While I've reviewed many solid-state drives (SSD) in the past, I've never reviewed a mini-SATA (mSATA) SSD. So when Intel sent me one of their first such drives, the Intel Solid-State 310 (which shipped last month), I 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 2.5-in. 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, according to Jeff Janukowicz, an analyst at research firm IDC.
But the 2.5-in. 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 unique sizes and shapes depending on what buyers want.
"As a result, I expect [computer manufacturers] to increasingly leverage nontraditional, flexible form factors, like Intel's 310 mSATA modules, to meet the device's ... requirements," Janukowicz says.
Overall, IDC expects the use of SSDs to increase at a 67 per cent compound annual growth rate from 2009 to 2014. "I expect the use of flexible form factors, like mSATA modules, to grow to almost 60 per cent of shipments by 2014," Janukowicz says.
Improving dual-drive systems
Mini-SATA drives are about one quarter the size of a standard 2.5-in. 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.
However, mSATA drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) slot, which is not natively supported by today's desktops, laptops and netbooks. Equipment makers will have to modify their products to include a PCIe slot.
And that's in the works. For example, both 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 per cent, while a hard drive or higher-capacity SSD remains the mass storage device.
Testing the SSD 310
The SSD 310 didn't meet the performance levels of an SSD using the full SATA 2.0 interface, but in tests it handily beat out the industry's fastest hard disk drives and cut my laptop's boot time almost in half.
My test bed consisted of a Fujitsu Lifebook A1220 15-in. laptop computer with a 2.2GHz Intel Core2 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 I used via my computer's native internal drive port. That said, even on top of an adapter card, this product remains an extremely thin piece of hardware capable of being used in today's slimmest netbooks.
The SSD 310 drive, built using Intel's 34-nanometer (nm) NAND flash technology, sips power. It only uses 150 milliwatts when active and 75 milliwatts while in idle mode. Compare that with my machine's native Western Digital 320GB, 5400 RPM Scorpio Blue hard disk drive, which eats 2.5 watts when active, 2.0 watts when idle.
The SSD 310 comes in 40GB and 80GB capacities. I tested the 80GB model, which is rated by Intel to have a sustained read/write rate of 200MB/sec. and 70MB/sec., respectively. The 40GB model has a sustained read/write rate of 170MB/sec. and 35MB/sec., respectively. With regard to random read/write, using 4KB blocks, the SSD can achieve up to 35,000 I/Os per second (IOPS) and 6,600 IOPS, respectively. With regard to random read/write, using 4KB blocks, the SSD can achieve up to 35,000 I/Os per second (IOPS) and 6,600 IOPS, respectively.
The benchmark tests
First I booted up my laptop using the machine's native 3Gbit/sec SATA native hard drive. It booted up 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/sec and 3.0 Gbit/sec transfer rates (which is half the speed of the latest SATA II standard). Intel's SSD 310 is wafer thin, measuring just 2.0 x 1.2 in.; it's0.19in. thick.
I 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 benchmarking software showed the drive had a 80.6MB/sec write and 201MB/sec read rate -- quite a disparity when compared to other SSDs I've tested. Typically, read-write rates, while not the same, aren't separated by more than 100MB/sec.
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/sec and an average read rate of 194.8MB/sec. The average access time was .087 milliseconds and CPU usage was 8.2 per cent. Unfortunately, HD Tune requires you delete all partitions on a drive before you can test write speeds, so I didn't perform that test.
The SSD 310 is already shipping to equipment manufacturers and is priced at $99 for 40GB capacity and $179 for the 80GB version (both in 1,000-unit quantities). Intel didn't supply a price for individual drives, which are sure to show up on sites like Newegg.com and Pricegrabber.com soon.
Overall, this drive packs a lot of performance and value.
Consider that an 2.5-in. Intel X25-M consumer SSD with 160GB of capacity sells for about $400 on online retail sites. Then consider that the most recent wave of economy SSDs have been low-capacity models, such as Intel's X25-V, which has 40GB and retails for $120. A quick comparison makes the SSD 310's value clear.
That said, I'm still a big proponent of Seagate's latest hybrid drive -- the Momentus XT -- when it comes to overall value for today's laptops. You can purchase a 250GB capacity model for $113 and experience a big kick in performance.
But I can clearly see the day when a dual-drive laptop or netbook -- or even an iPad -- would greatly benefit from an mSATA SSD, particularly if you want to combine it with a massive 1TB, 2TB or 3TB hard disk drive.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian