In the consumer IT storage industry, one of the most promising technologies that has emerged over the past several years of careful research and development has undoubtedly been high-density NAND flash memory in the form of the Solid State Disk. In recent months, a small niche of manufacturers have been making advances in this new field and continue to provide consumer and enterprise solutions with high performance, reliable, yet expensive solutions.
Intel has been among the leaders of the pack ever since its entrance into the market back in summer 2008, when it announced production of SSDs with the “value notebook and desktop” sector in mind. One of its highly acclaimed offerings, the X25 and X18 series, have since stood as an icon of greatness in the business for its unprecedented random read/write performance and sequential read performance when compared to other flagship drives.
The company decided that being in the elite top percentile with its closest competitors was simply not enough, and so its engineers quickly went back to the silicon drawing board to release a second revision of the series on the latest 34nm fabrication process. This allowed Intel to drive the price of the X25-M to ultracompetitive levels. These drives were released in mid-July 2009, swapping Samsung SDRAM for Micron SDRAM and featuring a retuned controller with an entirely new firmware.
As competitors began to improve their controller architectures and support operating system specific optimization commands (see TRIM), Intel’s underlying performance trend began to suffer slightly, particularly in the area of sequential write speeds. Meanwhile, several analysts attempted to gain some additional insight and conducted some off-the-record conversations with Intel engineers to clarify some of the rumors and concerns spreading around the enthusiast and enterprise crowds. The company didn’t offer much more than a general statement hinting “possible optimization” with upcoming firmware updates.
Two days ago, the company released a long-awaited new firmware update for owners of X25-M 34nm second generation (G2) SSDs that not only boosts sequential write performance, but also enables native hardware support for the TRIM feature under Windows 7 and software TRIM support under Windows Vista and Windows XP. The update, labeled firmware 02HA, enables TRIM on both 80GB and 160GB drives only under AHCI mode. Additionally, it only increases sequential write performance on the 160GB model as this drive is naturally a slightly better performer than the 80GB even before applying the update.
"On the heels of the Microsoft Windows 7 introduction, Intel Corporation today announced the availability of the Intel Solid-State Drive (SSD) Toolbox, with Intel SSD Optimizer and firmware update, for its 34nm Intel X25-M Mainstream SATA SSDs…
…For 34nm X25-M 160GB owners, the firmware update also offers a
performance boost to sequential write speeds by delivering up to 100MB per
second, a 40 percent performance improvement over the existing firmware
In the most unfortunate of circumstances, many critical problems ensued right after Intel released the update and enthusiasts began the flashing process. The company quickly pulled its TRIM enabling firmware update and software package when reports abruptly came in of bricking drives under Windows 7. For those unhappy campers left in the cold after a promised 40-percent sequential write speed boost, Intel gave its short official statement to Engadget on the matter:
“Yes, we have been contacted by users with issues with the firmware upgrade for our 34nm SSDs and we are investigating. We take all sightings and issues seriously and are working toward resolution. We have temporarily taken down the firmware link while we investigate.”
One forum user has claimed that his Dell XPS system BIOS reports the issue as a S.M.A.R.T. error, which definitely confirms that the issue lies in the new firmware. Consumers who currently own X25-M drives and have not updated should obviously hold off until Intel resolves the firmware and gets it back online to its download servers.
This is not to say that Intel has not had issues in the past with these 34nm drives. Back in August, the company pulled a new firmware update with a password bug that rendered the drives inoperable, making it impossible to access or retrieve any data. Shipments of the latest generation drives were also tragically halted until engineers could find a fix. Thankfully, the bug was quickly resolved and a corrected firmware was reposted for download.
In the meantime, many ardent researchers (including ourselves) have been greatly anticipating this drive for use in a Windows 7-based capacitive multitouch tablet netbook or notebook device. If you are one of those enthusiast consumers dying to get the best performance out of your new fancy finger-touching mobile device, we should note that the Intel X25-M 34nm 80GB was going for just $244 shipped on Amazon yesterday, and the price has recently gone up by a small margin to anticipate the holiday season rush.