by eugene

2005 Notebook Drive Roundup



Introduction

Over the past few years, a growing chorus of StorageReview readers requesting reviews of notebook drives has emerged. Given the exploding user base of notebook machines, it seemed only natural to extend StorageReview's drive-centric coverage to the smaller, 2.5 inch devices. A few obstacles remained, however. First, we were on the verge of migrating our testing from an older configuration to a newer machine; commencing notebook drive reviews on Testbed3 would have yielded results that would have rapidly become outdated. Second, power consumption remains a key factor in assessing notebook hard drives (and all portable components, for that matter). Testbed4's recent debut coupled with our associated all-new power dissipation measurements, however, has removed these barriers. The time is ripe for some SR notebook drive reviews!

For our purposes, a "notebook-class hard drive" is one featuring a 2.8x4.0x0.4 inch form factor that incorporates 2.5" platters. These drives have traditionally featured a parallel ATA interface arrayed with a 5 volt power line in a 22x2 pin grid. Like their desktop cousins, however, notebook disks are poised for a transition to the serial ATA interface. In addition to unifying electronics, the move to SATA also delivers a single physical connection- the compact data and power connectors found on today's desktop drives fit quite well on the relatively miniscule devices.

What is Important in a Notebook Drive?

Capacity- Due to their diminutive size, notebook drives suffer when compared to desktop models. Smaller platter sizes produce significantly less area on which data may be recorded... today's platters top out at 50-60 GB. In addition, the form factor's slimmer design typically permits just two platters per assembly versus a desktop drive's maximum of four or five.

Speed- Smaller buffers, lower spindle speeds, lighter actuator magnets, lesser transfer rates, and electronics/caching strategies tuned for power-efficient operation rather than raw speed result in notebook devices that yield a noticeably sluggish experience when contrasted with their desktop counterparts. In addition, the aforementioned lower capacities produce volumes that tend to span a 2.5" platter's distance, further slowing things down with physically longer seeks.

Power Consumption- By their very nature, portable machines spend considerable time operating away from A/C power. Power draw of various components becomes a key issue. Though TFT displays suck up the lion's share of electricity, mobile hard drives consume up to four watts of electricity, on par with today's power-saving notebook CPUs.

Heat Generation- Production of heat goes hand in hand with power dissipation. As a hard drive consumes more power, it radiates more heat into the relatively cramped confines of a notebook's chassis. This heat must then be expelled by the machine's fan, which in turn consumes more power and generates more noise.

Noise- Featuring energy-efficient screens, CPUs, hard drives, and other components, the typical notebook machine dissipates less heat as a whole and thus requires lighter airflow. Quieter fans yield a lower total noise floor through which the other major mechanical component, the hard drive, may be heard.

Ruggedness- Notebooks move around far more often than desktops. These systems experience bangs, bounces, and drops that directly channel kinetic force to the hard disk... in many cases while the drive is actively working. Mobile drive designs must provision for shocks to the spindle assembly and for head slaps far in excess of the levels expected in desktop environments.

Over the years, manufacturers have stepped up to the challenge. Toshiba and IBM/Hitachi have long been the dominant players in the mobile drive market. Recently, however, they have been joined by familiar names such as Fujitsu, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital. These aspiring newcomers covet the market share enjoyed by the veteran firms and have introduced competing 2.5" products.


The Contenders

This first look at notebook drives has been a long time in coming. Our review of most of these units was initially slated for publication nearly a year ago. With the Testbed4 revision (supposedly) looming, however, a decision was made to delay the printing of results that would soon be outdated by new hardware and methodology. Testbed4, of course, took quite a bit longer to finalize than we imagined. Hence, while the two 7200 RPM models tested in this review represent today's state-of-the-art, many 5400 RPM devices are giving way to their successors. Nonetheless, they are all readily available for purchase in the channel. Naturally, SR will bring you reviews of the latest drives as they become available. When we do, the products in this roundup will serve as a robust sample set against which new drives may be compared.

Without further ado, let us take a look at these contenders!

Top of the drive

Fujitsu MHT2080AH

  • 80 GB capacity
  • 5400 RPM spindle speed
  • 40 GB/platter
  • 12.0 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Hitachi Travelstar 5K100

  • 80 GB capacity
  • 5400 RPM spindle speed
  • 40 GB/platter
  • 12.0 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Samsung SpinPoint M40

  • 80 GB capacity
  • 5400 RPM spindle speed
  • 40 GB/platter
  • 12.0 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Seagate Momentus 5400.2

  • 100 GB capacity
  • 5400 RPM spindle speed
  • 50 GB/platter
  • 12.5 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Western Digital Scorpio WD800VE

  • 80 GB capacity
  • 5400 RPM spindle speed
  • 40 GB/platter
  • 12.0 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Hitachi Travelstar 7K100

  • 100 GB capacity
  • 7200 RPM spindle speed
  • 50 GB/platter
  • 10.0 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:
Top of the drive

Seagate Momentus 7200.1

  • 100 GB capacity
  • 7200 RPM spindle speed
  • 40 GB/platter
  • 10.5 millisecond seek time
  • 8-megabyte buffer
Lowest Real-Time Price:

As parallel ATA drives, these units were evaluated running off of our Testbed's native Intel ICH5 controller rather than the Silicon Image 3124-2 adapter used to assess SATA drives. Read onwards to see how they stack up!


Access Time and Transfer Rate

For diagnostic purposes only, StorageReview measures the following low-level parameters:

Average Read Access Time- An average of 25,000 random read accesses of a single sector each conducted through IPEAK SPT's AnalyzeDisk suite. The high sample size permits a much more accurate reading than most typical benchmarks deliver and provides an excellent figure with which one may contrast the claimed access time (claimed seek time + the drive spindle speed's average rotational latency) provided by manufacturers.

Average Write Access Time- An average of 25,000 random write accesses of a single sector each conducted through IPEAK SPT's AnalyzeDisk suite. The high sample size permits a much more accurate reading than most typical benchmarks deliver. Due to differences in read and write head technology, seeks involving writes generally take more time than read accesses.

WB99 Disk/Read Transfer Rate - Begin- The sequential transfer rate attained by the outermost zones in the hard disk. The figure typically represents the highest sustained transfer rate a drive delivers.

WB99 Disk/Read Transfer Rate - End- The sequential transfer rate attained by the innermost zones in the hard disk. The figure typically represents the lowest sustained transfer rate a drive delivers.

For more information, please click here.

The average rotational latency of a 7200 RPM spindle is about 4.2 milliseconds. At 5400 RPM, latency hovers around 5.6 ms. As a result, 7200 RPM drives enjoy an innate 1.4 millisecond advantage when it comes to average access time, the sum of latency and seek time. It is no surprise then that the two 7200 RPM units, the Deskstar 7K100 and Momentus 7200.1, post the best overall access times. Interestingly, however, neither unit can boast the best measured seek time. That distinction goes to Hitachi's 5400 RPM Travelstar 5K100. The drive's calculated seek time of 9.8 milliseconds nearly offsets its lower spindle speed and places the unit's access time closer to that of the 7200 RPM duo than its 5400 RPM brethren.

While the Travelstar 7K100 again claims the best average write access time score, the 5400 RPM 5K100 again delivers a great showing. This time around, it is enough to edge past the Momentus 7200.1 to stake out the 5K100's position as the #2 drive.



Click here for transfer rate graphs

When it comes to sequential transfer rates, it is once again Hitachi's Travelstar 7K100 at the top. At 53 MB/sec, the Travelstar easily outdistances the second-place Momentus 7200.1. The Momentus, in turn, rides its 7200 RPM spindle speed advantage and outpaces the fastest 5400 RPM unit (Seagate's own) by nearly 10 MB/sec. The 5400 RPM crowd segments next, with the Momentus 5400.2 and Travelstar 5K100 at about 39 MB/sec, Fujitsu's MHT and WD's Scorpio hovering at 35 MB/sec, and Samsung's SpinPoint bringing up the rear at 31 MB/sec.

Inner zone scores for the 7K100 and 7200.1 come in relatively close to each other at just under 30 MB/sec, hinting at the Travelstar's slightly steeper rate decay as data moves towards inner tracks. Similarly, all the 5400 RPM contenders weigh in at about 20 MB/sec.

Some Perspective

It is important to remember that seek time and transfer rate measurements are mostly diagnostic in nature and not really measurements of "performance" per se. Assessing these two specs is quite similar to running a processor "benchmark" that confirms "yes, this processor really runs at 2.4 GHz and really does feature a 400 MHz FSB." Many additional factors combine to yield aggregate high-level hard disk performance above and beyond these two easily measured yet largely irrelevant metrics. In the end, drives, like all other PC components, should be evaluated via application-level performance. Over the next few pages, this is exactly what we will do. Read on!



Single-User Performance

StorageReview uses the following tests to assess non-server use:

StorageReview.com Office DriveMark 2006- A capture of VeriTest's Business Winstone 2004 suite. Applications include Microsoft's Office XP (Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, and Project), Internet Explorer 6.0, Symantec Antivirus 2002 and Winzip 9.0 executed in a lightly-multitasked manner.

StorageReview.com High-End DriveMark 2006- A capture of VeriTest's Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite. Applications include Adobe Photoshop v7.01, Adobe Premiere v6.5, Macromedia Director MX v9.0, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX v6.1, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9.0, Newtek Lightwave 3D 7.5b, and Steinberg Wavelab 4.0f run in a lightly-multitasked manner.

For more information, please click here.

At 448 I/Os per second, the Travelstar 7K100 turns in the best score of the roundup in the SR Office DriveMark 2006, a measure of typical productivity application performance. Seagate's 7200 RPM Momentus follows closely behind. At 413 IOps, Samsung's SpinPoint M40 posts the best 5400 RPM showing. Scores spiral downward rather gently from there with the Momentus 5400.2 bringing up the rear.

The 7K100 muscles its way to a considerable lead in the SR High-End DriveMark. achieving 413 IOps, Hitachi's speedster places itself 13% ahead of the second-place Momentus 7200.1. Turning things around, the 5400 RPM Momentus stakes its place at the top of the 5400 RPM heap. The Travelstar 5K100 posts a similar score while the remaining contenders ratchet it down one more notch with WD's Scorpio earning the dubious last-place distinction.

Gaming Performance

Three decidedly different entertainment titles cover gaming performance in StorageReview's test suite.

FarCry, a first-person shooter, remains infamous for its lengthy map loads when switching levels.

The Sims 2, though often referred to as a "people simulator," is in its heart a strategy game and spends considerable time accessing the disk when loading houses and lots.

Finally, World of Warcraft represents the testbed's role-playing entry; it issues disk accesses when switching continents/dungeons as well as when loading new textures into RAM on the fly.

For more information, please click here.

Seagate's Momentus 7200.1 claws its way past the Travelstar 7K100 to seize the top slot in our FarCry replay. At 485 I/Os per second, the Momentus achieves a tenacious 4% lead over the 7K100. Seagate's 5400 RPM contender also tops its competition at 441 I/Os per second. Here the Momentus's lead is a bit more solid with 9% separating it from the Travelstar. Things drop off from there, with all three drives below the Hitachi experiencing slight dropoffs in performance.

The 7K100 strikes back when it comes to our replay of The Sims 2. Hitachi's 495 I/Os per second stakes the Travelstar to a 9% lead over the Momentus 7200.1. Interestingly, the 5400 RPM Momentus performs identically to the 7200.1 here... and thus posts the highest 5400 RPM score. The Travelstar 5K100 and Samsung's SpinPoint M40 group up one tier down while drives from Fujitsu and WD bring up the rear.

Our final replay, World of Warcraft, sees Hitachi and Seagate slugging it out for both 7200 RPM and 5400 RPM honors. Hitachi's drives end up on top in both cases by the slightest of margins. WD's Scorpio more or less manages to keep up with the Momentus 5400.1 while offerings from Fujitsu and Samsung slow it down another notch. Of note here is the relatively firm divide between 7200 RPM and 5400 RPM devices.


Multi-User Performance

Unlike single-user machines (whether a desktop or workstation), servers undergo highly random, non-localized access. StorageReview simulates these multi-user loads using IOMeter. The IOMeter File Server pattern balances a majority of reads and minority of writes spanning requests of varying sizes.

IOMeter also facilitates user-configurable load levels by maintaining queue levels (outstanding I/Os) of a specified depth. Our tests start with the File Server pattern with a depth of 1 and double continuously until depth reaches 128 outstanding I/Os.

Drives with any sort of command queuing abilities will always be tested with such features enabled. Unlike single-user patterns, multi-user loads always benefit when requests are reordered for more efficient retrieval.

For more information click here.

Planning to deploy a server running a 2.5" notebook drive? While we can think of only a few things more masochistic, if you must incorporate a 2.5" device and it can not be a Seagate Savvio (a 10K RPM Ultra320 SCSI drive that also features a 2.5" form factor, ableit thicker than that of a notebook-oriented device), turn to the Momentus 7200.1. Regardless of the load involved, Seagate's drive easily bests the competition by margins of 10-20%.


Noise and Power Measurements

Idle Noise- The sound pressure emitted from a drive measured at a distance of 3 millimeters. The close-field measurement allows for increased resolution between drive sound pressures and eliminates interactions from outside environmental noise. Note that while the measurement is an A-weighted decibel score that weighs frequencies in proportion to human ear sensitivity, a low score does not necessarily predict whether or not a drive will exhibit a high-pitch whine that some may find intrusive. Conversely, a high score does not necessarily indicate that the drive exhibits an intrusive noise profile.

Operating Power Dissipation- The power consumed by a drive, measured both while idle and when performing fully random seeks. In the relatively closed environment of a computer case, power dissipation correlates highly with drive temperature. The greater a drive's power draw, the more significant its effect on the chassis' internal temperature.

Startup (Peak) Power Dissipation- The maximum power dissipated by a drive upon initial spin-up. This figure is relevant when a system features a large number of drives. Though most controllers feature logic that can stagger the spin-up of individual drives, peak power dissipation may nonetheless be of concern in very large arrays or in cases where a staggered start is not feasible. Generally speaking, drives hit peak power draw at different times on the 5V and 12V rails. The 12V peak usually occurs in the midst of initial spin-up. The 5V rail, however, usually hits maximum upon actuator initialization.

For more information, please click here.

Before we turn to the numbers, subjectively speaking, all drives represented in this roundup are whisper quiet. They feature a smaller platter count and much smaller parts than the typical desktop drive reviewed by SR. In this case, less mass translates almost directly into less acoustic energy. Objectively speaking, WD's Scorpio tops the charts with a measured sound pressure of just 37.7 dB/A at a distance of 18 mm. That said, however, it is the Seagate Momentus 5200.2 that simply sounds the quietest. All other drives feature rather similar noise profiles and sound only a hair louder than the Momentus. The Travelstar 7K100 emits just the slightest hint of a high-pitched whine. This sound requires some concentration to hear and gets buried by ambient noise when placed inside a system.

When it comes to subjective seek noises, notebook drives as a whole again weigh in well under that of today's typical desktop drives. Even the Momentus 7200.1 and both Travelstars, three drives which feature seek times that approach that of desktop drives, remain inaudible when operating in our testbed.

At idle, all tested drives consume less than 1 watt of power. The Momentus 7200.1 dissipates the most at 0.94 watts while the Travelstar 5K100 carves out a niche of its own through dissipating just 0.47 watts. Under a full-bore seek, however, the 5K100 ties Fujitsu's MHT, consuming a relatively hefty 3.2 watts. The 7200 RPM pair follow up, both dissipating 3.0 watts while seeking. The WD Scorpio and Samsung SpinPoint top the charts, consuming just 2.5 and 2.6 watts respectively.

These notebook drives turn in a relatively tight cluster of figures in our peak power measurements. The Momentus 7200.1 delivers the best score, 3.98 watts dissipated when spinning up. Hitachi's Travelstar 7K100 anchors the bottom with its mark of 4.59 watts. Resting just a smidgeon ahead of the 7K100 is WD's Scorpio. All remaining contenders weigh in at about 4.2 watts. Though it is highly unlikely (we hope) that these drives will be running in an array that would require some kind of staggered spin up, these figures are nonetheless relevant for notebook drives returning to a ready state from a power-saving sleep mode.

Inexpensive kits exist to bridge the physical (2.75 vs. 4 inches) and electrical (44-pin data/power vs. 40-pin data and 4-pin power) divide between PATA notebook and desktop units. Further, many notebook drives now also ship equipped with a SATA interface and require only rails to widen their form factor. So, an obvious question arises:

Top of the driveCan a notebook drive replace a standard 3.5" desktop-style disk? This inquiry remains central to builds constrained by space, noise, and/or power-consumption factors. While a 2.5" drive's form factor advantage is undeniable (just 1/6th the volume of a 3.5" device), the relentless pursuit of silent computing has attracted many to these ultra-quiet units. What kind of performance does one lose when using a notebook rather than a desktop drive? How much of a noise and power advantage does one gain?

The following graphs summarize how today's notebook performance leaders, Hitachi's Travelstar 7K100 and Seagate's Momentus 7200.1, stack up with the firms' flagship drives. The Deskstar 7K500 represents today's state-of-the-art when it comes to capacious single-user performance while the Barracuda 7200.9 offers a more sedate (and probably more typical) desktop experience.

Delivering nearly 900 I/Os per second in the SR Office DriveMark, the Deskstar 7K500 offers twice the performance of the Travelstar and Momentus when it comes to typical office-suite/productivity performance- a margin that will undeniably manifest itself even in the lightest tasks as sheer "snap" and "feel." Huge performance gaps between the Deskstar and Travelstar/Momentus carry through in all single-user tests.

Differences between the Barracuda 7200.9 and the notebook units are not quite as severe, but still quite significant. In all cases, the Barracuda bests the 2.5" units by margins of at least 30%.

Both the Barracuda and Deskstar offer solid performance advantages over the Travelstar and Momentus when it comes to multi-user performance. Further, one should note that Seagate's and Hitachi's desktop offerings hardly represent the best around when it comes to server-style use. Drives from WD and Maxtor would increase the disparity dramatically.

In absolute terms, the Barracuda and Deskstar, equipped with modern FDB motors, feature very low noise floors that render the units inaudible to all but the most sensitive ears. Those ears, however, will benefit from the quieter operation of today's notebook drives.

The diminutive moving parts featured in notebook drives draw vastly less power than those of 3.5" drives. Peaking at just 3.0 watts, the Momentus and Travelstar dissipate less than one-fourth the power of a desktop unit. This in turn results in far less radiated heat, netting the system significant gains in power savings and noise reduction.

Overall, the noise and power/heat advantages of 2.5" drives are quite real. Readers should be aware, however, that even the fastest of today's notebook drives sacrifice a vast chunk of performance in effecting these gains. Price is another conundrum. At the time of this writing, the massive 500 GB monsters shown above run about $350 while the Travelstar and Momentus run $230 - $300 for just 100 gigabytes. 250 GB versions of the Barracuda and Deskstar hover at just above $100. While its likely that these smaller units will not deliver quite the same performance as the 500 GB flagships, they offer 2.5x the same and significantly higher performance for less than half the cost. Bottom line- both literally and in terms of performance, one pays dearly for a notebook drive's small form factor.


Conclusion

Those in the market for an upgraded notebook hard drive seek more capacity and/or speed. At a rather steep price ($230 at the time of this writing), Hitachi's Travelstar 7K100 offers gobs of both. Though it overall remains a far cry from that of the typical desktop unit, the 7K100 nonetheless delivers the best performance around when it comes both to office/productivity applications and games. Newcomer Seagate's Momentus 7200.1 also deserves an honorable mention. The Momentus for the most part keeps up the pace while offering a slightly lower noise floor. Interestingly, one sacrifices neither quiet nor cool operation when choosing a 7200 RPM device over a 5400 RPM one.

Price, of course, remains a factor for most. 100 gigabytes of 7200 RPM storage runs more than twice as much as an 80-gigabyte, 5400 RPM drive. Our pick for the budget-conscious is Hitachi's Travelstar 5K100, combining decent overall performance at a wallet-friendly $120. Samsung's SpinPoint M40 offers even better productivity performance for around the same price, though its performance falters when it comes to content creation activity. The 100-gigabyte Momentus 5400.2 performs well in our gaming suite, though its $140ish price makes it slightly more pricey.

Of course, some notable omissions permeate this review. The largest remains an entry from market-giant Toshiba. Further, some of the firms featured in this roundup have begun shipment of 120 GB products that offer more space and (probably) more speed. Finally, like the desktop world, the notebook sector is transitioning from the older PATA to newer SATA interface. In the coming months, we'll bring readers the latest on all three fronts!

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