Intel 520 Series 240GB Review

ccokeman - 2012-01-11 12:19:46 in Storage / Hard Drives
Category: Storage / Hard Drives
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: February 6, 2012
Price: $509


Solid State drives are becoming more and more popular as a way to increase system performance. Intel has traditionally had its hand in developing high performance solid state drives and now have another to add to the fray. Boot times and general product loading times can be substantially decreased with the addition of an SSD to a system. With the introduction of the 520 series drives, Intel has jumped onto the LSI Sandforce bandwagon and co-developed a drive equipped with the Sandforce 2281 NAND controller coupled with low cost 25nm NAND flash memory. The drive is built to deliver performance without breaking the bank. Reliability and performance are goals set for the this drive that has a MTBF of 1.2 million hours. AES 256-bit encryption, data compression, and end-to-end data protection also come with the addition of the Sandforce controller. The Intel 520 series comes in capacities from 60 to 480GB with pricing and specifications dependent on the density of the 25nm NAND flash used on each drive. Pricing starts at $149 for the 60GB version and a cool 1 grand, well $999, for the 480GB version. Let's take a look and see if Intel hit a home run with its partnership with LSI (Sandforce).

Closer Look:

As a full retail drive the Intel 520 series 240GB drive comes in the retail box all decked out for a trip to the local big-box store. The graphic fits into its packaging design philosophy. The front states that the drive is ready to be used in both mobile and desktop applications and is 240GB in capacity. The back panel has an illustration of the drive and an explanation of what comes with it inside the package.











Inside the outer sleeve is the box that holds the drive and the accessory bundle. The Intel 520 series drive is packed tightly in a box separate from the accessories to prevent any damage to the drive in transit. The accessories are stored underneath the drive.



The accessory bundle that Intel has included is quite out of the norm for an SSD as it addresses just about any barrier to installation by providing all the items needed to get this drive installed in a notebook or desktop application. Included are a 2.5 to 3.5 inch drive bay adapter, a SATA power and data cable, mounting screws, a product guide, and a disk that includes the install guide and software applications to help migrate your data to the drive.


Intel has included everything needed to get the 520 series drive installed so let's have a look at the drive in particular.

Closer Look:

Intel's 520 series drives are built to fit into the constraints of the industry standard 2.5 inch form factor. The top of the drive has a plastic spacer to allow fitment into mobile devices that need a thicker (9mm) drive in this standard, while the spacer can be removed if needed to fit into a slimmer (7mm) environment, which will most likely be used in the new Ultrabook form factor notebooks. Aesthetically, the drive is not built to look pretty but to be functional. Connectivity on the Intel 520 series drive is through a SATA 3 6Gb/s data connection that is backwards compatible to both SATA 3 Gb/s and 1.5 Gb/s. Power is supplied through a standard SATA power supply connection. Mounting the drive into either a mobile or desktop system is accomplished through standard mounting points.















Removing the four screws that hold the drive together allows the internals to be explored. The PCB that holds the Intel 25nm computer-grade NAND is held in place by the top cover. One side of the drive is populated by the 25nm NAND while the other has the NAND and the LSI Sandforce 2281 NAND controller.




The heart of the performance of the Intel 520 series drive is the LSI Sandforce 2281 NAND controller. Intel partnered with LSI to develop a robust firmware specifically for this drive. Along with the firmware are AES 256-bit encryption and end to end data protection. Specifications for the drive mirror many of the Sandforce 2281 controlled drives with 550 megabytes-per-second (MB/s) sequential reads and up to 520MB/s sequential writes and 4 KB random reads and writes up to 50,000 and 80,000 (IOPS). This drive comes equipped with a total of sixteen 16GB modules of Intel's own 25nm MLC NAND Flash memory carrying part number 29F16B08CCME2. A total of 256GB of NAND are on board with a total of 16GB used for wear leveling and cell replacement.



Based on the use of the now LSI (Sandforce 2821 NAND controller) and 25nm NAND the 520 series drive should offer pretty predictable performance across the test suite. Let's see if it is predictable or above the mean average for a drive of this type.


Intel SSD 520 Series Unformatted Capacity
(Total User Addressable Sectors in LBA Mode)
60 GB
120 GB
180 GB
240 GB
480 GB



Testing of hard drives can be done in several different ways – one method involves leaving the drive bare and connecting it as a secondary drive in an existing system. By simultaneously cleaning the drive after each benchmark run-through, this allows you to see its theoretical peaks in performance. However, these results would only represent a best-case scenario – one that you may never see unless operating a bare drive. The second method, which OverclockersClub employs, involves loading the operating system and benchmarking suite onto the test drive itself. This would give performance results that emulate real-world usage more closely. Testing will be completed with the P67-based system listed below, alongside a fresh install of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit that is updated to SP1 and fully patched as of the date of testing. The latest Intel Rapid Storage technology drivers and software have also been installed. All tests are conducted with the drive connected to a native SATA III 6 Gb/s port on the motherboard, in an effort to eliminate any possible bottlenecks with performance.

Testing Setup:


Comparison Drives:


  1. HD Tune 4.60 Pro
  2. HD Tach
  3. SiSoft Sandra 2012
  4. Crystal Disk Mark
  5. ATTO Disk Benchmark
  6. AS SSD
  7. I/O Meter
  8. PCMark Vantage
  9. Windows Startup / Shutdown


HD Tune 4.60 Pro measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers. In the 4.60 Pro version, the user can measure not only drive performance as a whole, but run more precise file and random access benchmarks as well.



















File Benchmark:


Random Access Benchmark:





In this first test the Intel 520 Series 240GB drive consistently delivers performance numbers that are on par with the balance of the Sandforce 2281 equipped drives in this comparison. In many of the tests it is the second highest performer. Not a bad start for this drive. It shows that Intel delivered a drive that is on target.


HD Tach v3.0.4.0: HD Tach is another hard drive benchmark utility, much like HD Tune. This benchmark measures the average read speed, random access time, and CPU utilization during operation.













SiSoft Sandra 2009 SP3: SiSoft Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. It allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful.



The Intel 520 series 240GB drive performs similar to the rest of the 240GB Sandforce equipped drives. The only drive to deliver a higher level of performance in the Sandra Testing was the Vertex 3.


Crystal Disk Mark 3.0: Crystal Disk Mark is a hard drive benchmark designed to measure the read and write speeds of drives by using 4k blocks, 512k blocks, and sequential data. For the test, we chose the 1000MB option.















The Intel drive again performs right alongside the level of the rest of the Sandforce based drives. With a Que depth of 32 the Intel drive leads the pack in read and write performance.


Atto Disk Benchmark v2.34: Atto Disk Benchmark is another aged, but good hard drive benchmark utility designed to test read and write speeds for different file sizes.
















Throughout this test the Intel 520 series drive delivers performance that is comparable to the other Sandforce based drives. The 520 easily exceeds its' read/write specifications of up to 550MB/s read and 520MB/s write speeds.


AS SSD v1.1.3466.29641: AS SSD is a benchmark specifically designed to test the speed of solid state drives. However, it also works for traditional hard drives. It is designed to measure the read and write speeds, as well as access times for set block sizes. It also assigns a score to the read, write, and overall performance of the drive.










The Intel 520 series drive delivers excellent results across the AS SSD testing with the highest aggregate score.


IOMeter is an I/O subsystem measurement and characterization tool for single and clustered systems. It was originally developed by the Intel Corporation and announced at the Intel Developers Forum (IDF) on February 17, 1998. Since then, it has seen widespread use within the industry.








The 520 series Intel drive performs well against the rest of the Sandforce based drives delivering the highest IO throughput in the write testing.


PCMark Vantage: With this benchmark, I will be running the hard drive test suite. The measurement for the hard drive suite will be the total score, then the scoring for each test will be broken down. There are a total of eight hard drive tests within PCMark Vantage and all eight will be run to gauge the performance of each drive tested.






Intel's 520 series drive delivers the highest HDD score and delivers performance comparable to other Sandforce based drives.


In the world of computing, everyone likes a computer that can start up and shut down quickly. The ability to boot into your system as fast as possible allows you to start the tasks you set out to do that much quicker. Not to mention that the older you get, the greater the chance you'll forget what you wanted to use the computer for in the first place! The sweet spot is about 30 seconds or less. It is possible with conventional hard drives, though very difficult to attain this "golden" 30-second time. This should be easier with the speed of an SSD, but the only way to tell is to test it out. To run these tests, I used a stopwatch to calculate the number of seconds it took from pressing the power button on the case, to having a fully-functioning desktop. For the shut down test, I began timing from the click of the shut down button in the start menu, and stopped when the system power was off.









The Intel 520 series drive was one of the fastest in the startup test and the system shut down in 5 seconds. Both times are what is to be expected for a drive in this class.


Any which way you cut it, the Intel 520 series drives deliver performance that allows it to fit right into the upper crust of the Sandforce-equipped comparison field. In many of the tests the drive was in the top two or three drives tested and seemed to excel in the write testing. In the ATTO testing the drive easily reached its rated speeds of up to 550MB/s reads and 520MB/s write. The Sandforce controller and low cost 25nm NAND have proven to be an excellent combination so far. Long term reliability has been a concern with the lower total life cycles of the cells in the NAND. Intel worked closely with LSI, who now owns Sandforce, to develop a firmware that delivered long-term reliability and has confidence enough in the product and process that they offer the 520 series drives with a 5 year warranty. Something that brings a little peace of mind to the thought of spending just over $500 for a 240GB drive. At that point the MTBF and a real lifespan of 5 years with running a 20GB client workload daily. The 520 series are offered in capacities ranging from 60 to 480GB with pricing that is competitive at $149 for the 60GB, $509 for the 240GB version tested here, and $999 for the 480GB version that shows to be much like the Extreme Edition CPUs. One thing that I found interesting is a feature that I have not seen on an SSD yet in the ability to shrink from 9mm to 7mm in thickness to fit into a thinner form factor device. It's something that is not a plus for the desktop market but for mobile devices it is a plus. Intel has delivered a drive that does not disappoint on many fronts and offers yet another avenue for performance straight out of Intel's doors.