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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.

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Specs and Competitors

The SSD 750 wasn’t exactly Intel’s best-kept secret. The drive appeared on a leaked Intel roadmap as early as mid-2014, has shown up on NVMe compatibility lists, and speculation on what the specs of the drive would be has been rampant since Intel released the datacenter-oriented P3x00 series. Pre-production units were spotted at PAX East, and Intel ran a teaser website touting "the next revolution in solid state drives" for weeks before the SSD 750 was official. All of this definitely got people talking, and it’s encouraging that the specs on the drive are, at least at first glance, pretty satisfying.

Intel provided us a 1.2TB SSD 750 in the add-in card form factor. We compared the drive against other high-end PCI Express SSDs that we had on hand, as well as SanDisk's flagship SATA SSD. While the synthetic numbers for the SSD 750 look impressive on their own, the price differential between it and the other PCIe drives is substantial. Street prices on the other drives are starting to come down, which seems inevitable when Intel comes in at this price point.

As of this writing, there are no consumer PCIe 3.0 SSDs available aside from the Intel SSD 750, with the possible exception of the Samsung SM951, which is an OEM product with very limited availability. PCIe 2.0 x8 provides the same effective throughput as PCIe 3.0 x4, but uses a precious 4 more PCIe lanes in the process. The Kingston HyperX Predator and G.Skill Phoenix Blade are both 2015 releases that do not feature NVMe, which came as a surprise to many who expect NVMe to be transformative. We’ll dive more deeply into these drives in another article, and any real determination of their merits will likely depend on what happens to prices in the coming weeks.

The Intel drive in this form factor features a heat spreader covering one side of the card, with the other packed with 128Gbit MLC NAND chips from the Intel-Micron collaboration. While the unit that was provided isn’t in retail packaging, both half- and full-height brackets were included. The SFF-8639 Enterprise SSD Form Factor used by the 2.5" version of the drive has been available since last year, and is only starting to make its way into consumer products. Intel is supplying major systems integrators such as Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm, and Asus with the 2.5" SFF-8639 version of the SSD 750 for their high-end small form factor systems. The card actually requires a +12V rail in addition to +3.3V, so we won’t be seeing an M.2 version of the SSD 750 in the foreseeable future.

Target Users and Gaming Implications

Intel calls the SSD 750 a "client/workstation" drive. The nature of NVMe and Intel’s own testing guidance suggest that this is the sort of drive that will thrive under heavy load from multiple processes. NVMe, in theory, is good at filling and emptying queues quickly and keeping queue depth down in actual usage.

Many readers ask the same two questions about given SSDs, they want to know if their PC will boot faster, and if games will launch faster. Booting from the 750 produced no discernible difference in loading Windows 7 in my tests, and as I’ve noted in previous articles and on the forums here, games today are a very poor differentiator of SSDs.

I spoke with some of the engineers at Intel who worked on the 750, and they eagerly concurred with the point about gaming. The games that are out today don’t make very effective use of parallel I/O or the latency advantages of NVMe. These same engineers couldn’t get into specifics because of non-disclosure agreements, but Intel is working with several game developers to find ways to improve storage performance.

One key benefit apart from improving loading times (also per the product engineers) is that games played at the highest resolutions today often reuse textures to reduce the amount of disk access needed when loading a level. Asynchronous loading approaches enabled by NVMe’s low latency would allow developers to work with a larger array of textures without adversely affecting load times. So, NVMe may not make your games faster right now, but they’ll probably look better in the long run.