Bad Vista-to-Windows 7 upgrade experiences #1: 'Hosed' Intel SSDs

Although we had good reason to expect that most folks' experiences with Windows 7 upgrades this past week would be, as we put it, "without the crap," the exceptions are starting to show up. One of the more serious cases involves Intel, which has withdrawn its latest solid-state drive firmware update after multiple reports from disgruntled users of complete storage system failure following their Windows 7 upgrades.

The new firmware, along with Windows 7, was supposed to support a new internal file management methodology called TRIM. Its purpose was to compensate for a problem typical of memory-based storage, as opposed to traditional magnetic disks: Since memory systems must keep track of their contents even some of those contents aren't really in use, over time, SSDs' performance can lag. While traditional disks don't have to retain a memory of the contents of sectors pointing to "deleted" files, SSDs do...and they can't wipe the contents of those sectors individually. Instead, they have to wait until entire blocks become disused -- which happens less and less often as drives become more and more fragmented. TRIM was supposed to overcome that deficiency with a kind of self-optimizing mechanism, letting SSDs wipe blocks more often, thus overcoming lags and keeping performance levels high over time.

The trouble appears to be that something in the Windows 7 RTM distribution wasn't ready for TRIM after all. Though Windows 7 appeared to work fine just after installation, soon afterwards, Intel SSD owners were finding they couldn't sustain a reboot.

"I removed the drive and put it in an external case and went to the desktop. Guess what, the partition was raw!" reported one contributor to Intel's support forum early this morning. "Deleted the partitions and reinstalled Windows, and that seemed to do the trick. After an hour or two, a message came up and said that my drive was about to fail and S.M.A.R.T. reported it bad!"

That contributor was joined by a flood of similar reports all over the major hardware forums. On HardForum Monday, there was this: "I've scared myself off of SSDs for a few years and would probably never touch an Intel SSD again. I'll gladly take a 5% real-world performance hit for a drive that doesn't have a history of bricking itself when a firmware update is applied."

The firmware update was part of a comprehensive SSD Toolkit from Intel released just last Monday, which had promised to boost write speeds by as much as 40%. As company marketing director Pete Hazen said at the time, "We are encouraging our 34nm customers to download the new firmware update today. Not only will Windows 7 users receive the performance enhancements of the Trim command, but so will our Windows XP and Vista users."

Reviewers of the TRIM firmware appeared to confirm that figure and did not report problems. One of those positive reviewers was Anandtech, which was also first to update its TRIM review with Intel's comment that it was pulling the firmware update due to problems. Up to that point, commenters' complaints had focused on Intel's lack of willingness to extend TRIM support to owners of older SSD models, which cost much more in the early going than they do now. As one contributor noted, "I don't think that you should lose the wiper and TRIM support for being an early adapter, it does not make sense."

PC Perspective's Allyn Malventano believes the drive-hosing issue must not be widespread, noting it did not happen to him during his review, which involved an Asus P6T motherboard with an Intel Core i7 920 CPU.

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