A SSD Technology a Day (2) – What’s the difference between SLC and MLC?

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series One SSD Technology a Day

It’s time dissect the two main types of flash chips in order to understand why not all SSDs are created equal. What is after all the physical difference between SLC and MLC?

SLC stands for Single Level Cell and just like the name suggests can store one bit per NAND gate hence SLC cell has two states:
0 or 1 based on the charge of the NAND gate.

SLC Levels
SLC Reference Levels


MLC on the other hand stands for Multi-Level Cell and uses multiple voltage threshold levels in order to store 2 or even 3 bits (also called TLC – Triple-Level Cell) in the same NAND gate. this is done by coding 4 or even 8 states (in the case of 3 bit TLC) on the same gate so the MLC will typically one of the following states :
11, 10, 01, 00). The benefit over SLC is the increased capacity per chip (2 or 3 times more) but at the same time the voltage reference levels are a lot tighter which leads to more rapid degradation of the cell after a lot of P/E (Program/Erase) Cycles. Once the MLC NAND gate has degraded the reads are no longer predictable because the stored value  overlaps reference  levels. In this case the memory will report an error or if the controller supports it it will retire the cell and replace it with one from the reserve capacity.

MLC Reference Levels
MLC Reference Levels (2bit cell)

Typical number of write cycles is pretty solid around 100K for SLC and floats around 10K for MLC (different dies can have very different quality and will wear differently). This number is still high enough for a consumer lifecycle in the case of  MLC if the entire memory is programmed 5 times  daily for 5 years and  runs uptu 50 years for SLC under the same usage.


Type of flash cell SLC MLC 2bit TLC 3bit
Bits/ cell 1 2 3
States stored 0 00 000
01 010
1 10 100
11 110
Typical capacity /chip 32GB 64GB 96GB
Endurance P/E cycles 100K 10K-30K <1K
Performance Over Time Constant Degrades Quickly Degrades
Application Enterprise Consumer Thumb drives,Camera cards

In the case of MLC the program cycle take 2 or 3 times more than for SLC since the  programming signal has to be a lot more precise to code 4 states in the space of 2. This leads to higher speed and increased number of IOPS (IO Operations Per Second) for SLC type of memory compared to MLC.

Series Navigation<< A SSD Technology a Day (1) – Static Data RotationA SSD Technology a Day (3) – Program and Erase Cycle (P/E) >>

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