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Western Digital Vantage WD183F

  December 1, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
Evaluation unit provided by Western Digital Corp.

An explosion of value-class peripherals has hit the market recently to capitalize on the burgeoning growth of the entry-level sector. Consumers eat up ever lower-priced systems with unbridled enthusiasm. I'm guilty too. Visiting my sister in Gaithersburg, MD (I live in Orlando), I had to respond to a plea to fix constant blue screens. This, of course, resulted in rummaging through stores to find a caddy to use in her 4x SCSI-based CD-ROM. It promised to be a hopeless and time-consuming pursuit. In the end, however, I ended up eyeing an entry-level machine made by HP for $599. Although, it was i810-based, I realized I'd be hard pressed to put together a machine with similar components and features at such a price (terabytes of storage just lying around back in Orlando not withstanding ). We determined that just purchasing such this new machine to replace her aging P133 FX motherboard unit would be the best course. She's quite happy. The million dollar question, of course- what hard disk was the machine equipped with? A peek at the innards revealed an 8.4 gig drive manufactured by Samsung. It's this market that well-known manufacturers such as Maxtor and Quantum are gunning for.

Often we writers find ourselves using the term "value-class" in a euphemistic sense. We're referring to what in less politically correct terms is the low-end. Value, however, is simply price-to-performance ratio, right? Indeed, several times in the Discussion Forum we've seen interested readers inquiring about when 10,000rpm ATA drives will be available for purchase by cash-conscious power-users. Well, we're still waiting for this most interesting breed of drive. Western Digital, however, has made an interesting move by introducing what they refer to as a value-class 10k rpm drive line, the Vantage series.

Right up front we should make clear that the Vantage is indeed still a SCSI-based unit. Thus, like all other SCSI value lines (such as the now defunct Quantum Fireball and Seagate Medalist Pro series), the Vantage's price will be subject to SCSI premiums driven by its lower-volume, niche-market status. As evidenced by our tests at WD's latest SCSI drives (the WDE18300 and WDE18310), WD has taken some promising strides in becoming a competitive player in the SCSI market. The 7200rpm 18300 and 10k rpm 18310 were among the fastest units in their classes.

Though it features 10k rpm operation, WD is positioning the Vantage as a competitor to 7200rpm units. The stated goal of Vantage is to provided a performance solution for entry-level servers and higher end PCs, a role often served by the workhorse 7200rpm SCSI drive. This raises an interesting question: What exactly are the benefits of 10k rpm operation? Stepping away from the Vantage for a moment, let's answer that question in a general sense. Given the same linear and track densities, an increase in spindle speed from 7200rpm to 10,000rpm results in a rotational latency reduction of 28%. On average, a 10k drive will simply have to wait less time than a 7200rpm unit for the requested data to come under the heads once they're moved into the proper position. In addition, with a given areal density, data simply passes faster under the head (by 39%) once the read starts, enabling swifter retrieval.

The Vantage's configuration of 4.3 gigs per platter ensures that it'll transfer data faster than all of today's 7200rpm SCSI drives. As we demonstrated in a control test utilizing WD's own Enterprise 10k, however, even a massive increase in data transfer rate doesn't significantly affect several types of applications. Further, in the case of those applications that are significantly affected by STR, 7200rpm drives featuring up to 9 gigs per platter have been announced by some players. Thus, the Vantage's faster spindle speed doesn't garner it much advantage in the way of sequential transfer rates.

Today's state-of-the-art 10k rpm drives bring seek times hovering around 5 milliseconds to the table. The Vantage, however, specs out at a bit more sedate 6.6ms, a difference of 1.6ms. The difference in rotational latencies between a 10k rpm drive and 7200rpm unit works out to around 1.17ms. These figures factor into calculation of average access time. Thus, it's curious to note that, at least in terms of access times, a 7200rpm drive featuring a 5 millisecond seek time would have been more revolutionary than a 10k rpm disk with a 6.6ms seek. A 5ms 7200rpm drive doesn't exist yet, however the Vantage does. Today's state of the art 7200rpm drives feature access times as low as 6.3 milliseconds. The next-generation will feature seeks as low as 5.9ms. Thus, when it comes to access times, the Vantage should hold an edge.

Two megabytes of buffer, fairly typical for both SCSI and ATA drives these days, rounds out the package. In an interesting parallel to the shorter warranties offered on the ATA Fireball lct and DiamondMax VL20, the Vantage series offers a three year rather the more SCSI-standard five year warranty.

At this point some readers may wonder what, other than seek time, differentiates the Vantage series from WD's own enterprise 10k. WD acknowledges that the platters and reliability-enhancement features between the two lines are identical. The answer lies in some physical aspects and options. First, the Enterprise 10k offers an "A/V optimized" version equipped with an eight meg rather than two meg buffer. Secondly, the Enterprise line will feature Ultra 160/m versions of its drives. Finally, the Vantage series will feature narrow versions of the drive (the Enterprise 10k is unavailable in a narrow config) to accommodate lower-priced SCSI setups. With these differences in mind, the Vantage we received for evaluation is remarkably similar to our Enterprise evaluation unit. The big difference, again, is seek time: the Vantage features a 6.6ms seek while the Enterprise is specified at 5.0. It appears that this pair of drives provides an opportunity for controlled testing of seek time differences.

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First, let's take a look how the Vantage compares with its big brother, the Enterprise 10k. Just how much difference does a 1.6 millisecond slower seek time make? WinBench 99 running under Windows NT places the Vantage's access time at 10.3ms compared to the Enterprise's 8.8ms figure. The difference is a 1.5ms, very close to the specified gap. In other terms, the Vantage's average accesses are about 15% slower than those of the Enterprise. Unfortunately, however, transfer rates muddy the waters. Despite specified Media to Buffer transfer rates of 45 MB/sec, Tracks per inch specs of 13500, and areal density specs of 3.311 gigs per square inch for both drives, reported transfer rates under WinBench 99 differ between the two units. The Vantage clocks in at 25.2 MB/sec on its outer tracks, 10% slower than the Enterprise's 28 MB/sec result. Opportunity lost. Some may point out that our own earlier test showing that large differences in transfer rate are required for high-level performance changes stands as enough evidence to ignore this variable. We're uncomfortable with such, however. Interpret these differences as you will.

In the Business Disk WinMark run under Windows 9x, the Vantage trails the Enterprise by a margin of 8%. The High-End WinMark gap widens to 10%. Tests under NT yield similar results, the Vantage lagging behind the Enterprise by 9% in Business tests and 8% in the High-End. Finally, ThreadMark results place the Vantage behind by 3% in Win9x and 10% in NT.

It's safe to say, of course, that WD didn't create the Vantage to compete against the Enterprise 10k or any other 10k rpm disk for that matter. The company is quick to emphasize that the drive is priced to compete with and top today's 7200rpm drives. The best-of-class 7200rpm drive as of this writing is the Quantum Atlas IV. So, how does the Vantage stack up?

WinBench99 tests under Windows 9x display modest gains, 3% increases in both the Business and High-End WinMarks. Differences under NT are a bit more meaty, yielding an 11% Business difference and 13% in the High-End. Likewise, ThreadMark shows differences in the teens, the Vantage leading the Atlas by 11% in Win9x and 16% in NT.

When it comes to heat and noise, the Vantage lives up to its billing. The drive operates with no detectable high-pitch whine. Seeks, as one should always expect for a SCSI drive, are audible but quite tolerable, yielding about the same noise as an Atlas IV. Most importantly, the drive operates well outside a drive cooler; after extended use, it was only warm to the touch.

A budget 10k rpm drive, the Vantage doesn't quite reach the lofty heights set by the Atlas 10k and WD's own Enterprise 10k. But the Vantage is faster than the fastest 7200rpm drive. Western Digital supplied us with an MSRP of $595 for the Vantage (which is quite likely much higher than what you'll see it going for street price- the $695 MSRP Enterprise 10k, for example, can be had for just over $600). We haven't been able to find the Vantage for sale anywhere at the time of this writing, however, and thus couldn't garner an estimated street price based on actual reseller pricing. If the Vantage ends near the same cost as 7200rpm drives as WD insists, though, you'll get a drive that's a bit faster with the same noise and heat properties. It's a drive you definitely want to watch out for if you're shopping for a 7200rpm SCSI disk

Western Digital Vantage WD183F
Estimated Price: $500
Also Available: WD91F (9.1 GB version)
Specifications
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* Note: Threadmark 2.0 test results are the average of five trials.
WinBench99 test results are the average of three trials.


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