Intel’s SSD 750: PCIe storage for the masses

With the SATA interface saturated, PCIe remained out of reach for consumers. Until now.

There was some serious excitement surrounding an Intel product for the first time in a long time last week, and it wasn’t about a CPU. The company introduced the Intel 750 SSD PCI Express drive, the first to offer PCIe-based flash storage at consumer levels of pricing.

PCIe is the common interface for enterprise SSDs because Serial ATA III, or SATA III, the interface in consumer PCs, has reached its theoretical throughput limit. It’s been fairly proven that the SATA interface is now the main bottleneck slowing down SSD drives. The Serial ATA International Organization (SATA-IO), which developed the SATA spec, has been pretty slow at getting anything done.

SATA I (1.5Gbit/sec throughput) came out in 2003, SATA II (3Gbits) came out in 2004, and SATA III in 2009. The SATA 3.2 spec with 16Gbits of throughput was ratified in 2013 but there are still no motherboards to support it. Then again, SATA 3.2 also focuses on PCIe and the M.2 interface, which would indicate they are giving up on traditional SATA itself.

The other issue was price. PCIe cards would run several hundreds if not thousands of dollars, putting them well out of reach of even the most ardent hobbyist. Consumer SSD pricing, on the other hand, was in a freefall and had dropped as low as $0.50 per gigabyte.

That's why the Internet was so abuzz over the 750 Series. It cost around $1/GB, which is what SSDs went for a year or two ago, and its performance blows away SATA III SSD. The 400GB version of the 750 Series SSD is $389 and the 1.2TB version is $1,029.

The 750's performance tops out with sequential read/write speeds of up to 2,400MBps and 1,200MBps, respectively. For a little perspective, my OCZ Vertex 4, which was top of the line when I bought it two years ago, clocks in at 471MBps reads and 399MBps writes.

Intel's previous high-end consumer SSD, the 730 Series, was a SATA-based drive with sequential read/write performance of 550MBps and 470MBps, respectively. So you can see why hobbyists and PC enthusiasts in general are so crazy about this thing. You're getting a quantum leap in performance at a price palatable to a consumer.

Hobbyist sites are now unleashing their benchmarks, but one thing I've learned is benchmarks aren't always the best measure. The main benefit, I think, will be app-intensive situations that benchmarks don't always measure. High I/O apps like sound and video editing or CAD will likely benefit the most.

For consumers, there might be some gains, but let's face it, most disk access these days is in short bursts. Once Outlook loads, it's done. Once Word loads, the main problem is my documents drive is on the D: which spends 98% of its time in powered down mode. I'm more interested in high-capacity SSD drives than a speedy one. Do I want to spend $400 and go through another Windows reinstall than to have Photoshop load in three seconds instead of six seconds? Not really. But then again I'm weird like that.

For now, Intel has broken an important barrier; PCIe speed at consumer SSD prices. You can bet SanDisk, Toshiba, Kingston and Samsung are hurrying along with their own answers to the 750, which in the end is good for the consumer.

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