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Western Digital Expert AC418000

  March 16, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup.
Evaluation unit provided by Dirt Cheap Drives

Since the inception of the Storage Review, we've been waiting for the co-inventor of the ATA interface to become a performance force in today's ATA drive market. Western Digital's influence in the market is so great, in fact, that their term "Enhanced IDE" (EIDE) has become a de facto synonym for ATA drives. Even the latest Caviar (excluding an upcoming 5.1 GB/platter version), the AC313000, posted sub-par scores.

Western Digital Caviar ExpertNearly a year ago, Western Digital announced that it had forged a partnership with IBM to license many performance and capacity-enhancing features, most notably Big Blue's Giant-Magneto Resistive (GMR) head technology. GMR would allow WD to pack more data on a platter than ever before, bringing with it all the performance benefits seen from an increased areal density. It was stated in press releases that the benefits from this partnership would be seen in the first half of 1999. Well, finally, the time has arrived. WD is shipping drives with IBM technology involved, the first being the Expert AC418000.

The AC418000 is revolutionary for Western Digital in several ways. First, of course, is the aforementioned incorporation of IBM's technology. Secondly, the drive is the first four-platter unit from WD. In the past, WD's flagship drive in each model would feature 3 rather than 4 platters. Combined with a rather sluggish time-to-market, there were several periods of time where WD's drive sizes were embarrassingly low (most notably after Maxtor released an 11.5 GB drive, a full 80% larger than WD's largest for more than two months). In a fashionable turnaround, however, WD was the first to ship a "second-generation" drive to the market. It is, actually, WD's first 7200rpm ATA product. WD (for one reason or another) missed shipping a drive in the first salvo of 7200rpm units. The Expert's hefty 4.6 gigs per platter, however, throw it right in the thick of things with the upcoming second-generation units from its competitors. Thus, this new drive packs 18 gigs of storage in it's 1" profile. Originally, I recall WD listing an 8.5 millisecond seek time in the product press release. The shipping unit, however, is toned down slightly to a 9.0 ms spec. The drive features a truly enormous 2 megs of buffer. A three-year warranty protects the disk.

An ATA-66 drive, Expert didn't flawlessly enter our LX-based testbed. As was the case with the Caviar AC313000, I had to use WD's WDATA66 utility (downloadable from their web site) to disable ATA-66 operation. When I first encountered the problem with the Caviar (an evaluation unit provided by WD themselves), I was assured that shipping retail units would have ATA-66 operation disabled by default. The Expert reviewed here, however, came from an end-user retailer rather than the manufacturer themselves. ATA-66 operation was still enabled. Hmm. [Editor's Note (4/5/99): The AC418000 has since been retested with ATA-66 enabled running off of a Promise Ultra66 controller card. The figures represented below reflect ATA-66 operation.]

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The Expert, like the 18 gig Ultra2 SCSI WD Enterprise, is the first drive of its class to hit the market. Thus, there are no other second-generation 7200rpm ATA drives with which to compare the Expert. Even so, some of the Expert's performance figures should raise eyebrows. WinBench 98 performance, particularly, are otherworldly! In High-End Disk WinMark 98 tests, for example, the Expert races past the 12,000rpm Hitachi Pegasus. The Expert's Business Disk WinMark 98 results aren't far behind either. In fact, these figures are so lofty that I couldn't help but think about the Caviar AC313000's WinBench 98 performance. Like the Expert, the Caviar posted exceptional scores under WB98, but fell flat in WB99.

So, the question is begged, how does the Expert stack up in WinBench 99? Amazingly well! In the Business Disk WinMark 99 run under Windows 95, for example, the Expert blows past the Maxtor DiamondMax 4320 by a margin of 22%. The gap widens under the High-End WinMark to an incredible 37%! That's very impressive performance for Win95. Under Windows NT, the AC418000 provides admirable, but not stratospheric, performance. Here the 5400rpm Maxtor and 7200rpm WD end up in a dead heat in the Business Disk WinMark. In the High-End tests, the Expert manages to pull ahead, though by a relatively modest 7%.

The AC41800's ThreadMark score under Windows 95 was quite respectable, a full 27% faster than the Maxtor 4320. Under NT, however, the gap fell to a miniscule 2%.

As the first 7200rpm disk from Western Digital, the levels noise and heat generated by the Expert are commendable. Outside a drive cooler, the WD operates only mildly warm to the touch. It's definitely a notch cooler than the DiamondMax Plus 2500 and the Deskstar 14GXP. The noise produced by the WD is along the same level as the Maxtor and IBM: it's quiet.

Its WinBench scores under Windows 95 seem to good to be true. Is the Expert AC418000 for real? It really appears so! I've replaced my Barracuda ST39173LW with the Expert in my personal Win98 system and have been living with it for the past two weeks. Bootup times, application loads, and heavy disk activity all feel much faster. For Win9x performance, the Expert seems like the drive to beat. Under NT, however, it looks like the WD may be vulnerable to NT-powerhouse Maxtor with it's soon-to-ship DiamondMax Plus 5120. And let's not forget about Big Blue themselves either. Even so, however, it's my pleasure to congratulate WD with its shipment of this fine product. The predictable pattern of IBM vs. Maxtor may be coming to an end. Welcome back, Western Digital!

Western Digital Expert AC418000
Estimated Price: $399
Also Available: 9.1 GB version (AC29100)
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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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