The Crucial m500 960GB is an internal solid-state drive (SSD) that's priced to move (at £335) and built to fly. It's the first internal SSD we've reviewed that closes in on a 1TB capacity, but after seeing the drive's overall performance, we suspect this category will heat up in the next year or so. Micron, which owns the Crucial brand, has a decades-long history in the memory business, and its partnership with Intel has produced some of the best NAND money can buy today.
The m500 uses Marvell's 88SS9187 controller and pairs it with 20nm NAND Flash built by the jointly owned Micron/Intel subsidiary, IMFT. The SSD also includes 1GB of DDR3-1600 memory for mapping internal storage information and a full Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) engine. Micron claims that the drive can provide up to 72TB worth of writes, meaning that the entire drive could be overwritten, repeatedly, until a total of 72TB of data had been recorded. The sequential read/write speeds are officially 500MBps and 400MBps respectively, with 80,000 4K input/output operations per second (IOPS) for both random reads and writes. The drive warranty is set at three years.
The AES-256 engine inside the m500 also includes support for the TCG Opal 2.0 security standard; it's also IEEE-1667 compliant. That means it supports high degrees of security, like Microsoft's eDrive standard and some enterprise-level encryption packages. The m500 sees a one to two per cent performance hit when BitLocker is properly configured, while other SSDs may see performance degradation of 10 to 15 per cent.
Crucial's conservative approach to data redundancy is also noteworthy. The m500 offers what the company has dubbed RAIN – a Redundant Array of Independent NAND. RAIN is used to block off a certain percentage of the SSD and use it to store parity bits about the information contained elsewhere on the drive. Parity bits allow a system to recover from memory errors by using the information to reconstruct data that has been corrupted. In addition to RAIN, Crucial reserves a portion of the base drive for replacement NAND, in case NAND blocks fail prematurely. Between the two features, the total size of the drive, once formatted, is 893GB out of the original 960GB. Users trying to squeeze every last ounce of storage out of their hardware may not be happy with the further restriction, but the majority of buyers will likely prefer the additional data redundancy over another 30GB of storage.
We tested the m500 against the SanDisk Extreme II 480GB SSD and the Samsung 840 EVO 500GB. The SanDisk Extreme II uses conventional multi-level-cell (MLC) NAND, while the Samsung 840 EVO is a blend of triple-level-cell (TLC) and single-level-cell (SLC) NAND. Specifically, the Samsung 840 EVO has a small buffer of roughly 12GB that it uses for storing writes and other frequently accessed data, while longer-term, less frequently accessed information is kept on the slower TLC NAND.
We tested the SSDs using an Asus P877V-Deluxe motherboard with 8GB of DDR3-1600 and an Intel Core i7-3770K CPU. The P877-V Deluxe offers multiple SATA controllers from Intel and Marvell; all of the drives were connected to Intel's 6G SATA port.
In AS-SSD's sequential read/write tests, the m500 turned in a score of 467MBps and 413Mbps respectively, compared with the Samsung 840 EVO's 506MBps read and 492MBps write, and the SanDisk Extreme II's 485GBps read and 460GBps write.
The 4K-64 thread tests were more competitive. Here, the m500's 325MBps read score was only barely behind the Samsung 840 EVO's 330MBps, while the SanDisk Extreme II won the test with a score of 356MBps. The m500's 4K write performance was stronger – its score of 267MBps took second place to the Samsung 840 EVO's 298MBps, ahead of the SanDisk Extreme II's 249MBps.
AS-SSD contains a real-world file copy test with three presets – ISO files, program files, and game files. Each type of file is a different size and includes a different amount of compressible data. We rebooted in between benchmark runs of this test and threw out the outliers to prevent data caching in Windows or on-drive from polluting the results.
In the ISO file copy benchmark test, the m500 slipped to last place with a copy rate of 277MBps, compared with 309MBps for the SanDisk Extreme II and 353MBps for the Samsung 840 EVO. The program files copy benchmark test again dropped the m500 into last place, with a score of 200MBps, but that's just five per cent behind the Samsung 840 EVO's lead score of 211MBps. The SanDisk Extreme II split the difference at 206MBps. Finally, in the game files copy test, the m500 scored 241MBps, which was in between the Samsung 840 EVO's 291MBps and the SanDisk Extreme II's 228MBps.
Lastly, there's PCMark 7. This benchmark test uses real storage workloads created by recording traces of hard drive activity when playing games, loading music or video, or copying files. These traces were used to measure the performance of storage products in comprehensive real-world scenarios. Again, the m500's score of 5,269 slipped back from the scores on the Samsung 840 EVO (5,445) and SanDisk Extreme II (5,373).
The m500's performance is somewhat slower than that of the other drives we compared it with, but its encryption capabilities and redundant storage should appeal to buyers who care more about security than raw performance. Its data parity and encryption features may also be particularly attractive to users who need that kind of service – not very many SSDs offer TSG Opal 2.0 support in hardware.
The final thing to consider if you're looking to upgrade a smaller SSD or older hard drive is that the boost between HDD and SSD is far, far larger than the gap between any two SSDs. A brand new drive from 2014 will feel faster than a first-generation SandForce drive from 2010, but the user experience between two SSDs just isn't very different unless you're doing very particular kinds of work.
Speed is important, but it isn't everything. The cost effectiveness and generally high performance of the Crucial m500 makes it a fine deal for anyone who is tired of splitting time between a glacial magnetic spinner and a small solid-state device.