This is probably the most excited I've been about any SSD launch in quite a while. At CES this year, Crucial announced its M500 SSD - the world's first to use Micron's new 128Gbit MLC NAND die. Courtesy of the cost savings and density increase associated with this new 128Gbit NAND, the M500 would be available in a 960GB capacity, priced at $599. That works out to be around $0.62 per GB for a truly gigantic drive by today's standards. It's exciting. For the past five years I've been learning to live off of less storage that I thought I needed, but the M500 had the potential to spoil me once again.

The M500 starts out with a familiar refrain: a Marvell controller with custom firmware from Crucial/Micron and of course, Micron NAND. All of these parts get updated though, some in more interesting ways than others. The controller is now Marvell’s 88SS9187, an updated version of the 9174 used in the m4. The 9187 is a speed/feature bump over the 9174 and is also used in Plextor’s M5 Pro. I should note that this time around both the Crucial (end user) and Micron (OEM) drives will feature the same M500 branding.

One of the benefits of Marvell’s 9187 is the support for DDR3 memory, which we see exercised on the M500. In its largest configuration, the M500 features 1GB of DDR3-1600. Crucial claims only 2 - 4MB of user data ever ends up in this DRAM, the overwhelming majority of the DRAM is used to cache the page/indirection table that maps logical block addresses to pages in NAND. Like most SSD makers, Crucial won’t talk about the structure of its mapping table but given the size of the DRAM I think it’s safe to assume that we’re looking at a relatively flat structure that should be easy to manage (more on this later).

Crucial / Micron M500 Specifications
  120GB 240GB 480GB 960GB
Controller Marvell 88SS9187
NAND Micron 20nm 2bpc MLC NAND (128Gbit die)
Form Factor 2.5" 7mm/9.5mm, mSATA, M.2 2.5" 7mm/9.5mm, mSATA, M.2 2.5" 7mm/9.5mm, mSATA, M.2 2.5" 7mm/9.5mm
Sequential Read
Sequential Write
4KB Random Read
4KB Random Write
Drive Lifetime 72TB Writes (90% full, 25/75% sequential/random IO - 50% 4KB, 40% 64KB, 10% 128KB)
Warranty 3 years

While the M500’s controller is nothing new, its NAND is. The M500 is the first drive to ship with the latest version of IMFT’s 20nm MLC NAND, featuring 128Gbit die. All previous NAND devices from IMFT (as well as its competitors) top out at 64Gbit (8GB) per 2-bit MLC NAND die. The move to larger die decreases the number of die/devices needed to hit each capacity point, and it also makes 1TB SSDs cost effective for the first time ever.

The cost savings come from the fact that these 128Gbit die aren’t simple doublings of last year’s 64Gbit devices; they include a few changes. The most prominent is a shift in page size from 8KB to 16KB. Larger page sizes are more desirable to implement at smaller NAND geometries, which is why you normally see these page size transitions with major shifts in process technology (e.g. 4KB to 8KB page size transition back at 25nm). The good news is that larger page sizes increase sequential throughput, but at the expense of latency. Given that NAND program times increase with smaller NAND geometries, once again the deck is stacked against manufacturers looking to increase performance as they exploit the benefits of Moore’s Law.

The other big change with the 128Gbit implementation of IMFT’s 20nm process is the inclusion of ONFI 3.0 support. There are some power savings courtesy of ONFI 3.0 (lower voltages, on-die termination), but the big news here is an increase in max interface speed. The previous ONFI interface standard (2.x) topped out at around 200MB/s, while ONFI 3.0 kicks that up to 400MB/s. Crucial’s implementation seems to be limited to around 330MB/s, but the drive isn’t anywhere close to saturating that. Remember the interface speed governs the maximum rate at which you can transfer data to/from a NAND device. Most NAND devices are capable of dual-channel operation so in the higher capacity implementations we’re talking about a maximum NAND-to-controller transfer rate of over 600MB/s. There’s more than enough headroom here.

Supporting the new controller, new NAND die, larger page sizes and ONFI 3.0 obviously require a new firmware, so the M500 ships with an evolution of what Crucial developed for the m4. The end result is vastly improved performance across the board, the big question being how well does it compare to the rest of the world given how much has changed since the m4 first arrived on the market.

The 20nm 128Gbit NAND: Larger Pages, Larger Blocks, Lower Performance & Cost?

Intel/Micron NAND Evolution
  50nm 34nm 25nm 20nm 20nm
Single Die Max Capacity 16Gbit 32Gbit 64Gbit 64Gbit 128Gbit
Page Size 4KB 4KB 8KB 8KB 16KB
Pages per Block 128 128 256 256 512
Read Page (max) - - 75 µs 100 µs 115 µs
Program Page (typical) 900 µs 1200 µs 1300 µs 1300 µs 1600 µs
Erase Block (typical) - - 3 ms 3 ms 3.8 ms
Die Size - 172mm2 167mm2 118mm2 202mm2
Gbit per mm2 - 0.186 0.383 0.542 0.634
Rated Program/Erase Cycles 10000 5000 3000 3000 3000

There's a lot of data in the table above, but if you look closely you'll see a couple of trends. The obvious ones are increasing page and block size over time. NAND program latency has also climbed steadily over the years, while endurance decreased. All in all, the picture looks pretty bleak. It's impressive that performance keeps going up each generation given how much the deck is stacked against seeing continued performance improvements. The increase in program time gives you a preview of what we're going to see in the performance pages. Small writes will take longer. Garbage collection routines on a full drive will also take longer to run as each block that needs to be recycled for use has more pages and more data to deal with. Although Crucial uses a faster controller in the M500 vs. m4, the internal housekeeping it has to do goes up tremendously as well. The M500 isn't a drive that was built in pursuit of peak performance. Instead this drive targets the mainstream.

Looking at the difference in density between the two 20nm NAND devices, there's nearly a 17% increase in density from moving to the larger page/block sizes. It's a remarkable improvement especially when you consider the gains are decoupled from a new process node. Ultimately this is Micron's answer to TLC for the time being. Rather than sacrificing endurance to get to lower price points, the 20nm 128Gbit 2bpc MLC NAND device at mature yields should deliver competitive pricing at higher endurance. Indeed this is the message behind Crucial's M500. The company isn't targeting Samsung's SSD 840 Pro, but rather the TLC based 840.

Price Comparison
  120/128GB 240/256GB 480/512GB 960GB
Crucial M500 $129 ($129) $219 ($202) $399 ($442) $599 ($570)
Intel SSD 335 $181 $220 - -
Samsung SSD 840 $100 $169 $333 -
Samsung SSD 840 Pro $139 $229 $463 -

The reality of it all is the M500's MSRPs are closer to the 840 Pro's street prices than the 840's. MSRPs tend to run a bit high on SSDs, so I wouldn't be too surprised to see the M500 eventually settle down closer to the 840 (remember the MSRP for the 840/840 Pro at 250/256GB are $199 and $269, respectively). It's definitely a different approach to driving costs down vs. going to TLC, and it's one that can't necessarily be repeated each generation, but for now the answer works. I'm not sure how meaningful the added endurance is for most client users, although you could make an interesting case for the M500 in some enterprise workloads that the TLC 840 wouldn't be able to make it into.


The big news is of course the 960GB capacity point. At $599 the 960GB M500 is by far the cheapest drive available at anywhere that capacity. A quick search on Newegg reveals a $1000 Mushkin 960GB drive and a $3000 1TB OCZ Octane. At $599, the 960GB is a steal at $0.62/GB. Even the Phison based 960GB BP4 from MyDigitalSSD weighs in at $799, and OWC's Mercury Electra MAX (3Gbps SATA) is still over $1000. To put the drive's excellent price in perspective, the 960GB M500 has roughly the same MSRP as Intel's 80GB X25-M had back in 2008. That's an order of magnitude more storage capacity at the same price in 5 years time. Moore's Law makes me happy.

Encryption Done Right & Drive Configurations
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  • gochichi - Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - link

    Crucial is in a unique position. I don't think people care about performance numbers. What we know is that SSD s are either a nightmare or a dream. What we want is a dream. People want simple understandable marketing.

    My favorite SSD so far is a Monster Digital 240gb Daytona. It has been absolutely flawless. But the 120 gb version is a lemon. Reselling the drive would never happen. Monster Digital is probably not going to be a player in the SSD market going forward.

    My point is, what's at stake here is who's the next Seagate? The next Western Digital? Of SSDs. Samsung can do no wrong, much like Apple. And yet this weird little company called Crucial has enjoyed tremendous on-the-street notoriety with their M4 series.

    As far as I can tell the M4 is a little outdated. My question is why not release an M5? Why 500? Why waste so much consumer goodwill? Is it just that this drive isn't good? Or not good enough for proper successorship?

    I don't know why I've purchased crucial drives before, it started with a little 64gb m4. The I just trust the m4 line. My point is why does Crucial carry bad models and why so many confusing numbers? The m4 is a golden opropportunity. Where's that trusty m5 follow up? Samsung has understandable generations and model lines. They're making sure they're the Western Digital of SSD. Why isn't Crucial doing similar?
  • Solid State Brain - Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - link

    The reason why it's M500 and not M5 is probably because of Plextor:
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, April 11, 2013 - link

    Crucial isn't exactly small, they are a subsidiary of Micron. As said above, Plextor has M5S and M5 Pro SSDs so M5 would have been very confusing, hence the M500. The OEM version of M4 was C400, so it's actually not that confusing.
  • FunBunny2 - Thursday, April 11, 2013 - link

    -- My point is, what's at stake here is who's the next Seagate? The next Western Digital? Of SSDs.

    Getting harder to say. The three well known public companies doing SSD (mostly) as such, STEC, OCZ, Fusion-io, have been missing all targets for a least a couple of quarters. Violin may or may not IPO in the next few months.

    The reasonable answer is that there won't be a Seagate or WDC for SSD. It's well understood how to take commodity HDD to Enterprise Drive, using tighter QA and some incrementally better parts at modest cost. With SSD, as this review shows, "progress" in feature shrink isn't improving any of the factors at lower cost. It is quite perverse. The NAND suppliers will come to dominate consumer SSD, with performance asymptotically approaching a bit better than current HDD, with a price premium. Look for TLC, with huge erase blocks, long latencies, slowing controllers (having to do all that much more work to get around the NAND).

    Enterprise SSD will likely fade away, to be replaced by NAND arrays, along the line of the Sun/Oracle device, which has been around for a few years.
  • dilidolo - Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - link

    Everyone else mentioned Super Cap in M500 but not here. I just want to confirm if it's true.
  • Tjalve - Friday, April 12, 2013 - link

    Therte seems to be capacitors on the drive. But i would like to know aswell.
  • klmccaughey - Thursday, April 11, 2013 - link

    The pricing is WAY off. £274 ($420) for 240GB one in the UK!!! They must be mad.
  • philipma1957 - Friday, April 12, 2013 - link

    the 960gb was 570 usd at amazon. at your price x 4 it would be $1680. that is a lot of value tax.
  • philipma1957 - Friday, April 12, 2013 - link

    I just went on amazon uk the 240gb is 168 pounds the 480gb is 321 pounds. some what better. then the price you found
  • Karol Bulova - Saturday, April 13, 2013 - link

    I own Samsung 840Pro (it had cash-back recently) so I welcome this comments from articles on Anandtech.

    'The 840 Pro does an amazing job with 25% additional spare area however, something that can't be said for the M500. '

    'if you simply set aside 25% of the total NAND capacity as spare area' performance improves'

    I am running Win8 64bit with TRIM enabled - what is unclear for me though, is:

    1. is spare are just free not occupied space on the HDD (e.g. when it is not full)
    2. or is it just un-formatted partition (without a filesystem - thus no files expect for header)
    3. or there shouldn't be any partition at all - and drive will somehow figure it up that I just magically allocated spare area

    Or is there some utility for Samsung to do spare area? Please advice - from what I understand I should reinstall windows and choose 192GB as my main drive capacity instead of full!

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