Looking Forward

Our first look at the Intel SSD 545s with Intel's new 64-layer 3D TLC NAND flash memory has been very promising. Compared to its predecessor based on 16nm planar TLC NAND, the 545s is a big leap forward in performance. Where the Intel 540s was really only suitable as an entry-level consumer SSD, the 545s is a much better all-around performer.

The launch last year of the first generation of Intel/Micron 3D NAND did little to challenge Samsung's dominance at the high end of the SSD market. The onset last fall of an industry-wide NAND flash memory shortage drove prices higher and put many new products on hold, but a few models based on the Intel/Micron 32-layer 3D TLC were able to establish solid positions as great value options.

The Intel 545s hints that this generation of 3D NAND may have a much bigger impact on the market. Even with the limited testing we had time for, it is clear that the Intel 545s does not suffer from the performance pitfalls that mar the Crucial MX300 and ADATA SU800, both based on Micron's 32L 3D TLC. On some tests, the Intel 545s appears to be the first serious challenger to the Samsung 850 EVO's combination of high performance and good power efficiency in a TLC SATA SSD. The surprisingly strong performance of the Intel 545s on The Destroyer shows that Intel's new 3D TLC NAND can handle heavy workloads, while the drives based on the previous generation of Intel/Micron 3D TLC tend to only be competitive on lighter workloads. We eagerly await the announcement of a NVMe SSD based on this 3D NAND.

The Intel 545s also challenges some of our assumptions about Silicon Motion's controller and firmware. Silicon Motion was one of the best options for mainstream SSDs back when the market was dominated by MLC NAND, but their first two generations of solutions for TLC NAND sacrificed performance and power efficiency in a race to the bottom. With planar NAND on the way out and with a new iteration of 3D NAND and the controller and firmware solutions to support it, this may be the time for Silicon Motion to reestablish their reputation for great power efficiency and good mainstream performance at highly competitive prices.

However, it's too soon to determine whether the Intel 545s will actually be competing in the right price range. Based on the testing so far, the Intel 545s should be targeting a price near the Crucial MX300, which has spent most of the past year as one of the cheapest SATA SSDs available despite offering performance a step up from the entry-level planar TLC SSDs. The MSRP of $179 for the 512GB model is significantly higher than that target, but a fair price comparison will have to wait a few weeks for broader availability of the Intel 545s.

Intel has successfully launched a new generation of flash memory and a new mainstream consumer SSD. They haven't completely upended the SSD market like some of their SSD launches in the past and the impact will be muted at first due to limited supply, but this is still clearly a step forward. The bar has been raised a bit higher for the upcoming 3D NAND SSDs from Toshiba and Western Digital, and by the end of the year Samsung's SSD division should be feeling a lot more pressure than they have in a long time. Even if the NAND shortage will be keeping prices elevated into 2018, the market is moving forward in ways that will benefit consumers.

Power Management


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  • ddriver - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    Great, now if they could just make a decent NVME SSD as well. Reply
  • ddriver - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    Shame it took them entire 3 years to catch up to the 850 pro. Lets hope they will match the 960 pro before 2020 LOL. Reply
  • eddieobscurant - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    They caught up with the 850 evo, not the pro Reply
  • ATC9001 - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    True...but atleast for the first time in I think...ever, there's a drive that can compete with the EVO...hopefully we can see the EVO drives start to drop a bit. Reply
  • Alexvrb - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    It IS nice to see some serious competition for the Evo. The 850 Evo is still my go-to for upgrading older systems from a mechanical drive.

    Now all I need is some serious price drops for lower-performance higher-capacity TLC drives and I can ditch the mechanical drive for mass storage too. Price:capacity hasn't budged much in recent memory. :-/
  • Impulses - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    Hasn't budged at all... I bought two 1TB EVOs two years ago, almost to the date (Newegg invoice is dated 7/15/2015 for the first one), paid $340 for one and a couple weeks or a month later I managed to get a second one for $320.

    I was hoping two years later I could buy a 2TB drive to add to those for the same kinda money, instead the prices are exactly the same right now. The recent shortage and price hike didn't help, up until that point I remember prices steadily declining for at least 4-5 years straight...

    I guess that couldn't last, historically the flash market has been more volatile (no pun intended) than not, the kind of stability that went on for a couple years aligned with Samsung's rise to SSD dominance were kind of rare in the grand scheme.

    At this rate it's gonna be another 3+ years before I can score a couple good 2TB drives for $300/ea, meh.
  • andychow - Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - link

    Nand is in shortage, has been for a few years. In the past, manufacturers would ramp up production, there would eventually be a surplus, and prices would crash. This time around, they've all decided to basically to ride out the shortage by telling their clients to wait. Reply
  • Alexvrb - Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - link

    That seems strange. If they have the ability to ramp and fill demand, you would think one of these outfits would be happy to fill that gap and steal those sales. I thought perhaps they are unable to ramp the flash which is in greatest demand. I hope things get better with future heavily-layered TLC/QLC and upgraded controllers. I would like nothing more than to ditch my secondary mechanical drive for flash, but there's no way I'm spending that kind of money. Reply
  • ddriver - Thursday, June 29, 2017 - link

    There is nothing strange about it, they know if flash is in shortage they will make more on every grain of sand they put into it. It is like an implicit mutual agreement to sustain an artificial shortage to make more money. And everyone is happy.

    They still sell as much SSDs as they can, but at a higher price. SSDs are available, but the supply is deliberately held tight, so there is a perpetual "they might run out" even though supply exceeds demand, it is carefully kept short. Nobody is waiting on flash, no company is missing on sales, they still sell as much as they can, they simply take care not to exceed demand by too much, so they do less work to get extra profits. It is an immensely great deal for them.

    There is no motivation for any of the big players to end this shortage, because that would drive prices down, hurt their own margins and those of everyone else, and give the others an excuse for hostile actions in retaliation, which they don't really want, because even though to us they are apparent competitors, they are all in it for the money, and they have estimated that cooperating to keep supply tight will win them more than competing who will make the most or the best SSDs.

    It sounds like it is illegal, but considering it is all common sense and they didn't have to collude in some dark room to make an explicit agreement to do so, it is perfectly legal as far as the corrupt justice system is concerned.
  • Error415 - Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - link

    Yeah, it should be illegal for a company to decide not drive prices down by flooding the market with cheap products, shm.

    What sounds illegal to you is a text book example of a sustainable business model. No booms or busts just steady growth and profit.

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