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Crucial SSD provides a glimpse into the future of computing for the mobile photographer  
Wednesday, April 9, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have a lot to offer the mobile photographer: they're fast, quiet, use less power, generate less heat and are far less susceptible to failure when bumped or dropped than the hard drives they're meant to replace. As the first generation of SSDs emerge, we take a brief look at one of them - a Crucial 32GB model from Lexar - to see how its performance stacks up against the hard drives in the computers we use everyday.

crucial_ssd_01.jpg
Solid State: The Crucial 32 GB SSD on the right, a 2.5 inch hard drive on the left (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

SSDs are similar in design to flash-memory based CompactFlash cards. They both contain NAND-type memory modules, and both have the option of using faster single level cell (SLC) or slower but less costly multi level cell (MLC) memory. The Crucial 32GB SSD, like most of the first generation SSDs entering the market these days, uses SLC memory. SLC dominates, says Lexar's Terry Groth, not only because of its greater speed potential, but because it's capable of many more read-write cycles than MLC, which translates into a "tens of years" lifespan for an SSD that utilizes SLC. MLC may play a bigger role in the world of SSD in the future, says Groth, but for now, Crucial SSDs are SLC exclusively.

The bulk of SSDs announced or shipping are meant to take the place of the 2.5 inch, 9.5mm high hard drives that populate laptops and portable drive enclosures today. Both the Crucial 32GB SSD we tested, and the 64GB model in the same product line, are sized this way, and feature an industry-standard SATA 3Gb/second interface.

New Perspective: Views of the Crucial 32GB SSD. Click either photo to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The potential benefits of SSDs are numerous: speedy read/write performance, silent operation, wide operating temperature range, low power consumption and light weight. And if you spend more time on Mount Everest than at the office, you'll want to note that SSDs - Crucial's and others - are rated to operate normally at altitudes of up to 80,000 feet (24,384 metres), which is well above the 10,000 feet (3048 metres) operating spec of typical hard drives (specially-encased and ruggedized drives are currently a must to achieve anything close to the altitude specification at which SSDs will still function properly).

For many photographers, though, the most compelling reason to consider an SSD is durability: because they contain no moving parts, SSDs are inherently more reliable and less prone to data loss when jolted or slammed against an immovable object. At the Lexar booth (Lexar and Crucial are both sub-brands of memory manufacturer Micron) at CES 2008 earlier this year, Groth showed off the inherent toughness of Crucial SSDs by placing one - which was serving as the main drive for a nearby laptop at the time - inside a paint shaker and turning it on.

In our own lower-budget staging of this test, we put the Crucial 32GB SSD into a portable FireWire enclosure, connected it to a Mac Pro desktop, started the transfer of about 2GB worth of Nikon D3 JPEGs, then shook the SSD madly. The transfer completed successfully and every photo landed uncorrupted.

That's the good news. The bad news - at least for us - is that the gyrating of the tester (me) caused the hard drive we'd taken out of the enclosure to shimmy to the edge of the desk and fall off. It hit the Mac Pro, followed by the metal base of an office chair, before finally coming to rest on carpet. The drive - a 250GB Western Digital Scorpio - seemed to be okay at first, but it now locks up hard when Apple's Disk Utility is set to zero out all the data during formatting, and that wasn't the case a few days prior to the Big Drop. (Update, April 10, 2008: Western Digital is sending a replacement drive at no charge - thanks Western Digital!)

If Micron and other memory product makers had their way, we'd all be pulling out the hard drives in our systems and replacing them with SSDs right now, and the benefits of the technology would seem to make that a good idea. That isn't happening yet, however. And that's because SSDs, for all their inherent wonderfulness, offer much lower capacities at a much higher cost than 2.5 inch hard drives. The biggest shipping SSD in a 2.5 inch form factor we could find is 128GB, with 160GB expected soon. Hard drives in this size are at 500GB already. And you'll pay more for each GB of SSD storage too - a lot more. For example, the Crucial 32GB SSD has a street price of about US$730 at one U.S. retailer, while the Crucial 64GB SSD is about US$1500 when purchased direct. By comparison, a top-performing 2.5 inch drive, such as the 200GB Hitachi Travelstar 7K200, is about US$180.

(For more on the coming competition between SSD and hard drive, see the recent Fortune article Flash vs. hard drive battle heats up.)

Industry projections, says Groth, are that SSDs will be closing in on or reach 2.5 inch hard drive price/capacity parity in late 2009 or early 2010. Also, he says, newer generations of controllers and NAND flash that will appear between now and then are expected to push the limits of SATA's current 3Gb/second specification. In other words, SSDs are poised to get extremely fast.

That said, in our use of a 32GB Crucial SSD over the last few days, the technology already does deliver really impressive performance (it's actually speedier than its 60MB/second write speed and 100MB/second read speed specifications) and offers a level of ruggedness that's pretty compelling. Especially if you edit pictures in environments that are tough on hard drives.

The table below contains benchmarks comparing the Crucial 32GB SSD to both 3.5 inch and 2.5 inch hard drives, in various external enclosures mostly. Also included is the Transcend 133X 32GB CompactFlash card. The configurations tested are a bit of a hodgepodge. That's because the Crucial SSD arrived in the middle of some testing here to figure out how we're going to efficiently manage dozens of GBs of files coming from multiple shooters into one MacBook Pro laptop at an event next month, and so we've included here some of the test data generated more for that purpose than for this article.

Accessorize: Views of the Crucial SK01 External 2.5" Drive Storage Kit. Click either photo to enlarge (Photos courtesy Crucial)

What you'll see is that the Crucial 32GB SSD writes fast and reads even faster, that it doesn't slow down much at all when it's full and that to take advantage of its speed you'll need to deploy the SSD in a configuration that's up for the job. That should include most any internal SATA setup, in a notebook or even a desktop with the help of the slick Crucial SK01 External 2.5" Drive Storage Kit. Plus, external enclosures that connect to the computer via an eSATA port should also realize much of the Crucial 32GB SSD's speediness. FireWire 800 is slower but still offers decent throughput.

The benchmarks were generated with QuickBench 4 for Mac, an indispensable benchmarking utility because it produces numbers that equate closely to real world performance when moving about JPEG and RAW files from current digital SLRs. QuickBench was set to Large Test (2-10MB), Allow Cache Effects was disabled and 3 test cycles were run. All devices were formatted HFS+ with journaling enabled.

If you like the looks of the Crucial 32GB SSD's performance, but are considering the 64GB version, note that the specifications for each suggest that the 64GB is slower overall. Also note that the intention was to include results from both Windows and Mac in this article, but because our Windows test machine was giving abnormally slow write speed results with the Crucial 32GB SSD, we chose to suspend further Windows benchmarking until the problem is sorted out.

Test Read Speed Write Speed
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: n/a
Connected to: internal SATA 3Gb/s port
119.786MB/sec 69.145MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (device 80% full)
Enclosure: n/a
Connected to: internal SATA 3Gb/s port
118.715MB/sec 68.438MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 250GB (device 27% full)
Enclosure: n/a
Connected to: internal SATA 3Gb/s port
74.108MB/sec 74.432MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 250GB x 2, RAID 0 (array 55% full)
Enclosure: n/a
Connected to: internal SATA 3Gb/s ports
128.033MB/sec 124.683MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go eSATA/USB 2.0 (eSATA port used)
Connected to: FirmTek SeriTek/2SM2-E3 ExpressCard
94.692MB/sec 62.197MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Hitachi Travelstar 7K200 200GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go eSATA/USB 2.0 (eSATA port used)
Connected to: FirmTek SeriTek/2SM2-E3 ExpressCard
65.565MB/sec 55.438MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Hitachi Travelstar 7K200 200GB x 2, RAID 0 (no files on array)
Enclosures: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go eSATA/USB 2.0 (eSATA ports used)
Connected to: FirmTek SeriTek/2SM2-E3 ExpressCard
123.383MB/sec 115.258MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go FireWire 800/USB 2.0 (FireWire 800 port used)
Connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
69.368MB/sec 43.732MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Hitachi Travelstar 7K200 200GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go FireWire 800/USB 2.0 (FireWire 800 port used)
Connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
66.152MB/sec 56.121MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Hitachi Travelstar 7K200 200GB x 2, RAID 0 (no files on array)
Enclosures: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go FireWire 800/USB 2.0 (FireWire 800 ports used)
Connected to: daisy chained to built-in FireWire 800 port
83.018MB/sec 78.727MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: Crucial SATA/USB 2.0, part of SK01 kit (USB 2.0 port used)
Connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
35.594MB/sec 25.565MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Crucial SSD 32GB (no files on device)
Enclosure: OWC Mercury-On-The-Go FireWire 800/USB 2.0 (USB 2.0 port used)
Connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
32.844MB/sec 22.077MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.5.2)
Device: Transcend 133X CompactFlash 32GB (no files on card)
Reader: SanDisk Extreme FireWire
Connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
43.341MB/sec 19.904MB/sec

The Crucial 32GB SSD and 64GB SSD are shipping worldwide now, for (as noted earlier) about US$730 and US$1500, respectively. The Crucial SK01 External 2.5" Drive Storage Kit, which includes a 2.5 inch USB 2.0 external enclosure (with SATA coupling for the included 3.5 inch drive bay), 5.25 inch drive bay bracket and drive cables, has a manufacturer's suggested list price of US$49.99.

Revision History
April 10, 2008: Added information about using hard drives and SSDs at high altitudes.
April 10, 2008: Added note about Western Digital replacing our damaged drive.

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