This is shaping up to be the busiest month in the SSD frontier for ages. Intel released its new flagship SSD 730 series just a couple of weeks ago and there are at least two more releases coming in the next few weeks...but today it's Crucial's turn to up the ante.

Unlike many OEMs, Crucial has more or less had only one active series in its SSD portfolio at a time. A few years ago this approach made sense because the SSD market as a whole mainly focused on enthusiasts and there was no real benefit to a tiered lineup. As the market has matured and prices have dropped over time, we are now in a situation similar to other components: there is the high volume mainstream market where price is the key and the higher margin enthusiast/professional market where performance and features matter. Covering both of these markets with a single product is hard because in order to compete in price, it's usually necessary to use lower quality parts, which in turn affects performance and features.

With the M500 Crucial was mainly targeting the mainstream market. The performance was mostly better than in the m4 days but only mediocre compared to other SSDs in the market. The introduction of the likes of the SanDisk Extreme II, Seagate SSD 600, and OCZ Vector 150 has upped the ante even more in the enthusiast segment and it has become clear that the M500 has no place there. To stay competitive in all product areas, Crucial is now launching the big brother to their M500: the M550.

EDIT: Just to clarify, the M500 will continue to be available and the M550 is merely a higher performing option at slightly higher price.

With 64Gbit NAND, 240/256GB was usually the sweet spot in terms of price and performance. That combination offered enough NAND die to saturate the SATA 6Gbps as well as the controller's/firmware's potential, but with the M500 this was no longer the case thanks to the usage of 128Gbit NAND. With a die that was twice the capacity, you only needed half the dies to build a 240/256GB SSD. As NAND parallelism is a major source of SSD performance, this meant a decrease in performance at 240/256GB and you would now have to go to 480/512GB to get the same level of performance that 240/256GB offered with 64Gbit NAND.

The use of 128Gbit NAND was one of the main reasons for the M500's poor performance, and with others staying with 64Gbit NAND, that backfired on Crucial in terms of performance (more on this later). Since it's not possible to magically decrease program times or add parallelism, Crucial decided to bring back the 64Gbit NAND in the lower capacity M550s. Here's how the new and old models compare:

Crucial M550 vs Crucial M500
  M550 M500
Controller Marvell 88SS9189 Marvell 88SS9187
NAND Micron 64/128Gbit 20nm MLC Micron 128Gbit 20nm MLC
Capacity 128GB 256GB 512GB 1TB 120GB 240GB 480GB 960GB
Sequential Read 550MB/s 500MB/s
Sequential Write 350MB/s 500MB/s 130MB/s 250MB/s 400MB/s
4KB Random Read 90K IOPS 95K IOPS 62K IOPS 72K IOPS 80K IOPS
4KB Random Write 75K IOPS 80K IOPS 85K IOPS 35K IOPS 60K IOPS 80K IOPS
Endurance 72TB (~66GB/day) 72TB (~66GB/day)
Warranty Three years Three years

The 128GB and 256GB models are now equipped with 64Gbit per die NAND while 512GB and 1TB models use the same 128Gbit NAND as in the M500. What this means is that the 128GB and 256GB models are much more competitive in performance because the die count is twice that of the same capacity M500 drives. You get roughly the same performance with both 256GB and 512GB models (unlike the nearly 50% drop in write performance like in the M500) and the 128GB actually beats the 240GB M500 in all metrics. There is obviously some firmware tweaking involved as well and the bigger capacities get a performance bump too, although it's much more moderate compared to the smaller capacities.

Another difference is the controller. Compared to the NAND, this isn't as substantial a change because the Marvell 9189 is more of an updated version of the 9187 and the only major upgrades are support for LPDDR and better optimization for DevSleep, both of which help with power consumption and can hence extend the battery life.

Crucial M550 Specifications
Capacity 128GB 256GB 512GB 1TB
Controller Marvell 88SS9189
NAND Micron 64Gb 20nm MLC Micron 128Gb 20nm MLC
Cache (LPDDR2-1066) 512MB 512MB 512MB 1GB
Sequential Read 550MB/s 550MB/s 550MB/s 550MB/s
Sequential Write 350MB/s 500MB/s 500MB/s 500MB/s
4KB Random Read 90K IOPS 90K IOPS 95K IOPS 95K IOPS
4KB Random Write 75K IOPS 80K IOPS 85K IOPS 85K IOPS

Similar to the earlier drives, Crucial continues to be Micron's household brand whereas OEM drives will be sold under Micron's name. It's just a matter of branding and there are no differences between the retail and OEM drives other than an additional 64GB model for OEMs. 

Crucial switches back to binary capacities in the M550 and with the 1TB model you actually get the full 1024GB of space (though Crucial lists it as 1TB for marketing reasons, and there's still 1024GiB of actual NAND). The reason behind this isn't a reduction in over-provisioning but merely a more optimized use of RAIN (Redundant Array of Independent NAND).

RAIN is similar to SandForce's RAISE and the idea is that you take some NAND space and dedicate that to parity. Almost every manufacturer is doing this at some level nowadays since the NAND error and failure rates are constantly increasing as we move to smaller lithographies. When the M500 came out the 128Gbit NAND was very new and Crucial/Micron wanted to play it safe and dedicated quite a bit of NAND for RAIN to make sure the brand new NAND wouldn't cause any reliability issues down the road. In a year a lot happens in terms of maturity of a process and Crucial/Micron are now confident that they can offer the same level of endurance and reliability with less parity. The parity ratio is 127:1, meaning that for every 127 bits there is one parity bit. This roughly translates to 1GiB of NAND reserved for parity in the 128GB M550 and 2GiB, 4GiB and 8GiB for the higher capacities.

Feature wise the M550 adopts everything from the M500. There is TCG Opal 2.0 and IEEE-1667 support, which are the requirements for Microsoft's eDrive encryption. Along with that is full power loss protection thanks to capacitors that provide the necessary power to complete in-progress NAND writes in case of power loss.

Update: Micron just told us that in addition to the capacitors there is some NAND-level technology that makes the M550 even more robust against power losses. We don't have the details yet but you'll be the first to know once we got them.

NAND Configurations
Raw NAND Capacity 128GiB 256GiB 512GiB 1024GiB
RAIN Allocation ~1GiB ~2GiB ~4GiB ~8GiB
Over-Provisioning 6.1% 6.1% 6.1% 6.1%
Usable Capacity 119.2GiB 238.4GiB 476.8GiB 953.7GiB
# of NAND Packages 16 16 16 16
# of NAND Die per Package 1 x 8GiB 2 x 8GiB 2 x 16GiB 4 x 16GiB


Test System

CPU Intel Core i5-2500K running at 3.3GHz
(Turbo and EIST enabled)
Motherboard AsRock Z68 Pro3
Chipset Intel Z68
Chipset Drivers Intel + Intel RST 10.2
Memory G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-1600 4 x 8GB (9-9-9-24)
Video Card Palit GeForce GTX 770 JetStream 2GB GDDR5
(1150MHz core clock; 3505MHz GDDR5 effective)
Video Drivers NVIDIA GeForce 332.21 WHQL
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1080
OS Windows 7 x64

Thanks to G.Skill for the RipjawsX 32GB DDR3 DRAM kit

NAND Lesson: Why Die Capacity Matters
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  • Cerb - Sunday, March 23, 2014 - link

    It's just that Samsung and Sandisk/Toshiba developed that technology for their flash, and Micron/Intel decided to go all in to making it denser, instead. There's nothing "Pro" about the 840, nor Toshiba's Q, with a, "Pro," after them, other than the name. Hell, gaming video cards have had "Pro" suffixes.

    Samsung and Toshiba/Sandisk decided to develop and use that kind of technology (it's in the Q series, with no marketing at all, and in Sandisk's Ultra Plus (X110?) and Extreme II (X210?) as ncache), while Intel/Micron went all in for density and cost, instead.

    It's generally useful, as it can allow a first stage of buffering to fake SLC, so live data writes generate less wear. So, bursty writes and random writes can both perform better, and wear the flash out less, than if it were pure TLC or MLC. I suspect it will find its way into server products over the next few years, as well, if it's not already hiding in something of Toshiba's.

    Also, just as there's been increased demand for 7200 RPM SATA and SAS for professionals, plain SATA SSDs are all most users need, as well. Pro users are using the same classes of drives as consumers, for the most part.
  • JBVertexx - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    I also agree this is positioned as a mainstream drive but with the additional performance and features upping the ante.

    It's hard to argue with price. The last several SSDs I have purchased have been the M500 240GB model. The current price of the 550 is what the 500 was only 3 months ago. So I would expect the positioning of the 550 to continue the price/value leadership position as it eventually replaces the M500. My bet is that the volumes of M500s that have been selling for them support this positioning as a winning one for Crucial.
  • MrSpadge - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    Agreed - the M500 is really putting price pressure on everyone else. For this benefit I can live with slightly lower performance. If M550 at 120/240 GB comes even close in price it's a default win. It has to be cheaper than 840 Evo, though.
  • trichome333 - Wednesday, March 19, 2014 - link

    Agreed, just got a 240gb M500 for $115. Read is up there with any SSD which is all I care about.
  • laviathan05 - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    On a personal note, as a person who bought a new Samsung EVO 1TB drive yesterday, I'm pleased with this review. Also, if you follow the link in the pricing chart you'll see that it currently is selling for $470 on newegg.
  • Jaguar36 - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    In your final words you mention that "It has the best-in-class encryption support", How come you don't say anything else about this in the article? What exactly does best in class mean?
  • Kristian Vättö - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    "There is TCG Opal 2.0 and IEEE-1667 support, which are the requirements for Microsoft's eDrive encryption."

    It's something we've covered before so I only mentioned it in the review. Clicking the eDrive link leads to an article where the M500 is tested with eDrive, so you'll see the benefits there.
  • Jaguar36 - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

  • just4U - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    When looking at SSD's to purchase I settled on 3 Intel, Samsung, and Crucial. The controller on the Intel and the fact that it was priced in the range of the Samsung led to me dropping it as a choice. So that left me with Samsung/Crucial. Given the choice I'd go Samsung.. as it is a higher performing drive but price/availability I wouldn't be to terrible upset if I had to go with the Crucial drives.

    I think maybe they just let performance take a back seat because their other drive was popular even though it was slower than the rest of the pack. It gained a good reputation so their hoping that will carry over to this new slightly faster/feature rich incarnation.
  • extide - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    Were you talking an Intel SF drive (300/500 series?) or the 720, with the super sweet in-house controller? Also don'[t forget about the Sandisk Extreme II...

    IMO The Top Tier performance drives are (In no specific order):
    Sandisk Extreme II
    Intel 720 Series
    Crucial Neutron GTX
    Samsung 840 Pro
    Seagate 600
    OCZ Vector 150

    And the best in terms of capacity/price:
    Crucial M500 (& M550?)
    Samsung 840 EVO

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