Let There Be Space!

By Team Digit Published Date
01 - Jun - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2005
Let There Be Space!
It all began with the first production model-the IBM 305RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) hard drive in 1956. It had a mere 5 MB of space and had writing speeds of about 8 KB/s-hardly considered a hard drive today!

We have, since then, come a long way, but our desire to cram more and more into less and less space has grown exponentially. Thankfully, so has the capacity of the hard disks of today.

Most computer systems today come with 40 GB as the default disk space, and people are already finding this insufficient-so 80 GB hard drives are becoming increasingly common.

The limitation with these drives is that they aren't really plug and play. Sure, if you're a tech-savvy person, it just means disconnecting a data cable and a power supply cable, and porting it around - but for the rest of us, messing around with the internals of a computer isn't an exciting option. Enter external hard disk drives. Let there be, umm, space!

Understanding The Tests
We realised there are broadly two usage patterns for external hard disks. One is for people such as graphic artists or designers and photographers who need to carry a fairly large amount of data back and forth between the workplace and the home or other places. For such people on the move, we tested portable drives.

The other usage pattern that exists would be the data backup and storage kind. Here, the need is basically to back up lots of data - probably once a day or once a week - and the backup device will stay put on your desktop, whether at home or at the office. For this, we tested desktop storage and backup drives.

We conducted the following series of tests:

Drive Index: A cumulative figure that gives an overall performance grade based on the average of read, write and seek tests, as well as the file and cache size of the disk. The drive index simulates, and hence benchmarks, the drive performance under typical PC usage, so the higher the score, the better the drive.

Sequential Read/Write: This test is conducted with a single large file, so the data is 'in sequence'. The hard disk already knows where to look for the data, and hence this results in faster data transfer. If you transfer a single large file of, say, 1 GB, instead of multiple smaller files totalling up to 1 GB, the single file will be copied faster.

Random Read/Write: This is conducted with multiple smaller files instead of a single large file, and the drive has to search for the next file every time it is done copying another. This test, therefore, results in slower times clocked.

Average Access Time: The interval between the time the request for data is made by the system and the time the data is available off the drive.

CPU Utilisation: Since a copying or backup job would probably be going on in the background and not as a dedicated process, the drive that utilises less CPU time is a better drive. It will give you better system performance. Lower CPU utilisation also means that the drive can be attached to older, lower-end processors without the system hanging due to lack of availability of computing resources.

The tests we described so far were synthetic tests-they measure drive performance reasonably well. But they are called synthetic for a reason; they might or might not reflect real-world usage. So we also did a good old copy-pasting test, and copied 1 GB of assorted data to and from the drive, as well as single 1 GB file to test the sequential and  random read/ write parameters.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the tests, let's get straight to the tests themselves.

Portable Hard Disk Drives

Looks, Size and Build
We received drives in various shapes and sizes, from circular to rectangular to square. The only shapes missing were triangles and ellipses!

The Seagate pocket drives were just that-pocketable. They were scarcely bigger in circumference than a cookie: they were 1-inch drives and were quite thin as well. But all they could hold was a mere 2.5 and 5 GB.

In this segment, the largest capacity was that of the Seagate 100 GB. This was a cool-looking square drive that had a metallic mesh. It was slightly bulky and somewhat heavy-not exactly a 'pocket' drive.

 A really light and pocketable drive was the Freecom FHD2 Pro 60 GB. This drive is wafer-thin and extremely light. You wouldn't feel it if you were carrying it in your pocket, though the pocket would need to be large-the drive is rectangular and rather long.

The Western Digital (WD) 40 GB Passport was low on storage space, and quite bulky. But it featured a rubberised underbody that ensured that vibrations and noise-which are, in any case, next to nothing-were minimised, and that the disk stayed put on any surface. The ports are protected by a rubber flap that resembles the port concealers on everyday digicams.

If you are looking for something that's stylish with lots of space, and is not just portable but actually pocketable, look no further than the Transcend Storejet drives. They come in 20 and 40 GB models, and are smaller than a deck of cards. They weigh just 100 grams!

In our portable HDD shootout, the only drive that came with the one-touch backup feature was the Freecom FHD Pro 2 60 GB.

Funnily enough, in terms of visual indicators, all the drives preferred a cool blue for the LED, or even on the buttons (as in the case of the Maxtor and the WD). That could be an oblique reference to the blues of backup!
On To The Tests
Synthetic Benchmarking: We started with the SiSoft Sandra file system benchmark. The drive that absolutely blazed through the synthetic benchmarks was the Seagate 100 GB. It returned a drive index of 28. The only hitch, performance-wise, was that the CPU utilisation was marginally higher, at 3.75 per cent. Remember that the CPU we were using is extremely fast, so CPU utilisation on lower-end CPUs would be a lot more than this.

This drive could put up such a fantastic show because of its 8 MB cache, which was bettered only by the massive 300 GB Maxtor One Touch II, which had 16 MB of cache.

The drive that came second here, and second by a long way from the third-placed Freecom drive, was the Western Digital 40 GB Passport. The drive had fabulous 31 MBps sequential read and 21 MBps random read speeds.

The performance of the other drives was strictly ordinary, though special mention must be made of the 2.5 and 5 GB Seagate pocket drives, for the simple reason that they're so small. They utilised 1-inch drives as opposed to 1.8 inches for the Transcend drives and 2.5 inches for the Freecom, WD and Seagate 100 GB.

Sadly though, these drives were our worst performers, with speeds of 6 and 8 MBps respectively for the sequential read and sequential write tests. They have a spindle speed of 3,600 rpm, whereas all the other drives were at least 4,200 rpm. In fact, the Seagate 100 GB and WD Passport were 5,400 rpm drives. Remember, the faster your drive spins, the better the transfer rate and the lower the seek times.

CPU Utilisation: There is nothing much to differentiate these drives in terms of CPU utilisation-they just varied between 3.4 per cent for the Seagate 2.5 GB to 3.75 for the Seagate 100 GB. This was true even for our tests in the desktop storage/backup category, so there really isn't too much point dwelling on this.

So why do we need to talk about CPU utilisation at all? There are other drives out there in the market that hog much more than 3.75 per cent, but in the batch of drives we received for this shootout, it just so happened that no drive-in either the portable or the desktop category-was worse than roughly 4 per cent.

Real-World Tests: We now come to our real-world test results. For these tests, we used a single 1 GB file for our sequential read/write tests, and an assorted set of MP3 files totalling 1 GB. The files were copied to and from the hard disk, and we recorded time using a stopwatch.

Here, 'write' means copying files to the hard drive being tested, and 'read' means copying files from the disk.

The results we saw were mixed. There was no drive that beat all the others in every test. But the drive that did beat the others in most of the tests was the Seagate 100 GB. It was beaten fair and square in two tests (and that's half of the real-world tests!)-the assorted read test-where it was beaten by the WD Passport, which clocked a time of 39.95 as compared to 40.26 seconds for the Seagate-and, rather surprisingly, the sequential write test. Here it was beaten by the Freecom FHD 2 Pro 60 GB, which clocked 42.89 seconds as compared to 47.02 for the Seagate.

The worst performers were again the Seagate 2.5 and 5 GB disks, with times that were as much as 5 times slower than the frontrunners.

The drive that really impressed, apart from the lightning-fast Seagate 100 GB, was the WD Passport. It almost matched the Seagate in every test and beat it in one, and was light-years ahead of the rest of the pack.

The Transcend drives were slow considering they have the same spindle speed and cache as the Freecom drive. This shows that the Freecom disk's cache implementation and utilisation, is far superior to that of the Transcend drives.

The King of Space: Without a doubt, the Seagate 100 GB is the clear winner. The drive is exceptionally fast and has a huge cache, not to mention the massive 100 GB it can store, and is priced at a very competitive Rs 13,000-just Rs 1,000 rupees more than the Seagate 5 GB pocket drive.

How We Tested 
Our test bed comprised an AMD Athlon 64 FX 53 Processor, with an MSI K8T Neo 2 motherboard, 512 MB of dual-channel DDR RAM, along with a Seagate 120 GB SATA HDD. The graphics card we used was a GeForce 5700 LE (128 MB).
The hard disk was formatted as FAT 32 and loaded with Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1.
The drives were benchmarked on the basis of Features, Performance and Price.
We ran several benchmarks on the drives to find out which was the best performing, and then weighed that against the price. We were looking for the drive with the best all-round performance, features, as well as price.

We looked at the various inbuilt characteristics and qualities of each of the drives. For the products being marketed as portable devices, we laid particular emphasis on the drive's weight and dimensions for 1.8 and 2.5-inch drives only. We looked less at the weight and dimensions of the 3.5-inch drives, because they will be primarily used as a stationary backup device.
We also observed the build quality, with more importance being given to the sturdiness of the product. Extra points were awarded for features such as extra USB/FireWire ports, configurable buttons, and so on.

To gauge performance, we conducted two types of tests-synthetic and real-world.
For the synthetic tests, we used the SiSoft Sandra Professional 2005 benchmarking suite to assess theoretical read and write speeds, as well as average access times. We also tested with Winbench 99 2.0 to measure the CPU utilisation of each drive.
In the real-world tests, we transferred a set of assorted files of varying sizes totalling 1 GB, back and forth from the system hard disk to the external hard disk, and noted the time taken for each transfer. Similarly, for noting sequential speeds, we transferred a single 1 GB file.

Price Index
Price Index was calculated using the price-per-MB ratio. That is the ratio of the actual usable space-not the rated space, as there is always some loss due to formatting-and the price of the hard drive.

How The Awards Were Given
The score from Features, Build Quality, Performance and Price Index are given weightages relevant to the specific category. An overall score out of 100 is then calculated. The product that scores highest here is adjudged the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold award for its category. The second-highest scorer gets the Digit Best Buy Silver award.

The drive that came in second by a reasonable margin was the WD 40 GB Passport. It is a really good performer, and is eminently comparable to the Seagate except when it comes to size, where it lucks out at a mere 40 GB. The WD Passport is priced very reasonably at Rs 6,400, and is, in fact, cheaper than the Transcend 20 GB-priced at Rs 8,320.

Comparing the WD Passport to the Seagate: if you buy two of these WD drives, you'll be paying Rs 12,800 for 80 GB of space, whereas the Seagate 100 GB gives you a cool 20 GB of additional space at virtually the same cost-Rs 13,000.

For overall performance, price and features, the Seagate 100 GB portable HDD gets the Digit Best Buy Gold Award. The Western Digital 40 GB Passport comes in a comfortable second to receive the Digit Best Buy Silver Award.
How Hard Disk Drives Work 
A hard disk essentially consists of a flat plate-like object that is polished to achieve a mirror- like effect. This is the hard disk's platter, and this is where the data is actually stored using the magnetic properties of the material the platter is made of.
Hard disks of today feature multiple platters. Each platter usually has a read/write head attached to it, which in turn is attached to an arm or actuator that moves the head over the platter.

Writing is achieved by subjecting the platter to a magnetic flux by the write head, which leads to the change of polarisation on the platter. The process is reversed for reading-the magnetic field of the platter affects that of the read head, and this is interpreted as data.
A platter and a head can be thought of as the gramophones and record players of yesteryear, where the needle moved on the record to read the record and play the song. The case is pretty much the same here, except the read/write heads don't touch the platter-they fly less than a hairsbreadth above it.
The platter can spin at roughly 3,000 inches a second, which is approximately 270 kmph! Today, hard disks generally run at 5,400 or 7,200 rpm, though you do get hard drives where the platter spins at 15,000 rpm!

Desktop Storage/ Backup Solutions

Looks, Size And Build
In our desktop storage/backup segment, all the drives were very bulky, and seemed even more so when compared to the portable drives we've been talking about so far. In terms of looks, nothing beat the Seagate drives with their sturdy, square exteriors. The quality of materials that make up the outer casing is excellent, and the use of high-grade plastic makes the drives sturdy and also light. Their design also enables stacking of one drive on top of another.

 That's not to say that the Seagates were the sturdiest of the lot-that honour goes to Maxtor. The drives from Maxtor have the strongest cases we've ever seen. They're built of solid metal! You can keep stacking and these babies will take all the weight you can throw at them, and more!

The drives that disappointed here were the WDs, which were rather plain-looking, and had bodies of plastic that felt flimsy. If you were to try stacking up these drives, we wouldn't be surprised to see some cracks after a while!

All the drives-except for WDs-in the desktop storage/ backup category came with a single button. This, when pressed once, activates the power; when pressed twice, it acts as a 'one-touch' backup button. If you keep it pressed for a while, the drive shuts down.

The WD drives came with three buttons: one dedicated power button, with the other two for automatic backup and on-demand backup. In automatic backup, the drive just goes ahead and backs up stuff pre-specified by the user. In on-demand backup, the backup software opens up and you can back up data as you please.

The only drive that featured something apart from what we've mentioned so far was the Western Digital Media Center. It featured a Multiple Multimedia Card Reader, which is stipulated to read pretty much every kind of card you can throw at it. You can copy stuff to the hard disk directly using the on-demand backup button. There is no screen, so you're limited to copying the entire contents of the card-you can't see or choose what you're copying.

On To The Tests
Synthetic Benchmarking: The test process used here was exactly the same as with the portable drives.

Almost every drive we got here was a 7,200 rpm drive. For some reason, the Maxtor 250 GB was a mere 5,400 rpm drive with an extremely low 2 MB of cache. All the others had at least 8 MB, and the Maxtor One Touch II came with 16 MB of cache onboard.

We started with the synthetic benchmarking using SiSoft Sandra 2005. One drive that absolutely blew everyone away was the Maxtor One Touch II. It scored a blazing 41 MBps in the sequential read score test. To be fair to the others, though, the Seagate 400 GB Barracuda did score the same points as the Maxtor most of the time, except in the sequential/random write test, where it scored 28 MBps, as compared to the One Touch II's 31 MBps, and in the random read test, where it scored 31 to the Maxtor's 26 MBps.

The other drives did OK, but were really not up to the mark. The Seagate 400 GB Barracuda and the Maxtor One Touch II were completely in a league of their own!

CPU Utilisation: The story is identical to that of the portable hard disk drives. Scores varied between 3.74 for the Maxtor 250 GB and 3.96 for the Seagate 160 GB and the WD 250 GB.

Real World Tests: We now come to the tests that separate the winners from the also-rans. In terms of pure data transfer, both from and to the drive, no drive was even close to the Maxtor One Touch II. The drive absolutely blazed past the competitors, being at least two seconds faster in every test. It comfortably annihilated the competition, but this was totally expected, given the huge amount of onboard cache.

The painfully slow drive here was from Maxtor-the Maxtor 250 GB. No surprises, as the drive has a slow 5,400 rpm spindle speed coupled with a devastatingly low cache (a mere 2 MB). There was no way this drive was competing for anything with anybody. The rest were simply out of its league.

The other drive that was impressive and really kept a consistent performance was the Seagate 400 GB Barracuda. Although it can't be compared to the One Touch II, it was commendably fast, and its value-for-money proposition is simply to die for! A massive 400 GB for a mere Rs 20,000!

Download the PDF fiels of Hard Disk

Jargon buster 
ATA: Advanced Technology Attachment. This is a standard interface for connecting storage devices such as hard drives, CD-ROMs, etc. It allows only 18 to 36 inches of cable length, and is therefore seen mostly as an internal solution.
Cache: This is a buffer available to the hard drive, and is usually a physically separate entity on the hard drive's IC. It synchronises data transfers between the disk, reading it off the platter and the disk's I/O system to the computer. Normally, a larger cache will result in faster read/write speeds and access times.
DMA: This gives devices within the computer the ability to communicate to and access the system memory without utilising the CPU-which results in faster overall computing. All modern disk drives support this.
Heads and Actuators: Modern hard disks have multiple heads and multiple platters to read from. The head is what reads the data from the platter, and the actuator is the arm that moves the head across the areas of the platter.
IDE/EIDE: IDE stands for Integrated Drive Electronics, and is the standard used for all the drives commonly found in computer systems today. EIDE is enhanced IDE; it is a specific type of attachment interface specification that allows for high-performance, large-capacity drives.
MTBF: Mean Time Between Failures. This is essentially the reliability index signifying the average time for which the device will definitely work. Typically, hard drives have an MTBF rating of 500,000 hours.
Head Parking: When the platter of the hard drive is not spinning, the head rests on the surface of the disk. When the platter does start spinning, the head drags along the surface till enough speed is gathered for it to disengage from the surface and stay nanometres above the platter to read or write data. This dragging can corrupt data, so there is a special track where no data is written and is used for the head while it is idle or gathering speed.
Platter: The flat disk that actually holds all the data on the hard disk, in magnetic format. When requested, the head reads the data off them.
SCSI: Small Computer Systems Interface; pronounced 'skuzzy'. This is an advancement of the IDE/ATA interfaces. While IDE is an interface, SCSI effectively is a system-level bus with controllers on each SCSI device working to optimise data flow. SCSI has multiple standards such as ANSI, ITIC, NCITS and T10.
SATA: Serial ATA. It was primarily developed to replace the parallel ATA technology. Transfer speeds for SATA start at 150 Mb/s, and the newer SATA II is touted as being capable of 3 Gb/s.
Spindle Speed (rpm): This the speed at which the platter in the hard drive spins. The faster it spins, the faster the access time, as the time taken by the head to reach and access the data is lesser. Till recently, 5,400 rpm was quite common, but with the fall in prices, more and more computers are shipping with 7,200 rpm drives. Laptops usually have 4,200 rpm drives.
Seek Time: The seek time is the amount of time between when the CPU requests a file and when the file is sent. On an average, seek times are in the 2 to 5 ms range for internal hard drives. It's a lot more for external hard drives due to the interface limitations.

The fact that the Seagate 400 GB scored some pretty impressive numbers is not to say that it was second only to the One Touch II. In fact, the WD 250 GB drive beat the Seagate 400 GB in every real-world test, and was slower only in the sequential write test.

So if massive storage is not what you are looking for, and if you are a WD fan, this one is a pretty good buy.

Mr Spacious: The drive that eventually won had everything going for it: price, performance and some pretty decent features. The Best Buy Gold goes to the Maxtor One Touch II 300 GB. This is an excellent backup solution as it is affordable, performs like a dream, and features a huge 300 GB of space.

The Seagate Barracuda 400 GB comprehensively beat the rest of the competition, and though the price tag might seem a shocker, the fact is that no other drive or drive manufacturer out there gives you a 400 GB hard disk drive. Cost per MB, though not the lowest, is certainly competitive-so we adjudge it our Best Buy Silver award winner.

Team DigitTeam Digit  teamdigit@digit.in

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