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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 Results

Low-Level Measurements

 Testbed II  Low-Level Measurements Details... 
Windows 2000 Professional using NTFS
Quantum - 11.5 |
IBM - 12.4 |
Seagate - 12.5 |
Fujitsu - 13.2 |
Western Digital - 13.8 |
Maxtor - 14.0 |
IBM - 37200 |
Maxtor - 30167 |
Seagate - 29650 |
Fujitsu - 29100 |
Quantum - 26800 |
Western Digital - 25067 |
Quantum - 20300 |
Seagate - 19900 |
IBM - 19700 |
Fujitsu - 18500 |
Maxtor - 18500 |
Western Digital - 16800 |

Access Time

The evolution of the PC's operating system into today's sophisticated (and bloated) forms has resulted in disk access patterns that are predominately random in nature. EXE & DLL reads, along with swapfile reads and writes, all occur in small increments. As a result, random access time is the dominant parameter when it comes to performance in most applications.

Despite its specified seek time of 8.2ms, the lowest of the group, Seagate's Barracuda ATA II does not walk away with the access time crown; the title goes to Quantum, whose Fireball Plus LM turns in an access time of just 11.5 milliseconds, almost within SCSI territory. Seagate's unit, along with Big Blue's drive, comes in second with a score nearly a millisecond higher. Maxtor and Western Digital, the two popular retail units, bring up the rear with times as high as 14 milliseconds.

Sequential Transfer Rates (STR)

These days, sequential transfer rates have increased to such high levels (not accompanied by proportional decreases in access times) that they've asymptotically written themselves out of the performance picture for most tasks. Even so, there are certain situations where STR is dramatically important. These cases arise with applications that deal with massive data files measured in megabytes... perhaps even gigabytes.

As one would expect, the Deskstar 75GXP's high areal density gives it a huge advantage when it comes to STR. Big Blue's performer turns in an outer-zone score exceeding 37 MB/sec, the first to decisively surpass the 33 MB/sec ATA-33 barrier. This figure is a full 23% faster than the next closest unit, the DiamondMax Plus 40. The WD Caviar 205BA brings up the rear, delivering outer-zone transfer rates of just 25 MB/sec.

Interestingly, though it weighs in near the bottom of the outer-zone STR test with a score of 27 MB/sec, the Quantum Fireball Plus LM is the only unit to deliver an inner zone STR exceeding 20 MB/sec. Scores within the inner zone are much closer, however, with the category-leading Fireball sporting a 20% lead when compared to the bottom of the pack. Contrast this with IBM's outer-zone margin, nearly 50% faster than WD's offering.

 Testbed II  WB99/Win2k WinMarks Details... 
Windows 2000 Professional using NTFS
IBM - 7653 |
Maxtor - 7380 |
Seagate - 7315 |
Western - 7037 |
Quantum - 6713 |
Fujitsu - 6490 |
IBM - 19367 |
Western Digital - 16800 |
Seagate - 16300 |
Quantum - 16033 |
Maxtor - 15700 |
Fujitsu - 14000 |

As time passes, manufacturers find more and more ways to optimize results for the most popular disk benchmark around, ZDBop's WinBench 99. One needs to look no further than a comparison between the Deskstar 75GXP and the 15,000 RPM Seagate Cheetah X15 to call into question WB99's validity these days. When it was fresh, WB99 provided accurate results that paralleled real-world performance. Such accuracy has unfortunately decayed over time. We have high hopes for WB2001 or whatever the next iteration will be called. Until then, however, there are still many who value WinBench 99 results. It is for these readers that we present Disk WinMark results.

Business Disk WinMark 99

The Deskstar 75GXP's high STR along with adept firmware power the drive to the top of the charts with a score exceeding 7.6 MB/sec. Maxtor's intrepid DiamondMax Plus 40 and the Seagate Barracuda ATA II come in a close 2nd and 3rd respectively, however, trailing by about 4%. Fujitsu's MPF-AH brings up the rear, 18% behind the Deskstar.

High-End Disk WinMark 99

A suite even more sensitive to STR than the Business Disk WinMark, the High-End Disk WinMark 99 is again led by the Deskstar 75GXP. Big Blue's victory here is quite decisive- the 75GXP leads the 2nd place WD Caviar 205BA by a full 15%. IBM posts a score nearly 40% higher than that turned in by the hapless Fujitsu.

 Testbed II IOMeter IndiciesDetails... 
Windows 2000 Professional using NTFS
File Server Index
Workstation Index
Database Index
Quantum - 152.29|
IBM - 149.96|
Seagate - 130.49|
Maxtor - 128.80|
Western Digital - 117.50|
Fujitsu - 113.11|
Quantum - 168.64|
IBM - 167.09|
Maxtor - 144.62|
Seagate - 140.26|
Western Digital - 133.39|
Fujitsu - 122.70|
IBM - 149.55|
Quantum - 143.41|
Maxtor - 129.59|
Seagate - 113.30|
Western Digital - 111.53|
Fujitsu - 106.90|

As we've made clear in the past, we believe that IOMeter currently represents the best way to assess hard disk performance. We realize, however, that the large number of figures turned out by our tests can be quite intimidating. In an effort to make our results more accessible to readers, we've devised our IOMeter indices. For those who are familiar with our IOMeter suite, these single-number results are derived by dropping the linear and very light loads (loads so light that they're seldom if ever encountered in actual use), normalizing the remaining three loads (to prevent the inherent weight that the heavier loads exert via their higher scores) and taking the average. For those who aren't familiar with our IOMeter suite... hopefully this'll make the results more useful.

File Server Index

The Fireball LM's impressive seek time delivers it a first place result in our File Server Index. The Deskstar 75GXP places a close second, however, lagging by a mere 1%. The offerings from Western Digital and Fujitsu bring up the rear, trailing by nearly 20%.

Workstation Index

We consider the Workstation Index to be the most important, as it's the test that most represents the average StorageReview.com reader. Here again Quantum rules the roost. And once again, IBM comes in a close second. These two units decisively set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, blowing past the third-place DiamondMax Plus 40 by as much as 16%.

Database Index

Though it's called "Database" (Intel's name for a 67%/33% read/write random access), this index is really more representative of random access. It differs from ZD's test by including writes in addition to reads. Further, the varying loads (I/O counts) bring firmware optimizations into the act. Here we have the Deskstar 75GXP sliding by the Fireball Plus LM by 4%. Quantum in turn bests the third-place DiamondMax Plus 40 by 14%. The Maxtor, likewise, sets itself apart from the rest, leading the fourth-place Seagate Barracuda ATA II by nearly 14%.

Conclusion

Heat and Noise

In general, the temperatures and sounds produced by current-generation 7200 RPM ATA drives are quite a bit lower than the levels found in previous generations. In most situations, as long as a case has sufficient airflow and ventilation, any of these drives will work well from a heat standpoint. When it comes to acoustics, most of our sample drives emit little idle noise detectable above our testbed's PC Power & Cooling Silencer power supply. The Fireball Plus LM stands out when it comes to seeks... the fastest seeker of the group also delivers the loudest noises. To a lesser extent, the Barracuda ATA II's seek noise also stood above the crowd. Notable on the opposite end of the spectrum was the Fujitsu MPF-AH. Equipped with its fluid-bearing motor, the Fujitsu is bar none the quietest drive we've ever used when it comes to both idle and seek noises.

Pricing

Coming up with level pricing schemes is always a challenge when it comes to hard disks. Ideally we'd like to go with manufacturer suggested retail prices (MSRP). These figures unfortunately come out quite uneven. Fujitsu's drives, for example, are priced much higher than the rest of the group while prices provided by Quantum seem to be unrealistically low. Thus, we've decided to go with the pricing found from a reseller that sells all six brands. Finding one is no small feat. Fortunately, we stumbled upon Fujitsu's units (the hardest to find) at a former SR sponsor, Dirt Cheap Drives. DCD also carries all five other brands, forming the basis for a valid relative comparison.

Prices at Dirt Cheap Drives as of 8/10/00
Capacity
10 GB
$92
n/a
n/a
$99
$116
$109
15 GB
$119
$125
$125
$123
20 GB
$152
$165
$143
$155
$149
$149
30 GB
n/a
$199
$195
$189
$179
n/a
40 GB
n/a
n/a
$249
n/a
n/a
n/a
45 GB
n/a
$279
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
60 GB
n/a
$435
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
75 GB
n/a
$549
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
*Unavailable From Dirt Cheap Drives

The capacities priced above reflect all units available with the exception of the 15 GB Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 40, a drive not listed on DCD's site. Let's take a look at these same prices adjusted for capacity... i.e., how much each gig costs you.

Prices at Dirt Cheap Drives as of 8/10/00 ($/GB)
Capacity
10 GB
$9.20
n/a
n/a
$9.90
$11.60
$10.90
15 GB
$7.93
$8.33
$8.33
$8.20
20 GB
$7.60
$8.25
$7.15
$7.75
$7.45
$7.45
30 GB
n/a
$6.63
$6.50
$6.30
$5.97
n/a
40 GB
n/a
n/a
$6.23
n/a
n/a
n/a
45 GB
n/a
$6.20
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
60 GB
n/a
$7.25
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
75 GB
n/a
$7.32
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
*Unavailable From Dirt Cheap Drives

A few interesting figures stand out. The Seagate Barracuda ATA II weighs in as the most expensive drive per gig in its 10 GB incarnation. The flagship $30 gig model, however, is offers the most capacity for your buck... the only drive less than $6/GB. If you're looking for a drive above 30 gigs in size, you have options from only Maxtor and IBM. If you need more than 40 gigs, Big Blue's your only choice. Note that the higher capacities don't necessarily deliver the lower price per gig that one may expect. The 20 gig capacity is the only one represented by all six manufacturers. Here we find that IBM and Quantum, the decisive performance leaders, run a wee bit more in price than the competition. At this level, Maxtor's DiamondMax Plus 40 comes out as the least expensive unit.

StorageReview.com Editor's Choice: IBM Deskstar 75GXP
Honorable Mention: Quantum Fireball Plus LM

StroageReview.com's Editors ChoiceIn the end, the competition for "top drive" comes down to two units: IBM's Deskstar 75GXP and Quantum's Fireball LM. Both units deliver top-class low-level performance that translates into best-of-class performance in IOMeter, our all-important test. When it comes to IOMeter, the Fireball leads the Deskstar ever so slightly. Even so, the IBM delivers significantly better transfer rates (40% faster on outer tracks), better capacity options (up to 45 gigs while maintaining the performance outlined here), and less operating noise. Thus, our year Summer 2000 7200 RPM ATA Editor's Choice goes to the IBM Deskstar 75GXP. Big Blue's always been a close contender in our previous roundups; this time, they've gotten it right. This drive is a next-generation unit that's available today.

The Fireball Plus LM, however, deserves a strong honorable mention. After all, it does come out as the absolute best drive in our IOMeter suite. Further, if you don't mind the bit of extra noise and the capacity ceiling of 30 gigs, it's a bit less costly than the Deskstar. The Fireball Plus LM is a SCSI design in an ATA chassis and it shows.

Coming Soon

No roundup would be complete without outlining what's "just around the corner" for those willing to wait . In a month or two, Maxtor will join IBM at the 15 GB/platter plateau with its 3-platter DiamondMax Plus 45. The Plus 45 is the first drive from Maxtor that's officially specified with a seek time under 9 milliseconds.

A month later, watch for the Quantum Fireball Plus AS. Instead of joining Big Blue at 15 GB/platter, Quantum has decided to leapfrog the competition, promising a 7200 RPM ATA drive that packs a whopping 20 gigs on a single platter. Also intriguing is Quantum's limited debut of fluid-bearing motors. They'll be available for a nominal increase in cost. Quantum indicates that the AS will be the first Fireball Plus designed "from the ground up" for the ATA interface rather than being a SCSI drive retrofit into an ATA chassis. We're not sure if this will be a good or bad thing. Hopefully the AS will keep intact the Fireball Plus franchise's stellar access time.

Though they have yet to make an official announcement, we expect Seagate to also be at the forefront. They've skipped 15 gigs per disk with their recently announced U5 citing lack of industry demand; their next-generation 7200 RPM product will likewise do the same. We've heard nothing about next-generation units from Fujitsu and Western Digital. We expect them to remain competitive, however, announcing 15 GB/platter units in the near future. Finally, we come to the inscrutable IBM. They may very well rest on their laurels for now. After all, they've been shipping a 15 GB/platter unit for a couple months now. Big Blue's known to occasionally sit out on a generation of units. Just as 20 GB/platter units start to ship and make the 75GXP passé, we may see IBM announce the first drive featuring 27 GB/platter. Who knows? Time will tell!


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