Crucial M4 256GB SSD review
Test PC and test procedures
For this review I will be using the following hardware and software.
Motherboard: ASRock Z68 Extreme4
CPU: Intel 2500K
RAM: 2×4GB DDR3 Kingston
Hard Drive: Western Digital Blue 500Gb (OS)
Hard Drive: OCZ Vertex (Storage)
GFX: Onboard Intel HD3000
Sound: Onboard Realtek HD
PSU: Chieftec GPS-500AB A
Display: Fujitsu Siemens 22" LCD
OS: Windows 7 ultimate (all the updates up to August 9, 2011)
To test the performance of the Crucial M4 256GB SSD, I will be using the following test applications in this review.
I will start off our testing procedures explanation by stating that I did not run many basic benchmarks on the Crucial M4 SSD drive. You may ask why I have run so few synthetic benchmarks?
SSD technology has moved so fast in the last couple of years, that basic synthetic benchmarks alone are now of very limited use, as they don’t really tell us much about performance and how the drive will behave in the real world. I have therefore decided to show some basic benchmarks for the Crucial M4 SSD, and will complement this with advanced benchmarks using IOMeter and AS SSD benchmark.
The reality of SSD performance
While I can easily show you which SSD is technically the faster, when you use one of these modern SSDs as an operating system drive it becomes very difficult to tell them apart as far as performance is concerned.
A typical use of a small capacity SSD at the moment is to have your operating system and applications installed onto the SSD. The performance difference compared to a traditional HDD is enormous, however when you start to compare SSD to SSD the difference becomes almost impossible to detect.
Let’s look at why this is the case.
Drive A can boot to the desktop in 8.11 seconds, and drive B can boot to the desktop in 8.12 seconds, the difference in time is milliseconds, and can one really tell the difference?
The fact is, all modern SSDs are only ticking over when they are only running the OS and launching applications, it’s only when you get to some of the larger capacity SSDs, with enough free space to be able to hold the actual data that you’re going to be working with, be that video, audio or pictures, for example, that you actually get a tangible difference in performance. This is where the SSDs with the better sequential performance start to pull well ahead of the SSDs which have lower sequential read/write performance.
Small file random IOPS vs sequential performance
This is a fairly complex subject, but I will do my best to explain things in a manner that is easy to understand.
The term IOPS is the amount of input or output transactions that can take place in a one second interval, so for example, if an SSD is quoted as being able to cope with 20,000 4K random write IOPS, then the SSD should be able to cope with 20,000 input transactions in a period of one second. If the same SSD is said to be able to produce 20,000 4K random read IOPS, then the same SSD should be able to produce 20,000 4K random read output transactions in a one second interval.
Ok, now we have some figures to work with, the next question is how many IOPS are actually required?
This will depend on your usage pattern. If you are a typical desktop user who browses the internet, does some word processing or perhaps some audio or video editing, and perhaps plays a few games, then in actual fact, you don’t need to have massive 4K random read/write performance. The actual amount of 4K random performance that is required for a fast and smooth running system for a desktop user with a usage pattern similar to the above will be well under 1,000 4K IOPS.
On the other hand, if the SSD is being used for running a large and complex database server, then 4K random performance is the absolute measurement of how fast that server will run, as this type of application does most of its input and output transactions in the 4K domain.
So why would I need an SSD with 60,000 4K IOPS for a desktop?
In fact you don’t need this type of performance for a desktop, but an SSD which is capable of coping with 60,000 4K IOPS will be faster than an SSD which can only cope with 20,000 4K IOPS.
OK, I just said if under 1,000 4K IOPS are actually required for typical desktop usage, why is an SSD with 60,000 4K IOPS faster than an SSD with only 20,000 4K IOPS, confused?
You may ask, if I only require 1,000 4K IOPS surely the rest is wasted?
While you may never need 60,000 4K IOPS, IOPS is all about latency. The reason that an SSD can cope with as much as 60,000 4K IOPS is because latency in this domain is very low. With 4K files, even if you require to process 500 of them at the same time, you are not talking about a huge amount of data, it has far more to do with how long it takes the SSD to process a single file, and the amount of time required to process a single 4K is all about how long it takes for the SSD to access or store that data before it can move on to the next transaction.
In other words an SSD with 60,000 4K IOPS performance will handle those 500 files faster than the SSD with 20,000 IOPS.
So how will a desktop user even notice this faster speed if so little 4K random IOPS and data are actually used?
Multitasking is a good example. The more tasks you run at the same time, you more you will notice the speed difference.
I have always maintained that sequential performance was every bit as important as small random file performance for a desktop SSD. Some highly regarded people on other sites found this statement quite funny a couple of years ago when I made it, but my, how times have changed in the world of SSD reviewing.
To me this was always so obvious for a desktop user. For example, let’s say you want to launch an application or game. Both have some fairly large files to load, and also a great many small files, but the point is, even the smaller files are sequential in nature. Now let’s say you’re into audio or video editing. Video files tend to be huge, and the files are written or read sequentially. Isn’t this how many users are using their PCs these days?
So how does this shape up in the real world? Which is better, massive 4K IOPS or massive sequential performance?
In an ideal world you want both, as an SSD with massive random 4K IOPS and sequential performance will always be faster than an SSD that has high sequential performance and moderate 4K random IOPS performance, and the same applies to an SSD that has massive 4K random performance and moderate sequential performance. The SSD which has high performance in both patterns will always be the faster SSD.
However, you can still have an SSD that is very fast for desktop use that has moderate random 4K performance and massive sequential performance, the same can be said about a drive having massive random 4K performance and moderate sequential performance, as it is about getting the balance right if you have to compromise on one or the other.
A big thanks to Dee for allowing me to use some of her text to explain the some of the test procedures.
HD Tune Pro
I present the graph below for comparison with other recently tested drives.
ATTO Disk benchmark
ATTO is the default program for measuring the performance of every Solid State Drive. Moving now to the test results we can see that the Crucial M4 is performing even better than the manufacturer states, the Crucial M4 was able to reach read speeds close to 460MB/S and write speeds up to 270MB/S on a SATA3 port, the result is excellent.
Crystal Disk Mark will give us an idea of how the drive will perform with uncompressed data.
Again we have an impressive result for the Crucial M4 on SATA3.
AS SSD Benchmark
AS SSD benchmark is a tool that was designed to test Solid State Drives by emulating how a PC works and at the end gives an overall score.
Impressive results. The Crucial M4 is very close to the top of our chart, and the only drive that dares to get close to the OCZ Vertex 3.
AS SSD compression benchmark
This test creates test patterns on the target drive which are random and vary in the level of compression used in the test data. This ranges from 0% compressible to 100% compressible.
As we can see the Crucial M4 is able to reach very high speeds with uncompressed data.
So far we can see that this drive is amongst the fastest SSD’s we have tested and it’s capable of reaching read/write speeds of up to 470/260 MB/S. The overall performance is close to excellent.