Companies love the word extreme; it conjures images of back flipping, snowmobile riding wolverines, cliff top power sliding rally cars driven by Travis Pastrana and death defying low altitude skydiving. It’s gone beyond just meaning the bleeding edge of whatever it’s applied to, it’s become a byword for awesome.
So when that word is applied to such an unassuming product as an SSD, some might think Intel is taking liberties with it. After all on looks alone an SSD is perhaps one of the most uninteresting and unassuming products we review here at bit-tech – it’s just a featureless black tin after all. However, it’s what’s under the hood here that makes the Intel X25- E (the E stands for Extreme by the way) interesting, and very much worthy of its moniker.
We’ve recently looked at a few SSDs, and while they all were able to demonstrate much improved read speeds in comparison to the conventional mechanical drives, write performance was disappointing and only the pricey 80GB Intel X25-M (M standing for Mainstream) was able to deliver performance that improved on read speeds without compromising on write speeds.
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This is where the Intel X25-E comes in, claiming to not only significantly improve read speed, but also provide massively increase write speeds too. It’s able to do this thanks to the use of the much more costly SLC (single level cell) rather than MLC (multi level cell) NAND flash technology. While cheaper MLC NAND flash memory is capable of storing multiple bits of data per cell thanks to the cells' ability to store data in multiple distinct states, SLC memory only stores a single bit per cell, with data interpreted in just two states, on or off.
While this means that while the data density per chip of SLC memory is significantly reduced, the memory is able to alter state far quicker than MLC based memory, resulting in significantly improved write performance while still delivering the nippy read speeds you’d expect from an SSD thanks to Intel's in-house disk controller chip.
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Cracking the Intel X25-E’s matt black 2.5” casing reveals a surprisingly similar bit of kit to the X25-M, with an identical PCB layout, excellent memory controller and 16MB Samsung cache chip. Even the NAND flash memory chips look all but identical bar tiny differences in serial numbers indicating they’re the faster SLC type of NAND flash memory.
The switch to the lower data density SLC memory has meant that the X25-E is only able to pack in a diminutive 32GB of storage though (29.7GB formatted), spread over the drive’s twenty NAND flash memory chips. That’s a pathetic amount of storage in this day and age for a boot disk or even a utility drive. You’ll struggle to fit an install of Vista 64 Home Premium and Crysis onto such a small drive, as we found out when building a test system using the drive.
Yet despite its tiny capacity the use of the enormously expensive SLC NAND flash memory means the Intel X25-E retails for a wallet crushing £505! For that sort of money you can buy seven 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1s and even a nippy Intel 80GB X25-M is a whole £50 less for more than twice the storage. Can the X25-E’s performance possibly justify this mountainous price tag? Let’s find out.