Intel SSD 750 Review: NVMe for the Desktop

Intel is set to be the catalyst for a long-awaited leap forward in storage technology with the new SSD 750 bringing NVMe storage to client PCs for the first time, and turning the high end SSD space upside-down. We are expecting blinding IOPs and we dig in to find out what it can mean to the hardware enthusiast.

Introduction

During the early days of the Tesla Model S, Elon Musk’s then-latest gift to humanity famously broke the NHTSA’s roof crush testing machine. A leap forward in a given technology can outpace the conventional measures of that technology’s success, and so those measures must evolve as well. Musk quipped that the 5-star crash test rating scale should have a 6th star added. As I struggled to find a good way to measure the Intel 750, and then other early reviews mentioned similar difficulties, it occurred to me that the Intel SSD 750 is our Model S. It’s expensive, fast, exotic, and breaks the existing yardsticks.

It’s impossible to introduce the Intel SSD 750 Series without talking about Intel’s P-series of enterprise SSDs. The DC P3500, P3600, and top-end P3700 made a major splash last summer when those became the first widely-available SSDs to use the NVMe standard. Intel priced these drives relatively aggressively for their class ($579 for the base 400GB P3500), and the performance boost inherent in NVMe coupled with the beastly 18 channel controller with which Intel endowed these made enthusiasts justifiably eager to see that same technology trickle down to the consumer. With the SSD 750, Intel has created an unapologetic consumer adaptation of the P-series, and launched the first consumer NVMe SSD.

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We’ve introduced the concepts behind NVMe Previously. To recap, it promises lower latencies, lower CPU utilization, and vastly improved parallel I/O by ditching SATA and the AHCI communication standard. The P-series workstation drives were a tantalizing preview of what Intel has given us now. To paraphrase Joe Biden, "This is a big ‘effing’ deal."

Intel will offer the SSD 750 primarily as a PCIe card, and will also produce a 2.5" variant using the recently-released SFF-8639 standard for connectivity which is PCIe over another new cable. No, it’s not SATA Express. Users opting for the 2.5" drive will need a motherboard with the presently-uncommon SFF-8643 connector (Specification PDF), and also probably regret that nobody thought to consult the marketing department to come up with less confusing names for these standards. Considering the level of technology in the SSD 750, Intel’s making a serious value proposition by pricing the 400GB variant at $389, and the 1.2TB model at $1029. An 800GB model may be added later. While this is considerably more costly than any consumer SATA SSD, manufacturers of other non-NVMe premium SSDs should be concerned. The impact shows- the 480gb Kingston HyperX Predator, another premium PCIe (but not NVMe) SSD that launched widely just over a month ago, is currently selling for $503 at Amazon vs. a $764 MSRP (including Half-Height/Half-Length Adapter).

Intel is using the same 18 channel controller from the P-series SSDs, but the SSD 750 runs different firmware more suitable to an enthusiast workload. If that makes you wonder if Intel has crippled the SSD 750 to avoid cannibalizing sales of its higher-margin enterprise SSDs, let me nip your concerns in the bud, nope, not even close. Intel is a company that’s going for the throat of the high-end SSD market. Intel claims category-redefining figures of 2,400MB/s sequential read and 440K IOPS in a 4K read test, which are close enough to the much more expensive P-series. Sustained write performance is rated at 1,200MB/s, which is meaningfully lower than the P3500’s 1,700MB/s, but generally less meaningful in a client workload. For smaller random writes, the SSD 750 is billed as a winner, with 290K IOPS in 4K random write tests crushing even the P3700’s 180K.

In certain savvy groups of enthusiasts and power users, NVMe has been the reason not to buy a new SSD for the last year or so. These users have been deferring their upgrades while waiting for the future that NVMe has promised through its years of development; a future in which our SSDs speak a language that makes sense for their architecture and the realities of our workloads.

There’s a cost to being on the bleeding edge. NVMe support will be needed by your motherboard, and it’s a roll of the dice beyond the universal support that Intel has promised for Z97 and X99 boards. While older boards can support NVMe through manufacturer-provided UEFI updates, it’s fairly sparse currently. My main PC, which is otherwise quite powerful with an 8-core Xeon E5 and Asus Z9PA-U8 workstation motherboard, doesn’t support NVMe. Anyone with Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge Extreme Edition CPUs in their rigs have reason to be concerned. It’s going to take a while for compatibility to be sorted out, and it seems like nobody is making promises to owners of last year’s hot hardware.

If you have a motherboard that supports NVMe, you can boot to the drive without dealing with an OPROM or anything of the sort. Microsoft released an update for Windows 7 to support NVMe drives, and Windows 8 has support baked in. Manufacturers may provide their own NVMe drivers, as Intel does, for additional optimizations.