controllers to fill the gaps in the product line that their own controllers cannot serve.
This year, Intel’s decision to release an affordable mainstream SATA SSD has led them to use a Silicon Motion controller. But “affordable” by today’s standards means using 15/16nm TLC NAND flash, and Intel doesn’t make that either. They chose not to invest in the 16nm node at IMFT (their flash manufacturing partnership with Micron) so Intel has to buy their flash on the open market.
The result is the Intel 540s, using Silicon Motion’s new SM2258 controller and SK Hynix 16nm TLC NAND. The SM2258 controller is the successor to the SM2256, Silicon Motion’s first controller designed for use with TLC flash. SM2258 builds on that design by moving from 55nm fabrication to 40nm and incorporating several hardware tweaks including more flexible SLC caching and support for 3D NAND.
The Hynix TLC used in the Intel 540s is the same NAND that is inside the ADATA Premier SP550, one of two products we’ve tested that use the SM2256 controller. This gives us the opportunity to directly observe what’s improved with Silicon Motion’s controller and firmware since last year. The price history of the ADATA SP550 also shows that Intel should be able to make the 540s a very affordable product. It also appears that Intel has retired the use of 3xx model numbers to designate entry-level SSDs and all such models are now classified as legacy products.
The 540s has Intel’s typical aluminum casing housing a full-size PCB. Our 480GB sample had 16 packages each with two dies of the SK Hynix TLC. The new SM2258 controller uses the same 14mm x 14mm package as the SM2256, with a single external DRAM package next to it. As is typical for low-cost consumer drives, there are no power loss protection capacitors. There is a thermal pad between the controller and the case, something we saw for the SM2256 on the Crucial BX200 but not the ADATA SP550.
The PCB also bears the “Loyd Star” codename which the 540s shares with Intel’s SSD E 5400s for the embedded market and the SSD DC S3100 for the enterprise market. The E 5400s covers only small capacities, ranging from 48GB to 180GB while the 540s is available in capacities from 120GB to 1000GB and the DC S3100 covers 180GB to 1000GB. All three product lines include some in-between sizes that are uncommon to find on modern drives. The 540s and E5400s are both available as 2.5″ or M.2 drives while the DC S3100 is only available as a 2.5″ drive.
For this review, the Intel 540s will primarily be compared against the two SM2256 products we’ve tested: the ADATA Premier SP550 and the Crucial BX200. The latter shipped with poorly-tuned firmware that made it a disappointment all around, but the former has been a relatively successful budget drive by offering acceptable performance at some of the best prices on the market. The Intel 540s is positioned slightly higher in the market due to carrying a 5-year warranty compared to three years for most budget TLC drives, but in terms of performance that’s what it is competing against.
Other important drives to compare against will include the Toshiba OCZ Trion 150, a higher-performing drive using a controller based on the Phison S10 paired with Toshiba 15nm TLC, and the SanDisk X400 using Marvell’s 88SS1074 controller and SanDisk’s 15nm TLC. The SanDisk X400 seems to be the fastest planar TLC drive on the market, and it is available in both 2.5″ and single-sided M.2 form factors. The SanDisk X400 also has a 5-year warranty.