If you want to speed up your desktop PC or notebook, one of the best and most cost-effective upgrades you can make is to buy a solid-state drive to replace its internal hard drive. SSDs offer a quantum leap in performance and transfer speeds, and have steadily been dropping in price since they started becoming popular in the late 2000s. The Crucial M550 is a new mainstream SSD that aims to offer good value, excellent performance levels, and enough space to make switching from a spinning disk easy.
Crucial has always been a strong player in the solid-state drive market; its 256GB m4 was, in 2011, the go-to drive for SSD performance on a spinning-disk budget. The M500, released in early 2013, is still on the market, but the new M550 is its successor. As the name suggests, the M550 boasts 550MBps read and 500MBps write transfer rates — only slightly faster than the 500MBps read of the M500, but twice as fast as its 250MBps write speed.
As well as the 2.5-inch laptop and desktop-compatible form factor that we tested, the Crucial M550 is available in both mSATA — for Ultrabooks and some miniature desktops — and M.2 for even more specialised devices. The 2.5-inch drive is only 5mm thick, so it can fit in especially slim and low-profile hard drive bays. It comes with a 3.5-inch adapter, too, so you can put it straight into a desktop PC to replace its 3.5-inch drive.
With the M550 replacing it as top dog in Crucial's line-up, the M500 drops slightly in price — and this means that if you're looking for a new SSD, the M500 is actually a genuine competitor to the M550. It's also up against Samsung's slightly older 840 EVO and the OCZ Vertex 460, both of which have similar price to capacity ratios and offer generally similar performance.
In terms of outright transfer speed, the Crucial M550 really doesn't disappoint. Using the CrystalDiskMark synthetic benchmark, which usually gives reasonably accurate, if consistently slightly optimistic, results, we recorded sequential read speeds of 542MBps from the Crucal M550, and write speeds of 491MBps. These are in line with our expectations for the 256GB model we tested.
Crucial M550: Performance
Storage: CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Read): 542MBps CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Write): 491Mbps
Across all three form factors, the Crucial M550 maintains the same read/write performance. It's important to note that the 128GB variant of the four available has inferior write speeds, clocking in at a still-fast 350MBps rated speed as opposed to the 256GB, 512GB and 1TB's 500MBps. We think that the 256GB model, that we tested, hits the right balance of capacity, transfer performance and price.
These kinds of speeds are unheard of from a regular hard drive using a spinning magnetised disk, of course. They're roughly par for the course for mid-range solid state drives though, although tending towards the upper end of the graph. This makes the Crucial M550 both strongly competitive with its SSD brethren, but also slightly hard to explicitly recommend; it needs to compete on price as well as its transfer rates.
Thankfully, Crucial does that — we've been able to find the 256GB M550 online for as little as $209, with the lesser 128GB only $119. These are great prices for capable and powerful SSDs; it's especially reassuring to see both prices sit under the $1/GB barrier, moreso with the $390 512GB and $613 1TB options.
What is holding back solid-state storage is its generally mediocre capacity limitations; there's no SSD larger than 1TB easily available on the open market, and SSD price increases exponentially as you move to larger capacity drives. The M550 has a 1TB option available, so it's not falling behind the pack here, but if you're working with large files, or if you don't have an external drive or network disk to offload your lesser-used documents and videos to, a SSD becomes more difficult to justify.
One lesser-known advantage of moving to an SSD is the lower power overhead that they come with. Crucial's M550 claims just under 1 Watt power consumption at idle, significantly below the 1.7 Watts of even an energy-efficient spinning disk like the HGST TravelStar 7K1000. This translates into better battery life when you're away from home or from your desk — and that's something that is far more valuable than it initially seems.
If you do have the ability to store files elsewhere, or the discipline to organise your PC's files efficiently to make best use of a low-capacity SSD, it's hard not to recommend the Crucial M550 over a traditional hard drive. Sure, you'll pay more for half the capacity, but the huge boost in transfer speeds and the corresponding drop in power consumption makes the M550 an easy sale for us.