Samsung PB22-J 256GB - £492
+ Big for an SSD
+ Excellent application performance
- Worrisome 4K random write rates
- Silly money for a hard disk
This is it, folks, the big boys of our SSD round up. Physically, of course, they're no larger than the other drives on test. In fact, thanks to its 1.8-inch form factor, Intel's X18-M is literally the smallest here.
But this final pair are collectively among the quickest and most capacious solid state drives currently available.
And they've prices to match. At £508 and £492 for Intel's and Samsung's finest respectively, you have to be hell bent on dragging your PC into the solid state era to go for either. Well, that or an investment banker pumped up with tax-payers' pounds.
Assuming you can afford the potty price of participation, just what do you receive in return for your no doubt ill-gotten gains?
Not a lot of storage capacity, that's for sure. These drives may be big by SSD standards, but they're absolutely, positively pitiful compared to the 7.5TB or thereabouts you can snag for £500 in terms of traditional spinning hard disks.
Still, what you do get is truly state-of-the-art SSD technology. After an underwhelming start with its first SSDs, Samsung is having another crack at it with a second generation drive, the PB22-J – reviewed here in range topping 256GB trim.
OK, it's based on MLC flash memory rather than the really pricey SLC stuff. But in every other regard this is undoubtedly a premium drive.
For starters, it has a huge 128MB DDR cache pool, all the better for smoothing out data transfers. Then there's the new controller chip. It's a powerful ARM-based programmable CPU and boasts eight memory address channels, double the number of Samsung's previous controller.
Needless to say, Samsung says this chip, along with the work it has done on improving the memory management algorithms in its latest firmware, results in improved performance and a reduction of the dreaded SSD stutter.
Samsung has introduced a 'self healing' feature that is claimed to clean memory blocks of residual data when the drive is idle.
All told, it's enough for extremely impressive claimed data throughput figures. Peak read performance is rated at 220MB/s and writes are barely any slower at 200MB/s.
The latter is the real killer statistic, given that write performance is arguably the biggest challenge facing SSDs today. Whether Samsung has done its homework correctly regarding the anti-stutter measures, however, we shall consider in a moment.
Intel X18-M 160GB - £508
+ Solid all round performance
+ Well optimised memory controller
- No longer the fastest SSD on Earth
- Poor price-per-GB ratio
As for Intel's X18-M, it's arguably even poorer value than the Samsung drive thanks to its mere 160GB capacity.
It hardly looks over endowed in the cache department either, with just 16MB. What's more, although it compares favourably with 250MB/s maximum read performance, its peak write performance of 70MB/s looks well off the pace.
But as we're increasingly realising, maximum performance figures don't always tell the whole story.
Crucially, Intel has put a lot of work into optimising for real world performance, rather than merely ensuring the X18-M looks nifty on paper. Central to that effort is an in-house controller chip design that boasts no less than 10 memory channels as well as what Intel reckons are the best wear-levelling algorithms in town and industry leading 4K random IOP rates.
If the latter sounds like digital double talk, 4K random IOPs are essentially the stuff of common disk operations, the sort of ongoing disk churn you get with normal PC usage.
Arguably, it's a better measure of real world performance than the maximum sequential read and write figures that grab so many headlines.
Finally, it's worth remembering that Intel recently released a firmware update that did much to alleviate the performance degradation issues suffered by the X18-M and X25-M drives.
Intel's SSDs may not be the newest, but they're nevertheless bang up to date. But what you really want to know is which of these solid-state data depots performs best in practice.
As with the other SSDs on test this month, we first filled both drives with data to ensure every memory block was used before formatting and installing a fresh copy of Windows. In line with the official figures, Intel takes first blood courtesy of sequential data read performance performance of 258MB/s.
Meanwhile, Samsung snags the write honours with 148MB/s, a decent figure if rather lower than the official claim of 200MB/s.
Moving to the 4K random write test, Intel's 10 channel controller and apparently superior algorithms translate into a crushing victory: 36MB/s plays 5MB/s. That's a huge margin and suggests two things:
Firstly, it looks like Samsung still has some work to do with its new SSD controller. If this is what a lightly used Samsung review drive is like, you have to worry whether its performance will hang together in the long run.
Secondly, you'd think the Intel drive should be the better bet both for the long term and for the sort of daily disk grind that's commonplace.
Somehow, however, those assumptions aren't uniformly reflected in the real world performance of these drives.
Whether it's application installation, file decompression or game level loading, the result is either too close to call or decisively in the Samsung PB22-J's favour.
That said, the 256GB Samsung seems to betray a few fleeting signs of stutters during normal usage.
However, it's a subjective impression that's difficult to capture in testing. By this stage, you may be feeling pointedly perplexed. But do not despair, you're in good company.
It's difficult to know what conclusions to draw when the test data is spitting out such mixed messages. The only cast iron advice we can give you is that SSDs remain a nascent technology prone to patchy performance.
It's simply not possible to make a purchase with complete confidence that you've chosen the best drive at any given price point, even at this rarefied end of the market.