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Crucial m4 256GB SATA 6Gbit/s SSD Review

Date: December 5, 2011
Author(s): Robert Tanner

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.



Introduction

Crucial has been selling computer memory for almost 15 years, but if one factors in that the company is the retail arm of Micron Technologies, then that number jumps to over 35 years. Over this time, Crucial has earned a solid reputation amongst enthusiasts for its memory stability and reliability by listing its kits with conservative specifications and verifying them before each kit heads out the door.

With that in mind, over two years ago the company looked to carry over that reputation into the SSD space. Kicking things off, it launched the RealSSD C300, and this year has followed it up with the m4, which we’re looking at here.

The m4 is the official successor to the C300 Series drives, and is one of the first SSDs to feature (and actually show better performance utilizing) the SATA 6Gb/s interface. Inside the drive, one will find a Marvell 88SS9174-BLD2 controller running an in-house firmware developed by Crucial. As an interesting side-note, Intel recently began utilizing a nearly identical controller with its 510 Series drives. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Crucial should be quite flattered indeed.

The drive we received for testing is a 256GB model, so it is worth highlighting that performance numbers will be higher than the 128GB model and especially the 64GBs. The m4 naturally utilizes 25nm MLC NAND from Micron on a custom PCB. Micron and Intel jointly share their own NAND production fab, so it is worth pointing out that Micron NAND is for all intents and purposes the same quality as the IMFT NAND found in Intel’s drives. And just as with its memory products, Crucial notes in the attached documentation that it tests each individual drive for up to a week prior to shipment.

Crucial m4 256GB SSD

At the start of November Crucial released a major firmware update for the m4 series SSDs. Amongst minor tweaks and fixes, the FW0009 firmware introduces performance improvements, the most notable of which affects sequential reads. As such, we made sure to update our test sample to the FW0009 firmware prior to testing.

Crucial m4 Solid-State Drive
64GB
128GB
256GB
512GB
Interface
SATA 6Gb/s
Random Read
45,000 IOPS
Random Write
20,000 IOPS
35,000 IOPS
50,000 IOPS
50,000 IOPS
Sequential Read
500MB/s
Sequential Write
95 MB/s
175 MB/s
260 MB/s
260 MB/s
Endurance
36 TB (20 GB per day for 5 years)
72 TB (40 GB per day for 5 years)
Street Price
$112
$210
$380
$780
Warranty
3 years

Crucial sells the m4 in two forms; a standard package or as part of a data transfer kit. The transfer kit adds about $5 to price but includes EZ GIG III cloning software and an interesting all-in-one USB-to-SATA+power cable. The single-piece USB cable alone may very well be worth the additional $5 to some enthusiasts, especially as it negates the need for an external USB drive dock.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate and real-world applicable as possible. We list most of the steps and processes involved in setting up and conducting our benchmarking process below, but in the interests of brevity we can’t mention every last detail. If there is any pertinent information that we’ve inadvertently omitted or you have any thoughts, suggestions, or critiques, then please feel free to email us or post directly in our forums. This site exists for readers like you and we value your input.

The table below lists the hardware used in our current storage-testing machine, which remains unchanged throughout all of our testing, with the obvious exception of the storage device. Each drive used for the sake of comparison is also listed here.

Component
Techgage Solid-State Drive Test System
Processor
Intel Core i7-2600 – 3.50GHz (Locked) Quad-Core
Motherboard
ASUS P8P67 Deluxe
Memory
4GB Kingston DDR3-1866
Graphics
AMD Radeon HD 5770
Audio
On-Board Audio
Storage
Hitachi 7200RPM 2TB Hard Drive
Corsair Force F90 90GB
Crucial m4 256GB
Kingston V+ Series 128GB
Kingston HyperX 240GB
OCZ Vertex Turbo 120GB
OCZ Vertex 2 120GB
OCZ Vertex 3 240GB
OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS 240GB
Power Supply
Antec NeoHE 550W
Cooling
Noctua DH-14
Et cetera
Lite-on DVD-RW
Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64-bit


Our Windows 7 Desktop for SSD Testing

When preparing our SSD testbed for benchmarking we follow these guidelines:

For our new Sandy Bridge storage testbed we have migrated to using test images for our drives. All drives are imaged with the cloned test image to ensure all drivers, programs, and settings remain identical for testing purposes. We feel disk cloning software and SSD controller technology has matured to the point where potential issues such as non-aligned sectors are no longer a potential issue.

For testing, we run all tests five times dropping the highest and lowest results, then take the average of the middle three. And who said that college statistics class wouldn’t prove useful? If any anomalous results are seen the test will be run again. Given the complexities of modern computers, and especially today’s operating systems and the software that runs on them, we feel this provides the most accurate results possible.

Finally, we are seeking to constantly improve and expand upon our SSD testing methodology. We are always actively seeking real-world workload scenarios that are bottlenecked by hard drives, so if you have any suggestions whatsoever or there is a program you would like to see included in our SSD content, then please drop by our forums and let us know! We are always looking to expand our SSD benchmarks and provide more useful and real-world results, and not just synthetic numbers.

Synthetic: PCMark 7

Futuremark’s PCMark benchmarking suite should need no introduction as it has been a staple of PC benchmarks for the better half of a decade. PCMark offers a range of tests to gauge every aspect of a computer’s performance and presents it in a neat simple final result. Thankfully it also breaks down the overall score with individual subsystem scores (such as Memory, Storage, etc) in addition to given individual test results.

With the latest 2011 release of PCMark 7 we should hopefully see quite a few changes to how SSDs are handled, and the resulting scores computed, as previously, results were biased towards sequential read and write performance. With its Windows 7 focus PCMark 7 offers a variety of storage system tests, such as simulating a Windows Defender scan and using Windows Media Center to using other built-in programs for video and music file manipulation. But for those that just want a nice overarching score, it has those too.

PCMark 7 Professional

PCMark 7 is a welcome refresh of the well-known PCMark series and brings with it optimizations to better handle SSDs when computing scores. This results in a much flatter spread of SSDs in both the overarching score and the final storage system score.

The m4 solid-state drive slots into a close fourth, clearly hanging with the big guys in the array of results. Given the top drives are all SandForce SF-2281 powered, the M4 is starting off by delivering a very strong showing for a non-SandForce drive.

Synthetic: Iometer & AS SSD

Originally developed by Intel, and since given to the open-source community, Iometer (pronounced “eyeawmeter”, like thermometer) is one of the best storage-testing applications available, for a couple of reasons. The first, and primary, is that it’s completely customizable, and if you have a specific workload you need to hit a drive with, you can easily accomplish it here. Also, the program delivers results in IOPS (input/output operations per second), a common metric used in enterprise and server environments.

The level of customization cannot be understated. Aside from choosing the obvious figures, like chunk sizes, you can choose the percentage of the time that each respective chunk size will be used in a given test. You can also alter the percentages for read and write, and also how often either the reads or writes will be random (as opposed to sequential). I’m just touching the surface here, but what’s most important is that we’re able to deliver a consistent test on all of our drives, which increases the accuracy in our results.

Because of the level of control Iometer offers, we’ve created profiles for three of the most popular workloads out there: Database, File Server and Workstation. Database uses chunk sizes of 8KB, with 67% read, along with 100% random coverage. File Server is the more robust of the group, as it features chunk sizes ranging from 512B to 64KB, in varying levels of access, but again with 100% random coverage. Lastly, Workstation focuses on 8KB chunks with 80% read and 80% random coverage.

Because these profiles aren’t easily found on the Web, with the same being said about the exact structure of each, we’re hosting the software here for those who want to benchmark their own drives with the exact same profiles we use. That ZIP archive (~3.5MB) includes the application and the three profiles in an .icf file.

Iometer may be a hard program for users to translate into real world performance, but it is one of the few programs that can truly stress this latest models of SSDs now available and illustrate the differences between them, let alone show what they are truly capable of. Any SSD that does well here is capable of the toughest load conditions found in server racks, so suffice to say it can withstand any usage scenario a desktop user might throw at it.

Intense random I/O loads turns out to be the one Achilles heel for the Crucial m4, or specifically the Marvell controller inside. That said, the performance here more than exceeds that needed for desktop use. A quick glance at our 7200RPM drive will show just what a typical hard disk drive is capable of, which by comparison makes the Crucial m4 look like a speed demon.

AS SSD

As the name hints, AS SSD is a nifty little program written exclusively for solid-state drives. It can be run on a mechanical hard drive, but be warned what takes a few minutes will require the better part of an hour to complete! This handy tool measures sequential reads and writes in addition to the important 4KB random reads and writes, then ranks the results with a final score for quick comparisons with other SSDs.

In addition to the main test there is a secondary benchmark that simulates the type of data transferred for ISO, Program, and Game files. With version 1.6 a compression benchmark was also added although not utilized here. We selected this program for its precision, ability to generate large file sizes on the fly, and that it is written to bypass Windows 7’s automatic caching system. The tool does not bypass any onboard cache.

4K-Thrd is similar to the 4K test but spawns multiple requests; basically this tests how good the SSD is at handling multiple file actions at once, aka queue depth. Queue depth wasn’t an issue with HDDs as they were generally too slow to handle more than a few simultaneous IOPS at a time, but with SSDs it is important to have a good controller with a high queue depth.

The m4 has no trouble keeping pace with the other SF-2281 powered drives in AS SSD’s tests, and even trades places with several of them. All around the Crucial m4 SSD does well, with the final score tallying just slightly behind the SF-2281 drives, but still in an entirely separate league from all the other drives in our test.

Synthetic: HD Tune Pro 4.6

Since we included a program designed to benchmark SSDs, we will include HD Tune as it benchmarks both hard disks and SSDs. Because the test drive houses the OS itself, HD Tune will not perform any write tests; we will have to be content with both the Read and Access times. HD Tune 4.6 added a new quick benchmark that we will include for users that wish to make a quick comparison with their own drives.

Curiously the m4 seems to like the HD Tune tests, taking top spot in the read transfer test. More importantly it shows a healthy ~34MB/s lead in the minimum read result. In the random read test it slips into a veritable tie, the m4 clearly showing which league its performance is in. Access times for the m4 are also excellent.

What makes SSDs so effective is the nearly instantaneous access times, which is best illustrated by the last graph. A typical HDD requires around 14ms to access data, which is a literal eternity for a modern computer. A typical SSD on the other hand will need about 0.1ms. To add perspective, a 3GHz processor will run 300,000 clock cycles in the same 0.1ms. By comparison to a mechanical HDD, 42,000,000 clock cycles would have elapsed in that 14ms before the drive had even begun reading data to memory!

Real-World: File Transfers, Adobe Lightroom

Finally, we reach the first of our real-world tests where there are no unusual testing or scoring algorithms to leave us scratching our heads, just simple tests to see how an SSD changes actual system performance.

For the File Transfer test we took a 4.5GB archive and timed how much time was required to transfer the file to another destination on the same drive. Keep in mind that with a hard disk, this requires the actuator arm to seek back and forth between the source and destination sectors of the disk platter, while any SSD can concurrently read and write to separate flash chips at once.

Crucial’s m4 drive chews through the 4.5GB file transfer just one second behind that of the Vertex 3. Even without the compression tricks of the SandForce drive the m4 is able to muster some powerful transfer speeds, and is able to do so regardless of the file type being utilized.

Adobe Lightroom 3.4

With Adobe Lightroom, importing image files with “Copy” simply acts like a file transfer, exactly like our previous test. Rather than simply time how long it takes to create a duplicate set of 500 RAW files we elected to choose the “Copy as DNG” import option. This will convert the NEF files (Nikon’s equivalent to RAW) into the Digital Negative standard while importing them to its image library.

This test was not particularly effective as Adobe Lightroom 3.4 only spawns two threads, meaning that even with the power of a Core i7 that has eight threads available, the CPU was still the main bottleneck. When Adobe deems fit to update Lightroom to take advantage of more threads we will see a real need for faster storage here, as such a task as this is perfectly suited for high thread parallelization and SSDs with a high queue depth.

Even so the m4 knocks twenty seconds or more off the time compared to the previous lineup, and finishes within an impressive five seconds of the Max IOPS.

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:

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.

Real-World: Boot Times, Game Level Loading

For the boot test we perform a cold boot, with the stopwatch starting the moment the power button is pressed until the last systray icon has finished loading. A large number of factors can change how fast a computer starts, from the motherboard to the BIOS/EFI configuration, so these times should not be used as an expectation of how fast the SSD will boot in your respective system. Thanks to motherboards replacing the BIOS with UEFI boot times have dropped significantly in many cases.

Crucial’s m4 has no trouble taking first place in our boot time test, by half a second. Although half a second may not seem like much, in the context of a mechanical drive the m4 gets the system booted in almost one-third the time. This result mirrors the strong performance demonstrated in our light batch test, where only an additional five seconds was needed to launch everything from Photoshop CS5 to MS Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, along with other background applications.

Game Level Loading

Last but certainly not least of our benchmarks are the game level-load times. SSDs are great at decreasing load intervals, and having an SSD can appreciably improve game immersion by minimizing load delays. It may not seem like much, but after a few levels, having the load times decrease by even a third compared to a hard drive adds up fast.

For our new regimen we chose Portal 2 and Civilization V. Portal 2 is already a very well optimized game and isn’t particularly demanding, and Civilization V is anything but either of those. For Portal 2 we chose to load the larger sp_a3_03 chapter, while with Civ V we loaded a save game file from late in a large game.

With game load times the m4 is average, although there isn’t much room for SSDs to distinguish themselves here. Any SSD will make for a noticeable and welcome improvement over game launch times and level loads compared to a mechanical drive.

Final Thoughts

The Crucial m4 is an interesting SSD. It is the highest performing drive we have tested that doesn’t rely on real-time file compression to achieve high levels of performance. Or to put it another way, there’s only two other SSDs that can deliver actual SATA 6Gb/s performance, the relatively new and unknown OCZ Octane and the almost identical 510 Series.

The closest competitor to the Crucial m4 is Intel’s own mirror design found within the 510 Series, however the 510 Series costs quite a bit more than the m4 for what turns out to be relatively the same performance and durability. It is impressive to see such performance without relying upon data compression, as not all data can be compressed.

SandForce drives have long been the darling of hardware enthusiasts given they are in a league of their own compared to other SSDs. Well, simply put the Crucial m4 is in the same league. In our tests performance was close to or a veritable tie with the comparable SF-2281 drives, and in a few cases even exceeded them. In particular the recent FW0009 firmware update has enabled the m4 to match those sequential read speeds.

Crucial m4 256GB SSD

As far as reliability goes, Crucial offers the standard 3 year warranty on its m4 series. The NAND is for all intents and purposes the same as that found in the competing 510 Series drives. SandForce’s reputation has a bit of a black eye still, and Intel has yet to produce a single generation of SSDs without running into some issue of its own.

After over eight months on the market the Crucial m4 hasn’t had any grievous issues or firmware problems come to light. The largest issue I could find was a potential problem for users sticking m4’s in Macbook Pros. Given the sheer number of ways for any make and model of SSD to run into some problem or another there isn’t any perfect record left, but Crucial is certainly faring much better than its competitors in the reputation and reliability category.

The Crucial m4 offers performance to rival that of SandForce drives with none of the compressible data caveats, and still manages to put forward a sterling reputation for reliability. It offers basically the same performance and hardware found in the Intel 510 Series, yet at a much lower price point. Therefore, unless uncompressible write performance is critical for the workloads that the drive will be seeing, the final decision will depend a large part on current market pricing.

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