Western Digital's AC420400, up until now the latest and greatest 5400rpm disk from the ATA pioneer, combined balanced performance and competitive price to snag top honors in our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup. Since then, next generation ATA drives sporting 6.8 GB/platter have been trickling in from manufacturers such as Maxtor and Quantum. Though these drives feature a higher areal density and thus a faster transfer rate, the WD drive still manages to compare quite favorably. Thus, with great anticipation, we've waited for WD's latest 5400rpm unit, the Caviar WD205AA.
As many may recall, WD's pre-1999 lineup of ATA drives suffered from rather lethargic performance. It was not until the AC420400 that WD vaulted to the forefront of performance. Many noted that the specifications, appearance, and performance of the AC420400 were suspiciously close to IBM's Deskstar 25GP. Were they the same drive? The answer we've received from several sources has been ambiguous. It is clear, however, that the two drive families shared much common technology. The relevance of all this to an end-user, though, is questionable: the bottom line was that a company with a strong retail presence was finally delivering competitive performance to the masses.
It's interesting to note that with this next generation, Western Digital and IBM seem to be diverging somewhat. WD has opted to stick with 6.8 gigs per platter and join other manufacturers with the timely release of a next-generation 5400rpm drive. IBM, on the other hand, will trump the competition with a drive featuring 7.4 GB/platter- several months later, that is. Sources indicate that such drives won't hit general availability until October [Editor's Note (8/15/99): Reports are coming in that the Deskstar is actually available for sale at the time of this writing, a dramatic improvement in IBM's time-to-market abilities].
Like its contemporaries from Maxtor and Quantum, the WD205AA is a 5400rpm drive that features 6.8 gigs per platter. After having finally reached the four platter per drive plateau, WD has chosen to revert back to a maximum of three platters per unit for its Caviar line. This tactic, also adhered to by Quantum, has a two fold effect. First, those considering plain-vanilla 5400rpm drives likely have lower capacity needs. Secondly, it will allow the next iteration of WD's premiere ATA line, the Expert series, to hold a capacity advantage over the Caviar line. A 9.5 millisecond access time and a two megabyte buffer round out the package.
The "ATA reliability enhancement parade" marches on with this latest Caviar's release. The drive's electronics feature a more integrated architecture that reduces component count. The drive also takes the now standard "auto park" (parking of read/write heads when idle) one step further by parking heads when other drive components lose functionality. This "protective head parking" feature will hopefully keep your platters fully intact and undamaged in the event that you require professional data recovery from the drive. The drive is backed by a three-year warranty.
It should be noted that the close capacity between the WD205AA (20.5 gigs) and the previous generation AC420400 (20.4 gigs) has resulted in WD's use of the same retail box. The evaluation unit reviewed here was sent to us in a retail box directly by Western Digital. This box is marked "20.4 GB" with the model listed as "20400RTL," same as the AC420400. Only when we opened the box were we greeted with a small leaflet telling us we've received 100 megs of extra space for "free." Searching for a 205AA in a retail store will be difficult due to this ambiguity.
As an ATA-66 drive, the WD205AA may pose problems to some current motherboards running an Award BIOS. If you don't have a dedicated ATA-66 drive, we recommend disabling ATA-66 operation with this utility. No loss of performance will occur running this drive in ATA-33.