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Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup

  July 19, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Autumn 1999 SCSI Drive Roundup

1999 has seen the evolution of ATA hard disks to new heights. Steady advances in recording methods have yielded ever-increasing areal densities, bringing to the table drive capacities and transfer rates never before seen. We're only halfway through '99 and we already have 25 GB hard disks and 21 MB/sec sequential transfers.

Quantum Fireball Plus KAA significant development was the introduction of 7200rpm units by all mainstream manufacturers. Western Digital, Quantum, and Fujitsu joined pioneers IBM, Maxtor, and Seagate to complete the transition. Previously the exclusive domain of SCSI drives, 7200rpm operation brought higher transfer rates and lower rotational latencies to the masses. The evolution doesn't stop there either: there are many indications that manufacturers will leap the plateau and bring the ATA platform to the awesome plane of 10k rpm spindle speeds.

Though 7200rpm drives have captured all the glamour and attention, 5400rpm lines also continued to evolve. Limits in head technology have demarcated a split: 7200rpm drives boast better access times, but it's the 5400rpm disks that bring higher areal densities and thus barrier-busting capacities to the table. There are indications that this may change in the near future: the next generation of both 7200rpm and 5400rpm disks from all major manufacturers feature the same areal density (6.8 GB/platter). Releases will be staggered, however, with delivery of the 7200rpm units a month or two following 5400rpm introductions.

The introduction of the first 7200rpm ATA drive, the Seagate Medalist Pro ST39140A, brought scorching temperatures to a mainstream product. Fortunately, however, 7200rpm disks have evolved to the point where they generate little more heat than their 5400rpm brethren. This "mass-marketability" will likely spell the eventual demise of 5400rpm units as manufacturers strive to consolidate their offerings with the introduction of 10k rpm units.

Indeed, some manufacturers have already begun to treat 5400rpm lines as second-thought "value lines." Next-generation 5400rpm Families such as the Western Digital Caviar (WD205AA) and the Quantum Fireball CX feature only three platters in their flagship units, thus strategically positioning the premiere 7200rpm lines as both the fastest and largest-capacity disks.

1999 also continued the "reliability gimmick war" between manufacturers. From SPS to Data Lifeguard, from MaxBlast to Drive Fitness Technologies, drive makers have been introducing "reliability enhancements" left and right to differentiate products when it comes to longevity. As these innovations are relatively new, they have yet to stand the test of time. Several years from now, we'll be able to look back and decide whether reliability truly improved. Interestingly, despite these improvements, no major manufacturer has yet been willing to budge from the industry-standard three-year warranty.

This year also has presented the first drives that truly break the 16.6 MB/sec barrier imposed by the DMA mode 2 standard. ATA drives from Maxtor and Quantum sport transfer rates in excess of 21 MB/sec. Certain operations heavily reliant on sequential transfer rates would thus find these drives hampered by the old standard. ATA-33 has, of course, been in place since early 1997, yet only now does its true benefit shine through. Obligingly, the powers that be have created even more headroom with ATA-66. Yet again we have proponents hailing it as a huge breakthrough while detractors label it as nothing more than pure hype. Neither attitude, of course, is most appropriate.

Current ATA offerings from six major manufacturers span eleven distinct families. All six manufacturers currently offer 5400rpm units. All but Seagate currently offer 7200rpm drives.

7200rpm ATA drives -'s Editor's Choice
Western Digital Expert AC418000's Editors Choice1999 is the year that 7200rpm ATA drives went mainstream. Though virtually all current 7200rpm drives deliver previously unheard of performance, the Western Digital Expert AC418000 is a standout. In the Expert, Western Digital combines great all-around performance with excellent acoustics, low heat levels, and competitive pricing. WD's strong retail presence also makes finding a unit to buy a snap. IBM, in its Deskstar 22GXP, provides similar performance and the largest size around, albeit at a higher price. Units from Maxtor and Quantum stand out when it comes to NT performance. The DiamondMax Plus 5120 is a value with the lowest price when it comes to $/GB while the Fireball Plus KA boasts the lowest access time around, competitive with many SCSI drives. Finally, the Fujitsu Desktop 18, while not competitive performance wise, delivers whisper-quiet operation.

7200 RPM ATA Drives *
Drive BDW-95 HEW-95 TM-95 BDW-NT HEW-NT TM-NT Noise Size Price
Desktop 18 MPD3182AH
3213 11033 8.95 3803 11400 11.75 Very Quiet 18.2 $330
Deskstar 22GXP DJNA-372200
3763 11700 7.63 4100 11800 10.31 Quiet 22.0 $410
DiamondMax Plus 5120 92048D8
3387 10300 9.17 4247 12933 13.95 Quiet 20.4 $340
Fireball Plus KA QM318200KA-A
3343 11733 8.81 4267 12700 11.29 Moderate 18.2 $360
Western Digital
Expert AC418000
3650 12133 8.49 4047 11533 10.14 Quiet 18.2 $330
Show The Performance Details Of The Above Drives

5400rpm ATA drives -'s Editor's Choice
Western Digital Caviar AC420400's Editors ChoiceWith the upcoming 6.8 GB/platter standard, most manufacturers have rested at 4.3 gigs/platter when it comes to 5400rpm drives. Two manufacturers, however, have steamed ahead with state-of-the-art 5.1 GB/platter designs. Of the two, Western Digital's Caviar AC420400 delivers the better performance, at a slightly better price to boot. It thus garners our Editor's Choice. Just a hair behind the Caviar in performance is the IBM Deskstar 25GP. Unlike the WD unit, however, the IBM drive is available in a five-platter, 25 gigabyte version. Though aging when compared to the shiny new offerings from WD/IBM, the DiamondMax 4320 exemplifies Maxtor's strength when it comes to Windows NT. Despite a lower sequential transfer rate, the 4320 manages to edge out the newcomers to defend the 5400rpm NT crown. Finally, the Seagate Medalist ST317242A, while not a performance leader, is the bargain buy of the bunch, with the lowest $/GB ratio around.

5400 RPM ATA Drives *
Drive BDW-95 HEW-95 TM-95 BDW-NT HEW-NT TM-NT Noise Size Price
Fujitsu Desktop 18 5400 MPD3173AT 2823 9840 6.27 3247 9170 8.88 Very Quiet 17.3 $240
IBM Deskstar 25GP DJNA-352500 3383 10467 6.58 3590 9983 8.66 Quiet 25.0 $390
Maxtor DiamondMax 4320 91728D8 2997 8843 6.36 3740 10467 9.92 Quiet 17.2 $240
Quantum Fireball CR QM313000CR-A 2743 9643 7.36 3417 9490 8.52 Quiet 13.0 $195
Seagate Medalist ST317242A 3003 9180 5.90 3430 9327 9.02 Quiet 17.2 $220
Western Digital Caviar AC420400 3373 10467 7.44 3617 10057 8.46 Quiet 20.4 $320
Show The Performance Details Of The Above Drives

An agreement with IBM finally reaching fruition this year, Western Digital sweeps our 1999 ATA Drive Roundup, a dramatic turn of events compared to last year's roundup. There, as many may recall, we gave WD's premiere ATA drive our tongue-in-cheek "No Thanks Award," noting its sub-par performance when compared to competitors. Though many accuse WD of simply repackaging IBM drives, the fact remains that WD has rolled drives with excellent performance and an attractive price into a package available even in "mass market" superstores nationwide. And speaking of the "No Thanks Award," there is none this year. While we believe WD garners the nod this year, we're still hailing what we see as a "golden age" of sorts when it comes to ATA drives. Especially in the 7200rpm category, each manufacturer offers a drive that carries a unique strength, thus possibly making it the disk of choice for a certain set of users.
Coming Soon

Excepting only Seagate, all six major drive manufacturers have announced 6.8 GB/platter models in both 7200rpm and 5400rpm variants. Seagate has announced a 7200rpm unit. No manufacturer had shipped one of these next-generation drives to us before the cutoff date for this review. They will nevertheless be examined ASAP, of course. The 2 meg buffer, introduced by Western Digital and IBM, will become cemented as a standard with these new units. Another trend, pioneered by Quantum in its Fireball Plus KA, is the sub nine millisecond specified seek time. Seeks in the nine millisecond range seem to have been around for ages. It's about time. Most notable, however, is the increased capacity that 6.8 gigs per platter allows. A standard 4 platter unit will sport 27 gigs of storage. Wow.

Drive Size

Some readers may be wondering why concentrates only on large, "high-end" drives instead of reviewing smaller capacity units. There's a simple reason why we've standardized on the largest unit in each family. Performance differences between varying-size drives within the same family are insignificant. Each disk within a given family features the same spindle speed, the same seek time, and the same transfer rate. Occasionally there will be differences in buffer sizes, but generally speaking, a larger buffer does not necessarily translate into better performance.

In past tests, we've found that increased cylinder depth allows larger drives within the same family to edge out smaller units. More platters means that more data can be kept on tracks towards the outside, allowing for optimum transfer rates. This advantage seems to outweigh the fact that larger drives have a heavier actuator. Even so, however, the difference in performance is negligible.

Thus, the drives covered here cover just about all drives released so far in 1999. Decide which drive family is appropriate for you based on the performance and comments presented here, then choose the capacity that suits you accordingly.


As was the case when ATA-33 was introduced over two years ago, the hardware community is in an uproar about the benefits provided by ATA-66. Manufacturers and other industry entities have seized upon the maximum transfer rate of 66 MB/sec, promoting it to no end. Unfortunately, since sequential transfer rates of even the mightiest ATA drives just top 20 MB/sec, improvements over the older ATA-33 standard are limited purely to buffer-to-host transfers. The role these transfers play in overall drive performance is insignificant. Many users, nonetheless, rely on the 66 MB/sec figure as the key to expected massive performance increases. They shouldn't. Others, reacting in a knee-jerk fashion, proclaim that ATA-66 is pure hype. Some go so far as to say that "ATA-66 drives provide no benefit over older ATA-33 models." While they don't provide performance increases due to the interface, current hard disks tend to feature the ATA-66. Current hard disks also tend to feature faster seek times, higher data densities, larger buffers/better firmware. Naturally, such improvements increase drive performance. Slapping on an interface that doesn't provide immediate benefit doesn't magically knock the new drive's speed down to that of an older one. Think about it. When all is said and done, introducing ATA-66 now allows the industry to lay down an infrastructure in advance that will be ready to accept the drives that push 33 MB/sec by early next year.

While intended to be backwards compatible with all standards, ATA-66 drives have created a regrettable incompatibility with certain motherboard BIOSes that recognize the drive for what it is (ATA-66) and attempt to run it in such a mode without the necessary supporting electronics. Fortunately, manufacturers provide utilities available from their websites that toggle the drives to ATA-33 operation at the hardware level.

* Table Abbreviations and Units Of Measure
BDW-95 Business Disk WinMark 99 under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in KB/sec (Higher is better)
HEW-95 High-End Disk WinMark 99 under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in KB/sec (Higher is better)
TM-95 ThreadMark 2.0 Transfer Rate under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 - measured in MB/sec (Higher is better)
BDW-NT Business Disk WinMark 99 under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in KB/sec (Higher is better)
HEW-NT High-End Disk WinMark 99 under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in KB/sec (Higher is better)
TM-NT ThreadMark 2.0 Transfer Rate under Windows NT 4.0 - measured in MB/sec (Higher is better)
Noise Subjective perception of noise
Size Hard drive capacity - measured in GB
Price Estimated street price current as of July 19th, 1999
* 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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