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Summer 2000 7200 RPM ATA Drive Roundup


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Summer 2000 7200 RPM ATA Drive Roundup

  August 13, 2000 Author: Eugene Ra  

Introduction

It's hard to believe that it's already been a year since our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup. Last year, we were comparing state of the art drives that weighed in at around 20 gigs. Superparamagnetic limits aside, hard disk capacities inexorably move upwards as time passes. Hard disks these days are easily 40 gigs in size, with larger units, as always, just around the corner. Last year Western Digital's Expert and Caviar, drives that performed remarkably similarly to IBM's Deskstar series, swept StorageReview.com's 1999 Editor's Choice Awards. How have things changed? Come with us as we survey the 7200 RPM drive scene as it stands this summer.

In the past, we've taken a look at both the 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM arenas in a single article. In this article, however, we're going to focus exclusively on 7200 RPM offerings. A roundup featuring 5400 RPM drives will follow in the near future.

7200 RPM hard disks will represent the high-end of the ATA world for quite some time to come. Despite the rabid hopes of budget-conscious performance freaks, manufacturers see little demand in the marketplace for 10k+ units. Indications are that 10k RPM ATA drives are still at least two years away from the market. In the mean time, most 7200 RPM drives have much room for improvement before they match the access times of today's 7200 RPM SCSI units. Remember, the principal advantage of faster spindle speeds for most applications is not an increase in sequential transfer rates but rather a reduction in rotational latency (and thus access times). The same performance advantage that would be garnered by ratcheting up an ATA unit's spindle speed to 10k would be achieved more easily through reducing seek times by 1.2 milliseconds. Think about that for a moment.

As it did last year, today's ATA hard disk industry consists of six major manufacturers: Fujitsu, IBM, Maxtor, Quantum, Seagate, and Western Digital. November 8th 1999 marked the announcement of the first 10 GB/platter 7200 RPM unit, the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 40. Approximately a month later, we managed to get our hands on one of these highly anticipated units and put it through its paces. Under our previous testbed and previous methodologies, Maxtor's drive delivered stunning performance increases. Unfortunately, the drive itself didn't make its way into the channel for another two months. Desperate and anguished posters riddled the SR Discussion Forum with questions on when consumers would see the drives. As it turns out, despite Maxtor's early announcement, the DiamondMax Plus 40 became widely available right around the time that units from Western Digital and Quantum hit the street. Seagate followed shortly thereafter. It was, however, IBM's announcement in March of the 15 GB/platter Deskstar 75GXP that stole the thunder from all. Such density combined with IBM's 5-platter design yielded a flagship capacity of a wopping 75 gigs... the largest of any drive, ATA or SCSI.

Speaking of platter counts- they're going down. In our last roundup, every participating 7200 RPM drive featured a flagship model sporting four platters. Now, however, Seagate and Quantum have scaled back to three platters, topping out at 30 gigs. Fujitsu and Western Digital have pulled back even further, offering flagship capacities of just 20 gigs. Only Maxtor (and, of course, Big Blue) has maintained a 4-platter assembly. Why? As savvy readers know, areal density consists of two dimensions: track density and sectors per track (SPT). It's the increase in SPT that drives the increase in sequential transfer rates. Conventional wisdom indicates that increasing track density, that is, placing tracks physically closer together, would reduce seek times by reducing the physical distance that the actuator must travel. However, while serving to reduce distances, increased track densities demand increased precision from the actuator assembly. As additional arms are added to the actuator, care must be taken to ensure that they always align perfectly within a given cylinder. This task becomes exponentially more difficult with each arm added. Imperfect alignments will often result in overshoots that increase access time. As a result, most manufacturers have chosen to pare down their flagship models to just three platters or less. They feel the tradeoffs involved in achieving highcapacity (decreases in seek performance and/or the dramatically increased costs associated with maintaining perfectly aligned high-arm-count actuators) simply aren't worth pursuing. Even stalwart Maxtor plans to decrease its flagship platter count to three in its next 7200 RPM drive.

This decrease in performance when venturing beyond three platters with today's state of the art densities can be witnessed in the Deskstar 75GXP line. The 3-platter, 45 gig version of the drive posts significantly lower access times than the 5-platter flagship. This results in significantly better scores across the board. As a result, we've stuck with the 3-platter model for the purposes of this comparison.

That said, we'd like to remind readers of a general rule that's held over the two years of SR: Performance within a given family of drives is similar throughout the entire line, regardless of capacity/platter count. As a result, the figures presented here for each individual drive are representative of all the capacities within a given family. Within the context of this review, the scores garnered for a 45 gig member of one family are directly comparable to a 10 gig member of a different manufacturer's line. We apologize for taking an entire paragraph to hammer home this very simply point. Inquiries regarding this issue commonly appear in our mailboxes as well as the Discussion Forum.

All the drives represented here feature the ATA-66 interface. Since the June 5th introduction of ATA-100, most of these drives have been retrofitted and are now available with the newer standard. It should be noted, however, that even the fastest unit sports a sequential transfer rate of only 37 MB/sec, well within the limits of ATA-66. Utilization of the ATA-100 interface will not provide a detectable speed increase. ATA-66, and in most cases, ATA-33, will deliver optimum performance. ATA-100 has simply been introduced to pave the way for higher bandwidth when it becomes necessary... which will be the case in about a year.

This roundup consists of the following drives:

Featured Drives
Specification
Model
MPF-AH
Deskstar 75GXP
DiamondMax Plus 40
Fireball Plus LM
Barracuda ATA II
Caviar 205BA
Spindle Speed
7200 RPM
7200 RPM
7200 RPM
7200 RPM
7200 RPM
7200 RPM
Seek Time
8.5 ms
8.5 ms
9.0 ms
8.5 ms
8.2 ms
9.0 ms
GB/Platter
10 GB
15 GB
10 GB
10 GB
10 GB
10 GB
Buffer
2 MB
2 MB
2 MB
2 MB
2 MB
2 MB

Without further ado, let's examine some comparative results!

 Performance...


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