Super Talent’s 2.5″ IDE Flash hard drive

Manufacturer Super Talent
Model 2.5″ IDE Flash
Price (street)
Availability Now

IN AN ATTEMPT TO improve performance and extend battery life, mobile hard drive manufacturers are working on hybrid designs that combine flash memory with traditional platters. Flash memory’s fast access times, low weight and power consumption, and lack of moving parts make it ideal for mobile environments, which is perhaps why Microsoft has made hybrid drives a requirement for Windows Vista Premium certification starting in June of 2007.

Of course, the first hybrid hard drives aren’t even expected to become available until early next year. However, you don’t have to wait six months to get flash memory in a 2.5″ notebook hard drive; Super Talent’s 2.5″ IDE Flash drives are available today in sizes up to 16 GB. The prospect of a silent, lightweight notebook hard drive with frugal power consumption is certainly tantalizing, but what about performance? Join us as we run Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive through the wringer to determine whether it’s a worthy notebook upgrade.

Why flash?
Before we dive into Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive, it’s worth taking a moment to explore why hard drive manufacturers are bothering with flash memory at all. Traditional hard drives store data on spinning platters that are accessed by a drive head that darts back and forth across the platter’s surface. This design has stood the test of time, but because it relies on the physical movement of the platters and drive head, it’s bound by mechanical latencies. Cranking up the spindle speed of the platter, increasing cache sizes, and using more intelligent command queuing logic can reduce the impact of those mechanical latencies, but not by as much as ditching the mechanics completely.

Switching from spinning platters to memory chips takes drive mechanics out of the equation, enabling significantly lower disk access latencies. If data needs to be read from or written to a given address, there’s no need to wait for the drive head and platter to move into position—the address can be accessed instantly.

Moving to a memory-based storage solution like Gigabyte’s i-RAM can have a profound impact on disk performance. However, the i-RAM relies on volatile DRAM memory for storage, so it needs a steady stream of power to hold data. That simply won’t do in the mobile space, where users can’t afford to lose data just because their notebook battery has run dry.

Enter flash memory. Made famous by countless USB thumb drives, flash memory enjoys the low access latencies of chip-based storage without the volatility of DRAM. It’s not as fast as DRAM, but it doesn’t require power to retain data, making it ideal for mobile applications.

The drive
Rather than combine flash memory with mechanical platters, Super Talent is betting the farm on flash with its IDE Flash drive. That should ensure low access latencies, but interestingly, Super Talent doesn’t make any bold performance claims about the drive. That’s particularly notable because while flash memory has excellent access latencies, transfer rates aren’t always as impressive. We’ll see for ourselves when we get to the benchmarks.

Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive isn’t much to look at, but then, few hard drives are.

At first glance, the IDE Flash drive actually looks quite similar to a traditional 2.5″ mobile hard drive. Picking up the IDE Flash immediately reveals that it’s significantly lighter than its platter-based counterparts, though. The IDE Flash weighs a scant 40 grams—much less than traditional mobile ATA drives, which typically weigh around 100 grams.

Replacing a traditional hard drive’s mechanical internals and magnetic platters with memory chips allows the IDE Flash to drop a lot of weight. It also lets Super Talent build a slimmer drive than traditional 2.5″ ATA designs. The IDE Flash is just 6 mm thick, while most notebook drives are 9.5 mm thick. Still, the IDE Flash uses the same 44-pin interface and mounting screws as other 2.5″ ATA drives, making it a drop-in drive replacement for ATA-equipped notebooks.

Because it has no moving parts, the IDE Flash is considerably more shock-resistant than traditional ATA drives. That’s particularly important for notebooks that tend to get moved around a lot. The IDE Flash drive also includes internal ECC logic to ensure data integrity, and Super Talent claims that the drive will retain data for at least 10 years. According to Flash IDE vendors, the drive’s rated for more than 1 million write/erase cycles, as well. However, Super Talent doesn’t publish write/erase cycle specs on its website.

Super Talent currently offers the IDE Flash in 4, 8, and 16 GB capacities, and only with an ATA interface. Those capacities aren’t particularly jaw-dropping in an era where notebook drives with perpendicular recording are pushing the 200 GB mark, but the 8 and 16 GB models offer enough storage for Windows and a few applications. Road warriors more concerned with battery life and weight may find the capacity trade-off easier to swallow, although the lack of a Serial ATA model will keep the IDE Flash out of most newer notebook designs.

 

Test notes
Today we’ll be comparing the IDE Flash drive’s performance to a slew of drives from our recent 2.5″ ATA hard drive round-up. We’ve thrown in 2.5″ mobile and 3.5″ desktop Serial ATA hard drives for good measure, as well. The IDE Flash is a unique product, so that’s about as close to direct competition we we’re going to get.

All testing was conducted on the same platform as our 3.5″ hard drive reviews, so you can compare the performance of the IDE Flash with a wider range of 3.5″ drives by flipping back to our Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD review. Our test system is also identical to the one used in our 2.5″ Serial ATA hard drive comparo, so those results are comparable, too. However, we have changed the way we conduct power consumption tests, so you won’t be able to compare power consumption scores from this review with those in our 2.5″ Serial ATA hard drive round-up.

Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test system.

Processor Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.4GHz
System bus 800MHz (200MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Asus P5 WD2 Premium
Bios revision 0422
North bridge Intel 955X MCH
South bridge Intel ICH7R
Chipset drivers Chipset 7.2.1.1003
AHCI/RAID 5.1.0.1022
Memory size 1GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Micron DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz
CAS latency (CL) 3
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 3
RAS precharge (tRP) 3
Cycle time (tRAS) 8
Audio codec ALC882D
Graphics Radeon X700 Pro 256MB with CATALYST 5.7 drivers
Hard drives Seagate Momentus 7200.1 100 GB SATA
Seagate Momentus 5400.2 120 GB
Seagate Momentus 5400.3 160 GB
Seagate Momentus 7200.1 100 GB
Western Digital Scorpio WD1200VE 120 GB
Hitachi Travelstar 5K100 120 GB
Hitachi Travelstar 7K100 100 GB
Fujitsu MHV2040AT 40 GB
Super Talent IDE Flash 8 GB
OS Windows XP Professional
OS updates Service Pack 2

Our test system was powered by OCZ PowerStream power supply units. The PowerStream was one of our Editor’s Choice winners in our last PSU round-up.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

WorldBench overall performance
WorldBench uses scripting to step through a series of tasks in common Windows applications. It then produces an overall score. WorldBench also spits out individual results for its component application tests, allowing us to compare performance in each. We’ll look at the overall score, and then we’ll show individual application results alongside the results from some of our own application tests.

Well that’s not encouraging. The IDE Flash scores lower than even the 4,200-RPM Fujitsu MHV2040AT in WorldBench. Let’s break down the overall score into individual application tests to see what’s holding back the flash drive’s performance.

Multimedia editing and encoding

MusicMatch Jukebox

Windows Media Encoder

Adobe Premiere

VideoWave Movie Creator

Although it’s competitive in the MusicMatch Jukebox and Windows Media Encoder tests, the IDE Flash drive is way off the pace in Premiere, where it’s nearly two times slower than our traditional 2.5″ ATA drives. The IDE Flash is also a little slow in Movie Creator, although not by as massive a margin.

 

Image processing

Adobe Photoshop

ACDSee PowerPack

Photoshop doesn’t present any problems for the IDE Flash drive, but ACDSee is a disaster. The drive takes three times longer than even our slowest 4,200-RPM drive to complete the test.

Multitasking and office applications

Microsoft Office

Mozilla

Mozilla and Windows Media Encoder

Despite its poor showing in the ACDSee test, the IDE Flash drive takes top honors in two of WorldBench’s multitasking and office application tests.

Other applications

WinZip

Nero

But the drive falls to the back of the pack in Nero and WinZip. Performance is poor in both tests, with the IDE Flash drive proving to be almost a third the speed of our fastest 2.5″ ATA drives.

 

Boot and load times
To test system boot and game level load times, we busted out our trusty stopwatch.

The IDE Flash drive doesn’t fare particularly well in our system boot time test, but it manages quick level load times in both DOOM 3 and Far Cry.

 

File Copy Test
File Copy Test is a pseudo-real-world benchmark that times how long it takes to create, read, and copy files in various test patterns. File copying is tested twice: once with the source and target on the same partition, and once with the target on a separate partition. Scores are presented in MB/s.

Ouch. Seriously. Ouch.

Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive is painfully slow in FC-Test’s file creation tests, turning in transfer rates much slower than even our lowly 4,200-RPM mobile ATA drive.

The IDE Flash drive’s performance is much improved when we look at reads, but it’s still significantly slower than the 2.5″ hard drives.

FC-Test’s copy and partition copy tests combine read and write operations, so it’s no surprise to see the IDE Flash drive languishing at the back of the field. It’s no wonder Super Talent doesn’t make any outlandish claims regarding the drive’s performance.

 

iPEAK multitasking
We’ve developed a series of disk-intensive multitasking tests to highlight the impact of command queuing on hard drive performance. You can get the low-down on these iPEAK-based tests here. The mean service time of each drive is reported in milliseconds, with lower values representing better performance.

Although iPEAK would run on our 8 GB IDE Flash drive, the app did warn us that tests would have to be wrapped due to the drive’s small size. This means that any I/O requests that would have referenced areas of the drive beyond 8 GB would be wrapped around to the beginning of the drive.

The IDE Flash drive shows, er, flashes of brilliance in our first round of iPEAK multitasking loads, taking second place in tests that include a VirtualDub import as a secondary task.

 

iPEAK multitasking – con’t

iPEAK multitasking loads that include a VirtualDub import continue to be fertile ground for Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive, although it’s considerably slower in tests that involve a file copy operation as the secondary task.

 

IOMeter – Transaction rate

Super Talent drops an ace in IOMeter, as the IDE Flash drive’s transaction rates dominate the field with three of four test patterns. Performance is particularly impressive with the web server test pattern, which is made up exclusively of read operations.

 

IOMeter – Response time

The IDE Flash drive continues its strong performance when we look at IOMeter response times. Again, the drive is quicker than the rest of the field with all but the database test pattern. It continues to own the web server test pattern, too.

 

IOMeter – CPU utilization

CPU utilization is pretty consistent across the board, although the IDE Flash drive consumes more processor cycles with the web server test pattern. Given the drive’s extremely high transaction rates with that test pattern, a little overhead is to be expected.

 

HD Tach
We tested HD Tach with the benchmark’s full variable zone size setting.

No wonder the IDE Flash drive faltered in FC-Test; it’s sequential transfer rates are incredibly slow. The drive doesn’t even manage to push 14 MB/s when reading, and write performance is closer to 6 MB/s.

Burst performance is poor, as well, with the IDE Flash drive barely eclipsing 14 MB/s.

However, the tables turn when we look at random access times. Here, the IDE Flash drive is faster than the competition by more than an order of magnitude.

CPU utilization scores are well within HD Tach’s +/- 2% margin for error in this test.

 

Noise levels
Noise levels were measured with an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level meter 1″ from the side of the drives at idle and under an HD Tach seek load. Drives were run with the PCB facing up.

Since the IDE Flash drive has no moving parts, it’s essentially silent. However, we’ve still included noise level results to illustrate the drive’s impact on overall system noise.

The IDE Flash drive’s silent design shaves a few decibels off our system’s noise levels. That’s not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but the IDE Flash drive’s utter silence could have a much bigger impact on systems designed specifically for quiet operation.

Power consumption
For our power consumption tests, we measured the voltage drop across a 0.1-ohm resistor placed in-line with the 5 V and 12 V lines connected to each drive. Through the magic of Ohm’s Law, we were able to calculate the power draw from each voltage rail and add them together for the total power draw of the drive.

This is why flash memory is making its way into hybrid mobile hard drive designs. Even with 8 GB of storage, the IDE Flash drive barely sips power when compared with traditional ATA drives.

 

Conclusions
Super Talent warned us that the IDE Flash drive’s transfer rates weren’t anything to write home about, and they were certainly right. Sequential transfers are much slower than even our 4,200-RPM mobile ATA drive, with write performance lagging behind reads by a considerable margin. That proves disastrous for the drive’s performance in FC-Test, and likely also contributes to its sluggish showing in certain WorldBench component tests.

Despite its poor transfer rates, the IDE Flash drive showed its potential in our iPEAK multitasking tests. The drive also dominated IOMeter’s file server, web server, and workstation test patterns. Clearly, there’s some value to flash memory’s blazing-fast access times, thanks to the banishment of the mechanical latency associated with platters and heads. The drive’s nonexistent noise levels and minimal power consumption also have considerable appeal.

Unfortunately, the IDE Flash’s most attractive attributes don’t match up all that well. Silent operation and low power use would make this thing ideal for laptops, but slow transfer rates and a low WorldBench score blunt its appeal considerably. The IDE Flash drive’s real performance potential lies with applications that, like IOMeter’s server-oriented test patterns, take advantage of its quick access times. Those applications seem less likely to benefit significantly from lower noise levels or power consumption, though.

In the end, Super Talent’s IDE Flash drive is an intriguing alternative to 2.5″ ATA hard drives, but probably not one that’s likely to have widespread appeal. Fortunately, the drive isn’t prohibitively expensive—4 GB versions are selling for under $200 online, with 8 GB models at about $320, and 16 GB flavors running closer to $530. Those prices make the IDE Flash drive affordable enough for niche applications like ruggedized notebooks, silent media center systems with remote storage, and even automotive applications. We just wouldn’t drop one into an everyday business notebook. 

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