Every few years, Intel releases a new SSD controller that raises the bar for the whole industry. In between those shake-ups, the competition catches up and surpasses Intel. This pattern is especially pronounced in the consumer SSD market where Intel's mostly enterprise-focused chips cannot keep pace with the constant price cuts. During those interim years Intel turns to third-party controllers to fill the gaps in the product line that their own controllers cannot serve.

This year, Intel's decision to release an affordable mainstream SATA SSD has led them to use a Silicon Motion controller. But "affordable" by today's standards means using 15/16nm TLC NAND flash, and Intel doesn't make that either. They chose not to invest in the 16nm node at IMFT (their flash manufacturing partnership with Micron) so Intel has to buy their flash on the open market.

The result is the Intel 540s, using Silicon Motion's new SM2258 controller and SK Hynix 16nm TLC NAND. The SM2258 controller is the successor to the SM2256, Silicon Motion's first controller designed for use with TLC flash. SM2258 builds on that design by moving from 55nm fabrication to 40nm and incorporating several hardware tweaks including more flexible SLC caching and support for 3D NAND.

The Hynix TLC used in the Intel 540s is the same NAND that is inside the ADATA Premier SP550, one of two products we've tested that use the SM2256 controller. This gives us the opportunity to directly observe what's improved with Silicon Motion's controller and firmware since last year. The price history of the ADATA SP550 also shows that Intel should be able to make the 540s a very affordable product. It also appears that Intel has retired the use of 3xx model numbers to designate entry-level SSDs and all such models are now classified as legacy products.

Intel SSD 540s Specifications
Capacity 120GB 180GB 240GB 360GB 480GB 1000GB
Controller Silicon Motion SM2258
NAND Flash SK Hynix 16nm TLC
Sequential Read 560MB/s
Sequential Write 400MB/s 475MB/s 480MB/s
Random Read IOPS 60k 71k 74k 78k
Random Write IOPS 50k 85k
TCG Opal Encryption No
Power Management Slumber and DevSleep
Form Factor 2.5" 7mm and M.2 2280
Warranty 5 years
Recommended Customer Price $64 $79 $99 $139 $174 $344

The 540s has Intel's typical aluminum casing housing a full-size PCB. Our 480GB sample had 16 packages each with two dies of the SK Hynix TLC. The new SM2258 controller uses the same 14mm x 14mm package as the SM2256, with a single external DRAM package next to it. As is typical for low-cost consumer drives, there are no power loss protection capacitors. There is a thermal pad between the controller and the case, something we saw for the SM2256 on the Crucial BX200 but not the ADATA SP550.

The PCB also bears the "Loyd Star" codename which the 540s shares with Intel's SSD E 5400s for the embedded market and the SSD DC S3100 for the enterprise market. The E 5400s covers only small capacities, ranging from 48GB to 180GB while the 540s is available in capacities from 120GB to 1000GB and the DC S3100 covers 180GB to 1000GB. All three product lines include some in-between sizes that are uncommon to find on modern drives. The 540s and E5400s are both available as 2.5" or M.2 drives while the DC S3100 is only available as a 2.5" drive.

For this review, the Intel 540s will primarily be compared against the two SM2256 products we've tested: the ADATA Premier SP550 and the Crucial BX200. The latter shipped with poorly-tuned firmware that made it a disappointment all around, but the former has been a relatively successful budget drive by offering acceptable performance at some of the best prices on the market. The Intel 540s is positioned slightly higher in the market due to carrying a 5-year warranty compared to three years for most budget TLC drives, but in terms of performance that's what it is competing against.

Other important drives to compare against will include the Toshiba OCZ Trion 150, a higher-performing drive using a controller based on the Phison S10 paired with Toshiba 15nm TLC, and the SanDisk X400 using Marvell's 88SS1074 controller and SanDisk's 15nm TLC. The SanDisk X400 seems to be the fastest planar TLC drive on the market, and it is available in both 2.5" and single-sided M.2 form factors. The SanDisk X400 also has a 5-year warranty.

AnandTech 2015 SSD Test System
CPU Intel Core i7-4770K running at 3.5GHz
(Turbo & EIST enabled, C-states disabled)
Motherboard ASUS Z97 Pro (BIOS 2701)
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 2x8GB (9-10-9-27 2T)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4600
Desktop Resolution 1920 x 1200
OS Windows 8.1 x64
Performance Consistency
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  • redzo - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    About the same price as a 850 EVO. The 540s is not worthy of your $$. Reply
  • Anato - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Why this is 540, not 340 or even 140? Reply
  • BurntMyBacon - Friday, June 24, 2016 - link

    Apparently, their 300 series has fallen off of their roadmap. Someone please link me to a roadmap that counters this statement. Reply
  • pwil - Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - link

    Because 140 would have 1y warranty, and 340 - 3y warranty. Reply
  • nismotigerwvu - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    The idea of Intel, owner of the most advanced foundries on the planet, buying chips from the open market is oddly humorous to me. I understand why, and honestly it makes logical sense, but it's still an interesting quirk in an industry where quirkiness has mostly vanished. Reply
  • bloodinmyveins - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Why is it so hard to dethrone Samsung 850 EVO and PRO? :( Reply
  • redzo - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    They've just designed a product and are 100% sure that they are going to sell it overpriced based on brand name only. It's business. Reply
  • Vlad_Da_Great - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    That was a bummer. I bought that with the notion that inside was Intel parts. I guess, they are trying to bang on their name now. 540s has been great so far, but I could have saved about $20 for the 120GB, I bought. AnandTech you are late! Reply
  • cm2187 - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    With Samsung about to introduce 4TB SSDs, a 1TB max size seems to be behind... Reply
  • Ej24 - Thursday, June 23, 2016 - link

    Wow. Not only would I not purchase one of these, but I'm now convinced I need to buy several mx200's as it seems crucial isn't going to release another MLC drive. TLC simply doesn't impress me. The bx200 I put in my mother-in-law's pc was a disaster (granted its a worst case scenario). It's enough to demonstrate the shortcomings of tlc though. They're only able to make up for it with black magic and sophisticated controllers. No thank you. Reply

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