Solid state drives have had their share of ups and downs in the past few years. Although SSDs are definitely faster than their mechanical counterparts, they've yet to live up to the performance their specifications suggest. What's more, they can be at least eight to 10 times as expensive as their mechanical equivalents, putting them out of range for the lower end consumer market.
Periodically, though, new SSDs are released that incrementally raise the performance bar while lowering the price barrier. The latest in the series of evolved drives is the Crucial M4 (also called the Micron C400 - Micron Technology is Crucial Technology's parent company).
Micron builds its own chips for the Crucial M4 using a 25mm die. This is important for two reasons. First, the shorter the internal pathways are inside a chip, the faster data moves without actually changing the speed at which the chip operates (if you can walk 4 miles per hour, it will only take you a half hour to walk two miles).
The second is a simple matter of probabilities: In every fabrication process, a certain number of the chips on a wafer are bad. The more chips a manufacturer can build on a wafer, the higher the yield of good chips it can produce at the same cost. This means it can lower the price per chip because of the better yield, offering the buyer both speed and price improvements over its predecessor.
The Crucial M4 boasts sequential read speeds up to 415Mbps and write speeds as high as 260Mbps. That's a significant improvement over Crucial's last generation RealSSD C300, which had sequential read and write ratings of 355Mbps and 215Mbps, respectively,
Regarding price, the Crucial M4 comes in three versions: 64GB (around £89), 128GB (around £169) and 256GB (£349). Those are the retail prices, I reviewed the 256GB model.
This may seem expensive when you can buy a 3TB mechanical hard drive for half the price. However, if you compare it to other 256GB SSDs, you'll find that the Crucial M4's suggested retail price is competitive with Kingston's SSDNow V100 and Corsair's Performance 3 Series.
I first tested the Crucial M4 with the HD Tach benchmark and wasn't impressed by its performance profile. Neither the sequential read speeds nor the burst speeds gave it more than a nominal advantage over the most recent generation of SSDs.
It's important to mention, that HD Tach is an old, tried and true test. However, because it's old, it might not be the best performance indicator for an SSD.
I then tested the Crucial M4 using FutureMark's PCMark Vantage benchmark, which measures performance in 64-bit systems. In this venue, the M4 racked up a 28,668 result, which is nearly 50% higher than SSDs I've tested in the past.
The final series of tests were from ATTO Technology's Disk Benchmark, which measures a storage system's performance with various data packet transfer sizes and run lengths for reads and writes.
Typically, hard drives of any ilk will show a significant preference for reads over writes. This dates back to data handling for transactional databases, where it's more important to retrieve information and have it on the screen while talking to a customer than it is to write data back to the drive. Today, especially for mainstream drives, writes have increased in importance for video and graphic rendering and for music, video and image uploads.
According to the ATTO results, the M4 is more balanced in its read/write performance than the last generation of SSDs. There's still a read preference, but Crucial has done a better job of equalizing the performance between its read and write operations than I've seen in the past.
Finding its place
If you're looking to upgrade your drive or drive array, it's important to know that you're getting a better bang for the buck. I compared the Crucial M4's test results against those from last year's 256GB Western Digital SiliconEdge Blue (representing the previous generation of SSDs) and found that the M4 is significantly faster.
As for its place among the current generation of SSDs, that's a bit more difficult to determine. SSDs within the same generation and price bracket as the M4 would probably only show incremental differences at best. It would be an important comparison if you needed absolute maximum performance, but generally, testing for this would be an intellectual exercise outside of that parameter.
The Crucial M4 has significantly increased the performance gap between it and the previous generation of SSDs. And by pushing write performance for video capture and editing, graphical imaging, etc., the M4 provides an economical option for disk intensive environments.