering from a bottleneck? I didn't really understand why the new drives really need the 6Gbit SATA to function well? Can someone please explain or give me some advice.

    thank you
  • Denithor - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Best right now would probably be an Intel G2 drive. Fast enough and very good durability.

    The next generation drives aren't really going to perform much better on a 3Gb SATA port than the current generation already does, plus you have the worse durability inherent in the 25nm NAND chips.
  • Nentor - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Wow, so Intel has a gap in it's road map and goes the 3rd party route and brings us a product that is essentially slower than a consumer product (Vertex 3) from another manufacturer.

    They could have gone Sandforce, why not?
  • mateus1984 - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link
  • Drag0nFire - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Would love to see you run a traditional hdd through the new bench so we can see what sort of real world improvements can be expected from making the switch to an SSD...

    Great article. I'll be waiting for the x25-m G3. Keep on Intel about this!
  • wheel - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review Anand, but I am a little disappointed that there are a lot of synthetic benchmarks but no real world tests.

    By "real world tests" I mean separate tests for: booting into Windows; loading a web browser with 25 tabs of saved web page documents on the HDD; starting Star Craft and loading a map; copying a large amount of files to itself; running a batch Photoshop image transform job; starting IE6 from a stopped Windows XP Mode VM and opening a complex web page hosted on the local disk; running a intensive anti-virus scan on a specific (large) folder etc.

    I know PC Mark and SysMark are meant to represent these real world test, but as individual consumers we have different usage profiles and by breaking down the results into individual tests we can better work out which drive is most appropriate for us, instead of studying the synthetic tests and making an educated guess.

  • Boogaloo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link


    A lot of people are complaining about the performance of the drive, and I'd like to know how much of a difference it actually makes in real world scenarios. If this drive comes within 10 ms of a vertex 3 loading up starcraft 2, then who cares?
  • iwod - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    If you read carefully the Anand Benchmarks does exactly just that.

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