Solid-state drives move toward the mainstream

The Intel X25-M Mainstream Serial ATA SSD offers reliable and fast performance at a steep, but decreasing, cost.

Pros: Fast performance, reliable, uses less power than a standard drive
Cons: Price is still about five times more expensive than a standard hard drive
Performance: A
Ease of Use: A
Features: A
Value: B-
Price: $255 for 80G, $440 for 160G

The popularity of solid-state drives (SSDs) has been a roller coaster ride in recent years. And that goes doubly so for miniature drives designed for laptop PCs.

When the benefits of SSDs were revealed, it seemed as though every company rushed to put them in their laptops to replace existing hard drives. Wandering the halls of general trade shows was almost like going to an SSD event.

SSDs don’t have any moving parts. They are basically huge key drives — and use almost the same technology as key drives. Their advantages over typical drives that have rotating media spinning around under a read head, much like an old record player, are threefold.

First, the lack of moving parts makes SSDs more rugged than their moving-part counterparts. Especially in laptops, which move around more than desktop PCs, having an SSD means a bump in the road won’t scratch the hard drive. That does not mean SSDs are rugged in terms of military specifications, though some are, but they can withstand a lot more of the day-to-day bumps and bruises because there are no vulnerable moving parts.

Second, without moving parts, most SSDs perform faster than traditional drives. A normal drive can only spin so quickly before it breaks apart, but an SSD can get the job done without moving at all. Not every SSD is faster than every traditional drive, but overall, they will outperform them.

The final advantage to an SSD is power consumption. An SSD only needs power to write to the media, not to drive a disk-turning engine or move a drive head. So an SSD uses less power and, by extension, generates less heat.

SSDs started to make their way into every conceivable device a couple of years ago. Then something funny happened, and they seemed to start disappearing almost as quickly. The problem? The price.

We started to see laptops shipped with tiny, 16G SSDs. Obviously that isn’t nearly enough storage space for many users and not anything close to what a power user requires. When we asked why we were seeing such minuscule drives, we were told almost universally by companies that were making laptops that the small SSD was all that could be put into a computer while still keeping a reasonable price. There might be advantages to SSDs, but consumers were not willing to pay thousands of dollars more for a laptop with a hard drive the size they were accustomed to. And those tiny SSD laptops weren’t popular either.

But just when we started to think SSDs at the laptop level were doomed, Intel delivered a high-performing, moderately priced SSD. We looked at an X25-M 80G model priced at $225. There is also a 160G model for $440. If you order more than $1,000 worth at a time, Intel will offer you a volume discount that might help take the sting out of your purchase.

Given that you can find a typical 160G laptop drive for about $80, you are still going to pay a premium for the move to an SSD. However, the lower price at least puts it in the realm of possibility for more users. If you’re spending big money on a high-performance laptop, you might not mind the extra couple of hundred dollars. And if your data happens to be mission-critical or you need to get to it extremely quickly, the Intel X25-M Mainstream Serial Advanced Technology Attachment SSD could give you a little more peace of mind. You will use less energy than you would with a standard drive, but the difference is too small to make up for the huge initial price gap within the standard lifetime of a laptop.

In terms of performance, the X25-M doesn’t disappoint. We were able to transfer a huge 1G file in less than 17 seconds for an average transfer time of 544 megabits/sec, whether we were writing or reading from the disk.

To test the X25-M’s stability, we put a seat belt on our test laptop, which was a Hewlett-Packard Elitebook 6930p, and went for a drive in that old Jeep we sometimes use for these types of tests. Driving Frederick County, Md., back roads, which are more like trails where we were, the Elitebook was able to continually read and write data the entire time with no disruption whatsoever, even if the vehicle was briefly airborne. We checked all the data after the test, and there were no flaws. A scan of the drive found it to be perfectly healthy with no bad sectors after the test.

The only thing a traditional hard drive could have done in a similar circumstance to survive is to lock its head down when it detected too much motion. Drop or shock sensors are fairly popular on high-end laptops these days and work well to prevent damage from unexpected movements. Bur even if a hard drive could save itself from damage, it couldn’t possibly work in those conditions. It would lock down for protection, moving the vulnerable head to a spot where it wasn’t touching the magnetic media of the drive. It could do nothing other than survive from that position.

The X25-M is a huge step in the right direction in terms of price vs. performance for SSDs. Intel has lowered the price without sacrificing quality. Unfortunately, the price even now is too high for mainstream acceptance. Until SSDs can come within $50 or even $100 of comparable traditional drives, they will probably be stuck in laptops earmarked for special applications and environments where their advantages are needed and aren’t just a luxurious perk.

Intel Corp., 781-307-7081, www.intel.com/go/ssd

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