Every few years, Intel releases a new SSD controller that raises the bar for the whole industry. In between those shake-ups, the competition catches up and surpasses Intel. This pattern is especially pronounced in the consumer SSD market where Intel's mostly enterprise-focused chips cannot keep pace with the constant price cuts. During those interim years Intel turns to third-party controllers to fill the gaps in the product line that their own controllers cannot serve.

This year, Intel's decision to release an affordable mainstream SATA SSD has led them to use a Silicon Motion controller. But "affordable" by today's standards means using 15/16nm TLC NAND flash, and Intel doesn't make that either. They chose not to invest in the 16nm node at IMFT (their flash manufacturing partnership with Micron) so Intel has to buy their flash on the open market.

The result is the Intel 540s, using Silicon Motion's new SM2258 controller and SK Hynix 16nm TLC NAND. The SM2258 controller is the successor to the SM2256, Silicon Motion's first controller designed for use with TLC flash. SM2258 builds on that design by moving from 55nm fabrication to 40nm and incorporating several hardware tweaks including more flexible SLC caching and support for 3D NAND.

The Hynix TLC used in the Intel 540s is the same NAND that is inside the ADATA Premier SP550, one of two products we've tested that use the SM2256 controller. This gives us the opportunity to directly observe what's improved with Silicon Motion's controller and firmware since last year. The price history of the ADATA SP550 also shows that Intel should be able to make the 540s a very affordable product. It also appears that Intel has retired the use of 3xx model numbers to designate entry-level SSDs and all such models are now classified as legacy products.

Intel SSD 540s Specifications
Capacity 120GB 180GB 240GB 360GB 480GB 1000GB
Controller Silicon Motion SM2258
NAND Flash SK Hynix 16nm TLC
Sequential Read 560MB/s
Sequential Write 400MB/s 475MB/s 480MB/s
Random Read IOPS 60k 71k 74k 78k
Random Write IOPS 50k 85k
TCG Opal Encryption No
Power Management Slumber and DevSleep
Form Factor 2.5" 7mm and M.2 2280
Warranty 5 years
Recommended Customer Price $64 $79 $99 $139 $174 $344

The 540s has Intel's typical aluminum casing housing a full-size PCB. Our 480GB sample had 16 packages each with two dies of the SK Hynix TLC. The new SM2258 controller uses the same 14mm x 14mm package as the SM2256, with a single external DRAM package next to it. As is typical for low-cost consumer drives, there are no power loss protection capacitors. There is a thermal pad between the controller and the case, something we saw for the SM2256 on the Crucial BX200 but not the ADATA SP550.

The PCB also bears the "Loyd Star" codename which the 540s shares with Intel's SSD E 5400s for the embedded market and the SSD DC S3100 for the enterprise market. The E 5400s covers only small capacities, ranging from 48GB to 180GB while the 540s is available in capacities from 120GB to 1000GB and the DC S3100 covers 180GB to 1000GB. All three product lines include some in-between sizes that are uncommon to find on modern drives. The 540s and E5400s are both available as 2.5" or M.2 drives while the DC S3100 is only available as a 2.5" drive.

For this review, the Intel 540s will primarily be compared against the two SM2256 products we've tested: the ADATA Premier SP550 and the Crucial BX200. The latter shipped with poorly-tuned firmware that made it a disappointment all around, but the former has been a relatively successful budget drive by offering acceptable performance at some of the best prices on the market. The Intel 540s is positioned slightly higher in the market due to carrying a 5-year warranty compared to three years for most budget TLC drives, but in terms of performance that's what it is competing against.

Other important drives to compare against will include the Toshiba OCZ Trion 150, a higher-performing drive using a controller based on the Phison S10 paired with Toshiba 15nm TLC, and the SanDisk X400 using Marvell's 88SS1074 controller and SanDisk's 15nm TLC. The SanDisk X400 seems to be the fastest planar TLC drive on the market, and it is available in both 2.5" and single-sided M.2 form factors. The SanDisk X400 also has a 5-year warranty.

AnandTech 2015 SSD Test System
CPU Intel Core i7-4770K running at 3.5GHz
(Turbo & EIST enabled, C-states disabled)
Motherboard ASUS Z97 Pro (BIOS 2701)
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 2x8GB (9-10-9-27 2T)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4600
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1200
OS Windows 8.1 x64
Performance Consistency
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  • Notmyusualid - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Ya saved me from writing it...
  • shelbystripes - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Intel is considered a reliable brand to OEM PC makers and other bulk purchasers. Offering a low-end part means capturing business that might go to a second-tier manufacturer. For builders with a use case where any modern SSD is fast enough, and you care about reliability without breaking the bank, this will be the #1 choice. You get the Intel name and the things INCLUDED with that, like solid customer support and timely firmware updates, at a lower price point.

    Nobody buying this is expecting it to be a performance part. Intel is the company that sold Celerons with no L2 cache, that sells cut-down Atom CPUs and Core CPUs under the same Pentium brand name. Intel doesn't always mean performance. It does mean confidence that what you're buying actually works, though.
  • BurntMyBacon - Friday, June 24, 2016 - link

    @shelbystripes: "Offering a low-end part means capturing business that might go to a second-tier manufacturer. For builders with a use case where any modern SSD is fast enough, and you care about reliability without breaking the bank, this will be the #1 choice."

    You know, Intel used to cater to this market, ... , with their 300 series drives. Interestingly, the relative performance of this drive matches up to where their 300 series used to slot in as well. Why is this not a 300 series drive?
  • vladx - Friday, June 24, 2016 - link

    My tablet running an Atom quad-core works great. To compare this joke of a SSD from Intel to that is a fucking joke.
  • plopke - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Won't the 540 be shortlived? Shouldn't we be seeing 3d nand drives of intel soon followed by optane?
  • A5 - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    This is for a different market segment.
  • Billy Tallis - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    That roadmap shows the 540s sticking around at least through Q1 2017, and merely being joined by some Optane and 3D TLC NVMe drives. The actual replacement of the 540s is at an indefinite point in the future.

    The determining factor will be how long it takes 3D NAND to get cheap enough to displace 15/16nm TLC. I don't think that will be happening any time soon; even Samsung apparently can't pull it off yet, since they introduced the 750 EVO.
  • Mobile-Dom - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    IIRC Samsung used planar NAND in the 750 because they wanted lower capacity without the performance degradation, as by using the high layered 3D NAND they used fewer packages resulting in worse performance for drives that had 1 or 2 packages for the entire SSD
  • extide - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Nah, both their planar 15/16nm and their 3D NAND use 128Gb dies -- so same amount of dies in either product. It's purely a cost thing. It will probably take until we get into the 100+ layers of 3D NAND for it to be competitive, cost wise, with that 15/16nm planar TLC.
  • Billy Tallis - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    That's what they said at first, but then they introduced a 500GB 750 EVO while the 850 EVOs on the market are still using the 32-layer VNAND.

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