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StorageReview.com's ATA Drive Roundup - Summer 1998

  August 1, 1998 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Summer 1998 SCSI Drive Roundup
See also our Drive Cooler Roundup

In the last six months we've seen some interesting improvements to the standard ATA drive. Most notable, of course, is the emergence of the 7200rpm drive. Formerly territory where only SCSI drives ventured, faster spindle speeds allow a two-fold improvement. Firstly, speedier rotation allows data to pass under and thus be read by the read/write heads more quickly. Secondly, data can be located and accessed more quickly due to decreased latency and access time.

The 7200rpm offerings starting to appear from some companies creates a schism in the ATA drive arena. This isn't necessarily due to performance; rather, the 7200rpm drives differ from their more mundane cousins in heat/noise and distribution issues. You can walk into your local electronics/computer superstore and find most of the 5400rpm drives we've listed shrink wrapped in neat retail boxes complete with trimmings such as extensive manuals, mounting rails, cables, overlay software, etc. If you're looking 7200rpm, though, you're probably looking at small specialty stores or mail-order vendors who predominately deliver OEM, bare-drive solutions.

Some interesting strides are being made towards increasing ATA drive reliability, most notably Quantum's Shock Protection System. Even so, every drive's warranty remains at an industry-standard level of 3 years. ATA drives are giving many SCSI drives a run for their money for typical usage, but the reliability still isn't quite there- if avoiding drive failure is tantamount, look towards SCSI drives backed by 5 year warranties.

The Storage Review has maintained an informal policy of evaluating the largest available drive within a given drive family. From time to time we'll look at a drive whose larger brother has been previously reviewed; we usually do this for some other purpose than evaluating the drive family itself. Using some common sense along with some evidence that the SR database provides (Quantum Fireball SE family, Maxtor DiamondMax 2880 family, Seagate Medalist Pro 7200 family), it's safe to assume that all drives within a given family will provide near-identical performance.

ATA busmastering is a mature and usable technology. With the correct patches in Windows 95 and Windows NT, or out of the box with Windows 98, CPU utilization of ATA drives is every bit as low as that of SCSI drives. Let's dispense with the notion that it is not-- this is simply an old, anachronistic view based on inconsistent and outdated comparisons (i.e. PIO ATA vs. DMA SCSI).


7200rpm ATA drives - Storage Review Editor's Choice
Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 2500

The introduction of faster spindle speeds in the ATA landscape has ratcheted drive performance to an all-time high. A look at the Storage Review database sorts will show that the 7200rpm ATA drives can go toe to toe with their 7200rpm SCSI counterparts in most tests. These higher benchmark numbers do translate into noticeable real-world performance. Unless you are running many concurrent tasks or performing seek intensive tasks (sorting records in a large database), ATA drives will give you the same performance SCSI units for far less money. Finishing first in the majority of tests and a close second in the rest, the DiamondMax Plus 2500 is the fastest ATA drive you can currently buy. While the 2500's maximum capacity of 10 gigs may not excite some people in an age where 1" tall drives are breaking 15 gigs, it's still a solid amount of data delivered to the user at breakneck speeds. IBM's Deskstar 14GXP is also a viable contender. Though not quite as fast as the Maxtor in several tests, the IBM is available as a capacious 14.4 gig monster. The Seagate Medalist Pro, although the first to hit 7200, is already old news. Though it features fluid-bearings that may reduce idle spin noise below that of the competition, the same bearings may be partly to blame for the drive's warm operating temperature. The Medalist Pro's seek noise is also rather noticeable for an ATA drive. Remember, with any of these choices, a drive cooler is recommended.

7200 RPM ATA Drives *
Drive Noise Temp BDW-95 BDW-NT HEW-95 HEW-NT TM-95 TM-NT Price
IBM
Deskstar 14GXP
Quiet Warm 1774 1908 4884 4964 6.09 7.57 $580
Maxtor
DiamondMax Plus 2500
Quiet Warm 1686 2110 4740 5104 7.46 9.45 $400
Seagate
Medalist Pro
Moderate Hot 1574 1830 4558 4472 6.61 8.29 $295

Compare the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 2500

5400rpm ATA drives - Storage Review Editor's Choice
Maxtor DiamondMax 2880

7200rpm ATA drives may not be for everyone. Though they may provide the very best in ATA performance, certain things are problematic. There's no denying that most 7200rpm drives run much warmer and louder than their 5400rpm counterparts. If you are running a system in a minitower crammed with peripherals and cables, your system's ventilation may not be the best around, so a 7200rpm unit would be ill-advised. But never fear, 5400rpm drives are available at great prices and deliver decent performance. The DiamondMax 2880 features cool operation, various capacity points, is easily purchasable, comes in retail boxes embellished with all the trimmings, is available at low prices, and provides good performance and a great warranty policy to boot. What more could one ask? The DiamondMax 3400 is also starting to appear in retail channels offering many of the same benefits, though not the greater performance that one may expect from a newer drive. The IBM Deskstar 16GP is the drive for you if you need the largest there is. The drive spans a wide range of sizes and may be worth considering, though its performance in most cases is matched and even exceeded by the Maxtor pair. Last generation's leader of the pack, the IBM Deskstar 8, also warrants a mention. Although it might not keep up with the latest 5400rpm drives, it is still just about the quietest and coolest drive you can buy.

5400 RPM ATA Drives *
Drive Noise Temp BDW-95 BDW-NT HEW-95 HEW-NT TM-95 TM-NT Price
IBM
Deskstar 8
Very
Quiet
Cool 1394 1572 4012 3774 4.75 5.79 $260
IBM
Deskstar 16GP
Quiet Moderate 1518 1662 4372 4432 6.00 6.87 $515
Maxtor
DiamondMax 2880
Quiet Cool 1470 1880 4198 4740 6.92 8.47 $345
Maxtor
DiamondMax 3400
Quiet Cool 1424 1816 4106 4626 6.64 8.34 $370
Quantum
Bigfoot TX
Very
Quiet
Cool 981 1182 2974 3010 5.09 6.03 $315
Quantum
Fireball EL
Very
Quiet
Warm 1508 1892 4352 4402 5.72 6.89 $325
Western Digital
Caviar
Quiet Cool 1232 1456 3630 3558 5.41 6.57 $250

Compare the Maxtor DiamondMax 2880

Yes, Maxtor earns a sweep of our first ATA awards. Are some eyebrows raised out there? Are we biased towards Maxtor drives? No, not at all. We are biased towards performance, heat/noise issues, price, and availability. Under this light, it would be a disservice to Maxtor and a compromise of editorial integrity to bestow the awards on anything but the 2500 and 2880. The drive industry is constantly changing, however, so things may be quite different next time around. No doubt about it though, today's leader in ATA storage is Maxtor Corp., with an honorable nod going to Big Blue.
Notable ommisions
The following drives have either not yet entered distribution channels or were not obtainable by the Storage Review in time for this roundup. It is, however, a top priority to evaluate these units and to add them to the SR database.

Fujitsu MPC30xxAH
   7200rpm
   2.25 GB/platter
   512k buffer
   9ms

Fujitsu MPC30xxAT
   5400rpm
   3.24 GB/platter
   256k buffer
   10ms

Quantum Fireball EX
   5400rpm
   3.2 GB/platter
   512k buffer
   9.5ms

Samsung VG36483A
   5400rpm
   2.1 GB/platter
   512k buffer
   10ms

Western Digital AC310100
   5400rpm
   3.4 GB/platter
   512k buffer
   9.5ms

The "No Thanks" Award


Western Digital continues to label its retail boxes with bold label proclaiming their units the "worlds most recommended hard drive." In our March 1998 ATA drive roundup, The WD AC36400 provided unexceptional performance in our Windows95 WinBench tests. Since that review, most drive manufacturers have introduced at least one new generation of hard disks. Also since, we've expanded our benchmark tests to include Adaptec's ThreadMark 2.0 along with NT testing. Has anything changed since then? Very little! Though the AC38400 sports a higher areal density, it seems most of the increase may be attributed to increased track density rather than linear data density. Save some nominal increases in ThreadMark results, the newer drive performed no better than its undistinguished predecessor. Is Western Digital paying for skimping on R&D over the past few years? Maybe so. Hopefully things will eventually pick up for this ATA pioneer. Though fruition of the deal is still distant, WD has entered licensing agreements with IBM, a hard disk leader. WD also recently announced a 10.1GB disk that features a 512k buffer, perhaps an indication that the company is once again making serious attempts at providing performance. The Storage Review, will, of course, evaluate the drive ASAP.

Overclocking ATA Drives
The arrival of true 100 MHz bus speeds on many motherboards has done nothing to slow down the tendency of most hardware enthusiasts to push their hardware to its limits. Bus speeds of 112 and 133 MHz (yielding PCI speeds of 37.3 MHz and 44.3 MHz respectively) are common on "100 MHz" system boards. The Storage Review has a very rough experimental overclocking survey in place, long over due for replacement with a more robust system and a more concise definition of "successful overclocking." Note that successful overclocking in -my- book is stable system operation without data loss while running in DMA mode. The notion of getting hard drive to overclock "successfully" by running it in PIO mode seems to excite a lot of people. A 25% gain in CPU speed with the small sacrifice of going from 5% to 95% CPU utilization when the disk is being accessed? No thanks, I'll have to pass.

* Table Abbreviations and Units Of Measure
Noise Subjective perception of noise
Temp Subjective perception of operating temperature
BDW-95 Business Disk WinMark 98 under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in KB/sec
BDW-NT Business Disk WinMark 98 under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in KB/sec
HEW-95 High-End Disk WinMark 98 under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in KB/sec
HEW-NT High-End Disk WinMark 98 under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in KB/sec
TM-95 ThreadMark 2.0 Transfer Rate under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in MB/sec
TM-NT ThreadMark 2.0 Transfer Rate under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in MB/sec
Price Estimated street price current as of August 1st, 1998
* Note: All reported test results are the average of five trials.


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