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Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120 92048D8

  March 23, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup.
See also our Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120, OEM (512k) vs Retail (1024k)
See also our Drive Cooler Roundup
Evaluation unit provided by Maxtor Corp.

Maxtor sure has come a long way in the last couple of years. Way back in time (before was even an itch in our minds), the original DiamondMax (1280) was noted by several publications to provide stellar ATA performance. I still remember the pang of regret I experienced when the drive hit the shelves a mere month after I sprang for the then-massive Quantum Fireball AT. Indications of competitive performance continued with the 8.4 gigabyte DiamondMax 2160. Though it fell behind the IBM Deskstar 8 in Windows 95 performance, it managed to edge out the heralded Big Blue drive in the increasingly important Windows NT arena.

It was, however, the release of the first "9" series drive, the DiamondMax 2880, that caught the fancy of both and the community in general. Hot off the production lines (literally), the mighty Seagate Medalist Pro espoused its 7200rpm-ness everywhere it went. To our amazement, Maxtor's 2880 put up a great fight against the much-vaunted Seagate, nearly keeping up under Win95 and actually surpassing the Medalist Pro under NT. Then came the highly-awaited 7200rpm IBM Deskstar 14GXP, a drive for which we actually purchased a complete Dell Computer system for since the drive was so hard to find by itself. The drive made a huge splash wherever it went. At around the same time that the 14GXP finally became available for individual purchase, Maxtor quietly released the DiamondMax Plus 2500. The company that no one was watching shipped the fastest ATA drive around. Nearly matching the 14GXP in Win95 performance, the Plus 2500 outpaced the Deskstar by significant margins under Windows NT and in Adaptec ThreadMark tests. Finally, nearly six months ago, Maxtor shipped the DiamondMax 4320, a drive which still stakes a claim as the top-performing 5400rpm drive currently available. Though Maxtor possessed the best "time to market" speed of any ATA drive manufacturer, their designs nevertheless held up against all of the competition. Witness, for example, how the "aging" 4320 holds up against the 13 gig Western Digital Caviar and the shiny new Quantum Fireball CR. Perpetual underdog? Not anymore.

Thus both myself and hordes of e-mailing readers have come to expect nothing but the best from Maxtor's latest offering, the 20.4 gig DiamondMax Plus 5120. Surprisingly, Western Digital (former ATA punching bag here at SR ) was the first to market with a second-generation 7200rpm ATA unit. Maxtor, however, was a close second, shipping its 5120 drive shortly afterwards. The two drives are an interesting study in contrasts. Both, of course, are 7200rpm. Both feature a 9 millsecond access time. Maxtor, however, managed to pack 5.1 gigs per platter, compared to the 4.6 GB/platter of the WD Expert. Five gigs per platter, in fact, is what WD and IBM both will ship in their 5400rpm drives. Impressive indeed! On the other hand, the 5120 that I received carries a rather paltry 512k of cache. Maxtor has since informed me that shipping units of the drive will feature 1 meg of buffer. Though better, it's still a bit short when compared to the hefty 2 megs with which WD and IBM have equipped their latest units.

Increased reliability features seem to be all the rage today with ATA drives. The press kits that I've received from manufacturers are chock-full of white-papers explaining why technologies incorporated into their latest drive make it much more reliable. The DiamondMax Plus 5120 picks up on two technologies debuted by competitors. First is their "ShockBlock" mechanics system. Basically similar to the Shock Protection System first presented by Quantum in the Fireball EL, ShockBlock attempts to minimize the damage done by the head to the platters when the drive is knocked around. The second is "MaxSafe," a technique similar to that employed by Western Digital with it's "Data Lifeguard" feature. The principal benefit is a background scan that verifies data integrity during idle time. As usual, the drive features the industry-standard 3 year ATA warranty despite these features. Years from now, it'll be interesting to look back and see how much these features have helped improve drive reliability in general .

Despite being brand-spanking-new off the production lines, the current versions of the DiamondMax Plus 5120 feature an ATA-33 rather than ATA-66 operation. Maxtor explains that they plan to convert to ATA-66 interfaces when motherboards with chipsets featuring ATA-66 operation become widely available (the current Intel BX chipset, for example, does not). It's an omission that, on paper, looks a bit glaring. As most SR readers know, however, the increased transfer rate of ATA-66 offers little to today's drives. In fact, Maxtor's explanation washes somewhat: I've received countless e-mails from purchasers of Quantum Fireball CRs who can't properly install the drive due to ATA-66 incompatibility problems with their motherboards. For our part, the Plus 5120's ATA-33 interface meant that I didn't have to dig around and beg Maxtor for a utililty to disable ATA-66 operation. The drive was thus painless to install.

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In the past year, the two top drive contenders have been Maxtor and IBM. It's become a cyclical pattern: the latest IBM drive provides the best Windows 95/98 performance while the newest Maxtor delivers top Windows NT (and Win2000?) operation. With their recent partnership, IBM's and Western Digital's latest units look quite similar. While I'm not quite prepared to agree with others speculating that the Deskstar 22GXP and WD Expert are in fact the exact same drives, such ideas do shed interesting light on results of an Expert vs. Plus 5120 comparison. The Maxtor drive, while delivering great scores in WinBench 99 under Windows 95, falls behind the Expert by margins of 7%-15%. On the other hand, however, Windows NT scores show the Maxtor besting the WD by about 15%. Again, a situation very remniscent of Maxtor vs. Big Blue- except it's actually Maxtor vs. Western Digital (gulp )!

Maxtor drives always post exceptional scores under ThreadMark 2.0; the DiamondMax Plus 5120 was no exception. Though the Expert is an extremely strong Win95 performer, the 5120 outperformed the WD drive by a margin of 13%. The difference increased to an eye-opening 38% under Windows NT.

When it comes to noise, the new Maxtor is pretty quiet; overall noise levels between the 5120 and the WD Expert are similar. The 5120, however, produces more heat. While the Expert can probably be used outside of a drive cooler, the 5120 is more questionable. The heat generated is along the lines of it's predecessor, the DiamondMax Plus 2500, or the Deskstar 14GXP. It's possible to use the drive without active cooling in a large, well-ventilated chassis- but a drive cooler is in order for most systems.

Is the Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120 the fastest ATA drive you can buy? If you're looking to run Windows NT, absolutely. But in overall terms? Like the classic DiamondMax Plus 2500 vs Deskstar 14GXP question, it's hard to say. The 5120's competitor (in this case, the Expert) provides better performance under Windows 95, by similar margins. So, it depends more on individual usage patterns. It's hard for SR to make the call between operating systems. If anything, we can point to the ThreadMark results as a "tie-breaker" of sorts (but then again, many readers probably know what I think of ThreadMark ). The NT-based Windows 2000 also comes to mind, but it's quite likely that Maxtor and their competitors will both have at least one if not several more generations of drives released and available when Microsoft finally ships that behemoth. Oh, there's still one more point to take note of -- remember, this 5120 is a prerelease unit that features (among other unknown things) only half the cache of the shipping units. So, it's a safe assumption that the drives you'll purchase in retail boxes will provide greater performance than the unit we've tested here. Even so, it's clear that the Plus 5120 is one of the top ATA drives currently available.

Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 5120 92048D8
Estimated Price: $429
Also available: 91536D6 (15.4 GB) and 91024D4 (10.2 GB)
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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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