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Western Digital's VelociRaptor 1TB hard drive

Dinosaur analogies are unavoidable
— 7:00 AM on April 16, 2012

Since the first Western Digital Raptor was released in early 2003, a new version has arrived roughly every two years. The initial incarnation was the first Serial ATA hard drive to spin its platters at 10,000 RPM. With performance that outclassed its 7,200-RPM competition but only 37GB of storage, the Raptor became the original enthusiast's boot drive.

In the years since, WD has kept the drive's spindle speed steady while increasing its capacity. A 74GB model soon followed, and the Raptor jumped to 150GB after that. Then, in 2008, the drive shrunk down to a 2.5" form factor and got a new name: the VelociRaptor. Despite its smaller size, the VelociRaptor retained the original's 10k-RPM rotational speed and bumped the capacity up to 300GB. Two years later, a 600GB version of the drive was released.

Betcha can't guess what's next.

Assuming you've read the title, I suppose you can. Western Digital has a new VelociRaptor with an even terabyte of storage capacity. This latest addition to WD's high-performance desktop line enters a very different market than the one encountered by its forebear. Solid-state drives have gotten a lot faster in the past two years, and crucially, their prices have fallen by about half. At the same time, mechanical hard drive makers have seemingly become less interested in high-performance desktop drives, instead preferring to focus on notebook models and slower products destined for external enclosures.

Is there a place for the VelociRaptor in the evolving PC storage ecosystem? We've been testing the drive against its mechanical, hybrid, and solid-state peers to find an answer. Read on to see what we've learned.

New upgrades for an old favorite
Western Digital is positioning the VelociRaptor as a high-performance product for enthusiasts, content-creation professionals, and workstations. The Raptor's real mission has always been enterprise applications, though. As it's done with past 10k-RPM drives, WD will surely release a version of the new VelociRaptor specifically tailored for servers. Those enterprise aspirations are what drove WD to shrink the original 3.5" Raptor down to the 2.5" form factor that has come to define the VelociRaptor.

The VelociRaptor 1TB still slips into 3.5" drive bays thanks to its IcePack enclosure, which includes the appropriate mounting holes and port placements for the larger form factor. Removing the 2.5" drive from this sled requires little more than loosening a few Torx screws. One of those screws is covered by a warranty voiding sticker, though; remove with caution.

As much as I love the sinister-looking teeth that line the IcePack, I'd be tempted to run the VelociRaptor naked. Most contemporary cases already come with 2.5" mounting hardware to accommodate solid-state drives. There's a certain elegance to the smaller form factor, too, although the VelociRaptor is thicker than the average 2.5-incher. The drive measures 15 mm thick, while SSDs and notebook drives typically have a thickness of 9.5 mm.

The 2.5" format allows enterprise versions of the VelociRaptor to be packed tightly into rack-mounted servers. Those environments are filled with vibration from adjacent drives, which the VelociRaptor combats with a Rotary Acceleration Feed Forward mechanism that adjusts the height of the drive head based on vibration data collected from linear accelerometers on the circuit board. WD's NoTouch ramp load feature moves the drive head completely off the platters when the disk is idling. Keeping the drive head from making contact with the platters purportedly reduces wear and lowers the chance of a catastrophic head crash.

Like the Caviar Black 2TB desktop drive, the VelociRaptor 1TB situates its drive head at the end of a dual-stage actuator. The first stage is similar to the actuators on typical hard drives; it gets the drive head into the right zip code. Stage two involves a piezoelectric motor that allows the drive head to zero in on an individual address. If the next address is within the same zip code, the VelociRaptor can jump to it using only the actuator's second stage.

  VelociRaptor VR200M VelociRaptor 1TB
Interface 6Gbps Serial ATA
Spindle speed 10,000 RPM
Platter size 200GB 333GB
Available capacities 450, 600GB 250, 500GB, 1TB
Cache size 32MB 64MB
Maximum data rate 145MB/s 200MB/s
Idle power 4.3W 4.2W
Read/write power 6.2-6.8W 5.1-5.8W
Idle acoustics 27 dBA 30 dBA
Read/write acoustics 34 dBA 37 dBA
Warranty Five years

The fine-grained control offered by the dual-stage actuator becomes increasingly important as areal densities rise, making the tracks on the platter narrower and the individual bits smaller. We've never been able to coax Western Digital into revealing the exact areal density of the platters in its VelociRaptor drives. However, the company did confirm that the new model uses a trio of 333GB platters. Since the old one had 200GB platters, it looks like WD has increased the areal density by roughly 67%. The resulting increase in linear density is what allows the VelociRaptor 1TB to offer a higher maximum data rate than its predecessor; the more bits that pass under the drive head with each revolution, the higher the sequential throughput

On its own, the VelociRaptor's 333GB platter capacity isn't all that impressive. WD's Scorpio Blue manages to squeeze 500GB onto its 2.5" platters, and the Scorpio Black's platters pack 375GB. However, those drives spin at only 5,400 and 7,200 RPM, respectively. The VelociRaptor's media rotates at a much faster 10,000 RPM. At that speed, the outer edge of the platter is moving at around 75 miles an hour.

Like the Scorpios and most of WD's latest models, the VelociRaptor's platters use Advanced Format. This standard replaces the 512-byte sectors of old with 4KB ones that make more efficient use of the drive media. The larger sectors dedicate fewer blocks to address and error correction data, leading to a 7-11% increase in storage capacity, according to WD.

The last upgrade for the VelociRaptor is an increase in cache size from 32 to 64MB. That cache will be the only part of the drive capable of making use of the 6Gbps Serial ATA interface, which offers much more bandwidth than the drive's maximum data rate.

Five-year warranty coverage is to be expected on a premium hard drive like the VelociRaptor, and WD doesn't disappoint. The longer warranty is particularly notable given the recent trend toward shorter coverage for mainstream drives. Despite their premium prices, only a handful of SSDs can match the VelociRaptor's five-year coverage.