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Review: Crucial M4 128GB SSD in MacBook Pro

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One of the chief risks of working with a tech-oriented deal site is compulsively acquiring lots of superfluous gadgets thanks to overexposure. So far I've been fairly successful in curbing my drive for the shiny and cutting-edge where it's not going to clearly improve my life - even to the opposite extreme. (I've had my clamshell "dumb phone" for over three years now, and while I say I'll get a smart phone one of these days, I still get a little kick flipping it open to take calls and check texts.)

I've kept an eye on SSD technology since its inception as a near-prohibitively expensive technology. At first, I was lukewarm. Near silent operation and faster load times sounded nice, but given a burgeoning music collection, my first concern was size with speed a distant second.

But when I got a network-attached storage enclosure and popped a 2TB GreenDrive in it this past fall, the size vs. speed landscape shifted a bit for me. With raw storage space covered, why not have a faster, potentially more resilient boot drive? And after the tragic flooding in Thailand last fall which significantly raised the manufacturing costs of traditional platter hard drives, SSDs became an increasingly appealing value proposition as sale prices approached the fabled dollar-per-gigabyte mark.

So I started researching, and after sifting through mind-numbing slew of reviews and benchmarks, I ended up buying the Crucial M4 128GB SSD. I got a pretty sweet deal on it at a deal site you might've heard of, but I'm choosing to omit the name out of modesty. :P

Crucial M4 128GB SSD

I chose the Crucial M4 based primarily on its stellar reputation for reliability. (Surprise - I don't like unexpectedly losing all of my files!) I'd looked seriously at the Intel 320 line based on its similar reputation but eventually opted for the Crucial because of its higher overall performance. Furthermore, the 320 firmware must be immediately updated on fear of data loss. Apparently without the update there's a chance you'll boot and find your drive has mysteriously become an 8 megabyte drive. I'm guessing that's not enough space to save all of my important files...the whole "storage vs speed" argument gets a little ludicrous there.

Crucial employs a Marvell controller on the M4 line, and as such, the M4 doesn't seem to exhibit the lockups sometimes associated with the speedy SandForce controller used by OCZ and other major players in SSD-land. The synchronous NAND also help sealed the M4 decision vs cheaper SF-2200 based async SSDs. With my mid-2010 MacBook Pro's SATA II interface, I wouldn't be able to fully harness the 500MB/sec sustained read speed, but it would be leaps and bounds above the existing 5400RPM platter drive.

old MacBook Pro 5400RPM HDD replaced with SSD

Lastly, although my current boot drive space requirements hover around the 40GB mark, I opted for the 128GB rather than the 64GB model. Having a free space buffer was always advantageous on traditional platter-based drives, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have a bigger drive for an SSD too, since the M4 comes without a set of over provisioning space.

While popular wisdom dictates an SSD should write equally fast to all its sectors since it doesn't rely on mechanical means, this is only partially true. Although enabling the TRIM function in a compatible OS helps maintain performance over time, TRIM doesn't rearrange data, meaning a close-to-full SSD can't be rejuvenated nearly as easily, so again the larger the SSD, the more "kept" performance you'll have over time..

Installation couldn't have been simpler. I popped the SSD in an external enclosure, cloned my existing boot drive to it with Carbon Copy Cloner, swapped the drives, and boom - I was in solid state. Backdoor-enabling TRIM in Lion didn't result in any instability, and overall drive performance has stayed at a very respectable 266MB/sec read and 184MB/sec write.

Crucial M4 128GB SSD in MacBook Pro Benchmark

In my view, the mark of a successful upgrade is an ability to forget about it almost as soon as you've installed it. That's definitely the case with this SSD. The novelty wore off fairly quickly, but the benefits silently* remain . In the past week, I've spaced out staring at my laptop, and since I wasn't using the SSD to load anything at the time, my battery life doesn't suffer as it would with a constantly spinning hard drive. And things load FAST, but in an unassuming way. I click an application, and it appears on screen almost instantaneously.

And why shouldn't it? Why waste time watching the beach ball spin or the icon bounce? Life is short. Carpe Chrome, I say.

In terms of durability, I'm not planning to pay homage to The Lonely Island by throwing my laptop on the ground for a stress test. (Think surprise Skype calls from the parents...That's not my dad - that's a laptop!)

But I'm reassured that in the event of a violently misguided parent-laptop mix-up on my part, almost every other part of the laptop is likely to break long before the SSD loses a single shred of data.

Now when I use otherwise similar hardware, I catch myself thinking, "I clicked the application icon nearly two seconds ago. Computer, how long are you planning to make me wait?"

But with frustration at other computers' comparative sluggishness the sole drawback thus far, I'm pretty pleased.

*Literally. It makes no noise. Just like the room after this joke was made.

    Past Editor’s Notes and Discussions

  • Daniel BrasherMar 26, 2012

    Thinking about upgrading your MacBook Pro's slow 5400 rpm HDD to a speedy SSD? Here's why I choose the Crucial M4 and how it performed.

  • AppleFanMar 31, 2012

    Hi, I was curious as to why you didn't choose the Samsung 830 SSD? Overall spec performance was far superior to the Crucial M4 SSD. The power consumption was equal or lower than most other drives on the market. The only reasoning I could see off the top of my head was 1.) Macbook pro 2010 with SATA II which would limit the maximum performance of the drive and 2.) Cost of the Samsung 830 was a little higher. Are there any other reasons you chose the Crucial? Samsung has great reliability too.

  • Viet DoApr 01, 2012

    I'll let Daniel chiime in later but I personally bought the Samsung 830 128GB for my laptop. He probably did choose the Crucial at the time because it was significantly cheaper too; the 830 only recently have a large price drop, when I bought it only less than a month ago, it was ~$190 for the 128GB kit! - now its only $140 ish. Urgh.

  • Daniel BrasherApr 02, 2012

    Hey AppleFan, good question, and thanks for reading critically.

    Both you and Viet are correct. He and I were buying SSDs at the same time, and the Samsung 830 128GB was around the $190 mark at its lowest price. In contrast, the Crucial M4 was $150 at time of purchase. SATA II does cap performance below the read rate threshold of both the M4 and the 830. The practical performance difference does come into play with write speed, but at present I don't do much write-intensive work. My main concern was reliability.

    In my research, I found a chart (which naturally I am completely unable to find now) showing a quantified reliability rating from 1-10 for each SSD model. Every single size of the Crucial M4 got a 10 for reliability. If I remember correctly, each Samsung 830s got either a 9 or 10, depending on which size you got. Far from definitive, and whatever the sample or data source, it's certainly not "damning" for a drive to get a 9 instead of a 10...

    If there'd been a clear and significant advantage to the 830 in terms of overall reliability, I would've dropped the extra $40, but I didn't find that in anything I read. The 830 uses Samsung's own proprietary controller, which in theory should make it more reliable...

    ALSO, from my reading, you can't upgrade the 830's firmware without Windows. And there was a BSOD issue with the 830 a few months back without the latest firmware update, and I didn't particularly want to deal with the process of finding a Windows machine to install the SSD in or installing a copy of Windows 7 in Boot Camp -- just to be able to update the firmware. (Viet is running Windows, so for him this was a non-issue.)

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