The mSATA (mini-SATA) standard represents a new category of SATA storage devices first developed by Samsung and then adopted as an industry standard format that is about 3cm x 5cm (about 1.2-inch x 2-inch) in size. The format is especially suitable for Ultrabooks and other thin-and-light notebooks. mSATA-compatible mini-PCIe slots have also been provided in some larger notebooks which offer the option of using an SSD as a boot drive for speed alongside a conventional hard drive for capacity.
The m4 mSATA SSD on top of a 9.5mm thick 2.5" HDD
Until recently mSATA SSD capacities stopped at 128GB. However, several brands of 256GB mSATA SSDs have recently appeared with pricing which is not placing a large premium for small size (unlike small notebooks). Consequently, adding or upgrading an mSATA SSD is now an affordable option. I had been holding off on buying a Samsung NP900X4C ultrabook because of its limited storage capacity (available in the UK), but when I spotted that the Crucial m4 256GB SSD was available, and at a price much lower than I had expected, I immediately placed orders for the SSD and the Samsung ultrabook.
Crucial is the retail part of Micron, one of the major global memory manufacturers and the Crucial m4 mSATA SSD is the retail version of Micron's C400 mSATA SSD. Crucial / Micron have already established a good reputation for its m4 / C400 series of 2.5" SATA SSDs as providing good performance with aggressive pricing. Does the mSATA m4 live up to sharing the name?
Top side of the m4 mSATA SSD
Data according to CrystalDiskInfo
The mSATA m4 has much in common with the 2.5-inch version. I'm surmising that it shares the same firmware since firmware 000F on the mSATA SSD is also the latest firmware for the larger sibling. As such, the problems that have occurred with the m4 during the past year should be flushed out. The Marvell SSD controller is one of the few controller designs that are used by most SSD manufacturers (Sandforce is the other leading third party controller while Samsung and Intel, until recently, use their own).
The Marvell controller is hidden under the label
In total, this SSD contains six noteworthy chips: The controller, buffer memory and two NAND memory packages are on the top side with two more memory packages on the bottom. A capacity of 256GB in a component not much bigger than a RAM module!
Bottom side of the m4 mSATA SSD
The only way I could test the SSD's full performance capabilities was to place it inside the Samsung NP900X4C ultrabook (which uses Intel's latest Ivy Bridge platform). After cloning the existing SSD with the help of a mSATA to 2.5-inch SATA adapter in a 2.5-inch HDD USB 3.0 enclosure, it was time to get out the screwdriver.
The SSD next to the fan in the Samsung NP900X4C
Now let's take a closer look at the performance ...
All these test results are for the m4 mSATA SSD installed as the boot drive in my Samsung NP900X4C. This uses the new Ivy Bridge platform. As such, the measured performance may be slightly reduced by other processes accessing the SSD during the tests. I have included for comparison the corresponding results for the 128GB Sandisk U100 SSD as supplied in the Samsung notebook.
CrystalDiskMark is a popular program for benchmarking SSDs. The results are relatively easy to interpret because there are only four basic tests: Sequential reading and writing; 512k blocks; 4k blocks and 4k blocks with a queue depth of 32. It is the latter two tests where some SSDs (such as the Sandisk U100 supplied in my Samsung notebook) fall down (for example a QD32 write speed of only 7MB/s). The U100 also has poor write performance for 512k.
CrystalDiskMark Results: Sandisk U100 (left) and Crucial m4 (right)
ATTO is another popular SSD benchmark which tests the read and write speeds for a range of data block sizes. The graphical display clearly shows how the speed drops off with the smaller block sizes. This is normal for all SSDs but the extent of the drop off varies.
ATTO Results: Sandisk U100 (left) and Crucial m4 (right) (note the horizontal scale is different)
A further popular SSD benchmark program is AS-SSD. This also uses four measures of performance and also assigns a score. The Crucial m4 is well ahead of the Sandisk U100 according to this benchmark.
AS-SSD Results: Sandisk U100 (left) and Crucial m4 (right)
AS-SSD has an extra trick up its sleeve on the form of a file copying benchmark in which it creates some typical files and then copies them from one part of the SSD to another. The m4 performs at least twice as fast as the U100 in this benchmark.
AS-SSD Copy Benchmark Results: Sandisk U100 (left) and Crucial m4 (right)
In order to get a better understanding of SSD performance in a real life situation it is appropriate to look at a more comprehensive benchmarking package which measures the storage performance over a range of different activities chosen to be representative of likely usage. PCMark Vantage is one such benchmark and shows that the m4 has a much better score (38785) in the HDD test than the U100 (13665). The results for the HDD part of the benchmark are shown below. In the individual tests the m4 scored up to six times faster than the U100.
PCMark Vantage HDD Benchmark Results: Sandisk U100 (left) and Crucial m4 (right)
While my primary objective of installing a higher capacity SSD was to increase the storage capacity in the computer, a secondary benefit has been to give a significant boost to the overall performance because, in this case, Samsung had opted to supply a class-trailing SSD in my NP900X4C ultrabook.
The mSATA SSD next to a notebook memory module (top)
The Crucial m4 mSATA SSD provides excellent value for money. The performance may not be class-leading but it's not far behind and pricing is set at an affordable level. I had expected higher pricing than for the equivalent 2.5" SSD, but Crucial have acknowledged that less material should mean less cost so the pricing is very competitive. Micron's announcement of its mSATA SSD range included a 512GB part. A capacity of 256GB means that I need to keep external storage close by so I can't wait for the higher capacity SSD to arrive. How can they pack so much data into so little space?