Platter Matters!

Published Date
01 - May - 2008
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2008
 
Platter Matters!



You’ve just upgraded your ancient PC—got the fastest processor, truckloads of memory and the best graphics card on the market.
But before you can really enjoy the power and speed of your new PC, you will wake up to the realisation that there is hardly any space left on your modest Hard Drive! Games, music, movies, HD clips, e-books—all this eats into that precious real estate. Most people buy hard drives as an afterthought (“Hmm... I have so much money left over, so I’ll buy the biggest drive that fits”)—we don’t give them as much love as we do processors or RAM.  Fortunately, higher capacity drives are now getting much more affordable.

A couple of years ago, 40 GB was the standard across most PCs, but today we see the momentum shifting towards 160 and even 250 GB. Rightly so—for nearly the same price, these drives offer better features and significantly higher performance. Last year a 750 GB hard disk retailed for Rs 14,000; today you can get a better-performing 750 GB drive for just half the price!

Recent developments such as Perpendicular Recording have vastly improved storage density. Hence, fewer components (platters and heads) are required to manufacture drives. Seagate has introduced single platter drives with capacities ranging from 80 GB to 250 GB. Fewer  moving parts mean better speed, lower heat generation and hence longer life. Western Digital has introduced energy-efficient drives labelled “Green Power” or GP. These drives intelligently manage power consumption through smart control of rotation speed (RPM) and head actuator movement. They claim to shave off 4 to 5 watts of power, without any significant performance hits.

In this test, we see the industry also aligning itself toward higher capacity drives. For instance, out of the 17 drives we’ve tested, the bulk comprises of 500 GB, 750 GB and 1 TB drives. In contrast, last year we had just one each of 750 GB and 1 TB, with 500 GB drives making the bulk. Back then, 320 GB drives were the newest thing in the market, and 500 GB were for the “elite”. Higher capacity drives now offer better value to the customer—at an asking price of Rs 7,500, a single 750 GB drive makes more sense than three 250 GB or two 500 GB drives.

We put these drives through their paces to see which of them fulfil their promises.
  
Features

Interface

Barring the WD Raptor 150 GB, all other drives are SATA II compliant—that is, their interface speed can go up to 3 Gbps. However, note that the SATA II specification also lists down other features, and it does not exclusively refer to 3 Gbps. Around the completion of our test, WD launched a newer version of their Raptor drive—called the VelociRaptor (300 GB) that supports SATA II. We will review it shortly.

All drives have improved SATA connectors with additional latches, ensuring that the cables don’t come out like it used to with the older connectors. Also, all drives offer the option of going back to 1.5 Gbps, if there are compatibility issues with your motherboard’s SATA controller. Seagate and Western Digital have jumpers for this purpose. In the case of Hitachi, you need to download the Feature tool to downgrade the interface speed.

Buffers And RPMs

Till last year, most drives would come with 8 MB buffer and a select few would boast of 16 MB. Seagate’s newer drives—7200.11 (7200.9 and 7200.10 are older generation), have an integrated 32 MB buffer, and it seems to benefit on the performance front—even if slightly. Hitachi’s 1 TB also has 32 MB, but a 16 MB version is also available. Most Western Digital drives have
16 MB, except for the AV drive, which comes with 8 MB—still reasonable for the daily grind. Seagate’s 80 and 160 GB drives were the only drives with 2 MB buffers, and we also see it affecting their performance, especially, when you compare the single-platter drives with their 250 GB counterparts. 7200 RPM is still the speed of choice for most hard drive manufacturers—the Raptor was the only drive whirling at crazy 10,000 RPM. The Green Power drives from Western Digital, dynamically adjust the rotational speed, but we understand the speed varies between 5400 to 7200 RPM.

Decision Maker

Usage          You needGo For Recommendation
Entry Level PC          A reliable, reasonably fast, decent capacity hard driveAny 80 GB SATA drive. Also consider extending your budget by a few hundreds.Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 250 GB or Western Digital Caviar SE 16 250 GB
Mid-Range PC           A high-capacity, better performing hard drive  A 500 GB SATA drive. If your wallet permits, we recommend a 750 GB drive insteadSeagate Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB or Seagate 7200.11 750 GB or Western Digital RE2 750 GB
Gaming PC        A high-throughput hard drive that can handle continuous and rigourous usageA high capacity drive with low access time and fast I/O    Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB or Seagate 7200.11 750 GB or Hitachi Deskstar 1TB
Media centre PC          A quiet but high performing drive An AV-rated drive that has low acoustics with reasonable performance Western Digital AV 1TB
Backup Drive          A reliable, high capacity driveA drive with high interface transfer speeds and proven track record  Hitachi Deskstar 1 TB or Western Digital RE2 750 GB


Performance

HD Tach RW

HD Tach RW is the first low-level test, where the hard drives are tested without creating any file system—making the results quite accurate. Although burst speeds are not of practical significance, they give us a glimpse of the drive functioning as a whole. We found that Seagate’s 7200.10 750 GB achieves the maximum throughput, followed by its newer counterpart—the Barracuda 7200.11 1 TB. Both these drives reach an astonishing 260 Mbps—quite close to the theoretical limit.

The WD Raptor has a random access time of 6 ms, matched only by the Hitachi 1 TB drive. Other drives fall far behind here, with double- digit random access times. We also see this performance in the file copy tests. The Green Power drives from WD posted the worst access time, thanks mostly to the slower rotation speed.   

The WD Caviar SE16 320 GB, Seagate 7200.11 drives and the single platter Seagate 250 GB sported the best Average Read / Write speeds. The large 16 and 32 MB caches are doing their bit to speed up the read and write operations of these drives. Other drives were not far behind, but a difference of 10 Mbps between hard drives translates to a lot more in practical usage. Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 250 GB marches ahead of other drives in this test, thanks to a perfect balance of cache, interface speed and single platter configuration.

H2Bench

Another low-level benchmark which reproduces precise results and requires raw hard drives—that is, drives without any file system or partitions. Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 posted the best sequential transfer speeds—we attribute this to better drive electronics and higher cache. The WD 320 GB AAKS (last year’s winner), still holds its ground and delivers a performance as good as Seagate’s new generation drives. Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB trumps in this test. Hitachi drives, especially the 1 TB does come really close to the winner, but looses out by a tiny margin. Though one would expect the WD Raptor to deliver a knockout performance, its 1.5 Gbps interface limits it. We expect the new VelociRaptor to put up a better show.

PCMark 05

The well known system-wide test suite, PCMark 05, has a special test aimed at gauging hard drive performance. In the XP start up sub-test, WD’s Raptor scored the highest. This is largely due to its low access time (seek time). Similar results are seen with the Hitachi 1 TB drive that has a low access time of 6 ms. Seagate’s 7200.11 and the WD Caviar SE16 750GB followed closely. In the Virus scan test—important because it involves lot of IO—the Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB, delivered an astonishing 142 Mbps. Seagate’s 750 GB and 1 TB were trailing, but still ahead of the WD and Hitachi drives. Seagate’s 80 and 160 GB Barracuda are at the bottom of the heap and it’s partly the 2-MB cache that’s to blame! Please stay away from these drives—the 250 GB is a much better bet.

How We Tested

The performance test for hard drives consists of synthetic tests, benchmarking software and real-world tests—where application performance and file transfer speeds are tested. The synthetic tests were conducted using two types of benchmarks—low-level benchmarks—namely, HD Tach RW 3.0.1.0 and H2Bench, and standard benchmarks PCMark 05 and SiSoft Sandra XI SP1.

Features
In the features, we noted and rated various features of the hard drive such as capacity, dimension, weight, bundled software, interface type, cables and accessories and ruggedness.

Performance

HD Tach RW 3.0.1.0 was used for noting down the following parameters in the test hard drive.

CPU Utilisation

Lower CPU utilisation is better, and is measured as a percentage of the maximum.

Random Access Time Benchmark

Random access is the time required to retrieve data from
random locations on the drive. It is represented as time—the lower the value, the better the drive.

Average Read And Write Speed

It is the speed with which data can be accessed from the drive. The speed is represented as throughput and generally specified as Mbps—the higher the score, the better the drive.

Burst Speed

The maximum interface speed that can be achieved by the drive is known as the burst speed. This is identical to PMPO in speakers. Burst speeds are indicated in terms of Mbps—the higher the score, the better the drive.

H2Bench

With H2bench, we measure the interface speed at 50 per cent of the drive’s capacity. The “Core Test” or Repetitive Sequential Read Test was then performed and through repeated sequential reads, revealed the maximum transfer rate of the drive. The read and write seek times were also noted.

PCMark 05

FutureMark’s PCMark 05, is a very popular tool to benchmark the entire system. We noted the scores of the following components from the hard drive benchmark module.
XP Startup: This simulates a typical Windows XP startup, and tests the performance of the hard drive at initiation.
Application Loading: This simulates the opening and closing of several applications such as Adobe Reader and Windows Media Player.
Virus Scan: This tests the drive performance during a simulated virus scan of approximately 600 MB of files with different file types.

Test Rig Configuration

Processor Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800
Motherboard Intel D975XBX2
Chipset Intel 975
Memory 1GB Corsair at 800 MHz
Host Hard Drive Hitachi 500 GB
OS Windows XP SP2 (updated)


SiSoft Sandra XI SP1

The scores of Sequential Read, Random Read, Sequential Write, Random Write and Access Time were reported at the end of this benchmark, which we duly noted. This is one benchmark that reproduces constant results, which is why we still use it.

Real World Tests—File Copy

The Real World tests consisted of copying a 4 GB (1 GB for external drives) file (for sequential data transfer speed) and 4 GB of assorted files (for random data transfer speed). The time taken for this data transfer was noted down. The assorted files consisted of multiple file types that included applications, Word documents, Excel files, MP3s and small video clips, thus simulating the real world situation where such files will be copied.
Three tests were carried out—first Read/Write Assorted files, followed by Read / Write sequential file and lastly, both file types were copied from one partition of the test hard drive to the other. The last test puts the hard drive to the highest stress levels and gives a clear verdict of how good the drive performs in a real world scenario, where we end up moving data between partitions.

Real World Test—Photoshop CS3

We installed Adobe Photoshop CS3, and configured the scratch disk to occupy the first partition of the test drive. We then started the application and noted the time taken for it to open completely. We then copied two PSD files, a 550 MB and a 1 GB, to the first partition of the test drive and clocked the times taken to open each of these.


SiSoft Sandra XI SP1

Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB posted the highest Drive Index score, followed very closely by Western Digital’s Caviar 320 GB and Seagate’s 7200.11 750 GB. These three drives have significantly better sequential read and write speeds, and they overshadow other drives. Despite lower interface speeds, the WD Raptor does deliver when it comes to random read / write operation—better access times make up for the lower interface speeds. WD’s RE2 750 GB posted better scores across the various sub-tests and is one of the better drives other than the Seagate 7200.11 drives. Overall, the Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB came out as
the winner.


Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB


Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 750 GB

Real World Copy Tests

In the assorted write test, the Western Digital Raptor completed the test in the least possible time. The 10K spindle speed coupled with low access times helps it achieve this feat. Western Digital Caviar 320 GB and Seagate’s 7200.11 500 GB were next set of drives to complete the file transfer. All other drives took 4 to 5 seconds more than these two drives to complete the test. The 80 GB and 160 GB from Seagate took 43 seconds more, and were way behind all drives. These two drives are seriously handicapped and should be avoided.

Almost all drives did well on the Assorted Read test, and delivered consistent results, taking approximately 83 seconds to read 4 GB of data. In the partition-to-partition file copy test, WD’s caviar 320GB completed the feat in the least time. In this test, the buffer memory makes all the difference. However, apart from buffer size, buffer speed also dictates the final outcome. For example, the Seagate’s 7200.11 has a 32-MB buffer. However, these are outdone by the 7200.10 Seagate drives and we presume it is due to the buffer speed.

The sequential read / write test results are similar to the assorted read / write test results. However, in sequential partition-to-partition file transfer, the Western Digital Caviar 320 GB takes the pole position dethroning Raptor. The other drives put up reasonably good performance, barring the two Seagate’s namely 80 and 160 GB.

Winners

Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB delivered consistent performance throughout, and we adjudge it as the Best Performer. Western Digital’s Caviar 320 GB (our last year’s winner), still has enough steam to stay ahead of the competitors. However, given the price difference, we recommend Seagate’s 500 GB. You get 160 GB of more space at a paltry difference of just 400 bucks. For its superb value for money, we also award the Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500 GB our Best Buy award.

Contact Sheet                                                                     Speakers

Brand   
Company    Phone No    E-mail   Web site
Western Digital           
Western Digital India 9321029204 
marjeet.singh@wdc.comwww.wdc.com
Hitachi            
Cyberstar Infocom Limited
080-34035467 
sales@cyberstarindia.comwww.hitachigst.com
Seagate           

Fortune Marketing 
011- 26414468  
sales@fortune-it.comwww.seagate.com


The Editor’s choice goes to Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 750 GB drives. To put it in simple words, the 750 GB makes more sense, given the quantity of data that resides on our hard drives—especially, HD movies and games. For us—1 TB drives are still expensive, but the 750 GB are sweetly priced!

Sanket NaikSanket Naik