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Quantum Fireball lct15 QML30000LC-A
  June 26, 2000 Author: Eugene Ra  
Evaluation unit provided by Quantum Corp.

Introduction

Over the course of years we've generally witnessed an increase in what many consider to be the most important factor when it comes to hard disk performance: spindle speed. There've been some notable exceptions. The biggest came from Quantum in the form of the Bigfoot series. At the time of the Bigfoot's early 1996 launch, ATA drives had reached spindle speeds of 5400 RPM. The Bigfoot, however, took a bit of a step back, reverting to the 3600 RPM spindle speed that's accompanied us throughout the history of the PC hard disk. Quantum argued that a relatively little known parameter, sequential transfer rate, represented an important chunk of net hard disk performance; in this respect, with its increased platter diameters, the Bigfoot didn't lag behind. In addition, Quantum posited that the larger form factor (which burdened much of the blame for the units slow seek times) made the drives much easier to integrate into systems of the time that had surpluses of 5.25" drive bays.

The argument was a persuasive one... the Bigfoot's economical cost and easy integration resulted in large purchases by such industry giants as Compaq and HP. But, as much as Quantum downplayed the importance of access times, it became clear that the Bigfoot family's performance was simply not up to snuff when compared with any other contemporary drive. The final Bigfoot, four generations later, was the "TS" variant. It had ameliorated the situation somewhat by ratcheting spindle speed up to 4000 RPM and shaving average seek times to 10.5 milliseconds. After the TS, the Bigfoot quietly faded away.

For a little while, low-end duties at Quantum were carried by 5400 RPM units such as the Fireball EX and Fireball CR. Eventually, however, such "performance series" 5400 RPM drives were phased out in favor of the "lct," or "low cost technology" line. These drives retained the 5400 RPM spindle speeds featured by their "predecessors," but shaved costs in other areas, such as buffer size (remaining at 512k as competitors advanced to 2 MB) and platter counts. These changes reflected poorly on the drives according to WinBench 99, which showed the lct (and its successor, the lct10) trailing behind offerings from the competition. However, newer methodologies, including the deployment of Intel's IOMeter benchmark, have in fact shown that the lct series is a peppy performer. The relatively low access time displayed by the lct and lct10 power the drives to the top of the 5400 RPM category.

Unfortunately, things are going to change. Quantum has sensed an opportunity with the next iteration of the lct family. These days, increasing attention is being given to the "environmental factors" of drives... ie, noise and heat. Though hardware enthusiasts such as ourselves appreciate such operation, these elements are growing increasingly important in the nascent yet poised-to-explode home entertainment market. Hard disks are going to find themselves in such unsuspecting situations as providing principal storage for the Personal Video Recorder market ("pause, rewind, create instant replays, etc, all on live video feeds!"). These applications demand the utmost in quiet and cool operation. Nobody wants to hear a hard disk grind away while watching TV.

Quantum has thus decided to "optimize" the spindle speed of the next-generation Fireball lct15. Instead of retaining the 5400 RPM spindle speed that's become the mainstay of today's entry-level drives, the company has decided to lower spindle speed (again, a la Bigfoot) to 4400 RPMs. Speaking strictly from a performance standpoint, this increases rotational latency (a component of access time) from 5.6 milliseconds to 6.8ms. Further, Quantum has "optimized" seek times, specifying the lct15 at 12 milliseconds. The family features 15 gigabyte platters and is available in one or two disk configurations for a flagship capacity of 30 gigs. A 512k buffer rounds out the package.

A bit underwhelmed? Frankly, so are we. But let's examine the rationale that went into Quantum's decision. 15 gig platters allow 30 gigs of capacity to be yielded by only two platters. Combined with a spindle speed of only 4400 RPM, the result is a minimization of necessary spindle motor power. In addition to reducing the heat that needs to be dissipated, such lower power levels result in quieter idle noise levels. Similarly, the slower actuator requires less power it its own motor, resulting again in cooler and quieter operation. Finally, these slower, low-power parts cost less than their swifter competition... hopefully this'll yield some rock-bottom prices on the lct15.

"4400 RPM" simply doesn't have a good ring to it and Quantum knows it. They've taken care to refer to the drive as a "sub 7200 RPM" model, disclosing the actual spindle speed in a relative handful of cases. They're fond of the term "optimize." I.E., the drive features "optimized" rather than "reduced" spindle speeds and seek times. They've prepared a lengthy whitepaper arguing that the speed traded off in favor of quieter and cooler operation is well worth it for the typical user. Summarized, Quantum claims that the supposedly significant effect that sequential transfer rates have on overall disk performance combined with buffer hits to cover instances of random access allow users to feel only minimal degradation in performance when dealing with typical tasks such as e-mail, web-browsing, and word processing. In other words, if you don't perform disk intensive tasks, the lct15 won't feel much slower. Uh... yeah. Well... the proof is in the pudding, they say. No, not their pudding... ours!

While Quantum has incorporated benchmarks into their white paper, they're not discerning enough to quantify noticeable differences. Consider the case of Winstone, for example. Measuring disk performance using Winstone yields minimal differences. Before our launch in March 1998, we experimented with Winstone, attempting to correlate it to the differences exhibited by WinBench. Pitting the slowest drive in our possession (then the Fujitsu MPB3064AT) against the fastest (the Seagate Cheetah 4LP) resulted in differences of less than 5%. Few would argue that the Cheetah resulted in a vastly more responsive system. We believe differences in performance are better quantified with WinBench and especially IOMeter. So, without further ado, let's get started.

WB99/Win2k Low-Level Measurements

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Click here to examine the STR graph for this drive

According to its specs, the lct15 should achieve an access time of 12 milliseconds (seek time) plus 6.8 milliseconds- 18.8 milliseconds. WinBench 99 measures an access time of 18.0 milliseconds. So, thankfully, the Fireball beats its specified access time, though when we're up here at relatively stratospheric levels half a millisecond doesn't mean much (0.5 ms -does- mean a lot in the realm of 15k drives, though, where access times are a third of what we see here). Interestingly, an access time of 18 milliseconds means that the lct15 access data just a hair slower than the 5400rpm, 8.9 millisecond Seagate U10. The U10 errs on its specified access time in the opposite direction... and by a significant margin. The difference according to specifications should be over 4 milliseconds. The actual difference is less than half a millisecond.

The lct15 combines state of the art areal density with its rather slow spindle speed. The net result on sequential transfer rates is a bit on the slow side. The lct15 clocks in at just a shade over 20 MB/sec in its outer zones. This is significantly slower than category leader Maxtor, who's 5400 rpm DiamondMax 60 pumps nearly 28 MB/sec off of its outer tracks. Even the 10 GB/platter U10 manages over 24 MB/sec. As a result, even if STR did play a significant role in everyday tasks (something we doubt), the lct15 won't fare well compared to the competition.

But don't take our word for it... let's take a look at more results.

WB99/Win2k WinMarks

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When it comes to Disk Winmarks, the hapless lct15 gets blown away by the DiamondMax 60. In both the Business and High-End Disk WinMarks, Quantum's offering lags behind Maxtor's by margins approaching 40%. A comparison against the much more modest U10 results in less lopsided numbers. The lct15 trails the U10 by margins of 7% and 3% respectively in the Business and High-End tests. The Quantum-Seagate comparison is probably what one should expect from our measured low-level differences as opposed to the gaping difference portrayed by the specs.

Let's take a look at the situation in IOMeter.

IOMeter Performance

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Results yielded from Intel's IOMeter are very interesting indeed! A comparison of the lct15 against the Maxtor DiamondMax 60 under a Linear (lighter than what's encountered in real usage) Workstation load results in the lct15 being walloped... it falls behind the Maxtor by nearly 25%. An intriguing trend emerges as loads increase, however. The lc15 appears to be equipped with adept electronics as this 25% discrepancy narrows down to only 6% in Moderate and Heavy conditions.

The lct15's firmware allows it to compete quite favorably against Seagate's offering in IOMeter. Its raw low-level performance causes it to shadow the U10 by 6% in Linear loads. However, in every other situation the Fireball manages to pull ahead... peaking with a 10% victory under Light conditions. Not too shabby... but then again simply the faster of two very sluggish drives.

Conclusion

So far we've been rather critical of the Fireball lct15. Despite Quantum's attempts to euphemize the picture, the fact is that the lct15 doesn't keep up with the competition in our tests. But we must give credit where credit is due. When it comes to heat and noise levels, the lct15 is second to none. When compared to other silent champs such as the Fujitsu MPD3173AT and, more recently, the Maxtor DiamondMax 60, the Fireball is easily the quietest drive ever. There is absolutely no idle noise discernable over our PC Power & Cooling Silencer power supply. The seeks are the quietest around- inaudible from typical working positions with a midtower resting on the floor. Even when we duck down under the desk, seeks are quite muted and just barely audible over the PS's fan. The drive operates cool to the touch, pure and simple. It'll work in even the most cramped situations.

In conclusion, the lct15's substandard performance precludes us from recommending it to most hardware enthusiasts. For negligible amounts more, one can get drives that offer significantly better performance... drives such as the Maxtor DiamondMax 60 or especially Quantum's own Fireball lct10 (still our reigning leaderboard champion). The lct15 may nevertheless be a drive encountered with increasing frequency in major brand-name systems. For example, Quantum is proud of the fact that HP has gone exclusively with the lct15 in its brand new eVectra, a low-cost, highly-manageable, and downright diminutive system who's very size may drive users to place it on rather than under their desk. In such cases, the lct15 will undoubtedly be the most unobtrusive drive around when it comes to noise. We're just wondering what such users will think about their machine's overall performance.

In a different vein, the lct15's performance is more than adequate for the playback (though not necessarily the editing) of digital video. Its minimum transfer rate of 11.6 MB/sec allows it to keep up with single streams of sequential data. Thus, when it comes to the PVR market, sub-5400rpm drives may very well succeed.

It remains to be seen whether other manufacturers will follow Quantum's lead in lowering spindle speed to more easily facilitate desired noise and heat levels. At least one competitor, Seagate, is plowing firmly ahead at 5400rpm with its next product. Which manufacturer will the others follow? Time will tell.

Quantum Fireball lct15 QML30000LC-A
Estimated Price: $190
Also Available: 20.4 GB; 15.0 GB; 7.5 GB
Specifications
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