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Written by Olin Coles   
Monday, 06 February 2012
Table of Contents: Page Index
Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive
Closer Look: Intel SSD 520 Series
Features and Specifications
SSD Testing Methodology
AS-SSD Benchmark
ATTO Disk Benchmark
CrystalDiskMark 3.0 Tests
Iometer IOPS Performance
EVEREST Disk Benchmark
PCMark Vantage HDD Tests
Intel SSD 520 Series Conclusion

Intel SSD 520 Series Conclusion

IMPORTANT: Although the rating and final score mentioned in this conclusion are made to be as objective as possible, please be advised that every author perceives these factors differently at various points in time. While we each do our best to ensure that all aspects of the product are considered, there are often times unforeseen market conditions and manufacturer changes which occur after publication that could render our rating obsolete. Please do not base any purchase solely on our conclusion, as it represents our product rating specifically for the product tested which may differ from future versions. Benchmark Reviews begins our conclusion with a short summary for each of the areas that we rate.

Intel seldom receives the praise it deserves for innovating technology for everyone else in the industry, especially the solid state storage market. Intel's 25nm NAND Flash components are used inside Intel SSDs first and foremost, but then they quickly find their way into the vast majority of competing storage products. Thanks to Intel, consumers win either way regardless of brand and build. In the case of a shrinking NAND Flash construction process, a denser die means lower material costs and higher per-unit storage capacity. More for less is the best way to win consumer support, and it's obvious Intel's formula has been working to its favor.

Our performance rating considers how effective the Intel SSD 520 Series solid state drive performs in file transfer operations against competing storage solutions. For reference, 160-420GB models of the Intel SSD 520 Series are specified to produce 550 MB/s read speeds and 520 MB/s writes. In our storage benchmark tests, the 240GB Intel SSD 520 Series solid state drive (model SSDSC2CW240A3) performed at or above this speed, surpassing nearly every other SATA-based SSD we've benchmarked. Our test results demonstrated the Intel SSD 520 Series was good for delivering 559/528 MB/s peak read and writes speeds using ATTO Disk Benchmark SSD speed tests. Linear file transfers with Everest Disk Benchmark produced 489/497 MB/s, which exceeds performance of the OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS Edition SSD.

The Intel SSD 520 Series SSD sent to us for testing is advertised to deliver 80,000 maximum combined IOPS, although it's unclear which tools and configuration settings were used to produce this particular figure. Using Iometer operational performance tests configured to a queue depth of 32 outstanding I/O's per target, our benchmarks produced 83,117 combined IOPS performance and delivered the best SATA performance results to date. Iometer proved that the Intel SSD 520 Series could outperform every other SATA-based storage product currently on the market, including the premium OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS Edition SSD based on the SandForce SF2281 processor. In the 4K 32QD tests with AS-SSD and CrystalDiskMark, the Intel SSD 520 Series SSD again dominated the field, besting every 3.5" consumer drive ever made.

Intel-SSD-520-Series-Top.jpg

Solid State Drives are low-visibility products: you see them just long enough to install and then they're forgotten. Like their Hard Disk Drive counterparts, Solid State Drives are meant to place function before fashion. Anything above and beyond a simple metal shell is already more than what's expected in terms of the appearance. Intel uses a textured metal finish on the SSD 520 Series, with a branding label on the top for identification. As solid state storage controllers become faster and more advanced, heat dissipation through the enclosure walls may demand that chassis designs become more beneficial than they previously needed to be. This isn't the case yet, and a smooth metal chassis suits modern SSDs nicely.

Construction is probably the strongest feature credited to the entire SSD product segment, and Intel products have never offered any exception. Solid State Drives are by nature immune to most abuses, but add to this a hard metal shell and you have to wonder what it would take to make this drive fail. If any Intel 520 Series SSD product fails during the limited 5-year warranty period, end-users can contact Intel's customer support. I've personally used Intel's warranty service, and found their customer support to be among the very best on the Planet.

As of 06 February 2012, the Intel SSD 520 Series launches with the following models and suggested prices:

  • 60GB (SSDSC2CW060A3): $149 MSRP
  • 120GB (SSDSC2CW120A3): $229
  • 180GB (SSDSC2CW180A3): $369
  • 240GB (SSDSC2CW240A3): $509
  • 480GB (SSDSC2CW480A3): $999

In conclusion, Intel's SSD 520 Series sets a new standard for future solid state drive storage devices to strive for. It's the fastest SATA-based SSD we've ever tested, and Intel's specifications were either met or exceeded in our benchmarks. Intel's 25nm NAND Flash was easily capable of producing more than 83K IOPS and nearly 560 MB/s transfers, leaving us to imagine what they have in store for us when the switch to 20nm is soon made. Additionally, an upcoming release of Intel's Rapid Storage Technology software is expected to finally translate TRIM garbage collection commands to solid state drive assembled in RAID arrays. So if you're shopping for a solid state drive with SATA 6.0 GB/s performance and the industry's best MLC NAND flash components, I urge you to consider the Intel SSD 520 Series solid state drive. Transfer speeds and operational performance surpass competing storage products, yet pricing still closely matches those same products at the same capacity. Add Intel's five-year warranty to the drives phenomenal performance, and there's a good chance the Intel SSD 520 Series could easily please users for the lifetime of the computer system its installed into.

Pros:Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award

+ Fastest SATA storage device ever tested
+ Delivers over 83K IOPS performance in IOMeter
+ Outstanding 559/528 MBps read/write speed with ATTO
+ Built-in 256-bit AES data encryption
+ Hardware-level data compression preserves NAND longevity
+ 5-Year Intel product warranty support
+ Enhanced power-loss data protection
+ Lightweight compact storage solution
+ Resistant to extreme shock impact
+ Low power consumption may extend battery life

Cons:

- Expensive enthusiast-level product

Ratings:

  • Performance: 10.0
  • Appearance: 8.50
  • Construction: 9.75
  • Functionality: 9.50
  • Value: 8.00

Final Score: 9.15 out of 10.

Excellence Achievement: Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award.

Benchmark Reviews invites you to leave constructive feedback below, or ask questions in our Discussion Forum.


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Comments 

 
# "As of 06 February 201, the Intel SSD 520 Series launches..."Dan 2012-02-06 08:35
Wow, so long ago. The age when Caracalla ruled. Did they have SSDs back then?
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# RE: "As of 06 February 201, the Intel SSD 520 Series launches..."Olin Coles 2012-02-06 08:41
There's always got to be at least one person... the typo's been fixed smartass. :)
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# LOL!realneil 2012-02-06 10:42
Good review Olin. Now I want one of these too. As a matter of fact, it's on the top of the list.
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# RE: LOL!Olin Coles 2012-02-06 10:45
Thanks! This is a VERY FAST drive that costs the same as SandForce SSDs, and with a five year Intel warranty you really can't go wrong.
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# RE: Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State DriveJerry Record 2012-02-06 15:42
Thanks for the review. I have been looking at these for some time, but still straddling the fence. My concerns are longevity of the drive. The Intel 520 & 320 series have the best reviews with the fewest number of DOA's & BSOD's with in a short time period after installation. I also understand Intel has a 5 yr waranty. But, when it holds you OS and all you software and dies. It is a hassle. Just thought I would check and see if you had any insight into the real world life expectancy of the SSD today.
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# RE: Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State DriveEndocine 2012-02-07 02:38
Unfortunately your question can not be easily answered. But my anecdotal observation from running intel SSD's for a couple years now, in laptops and desktops - I have never seen a failure personally. I wouldn't rely on SSDs for long term data storage, and regardless of their failure rate or life expectancy, always do data backups, if you do not then you are asking for a hassle. Don't put anything critical on a consumer SSD and always do backups.

While these drives are appreciably more expensive than equally performing models from other companies, one would hope that a lot more testing and quality controls went into making them, and there's no way to test for reliability between brands in a review like this, you need to run tests for a long period of time using large numbers of drives and the expense and time of such an undertaking would be beyond the capabilities of a review site.
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# AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 07:36
I currently use a 'standard' hard drive. I keep all data on a partition other than the OS partition. I use TrueCrypt to encrypt the data partition.
I am concerned with the 520's reliance on the bios password for encryption. Isn't the bios password fairly easy to hack? If my laptop 'walks off' is my data really 100% secure or is it readily available to anyone who can garner the bios password?
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# RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 07:42
Hello Bill:
Although I do not use it personally, it is my understanding that TrueCrypt works perfectly on an SSD.
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# RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 07:48
Sorry if I wasn't clear....I'm interested in utilizing the 520's native encryption, not TrueCrypt. My understanding is that using a software encryption program will cause additional performance and wear issues. My concern is with the 520's native, hardware encryption reliance on the bios password.
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# RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 07:57
Because SSDs feature automatic data encryption from the moment they initialize, there's an inherit problem giving users password-controlled access to data. There are several articles around the web (search: SandForce SSD Encryption Demystified) that explain how this happens, but in summary it's a problem that has existed as long as self-encrypting drives. Intel offers an SSD toolkit to work with the encryption key on their drives: downloadcenter.intel.com/Detail_Desc.aspx?agr=Y&DwnldID=18455
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 08:51
Olin, many thanks for the response(s). Not sure I still have a definitive answer. I'm not a security expert, nor do I want to be one. I'm simply someone who has enough computer smarts (barely) to realize the need for encryption and be able to install and utilize TrueCrypt. I am hoping that the Intel 520 eliminates the need for me to be concerned about encryption. I don't require DOD level security. I store my financial info on my laptop. If it is stolen, is my data at risk by anyone who can google for "bios password recovery"? Or would it take some very high tech hacking to get access to my SSD data? Thanks for your patience.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 09:01
The short answer is to use a third party software or tool, because if your drive is stolen it can be plugged into any other computer and read.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 09:30
Thanks again for your time and patience. I've been doing some web searching in addition to the links / strings you suggested. I ran across #dfarq.homeip.net/2011/05/more-on-the-new-intel-320-ssd/ which talks about Intel 320 SSD encryption. If the same applies to the 520, their opinion is that the encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate use. Does their explanation negate the ability to bypass security by "plugging it into any other computer and read", or using the widely available bios password obtaining schemes?
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 10:01
I don't share their opinion, and believe a drive should have more than a BIOS password to protect it.
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# Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBjoern 2012-05-22 02:37
Sorry, but you mix up BIOS password protection and the ATA HD security command. This seems to be a very common mistake since you can read it all over the net.

I think the origin for this mixup is comming from the first sandforce controlled SSDs - they encrypted the data on the memory chips, but users had no way to enter a password since ATA HD security was not supported. back then it was no security enhancement at all. encryption was just used as a cheap way to randomly scatter data over the NAND as a wear leveling tool.

Setting up a ATA HD password with a selfencrypting ssd like the intel 520 series will securly encrypt all data and you wont be able to read or write to the drive without the password. the drive cannot be pluged into another computer and be accessed there. It will show up as a locked drive until you enter the correct ATA master- or user password. you wont even be able to secure erase the drive without a password - better don't loose it or you have to dump your drive. However, your mainburd has to support ATA HD security. That is a still little hard to find...

this is also not what the article you reffere to (SandForce SSD Encryption - Demystified) is stating. the articel you reffered to was mainly questioning the security of such a "black box" solution in spite of an open source solution like truecrypt. The article is also quite old.

to get a clearer view of how it actually works see the document:
##hgst.com/tech/techlib.nsf/techdocs/F08FCD6C41A7A3FF8625735400620E6A/$file/HowToGuide_BulkDataE ncryption_final.pdf

It seems to be just a logical step to use ondisk encryption whenever possible with a SSD since SSDs loose up to 80% performance if you use truecrypt.

@Bill: Yes, ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate use.

Best
Bjoern
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# RE: Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBill McGovern 2012-05-22 09:51
Bjoern, thanks so much for your time.

From your comments, my understanding is that if my motherboard supports ATA Security, I can set a password that is unrelated to the BiOS password and is not stored in the BIOS. Correct?

One other question, if my motherboard does NOT support ATA Security, can the Intel toolkit be used to set the SSD ATA password? Do I then continue to use the toolkit to provide the password and enable access?
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# RE: RE: Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBjoern 2012-05-22 10:09
Dear Bill,

1.) Yes. The PW will be hashed and the hash will be saved in the drive. the PW can then be used to decrypted the key used for the encryption of the data on the drive itself. You can also use the drive in another computer supporting ATA security - at least if it is the same mainboard and therefore BIOS implementation of ATA security.

2.) If your BIOS does not support ATA security there is no way to use a password protected disk. the disk would be locked - without a supporting BIOS you cannot enter the password. Most systems would not even boot with a locked drive on any SATA channel. that is also the reason why you cannot set the password using the intel toolkit. imagin you would set a password in windows and then be unable to access your system anymore, because your bios actualy does not support it.

Therefore, the entire handling of the password is quite uncomfortable and you have a risk of loosing your hardware. allways remember - if you loose the password you loose not only the data but also the drive itself. It would be bricked forever.
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