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Quantum Fireball Plus KA QM318200KA-A

  April 26, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup.
Evaluation unit provided by Quantum Corp.

With the release of the Fireball EX and the Fireball CR, Quantum quietly staked claims to the title of the world's fastest 5400rpm drive. Quantum's drives have, however, had a tendency to ship months after "same generation" units arrived from competitors. Thus, the premiere of drives that would have heralded new performance levels have instead resulted in low-fanfare "catch-up" comparisons. We've always speculated that Quantum could very well be the bellwether in ATA performance if it could release products as soon as its competitors. Second-generation drives have begun to arrive en force from Western Digital, IBM, and Maxtor; finally, it seems we'll be able to put our speculation to the test, for Quantum is hot on their heels with the release of the Fireball Plus KA.

Quantum Fireball KAThough the KA is in fact Quantum's first 7200rpm ATA unit, an areal density of 4.6 gigs per platter classifies the drive as a "next generation unit." Quantum seems to have capped out the latest units of the "regular" Fireball like at 3 platters per drive (a bit odd, since "last man out" Western Digital finally ascended to four-platter status for its flagship units). The Plus series, fortunately, maintains a four-disk configuration for its top-end drive, thus allowing the largest KA to pack a very competitive 18.2 gigs of space in a single 1" form factor. Though IBM and Western Digital teased us with their initial specs on the latest Deskstar and Caviar/Expert lines (drives which eventually regressed to 9.0 ms seek times), the Fireball Plus KA is the first ATA drive to feature an advertised seek time of 8.5 milliseconds. A 512k buffer, a tad small when compared to those of competitors, rounds out the drive.

This latest unit from Quantum trumpets the arrival of the company's "Data Protection System" (DPS) in the drive's firmware. DPS is basically a quick-run diagnostic suite that's supposed to allow end-users to determine whether problems in a machine are a result of the drive or some other component. Though DPS can be downloaded and run on Quantum drives less than 2.5 years old, integrating it into the KA's firmware further aids ease of use. Yet another salvo fired in the "reliability enhancement" battle. As always, time will tell whether all these features decrease failure rates. The KA is backed by a three-year warranty.

Like the Fireball CR, the KA is an ATA-66 unit and may thus suffer from some incompatibilities that arise with current motherboards that successfully detect the drive as an ATA-66 unit yet lack the ability to run the drive in such a mode. As of this writing, Quantum still has not made available to the public a utility that disables ATA-66 operation. For the purposes of this review, the drive was run off of a Promise Ultra66 controller.

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Before I move on to the typical and expected analysis of the high-level benchmarks, I'd like to appease those of you out there who value the low-level spec of access time above all else . Once again, the Fireball Plus KA sports an advertised seek time of 8.5 milliseconds. If we take that figure and add the average rotational latency of a 7200rpm drive (4.2 milliseconds), we arrive at an average access time of 12.7 milliseconds. Interestingly enough, the KA tests out as low as 11.4 milliseconds, more than a millisecond under the advertised spec. Now how unusual is that? It's also interesting to note that the drives transfer rate rests just a shade below that of the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120 (and thus significantly higher than the latest IBM and WD ATA drives) at over 20 MB/sec. Do such specs mean the drive is the fastest ever? You should know our answer to that: higher-level tests will discern! The tested access time, nevertheless, remains interesting. Taking into account various overheads (the benchmark, head switches, etc), the reported access time is right in line with, say, an advertised 6.9 millisecond seek time. Quite similar to, say, the upcoming Ultra160/m SCSI Atlas IV. Hmm .

There's really two drives that the Fireball Plus KA should be compared to: the IBM Deskstar 22GXP (the reigning Win9x champion, also representative of the Western Digital Expert) and the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120 (the current champ in WinNT). In WinBench 99 tests run under Windows 95, the Fireball Plus KA falls short of the Maxtor 5120 by a mere 1% on the Business Disk WinMark. The Quantum drive is, however, handily trounced by the IBM drive by an 11% margin. In the High-End WinMark, the KA matches the 22GXP, thus racing past the DiamondMax Plus 5120 by 14%.

Under Windows NT, the Quantum drive matches the performance of the 5120 in the Business Disk WinMark and edges out the 22GXP by a margin of 4%. Finally, in the High-End Disk WinMark, the KA lags the Maxtor 5120 by 2%, thus coasting past the IBM drive by about 8%.

Adaptec ThreadMark 2.0 scores place the Fireball Plus KA somewhere between the 5120 and the 22GXP. Though the Quantum disk fell short of the Maxtor by margins of 4%-19%, it led the Deskstar by 9%-16%.

When it comes to temperature, the drive runs a bit warmer than the IBM Deskstar/WD Expert. Not quite as hot as the DiamondMax Plus 5120, but close. Noise, however, is where one pays for this drive. Though idle noise is unnoticeable, seeks churn away a couple notches louder than the competitors. It looks like the user pays for the SCSI-like seek time with SCSI-like noise .

Overall, though low-level benchmarks hint that the drive may push performance into new frontiers, the Quantum Fireball Plus KA turns out to be merely a adept performer that matches its competitors in many areas. Of particular note is the Windows NT performance: when it comes down to it, the Fireball matches the latest Maxtor drive number for number. A formidable feat indeed, something that until now had never been done. In the Win95 arena, though, the drive falls a bit short of the Deskstar/Expert. Noise is also something potential purchasers should consider: it's the loudest ATA drive out there. Even so, the drive delivers excellent performance and is yet another indication that we're entering a "golden age" of sorts where one can't go wrong with the purchase of almost any current ATA drive.

Quantum Fireball Plus KA QM318200KA-A
Estimated Price: $429
Also Available: 6.4 GB, 9.1 GB and 13.6 GB versions
Specifications
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* Note: Threadmark 2.0 and WinBench98 test results are the average of five trials.
WinBench99 test results are the average of three trials.


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