Hard drives have become a real drag on overall PC performance. In fact, drive speeds have increased by a factor of just 1.3x in the last decade or so. According to Intel, at least.
During the same period, Intel says the performance of PC processors has ballooned by approximately 175 times.
But even if these numbers slightly exaggerate the real gap in hard disk and CPU performance increase over recent years, one thing is for sure: a major leap in storage speed is long overdue.
Enter Intel's brand new family of solid state drives (SSDs). Intel reckons these drives are not only massively faster than conventional hard disks with spinning magnetic platters. It also claims they will give competing SSDs based on flash memory a damn good spanking.
The latter point is particularly significant. While the SSD concept clearly packs a lot of promise, existing drives have been somewhat underwhelming. Apart from the painfully high prices and limited storage capacities, they have delivered patchy performance.
But as we discovered at IDF last month, Intel says its SSDs are different. Thanks to the use of its own compute-quality NAND flash memory as well as a custom designed controller and firmware, Intel claims it has built a superior SSD.
Hands on the hardware
Just as Intel promised at IDF, the first sample of Intel's SSD has arrived at TechRadar towers. It's the X25-M, an 80GB drive that conforms to the standard 2.5-inch form factor and hence is fit for use in both desktops and laptops. Apart from anything else, therefore, the rise of the SSD should see desktop and laptop performance converge even more.
The X25-M packs some pretty impressive basic specifications. Sustained read speeds are said to be 250MB/s, with writes hitting the 75MB/s mark. Read latencies of just 85 milliseconds are claimed.
Raw speed aside, SSDs like the X25-M offer a ton of further advantages. They're absolutely silent and use much less power than a conventional disk. With no moving parts, they're far better at soaking up bangs and bumps, too.
So, there's a lot riding on this little drive from Intel. If it can add seriously high performance to the list of SSD accomplishments, it will be a truly revolutionary device.
The X25-M blitzed the majority of our benchmark tests. It clocked up a sustained read speed of 221MB/s, barely any slower than its burst speed of 230MB/s. As per Intel's specification, the write speed of just over 80MB/s is a bit less spectacular, but solid nonetheless.
Random access times are vanishingly small at 0.1ms. To put those numbers into context, we ran the same suite of tests on a 32GB SSD from Crucial, one of the biggest brands in solid state memory of all types.
The Crucial drive's read performance is pretty nippy by conventional standards at 101MB/s sustained. Again, write performance is less impressive at 42MB/s. A random access time of 0.5ms is likewise well behind Intel's new killer.
If you are wondering how all of that compares with typical spinning-platter hard disks, well, there's quite a bit of variation. The fastest consumer drive in town, Western Digital's 10,000rpm VelociRaptor VR150, is capable of sustained read speeds of just over 100MB/s and similar write performance. Random access is around the 7ms mark.
An example of a more mainstream 7,200rpm drive is Hitachi's T7K500 in 500GB trim. It achieves sustained read speeds of 66MB/s and has an 8ms random access time.
As for real world application performance, unpacking a large zip file is a nice example that combines both read and write performance. The X25-M dealt with our 1.37GB self-extracting file in 52 seconds. The Crucial SSD required one minute 24 seconds while the Hitachi drive was well behind at one minute 50 seconds.
Overall, then, Intel's X25-M clearly has the fastest read speeds and lowest access latency of any drive we've seen. It's less exceptional for data writes, but it's not too far behind the very best.
Just as impressive as the raw benchmark performance is the end user experience. The low latencies and fast read speeds really bring a new level of snappiness to every day computing.
The price of performance
So, the X25-M is extremely fast. But are there any downsides? Capacity and price are the two most obvious problems. We're not sure exactly how much the X25-M is going to sell for in the UK. But Intel's bulk US pricing of $595 suggests a minimum likely sticker of £350.
And that's for this 80GB drive. Goodness knows how much the 160GB version will go for. Frankly, neither of those capacities is fit for replacing conventional hard disks for bulk storage.
As disappointing as the pricing seems, it's extremely early days for Intel's SSD business. As it ramps up production, expect to see prices tumbling rapidly. A price cut of 50% within 12 months wouldn't surprise us.
We should also point out that we'll need a little longer to come to a final conclusion about the X25-M's all round performance. Overall hard disk performance is a tricksy issue and it will take time for the X25-M's full range of capabilities to emerge.
In the meantime, all the signs are that Intel has nailed it with its first SSD by every measure except for price. Compared to the competition, it's decent value. But it's not affordable enough to be a game changer. Not yet.
However, what it does do is suddenly make traditional hard drives seem thoroughly quaint and outdated.