Intel SSD 660p 1TB Review: QLC Goes Mainstream

Intel’s new SSD 600p NVMe SSD marks the arrival of the first consumer drive with QLC flash. The new flash technology brings along the promise of lower prices and more capacious storage devices in the future, but it already looks good today. The SSD 660p communicates over a fast PCIe 3.0 x4 link to deliver solid performance numbers of up to 1.8 GB/s of throughput and offers surprisingly good performance in random workloads. If that wasn’t enough, the 660P comes with a five-year warranty and an MSRP below $0.20-per-GB, which is cheaper than many budget SATA SSDs with three-year warranties.

We put the Intel SSD 660p to the test and found that it offers a surprising amount of performance given its low price point. If your workload trends towards mundane daily tasks, like content consumption, office work, and web browsing, the 660p is a great solution with plenty of performance and endurance for most users.

While this all sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Intel has a strong track record for developing new and innovative storage technology. The company was the first to bring NVMe SSDs to market three years ago with the Intel SSD 750 series, and it also developed the exotic 3D XPoint memory that it uses in the Optane products.

Intel’s 64-layer 3D QLC flash technology is the next step to boosting flash storage capacity. MLC flash stores two bits per cell and TLC flash stores three, but QLC crams four bits into each cell. The 33% increase in density ultimately equates to more storage capacity for less money. Intel's QLC flash enables up to one 1-terabit (125GB) of storage capacity in a single die. SSD vendors can pack up to 16 die into a single package, which means QLC enables up to 2TB per package.

Just like Intel's other flash technology, QLC flash leverages the tried-and-true vertical floating gate flash cell design. Competing flash from other foundries, which are also well underway with QLC development, use charge trap designs. WD and its partner Toshiba recently announced they are sampling a higher-capacity 1.33-terabit QLC chips marketed as BiCS4, but the companies haven't announced end products yet.

Like any unproven technology, there are skeptics. High-capacity and inexpensive flash is music to everyone’s ears, but QLC has an Achilles heel. Well, two. QLC NAND has lower write performance and less endurance than MLC or TLC flash because it stores 16 different charge levels per cell to represent four bits of data. Due to the physical characteristics of flash, it's a challenge to store and modify 16 charge levels at the nanometer scale, especially as the flash ages. Cell-to-cell interference complicates the task. Intel claims the 3D floating gate design helps isolate the cells to reduce interference. In either case, sophisticated error correction algorithms, such as LDPC, are a key ingredient to boosting endurance. 

Intel sidesteps many of the performance challenges associated with QLC flash by tweaking the firmware and using intelligent idle time performance adjustments. Intel's Intelligent Dynamic SLC-Caching, which uses a pool of fast SLC flash to boost performance for incoming write data, takes a two-step approach.

First, the 660p has a static SLC cache that is 6GB, 12GB, or 24GB, depending upon SSD capacity. The static cache capacity never changes, but the SSD has a larger dynamic SLC cache pool that boosts performance further. The dynamic cache capacity adjusts bi-directionally based upon the amount of data stored on the SSD. In other words, the cache shrinks as you fill up the drive but expands as you delete items. Higher-capacity 660p's have larger dynamic SLC caches, as outlined in the chart above.

The SLC pool flushes to the QLC flash during idle periods, but Intel has a new on-demand performance boost option if you need your SLC performance back right away after bombarding the drive with writes. The feature allows you to flush the SLC cache to the QLC flash manually. Intel added this feature to its SSD optimizer in SSD Toolbox version 3.5.3.

Specifications

ProductIntel SSD 660P 512GBIntel SSD 660P 1TBIntel SSD 660P 2TB
Pricing$99.99 $199.99 $399.99
Capacity (User / Raw)512GB / 512GB1024GB / 1024GB2048GB / 2048GB
Form FactorM.2 2280 (single-sided)M.2 2280 (single-sided)M.2 2280 (single-sided)
Interface / ProtocolPCIe 3.0 x4 / NVMe 1.3PCIe 3.0 x4 / NVMe 1.3PCIe 3.0 x4 / NVMe 1.3
ControllerSMI 2263SMI 2263SMI 2263
DRAMNANYA DDR3LNANYA DDR3LNANYA DDR3L
MemoryIMFT 64L 3D QLCIMFT 64L 3D QLCIMFT 64L 3D QLC
Sequential Read1,500 MB/s1,800 MB/s1,800 MB/s
Sequential Write1,000 MB/s1,800 MB/s1,800 MB/s
Random Read90,000 IOPS150,000 IOPS220,000 IOPS
Random Write220,000 IOPS220,000 IOPS220,000 IOPS
EncryptionAES-256AES-256AES-256
Endurance100 TBW200 TBW400 TBW
Warranty5-Years5-Years5-Years
Part NumberSSDPEKNW512G8SSDPEKNW010T8SSDPEKNW020T8

Only the 512GB model will be available at launch, but the 1TB and 2TB models will be available soon after through the normal distribution channels. Intel rates the 1TB and 2TB models for 1.8 GB/s of sequential read/write throughput, but the 512GB model steps back to 1.5/1 GB/s read/write. The write specification is based on the 660p’s dynamic SLC cache, however, so the drive could slow during extended write workloads when the workload spills over to the native QLC flash. We simulated the condition with a worst-case test, and the 1TB model fell to ~100 MB/s after writing 130GB of data from an empty state. Given the size of the 660p's SLC caches, you will likely never encounter this condition.

The 2TB Intel SSD 660p provides up to 220,000/200,000 random read/write IOPS, but the smaller models have slower random read performance. Our 1TB model provides up to 150,00 random read IOPS.

ProductTBWDWPDWarranty
Intel SSD 660p 1TB2000.115
Intel SSD 600p/760p 1TB5760.325
Samsung 860/970 EVO 1TB6000.335
WD Black 1TB6000.335
WD Blue 3D 1TB4000.23
Crucial MX500 1TB3600.25

Intel rates the 660p’s endurance as 100TBW per 512GB, or just over 0.1 drive write per day over the five-year warranty period. The 660p’s endurance is (on average) 33 percent lower than other PCIe based SSDs and roughly half that of budget SATA SSDs. Two hundred terabytes of write endurance might not seem like a lot, but Intel says it should be enough for most light, bursty workloads in desktop PCs. If your workloads are more intense, like frequent large file transfers, video processing, or workstation-class applications, other more endurant SSDs are a better choice.

The 660p features AES-256 encryption with Pyrite 1.0 and 2.0 support, which is a nice addition for the security conscious.

A Closer Look

The Intel SSD 660p is a PCIe 3.0 x4 SSD that comes in an M.2 2280 single-sided form factor. It communicates with the host system via the NVMe 1.3 protocol and weighs in at just 5.5g. There are two 512GB 64-layer QLC flash emplacements on the PCB.

The 660p comes with SMI's 2263 SSD controller and Intel's proprietary firmware. A single 256MB NANYA DDR3L DRAM chip flanks the controller. Most SSDs have a 1MB of DRAM to 1GB of flash ratio, but the Intel 660p has 1MB of DRAM per 4GB of flash. Intel could be compressing the LBA map or might have implemented the Host Memory Buffer (HMB) feature, which stores a portion of the LBA map in system memory.

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