Intel is introducing new solid-state drives with increased performance as these devices find a more welcome home in Windows 7.
Intel said Tuesday it is moving to a more advanced 34-nanometer manufacturing process for its X series of solid-state drives (SSDs). To date, Intel has built drives on a 50-nanometer process. The more advanced process allows for higher data densities, enabling Intel to pack more data onto the same number of flash chips and reduce cost.
Solid-state drives typically offer better performance--in some cases, dramatically better performance--than hard disk drives. But SSDs cost more per gigabyte than hard drives, limiting their use to performance-sensitive applications such as high-end laptops, gaming PCs, and servers.
The new price for the 80GB version of the X25-M drive is $225 for quantities up to 1,000 units, a 60 percent reduction from the introduction price of $595 a year ago, Intel said. The 160GB version of the Intel X25-M drive is now $440, down from $945 at introduction.
However, the actual price drop in the market will be lower, Troy Winslow, marketing manager for the NAND Products Group at Intel, said in a phone interview. Intel had already announced an interim price reduction in January, below the original $595 and $945 price tags, he said.
"In the marketplace it will be around a $100 drop on the 80GB drive and almost a $200 drop on the 160GB drive," he said. The X25-M comes in a standard 2.5-inch form factor, which is the size of most hard drives used in laptops.
Winslow also addressed rumors circulating on Monday about higher-capacity drives. Intel will not introduce a 320GB SSD this year, he said. "What we decided to do is split 34-nanometer into a two-step process," he said. The first step will be to cost-reduce existing 80GB and 160GB drives. "And what we'll do later--and it's not even going to be this year but first half of next year--we will introduce, also on 34 nanometer, a performance enhancement and a doubling of the capacity," Winslow said, meaning that larger capacity drives, such as those over 300GB, won't appear until next year.
For now, Intel is targeting lower cost and better performance. The new 80GB and 160GB drives offer substantial jumps in performance above earlier drives.
"We did gain significant performance where we believe it counts. And that is random writes," Winslow said, referring to a way of writing data to disk that is important for increasing drive performance on consumer PCs. "This is an area that all SSD manufacturers are seeking to improve. We know that random reads and writes are the critical file transaction. We were able to double and get up to 2.5X improvement over our 50-nanometer version," he said.
This performance improvement is done via the controller--silicon that manages the data on the SSD--and the firmware, computer code that controls various functions on the chip.
The Windows 7 factor
The drives will also be able to take advantage of Windows 7 technology that improves SSD performance--the so-called Windows 7 Trim Command.
"We'll support Windows 7 out of the chute," Winslow said. "We will offer firmware updates to our 34-nanometer SSDs. We have a firmware update tool on Intel.com. Users will be able to download the new firmware," he said.
Winslow explained the significance of the Windows 7 Trim Command, which clears up free area on an SSD. "If you fill up all the blocks with data and even if you delete (the blocks), in most cases today, the drive still looks like it's full. Trim allows you to release those blocks for reuse and maintain the performance. Every drive will degrade somewhat over time. With Trim, you're able to stay more in that the virgin state," he said.
He also addressed failure rates of SSDs, a longstanding issue that goes back to the days of primitive flash memory drives used in early digital cameras and digital media players. "Our annual failure rates or customer returns are a very small fraction, less than 1 percent," according to Winslow, who said this low failure rate is achieved through Intel's sophisticated controller.
"The useful life of Intel SSDs are five years. That useful life is dependent on write cycles. The parameter being 20GB a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for five years. In other words, if you write a quarter (25 percent) of your capacity (of an 80GB drive) for five years, it will last. If you write less than that, it will last even longer," he said.
(Note that the X18-M model, which comes in a smaller 1.8-inch form factor, will begin shipping on 34-nanometer later in the quarter.)