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Crucial m4 256GB SATA 6Gbit/s SSD Review
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by Robert Tanner on December 5, 2011 in Solid-State Drives

It’s been a while since we last took a look at a Crucial product, so for the next one, how about we make it interesting? SSDs aren’t uncommon, but high-end SSDs that don’t feature a SandForce controller are – and of course, that’s what makes Crucial’s m4 notable. Does its lack of a SandForce controller hold it back? Let’s take a look.

Real-World: Batch Tests

These tests are perhaps the most important in our battery of benchmarks as they give us a wide range of real-world results. They range from very light to downright grueling, and will showcase which drives can shine under the most demanding scenarios they might encounter in your personal system. Few computer users run their tasks in a vacuum; often several programs are in use concurrently while others are running in the background.

To excel in these tasks the SSD controller and firmware will need to be well-balanced. It will need to have excellent random read, small random write capability, and still have enough sequential writes to get the job done quickly. It is admittedly hard for an SSD controller to be optimized for all three things at once, and typically some SSDs are only optimized for sequential writes at the expense of everything else. Still, fast access times will give any SSD an inherent advantage over a mechanical hard drive.

First up is our light batch test. This test is a simple batch file placed into the startup folder, which Windows 7 will automatically execute at startup. This is perhaps the most directly relevant test to our readers, as almost everyone has to endure boot times and then the additional time it takes for their usual or favorite programs to load before they can start using their system.

The batch file will open four websites in Firefox, load five 5MB or greater images in Photoshop CS5, and open a document in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint each, which adds an additional 15MB. As a final measure, a few small system monitoring applications are started, a 3MB PDF file and zip archive are both opened for viewing, and while everything proceeds to load, an old, favorite FLAC music file (56MB) is loaded into Winamp for playback. If it sounds like the light batch file needs to go on a diet, then the results should surprise!

Our Medium batch test is similar although timers are built in to space out the user commands. Time begins counting from the launch of the batch file and ends when all tasks have completed. The medium test consists of the following:

  • Playback of a 56MB FLAC music file in Winamp.
  • 50 ~8MB JPEGs queued to open in Photoshop CS5 64-bit.
  • Opening of three Excel, three Word, and one PowerPoint files (various large sizes, for example one Excel file consists of a 72MB database).
  • Browsing to four different websites in Firefox.
  • Extraction of a 1GB RAR containing numerous “program file” folders (2.1GB uncompressed).
  • Extraction of an 4.5GB ZIP containing 500 RAW images.
  • Copy of a 4.5GB file to a separate location on the same drive.
  • Viewing of two PDF documents.
  • Viewing of two small RAR utility archives
  • Execution of four small system utilities
  • Launching of Adobe Lightroom

To keep things simple, the heavy batch test is identical to the medium test in all respects save for one key difference. Computer users should be familiar with the slowdown or even molasses-like feel that occurs from an anti-virus scan running in the background. The heavy test will capitalize on this by running an anti-virus scan from Microsoft Security Essentials on a static, unchanging 5.1GB test folder that contains 19,748 files and 2,414 sub-folders copied from the Program Files directory. Because it is otherwise identical, results from the medium & heavy batch tests are directly comparable.

Granted, even with a Core i7 processor, no computer user using a hard drive would be performing all of these tasks concurrently unless they wish to see their computer go unresponsive for up to 30 minutes at a time, but with an SSD this is almost child’s play. For a good quality SSD, the above isn’t even enough to make the system crawl or go unresponsive. Playing a game with an anti-virus scan in the background without losing FPS is very possible. So if this sort of system abuse, or “multitasking” sounds vaguely like your daily routine when you sit down at the PC, then an SSD may be of interest to you.

So after a few lengthy paragraphs and just a single large graph, where does the Crucial m4 stand? Right at the top with the best SSD’s currently on the market. Unlike the SandForce drives, Crucial m4 doesn’t utilize any sort of compression technology to achieve these results either which makes this feat quite impressive. This also means that regardless of file types involved the m4′s performance will be consistent across compressed and uncompressed data. Surprisingly, the m4 manages to set a new boot.

Astonishingly the m4 shaves off four seconds on the previous best time in our light batch test. So in 35 seconds it is possible for the m4 to boot the system, load Office files, start Photoshop CS5, and load some typical ancillary programs in the background. That sure beats the nearly three minutes required by a mechanical hard drive.

If the light batch test was a 100 meter dash, then the medium test is more like a 500 meter relay event. The Crucial slips back to place in a close fourth here, about 30 seconds behind the SF-2281 drives. Overall this is a solid performance given the next best SSD required more than a minute longer with the rest of the pack even further behind.

The heavy batch test is where things get really interesting. If sticking to our sprinting analogy this would be akin to the same 500 meter relay as before, but with all the runners carrying a 30lb backpack strapped to their backs. Weaker SSD controllers will struggle here, but the Crucial m4 has enough muscle to get the job done with a minimal increase in time required. The addition of a simultaneous 5GB directory anti-virus scan to the medium batch test only results in an additional 18 seconds to the overall completion time.