The new Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT) that's only found on Intel Z68 Express motherboards does not break new ground - the idea of using NAND Flash storage for caching has been around for a while (remember Ready Boost?), but it is no doubt an interesting option for some users. It's almost like having a small SSD boot drive for your applications with a traditional HDD for the data.
Ask a typical budget-conscious tech enthusiast today and they will recommend an SSD boot drive with HDD combo. The problem with this approach is that it requires a regular amount of upkeep or pruning if you like. Users have to ensure that they install their frequently used applications to the relatively small SSD drive (usually between 40 to 64GB) and remove older, unused programs due to the limited storage capacity. Intel SRT takes away this manual aspect, with the software automatically caching your frequently used applications with no user intervention.
What's left unsaid is that a true SSD solution brings both speed and convenience but at a higher cost. Or at least that's the logic. In our Z68 feature, when we tested Intel SRT, we lacked the time to include the results of a pure SSD-only equipped solution. Now that we have had some time with the Z68 systems, we'll look at how Intel SRT stacks up against a single SSD based drive. Specifically, we tested one of the fastest (and most expensive) SSDs in the market now, the OCZ Vertex 3 (the 240GB version), using the same test setup and benchmarks. (Refer here for a detailed breakdown of the test setup). While we've only got the larger 240GB edition for testing, there are cheaper models like the 120GB edition. More importantly, it's using one of the newest SandForce controllers, the SF-2281, which contributes much of the drive's performance. If you're in the market to get a new SSD, this is one of the drives to aim for and thus, our reason to enroll the Vertex 3 in this test.
Based on the specs, the Intel Larson Creek 20GB SSD is rated at up to 37,000 IOPs for Random 4KB Reads and only 3,300 for Random 4KB Writes. Compare this with the maximum 85,000 IOPs Random 4KB Writes that OCZ quotes for the Vertex 3. The maximum sequential read and write speeds on the Vertex 3 are also more than twice that of the Intel SSD. Of course, the Intel SSD uses SLC NAND, which costs much more than the MLC NAND on the Vertex 3 due to it having a better NAND endurance.
Our two main system-wide benchmarks showed the OCZ Vertex 3 taking a significant lead over the Intel SRT systems, a 10% overall in SYSmark 2007 and a more lopsided 34% overall in PCMark. Our qualitative tests painted a more competitive picture, with the Vertex 3 system booting into Windows in an average time of 13.7 seconds compared to 14.8 seconds for the Intel SRT. The time taken to open 20 tabs in Firefox 4.0 also went to the Vertex 3 narrowly, 12.4 against 14.8 seconds.
In short, the pure SSD solution is undoubtedly the way to go if performance is your chief concern, even if the excellence of the Vertex 3 likely skews the results in favor of SSDs. But with prices like US$499 for the 240GB OCZ Vertex 3, such an approach could be too costly for many. Even the smaller 120GB edition of the OCZ Vertex 3 would set you back by US$249. Alternatively, one could get a small SSD boot drive (64GB or less) with a normal HDD and just be disciplined about housekeeping the SSD.
After all, a very decent 64GB SSD like our previous Editor's Choice pick, the Crucial RealSSD C300 goes for around US$115 online, while Intel's Larson Creek SSD alone has an SRP of US$110. Throw in the slight premium that one has to pay for an Intel Z68 motherboard over an Intel P67 equivalent and Intel SRT may not be that cost effective. Do note that the extra cost associated wit the puny Larson Creek SSD is mainly due to the more durable SLC flash memory used. In our opinion, it's a wise choice by Intel since it will likely offer more consistent performance over a longer duration than using a much cheaper MLC based drive that might require more support assistance from Intel should anything go wrong in the long run.
We also tried out a wacky combination in case those who are willing to splurge - using the 20GB Lason Creek drive in conjunction with the OCZ Vertex 3 as the main drive. Unfortunately, Intel SRT only works if your main drive is a HDD. So if you had any ideas of grandeur, our findings should keep this idea in check.
In the end, the cheapest route may be to use Intel SRT along with a less costly SSD instead of Larson Creek, something like the US$100 Kingston SSDNow V100 64GB (or an even smaller and cheaper drive). Given that Intel SRT theoretically works better with more capacity as cache (allocating up to the maximum 64GB supported by Intel SRT means you're more likely to find your application or data in the SSD cache), one could get similar if not better results with a cheaper but larger SSD cache. However, this option is more for budget enthusiasts who don't mind performing some drive maintenance (such as secure erase) once in a while to ensure the cache works at its optimum level.
Of course, this discussion could be moot if NAND Flash becomes more affordable in the near future; everyone then should have a decently large and fast SSD drive in their systems. Now, if only we could accelerate this process...