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Maxtor DiamondMax VL20 92041U4

  November 8, 1999 Author: Eugene Ra  
See also our Summer 1999 ATA Drive Roundup.
Evaluation unit provided by Maxtor Corp.

Over the past few years, the industry has seen the rise of ever less-expensive "value PCs." The original hard sell was "under 1000!" As time has passed, however, the figure has fallen- these days one can find complete systems advertised for $600 or less. CPUs, motherboards, and video card manufacturers have all noticed the trend, offering "value-priced" units that offered significant savings over their premium brethren.

For some time, the hard disk market seemed to be reluctant to embrace the trend of offering a different line to capture entry-level market share. The implied reasoning was simple: allow system assemblers to use low capacities and/or older technologies in their value PCs. The pressure for lower cost drives remained unbearable, however. Some disk manufacturers have finally given in and are actively producing units aimed for integration into entry-level machines.

Seagate, a huge OEM player, was the first. They introduced their original U4, a 4.3 GB/platter value disk that unfortunately wasn't covered by Since then, however, Quantum, Maxtor, and Fujitsu have all announced value priced units that promise significant savings to OEMs who can pass price cuts on to consumers in a viciously competitive market.

Maxtor's first value offering was the DiamondMax VL17. Mirroring the DiamondMax 36/DiamondMax 40 situation, however, Maxtor has sent us a 20.4 gig VL20 sample before an evaluation unit of a VL17. So what makes a hard disk a "value unit?" The DiamondMax VL20 features 10.2 GB/platter. Indeed, the platters used in the unit are identical to the regular-line DiamondMax 40 (DM40). The seek time of the VL20 is listed as 9.5 milliseconds, a hair slower than the DM40's <9.0 milliseconds. Both the VL20 and the DM40 use tried-and-true 5400rpm technology.

The largest difference arises in buffer size- while the DM40 features a beefy 2 meg cache, the VL20's buffer weighs in at a svelte 512k. Interestingly, Maxtor's literature gives no indication that they've compromised in the area of electronics. The VL20, for example, sports the DualWave processor, a technology Maxtor seems to take much pride in. The drive also features the same reliability measures seen in Maxtor's mainstream drives, such as ShockBlock, a combination of stiffer Head-Disk Assemblies and lighter read/write heads. All told, from both Maxtor's literature and some conversations with Maxtor representatives, the VL20 seems to be almost the same drive as the DM40, excepting the smaller buffer and slightly slower seek time.

As we've done with all other ATA-66 drives, the DiamondMax VL20 was tested using Promise's Ultra66 controller. This ATA-66 DiamondMax does not work properly with our old-bios (kept old to control variables) LX-based motherboard. Though this shouldn't be an issue with most motherboards these days, Maxtor provides a utility to force the drive into ATA-33 operation. No loss of performance would occur should this be necessary.

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The obvious foil to put the DiamondMax VL17's performance in perspective is Maxtor's own DiamondMax 40. The first thing we should point out is the identical transfer rate posted by the two drives, indicating that both use the same basic platter assembly. Also note the difference, or lack thereof, in access times. While specs indicate that the VL20 should lag the DM40 by at least 0.5 milliseconds, the actual difference is less than 0.2ms. Thus, the only really apparent difference between the VL20 and the DM40 (aside from platter count and resultant capacity, of course) is buffer size: the VL20's buffer is one-fourth the size of the DM40.

In a previous test, the impact of increasing cache size by 100% was shown to be minimal. So how does the VL20 stack up when compared to the DM40? As it turns out, the value-priced drive lags behind its full-blown big-brother across the board. The VL20 trails the DM40 by margins of 11%-14% in the ZD Disk Winmarks under Windows 95, and by 16%-18% in NT. ThreadMark results place the VL20 20% behind the DM40 in Win95. NT, however, exhibits a difference of only 4%.

Like the DiamondMax 40, the VL17 features remarkably quiet operation. It's certainly one of the quietest drives around. It's also the coolest drive we've yet tested. It's quite likely that these attributes result from the VL20 being the first 2-platter (most tested units feature at least 3 platters) drive we've tested at

Conclusion? Well, the VL20 is certainly doesn't match the performance of the DM40. Who would expect this to be the case, however? Maxtor would be in somewhat of a quandary if this were the case. What is interesting, however, is that the VL20 significantly lags behind another seemingly identical drive lacking only the other drive's larger buffer. The way we see it, readers can draw one of three different conclusions from these results:

  • Despite presented evidence to the contrary, buffer size has a significant impact, especially when the difference is fourfold as is the case here. Or
  • Despite what Maxtor implies, the DiamondMax 40 features significantly better electronics/firmware that allows it to maintain an edge. Cynics will like to point out that it probably involves more effort and/or cost to "cripple" the VL20. Or
  • The VL20's firmware is optimized for 2 megs of buffer rather than 512k and thus suffers more of a performance loss than it should. This last conclusion, incidentally, matches our own conclusion in a previous article: Increasing a drive's buffer size results in little performance increase without firmware optimization. Inversely, decreasing a drive's buffer size without tailoring the drive's electronics around it results in a disproportionately large drop in performance.
Whatever the case may be, the VL20 is not likely a drive that performance-oriented users would consider. But then again, 5400rpm drives as a whole probably aren't often considered by power users. They are, however, drives that aim to be incorporated into low-cost systems, whether they're being assembled by an OEM or by a savvy end-user. Here, depending on the enduring price structure, the VL20 may have succeeded in its goals. The true test, of course, will be how this value drive compares to its value-priced competition. Reviews of which, naturally, are coming soon .

Maxtor DiamondMax VL20 92041U4
Estimated Price: $199
Also Available: 91531U3 (15.3 GB); 91021U2 (10.2 GB)
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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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